Maggie Siff as Wendy and Paul Giamatti as Chuck.
Photo: Jeff Neumann
The second half of Billions increasingly great first season opens with “The Ledge,” a fantastic song off one of my favorite ’80s albums, the Replacements’ Pleased to Meet Me. As Paul Westerberg sings about a man ready to commit suicide, the parallel with Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) being on the precipice of his own destruction seems clear. An hour later, Axe speeds off into the night with a giant grin on his face while “Debaser,” an equally amazing song from the Pixies’ Doolittle, blasts from the soundtrack. He has survived another attack and even turned it back to his advantage. He’s off the ledge and ready to rock again. Lesson learned, now let’s go get some milkshakes.
While Axe is swimming, his kids are at an arcade with some friends. The other boys’ father, Mr. Layner (Kahan James), is taking advantage of the cheap, oversized beer when Lilly Smith (Catherine A. Callahan), another parent who knows the Axelrods, notices he’s clearly knocked back a few too many. Layner peels out of the parking lot with Dean (Christopher Paul Richards) and Gordie (Jack Gore) in town, and when he drops them off, Lara (Malin Akerman) also detects his light-beer haze. She gets a call from Lilly, which confirms her fears, and the boys admit that Layner had a beer as he was driving. I know I would see bright red if someone put my kids’ lives in jeopardy, and that’s exactly how Axe reacts, driving to Layner’s house to confront him. Instead of an apology, he gets disdain: “I got your precious fucking babies home.” In return, Layner gets a well-deserved punch. “That’s going to cost you,” he says. “Worth it,” Axe responds.
Our other alpha male, Chuck Rhoades Jr. (Paul Giamatti) is in his conference room on a Sunday when Ari Spyros (Stephen Kunken) comes in like he owns the joint, demanding a coffee drink called a cortado and referring to a grown woman as “doll.” God, he’s slimy. And we’ll find out just how slimy later. For now, he’s pissed. He knows Chuck blew up the settlement last week and then recused himself, leaving Spyros without much of a role. He knows the recusal is just for show, too, and that Chuck is still pulling the strings. Spyros demands a bigger role. Don’t demand things from Chuck Rhoades. It’s not going to end well.
Axe Capital underling Donnie Caan (David Cronmer) arrives at a restaurant to inquire about “The Stewart Bachelor Party.” He’s not very good at this clandestine whistleblower thing. He’s pointed to the back, where an FBI team and Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) are waiting for him. He’s going to be their mole; they’ll send him back to AC wired to get dirt on Bobby. It turns out that Rubinex deal from a few weeks ago got red-flagged by Bryan and his team, and that’s how they managed to flip Donnie. Cut to Bobby’s house, where Donnie praises his boss for punching someone who deserved it. Axe feels bad, though: Will his kids think that’s how they should solve disagreements? Donnie may admire him, but an assault arrest would be fatal for the firm’s public profile. Axe soon learns that there’s a video of the incident; he could be arrested as early as tomorrow. They need proof of Layner’s drinking or else he’s likely to be tried.
Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) is ready to move on from Axe Capital. She meets with a headhunter named Chris (Steven Pasquale of Rescue Me), and says she doesn’t want the same kind of job. Chris reminds her what a unique, cushy gig she has at Axe. What about all that compensation? What about doing work that she loves? Still, she claims a career change will be “what’s best” for her family.
Egged on by Bobby’s war rhetoric last week, the Axe Capital staff salute their leader’s aggro approach to conflict resolution. At a meeting, they even give him a boxing trophy, which he dejectedly throws away. Does Axe realize that his combat lingo encourages this macho behavior? And that he’s not always the best role model for the man-children at the firm? Is there a parallel here with the way privilege has warped the Axelrod children? Axe rushes into Wendy’s office, defending himself over the punch and discussing last week’s other “punch” in the settlement meeting. Would Wendy really be openly talking about that meeting and what her husband told her? I’m not sure. Either way, Axe considers his behavior at the settlement an act of self-defense, planting the seed in Wendy’s mind that perhaps her husband didn’t tell her the whole story.
Axe’s poolside fracas could be a problem, especially once we learn that Lilly doesn’t want to get involved. She’s not sure that he was drunk and doesn’t want to deal with the press. The storm clouds get darker when Axe sees the video that reporter Mike Dimonda (Sam Gilroy) dropped off for him. It’s a warning shot of the story he’s planning to run. Dimonda won’t say who filmed the clip, which is horribly cut off, making Axe seem like the aggressor. It even excises the part where Layner basically admits to being drunk. So, Axe has a Sherlock Holmes–style flashback to remember who was there, figuring out who could have shot the video. (Were we ever told he has a photographic memory?) Finally, Axe and his team go to meet with the cops. He wants to keep things under the radar if charges are filed, which might be difficult when the video goes public.
Chuck and Wendy are at home, talking more about the settlement fiasco. Chuck compares Axe to a big fish thrashing before he gets pulled in — not ideal terminology for a meeting that was meant to find common ground, but that’s Chuck. He’s also a BAD liar, one of those guys who very clearly isn’t telling the whole story. It’s hard to believe that Wendy can’t see through it, although Siff plays her mysteriously enough that she may just be choosing not to call him on it yet.
The Axe-lings are complaining about the cheese omelettes personally cooked for them by Chef Ryan. Lara has had enough. She tells her spoiled boys that they’ll be sent off to go clamming in the Hamptons: “You eat what you catch.” She’ll force them to behave, even if it gives them pneumonia.
