A second-season premiere requires a delicate balance: The show needs to appeal to what fans liked about the first season while also setting groundwork for a new story. In a sense, these sorts of episodes are transitional by their very nature, catching us up on the plot threads still dangling from the previous season but showing momentum toward something different at the same time. They often falter by being too eager to please — either by repeating what worked or hyperactively trying to blow that formula up. “Risk Management” lives up to its title, in that respect. It essentially feels like a continuation of last year’s narrative, but it contains enough hints that Billions will avoid repetition. The second season is off to a strong start.
The war between Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) continues, even though both generals have been deeply injured in battle. Chuck’s family has fallen apart, as he and wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), are separated. Wendy also left the other man in her life, turning Axe into a paranoid shell who tore apart his entire office looking for bugs. The case against Axe has been dropped. Both men could move on. Neither will, of course.
The season opens with Axe at a place that helped form his business acumen: the horse track. It’s the middle of the night and he’s meeting with Bach (Glenn Fleshler), one of his chief advisers and his legal counsel. We later learn that this racetrack helped make Axe by teaching him that watching people and patterns are as important as an event itself. He kept an eye on the guys who bet late, big, and heavy. Watch the board instead of the track, and you’ll know what’s going to happen before it happens.
Cut to three days earlier. The staff of Axe Capital is waiting to be let into the remodeled building, impatient as soldiers without a general. They’re waiting to get back into their barracks, and desperately in need of a motivational speech from their financial Patton.
Meanwhile, Chuck starts his day with some martial-arts training — another sign that he’s a wounded warrior looking for ways to strengthen his position and his ego. He gets to work to find the arrival of his newest enemy, Oliver Dake (a perfectly calibrated Christopher Denham), from the Office of Professional Responsibility. He’s there to investigate recent conduct, especially in light of how much time and effort was wasted on the Axe case. Chuck reveals that Dake’s office already has his name on it. Dake thought he was surprising Rhoades. Not only was he not, but the incredibly passive-aggressive Chuck took the time to create a nameplate for him.
Meanwhile, Wendy is giving a motivational speech to another group of hedge-fund sharks at a company called Krakow Capital. While she speaks of literal Viagra — pointing out how people can be ashamed to use the tools at their disposal — Axe is giving his team verbal Viagra. The entire hedge-fund industry is under siege. Here is one of the most powerful men in the world presenting himself as a leader under constant threat and target. (I’ll avoid the Trump comparisons … for now.) Axe says, “I am a survivor and I will do whatever it takes to avoid my fate.”
In this case, “whatever it takes” includes the utter destruction of Chuck Rhoades. His people, including Bach, Wags (David Costabile), and Hall (Terry Kinney), advise détente. Why bring a sunken ship back to the surface? The case is over. If he goes after Chuck, he gets dragged through the press again. But can Axe give up on a grudge? Of course not.
To ensure that he can stick around while he’s being investigated, Chuck plays minds games with his lieutenants at a going-away party for a colleague. He tells them a story about losing to a cheating chess player in the park, but not calling his opponent out on the cheat. Instead, he lets him win, then threatens the cheater with exposure if he doesn’t allow the next player, a kid, to beat him. Chuck paints himself as the magnanimous teacher who brightened a boy’s day and taught a cheater a lesson. As he says, “I had managed something better than payback.” Of course, the idea that a little bit of rule-breaking can sometimes make for a better situation than traditional justice isn’t lost in light of the Rake investigation. Neither is the suggestion that playing along will help these people professionally. Giamatti is fantastic in the way he captures Chuck’s remarkable ego and ability to rationalize his bad behavior as a part of some imagined greater good.
As a part of his investigation, Dake has taken an interest in Rhoades’s right-hand man, Bryan (Toby Leonard Moore). He knows that Brian met with Axe, and that Axe offered him a job. Sure, Brian reported the offer the next day, following protocol. But what did he leave out? It feels like season two could focus on the people caught in the middle of the battle between Chuck and Axe, and how characters like Wendy, Brian, Mafee (Dan Soder), and Lara (Malin Akerman) adjust to life during wartime.
Axe knows that he can’t win this war without Wendy. He makes an appointment with her under an assumed name — she wouldn’t see him otherwise — and tries to woo her back. She can almost sense the danger of even being in a room with him, and Siff sells that peril well. He needs her advice on what to do next, which is a bit unusual given that the advice he isn’t following from his own people is to leave Wendy’s husband alone. For Axe, it’s an issue of trust. Wendy is now the only person that he truly trusts (with the possible exception of Wags), but she’s not there for him anymore.
Just as Rake is about to wrap up his investigation, he finds the smoking gun. Remember that Wendy took a $5 million bonus from Axe Capital? And that she took it on the same day Chuck dropped the case? And that Chuck is a co-signer on the account into which the money landed? Yikes. It’s hard to make that not look like a bribe. It’s the kind of thing that could send Chuck, and maybe even Wendy, to jail. Chuck goes home and yells at Wendy, who admits that she didn’t realize how the sequence of events might appear, but still harbors enough resentment for Chuck putting them in this position to avoid any real apology.
Finally, we learn Axe’s latest offensive tactic. He’s not the only one angry at Chuck Rhoades, so he’s going to find anyone with a legal grudge against the man and privately bankroll their lawsuits. (Sound familiar?) The legal assault results in 127 suits being filed against Rhoades at the same time, a barrage that’s meant to bury him in publicly shaming litigation. As Bach says, “The stories won’t be about you anymore. They’ll be about him.” With 127 lawsuits now pending against him, Chuck is almost certain to be fired, if he doesn’t go to jail first. It looks like Axe has won the first battle of this season’s war. It certainly won’t be the last.
• The last scene of the episode reveals that there might be a fox in Chuck’s hen house: Rake accuses Bryan of being the one who called in the tip that started the investigation in the first place. Why? Is he angry at Chuck? Or could he already be working his way into a life at Axe Capital?
• The opening and closing song feels thematically appropriate, as this show’s music choices so often do: “Jump Into the Fire” by Harry Nilsson.
• Bach quotes a “famous woman” as having said the wonderful quote, “You can no more win a war than an earthquake.” The woman was Jeannette Rankin, the first female member of the U.S. House of Representatives, elected in 1916.
• This episode was directed by the great Reed Morano, cinematographer of Frozen River, Looking, and part of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and director of a great indie called Meadowland. I love how often a testosterone-heavy show like Billions turns to female directors.