Meanwhile, Raul Gomez (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), the man in charge of the police pension fund, is pissed about Axe’s pending assault charge. They can’t have that kind of publicity. If there’s a conviction, even for a misdemeanor, they’ll pull the fund.
Chuck plays his trump card on Spyros when the latter sees Martina Slovis (Sarah Grace Wilson). He looks like he’s seen a ghost. As Chuck says, “I warned you: If you fucked with me, holy hell.” Chuck tells the story of when he met Martina, when she told him that Ari Spyros had raped her. Spyros is an even worse liar than Chuck: “And you belie … you b-believed her?”
His sputtering triggers the Full Giamatti eruption of the week. “From here on, I tell YOU your position in this, if you have one at all,” Chuck orders. Spyros’s brief time in the power position is over. No more cortados for him.
In one of the show’s cleverest cameos, Nick Apollo Forte sings “Agita” from Broadway Danny Rose. It’s the prelude to a dinner conversation at an Italian restaurant between Dimonda and Axe, in which the billionaire basically bribes him. If he holds the story, Axe will fly him to Aspen to talk to producers about replacing Charlie Rose after he retires. Dimonda takes the bait: “I can’t see myself running the piece tonight.” Bobby pours the wine.
Chuck and Wendy are out to dinner with the Gilberts, a couple who remind me of the “Shmoopy” episode of Seinfeld. The Gilberts not only work together, but they share the same passwords and say things like, “We made a conscious decision to live as one.” Before Chuck can throw up his dinner, he hears Mr. Gilbert (John Carroll Lynch) say, “I handle the hugs, she takes care of the kisses.” Later, as Chuck complains about this truly disturbing statement, Wendy slaps him across the face. He likes it. She pushes him on the bed. These two are as co-dependently strange as the Gilberts, just on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Lara tells Axe that they need to toughen up the kids. He thinks she’s overreacting, but will support her decision. The next morning, as Wendy cleans up the whips and handcuffs from the previous night, Chuck pushes Bryan for more information on Donnie. Bryan doesn’t have anything concrete yet, so he’s got to remind Donnie who’s boss. Wisely enough, Donnie has also been avoiding Wendy at work. He knows not to cross paths with the company’s Queen Bullshit Detector.
That night, Wendy goes to meet with Chris the hunky headhunter at a bar. He’s got the perfect job for her with platinum compensation and rewarding work. He doesn’t even want a commission. What’s his game? Sparks seem to be flying between these two; they have undeniable chemistry. Also not a great sign: Later that night, Wendy lies to Chuck about where she was, although she could just be hiding the job search.
Bryan pushes Donnie, hoping for better recordings. He explains the concept of “The Bojangle” to his inside man, in which informants sometimes string him along, hoping they’ll lose interest. Donnie is not doing that. He quotes Stephen King’s brilliant novel, The Gunslinger: “The price of any betrayal always comes due in flesh.” After angrily telling Bryan he’ll do what needs to be done, Donnie leaves and we learn Chuck was hiding in the closet, watching. Bryan is furious. Passing along information is one thing, but he’s trying to play Bryan like a puppeteer.
Lara’s latest solution to her omelette-hating offspring is to send them into the woods on a camping trip. They’ll learn some outdoor skills and be forced into screen-free time — although one of the rugrats does manage to pocket his phone. In the middle of the night, he even texts dad to come get him. Before that happens, we learn that Axe’s team got the full version of the video from the girlfriend. Charges won’t be filed. Even the police fund will stay with Axe Capital. Axe wins again.
The key scene occurs during the final act, between Chuck and Bryan in Chuck’s office. Bryan is ready to give up the case. Chuck claims Bryan’s ego is getting in the way, when the opposite is really true. Chuck gives a speech about justice and doing it for the little people. He’s so full of it that it reminds of a line from earlier in the episode, about how humans smell each other’s shit for evolutionary reasons. Giamatti plays Chuck as if he believes half of his nonsense, even when he’s saying things like, “That’s why you need me” in a speech about teamwork. It’s still about HIM. He even lets Bryan sit in his chair, and tells him the U.S. attorney’s job could be his someday.
At that moment, I realized that Chuck is playing Bryan just as Bryan is playing Donnie. He’s using him and pushing him, all the while keeping him exactly where he wants him.
- “The Punch” is quite a multilayered episode title. Of course, it refers to the physical punch Axe lays on My. Layner, but it’s also easy to take as a reference to the metaphorical punch that Axe Capital took with the failed settlement. And, of course, the dude-bro lingo of the Axe Capital employees. I wouldn’t have minded if it were called “The Slap,” though. Wendy’s was the highlight of the episode. Who wouldn’t want to slap Chuck Rhoades every now and then?
- Bring back Kate! Condola Rashad’s character has had some nice character development, and it seemed like she was the most ambitious employee in Chuck’s office. She kind of recedes in this episode, only getting a brief scene. I’m sure that will change soon.
- Toby Leonard Moore is an underrated MVP of Billions. Lewis, Giamatti, and Siff get the “big” scenes, but Moore grounds the show with a believable, un-showy performance.
- Again, the casting department deserves a special award. Not only is N. Apollo Forte a cool nod for movie fans, but Pasquale seems perfectly cast and I love John Carroll Lynch in just about everything, from Fargo to Zodiac. The man has one of the most impressive character actor resumes of the last two decades. Check it out.