For the bulk of this episode, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) is still up against the ropes, barely avoiding a knockout, while Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) dances around the ring of life, bobbing and weaving and landing punch after punch. Building on the season premiere, the writers of Billions further develop the story lines that will matter this season, drawing in a few supporting characters who seem like they’re really going to matter. I love how the show isn’t just returning to the characters we know, but really defining the world around them. Billions is simply one of the best when it comes to casting, and the season’s new faces are already making a difference.
One of those new faces is Danny Strong’s Todd Krakow, a professional rival of Axe’s who ends up at the top of his kill list after he tries to woo Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) to his team. “Dead Cat Bounce” opens with a panel at which Axe and Krakow go head-to-head, moderated by another colleague named Lawrence Boyd (the awesome Eric Bogosian). Axe destroys Krakow in public, and Boyd compares him to Ric Flair, one of the wrestling icons that everyone loved to hate. Axe is just getting started playing the heel.
Meanwhile, Chuck is getting legal counsel from his buddy Ira (Ben Shenkman), who promises to make the cases filed at the end of the last episode go away. He learns that the Justice Department isn’t defending Chuck. They’re gonna let him fry. Chuck is being called to D.C. in three days, ostensibly to get fired by the attorney general herself. Ira has some advice: “Prove your loyalty. Show her you’re a soldier.” If Chuck can target one of the AG’s enemies, than she’ll have to keep him on to finish the case, or set up his replacement for failure.
While Chuck is encouraging his team of AUSAs to find the right case to save his ass, Mafee (Dan Soder) introduces Axe to a person who feels destined to change his life: Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon). As Taylor says on introduction, “My pronouns are ‘they, theirs, and them.’” Who would have guessed that Billions would be this progressive, especially in an arena typically dominated by testosterone and sexism? Anyway, Axe can sense almost immediately what Mafee already knows: Taylor is something special. They figured out that Krakow is using satellite images from China to monitor a factory in the Pearl River Delta, and that the information he got from those images was faulty. They’re going to screw over Krakow, and they’re going to do it publicly.
Speaking of people focused on their reputations, Chuck Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn) comes to talk to Wendy. He found out about the separation, and, in classic Rhoades Sr. fashion, he’s more concerned about the family name than his son or daughter-in-law’s emotional well-being. His legacy is the most important thing in the world. He encourages them to rethink their relationship, saying, “Unless it’s broken plates and steak knives, you gut through it.” While Chuck Sr.’s advice is cold and somewhat cruel — and a later effort to buy Wendy with a six-figure ring predictably fails — it does feel like a stage is being set for reconciliation.
Before that can happen, Wendy has to figure out what to say to Oliver Dake (Christopher Denham), who’s questioning her about the $5 million bonus that looks an awful lot like a bribe. Wendy quickly tries to turn the table on her interrogator, asking him if he’s married. He’s not playing along, and asks if the Rhoades separation was timed to make the payment smell less fishy. He even suggests that the $5 million was payment for information that Wendy gave Axe. Dake also knows Chuck Rhoades never really recused himself from the Axe Capital case, and he calls Bryan (Toby Leonard Moore) to make his expectations clear: Either Bryan will confirm his suspicion, or Dake will let everyone know about his meeting with Axe.
As Wendy is being interrogated, a very different motivational coach comes to work for Axe Capital. He’s an alpha male named Gus (Marc Kudisch), and he’s introduced with Ryan Bingham’s “Top Shelf Drug” while cleaning house in Wendy’s office. Gus is the kind of guy who says things like “keistered” and points with two fingers. If Wendy tries to draw the best out of her patients, Gus simply bullies them into trying harder. I can’t wait to see how he tries to handle Taylor. For now, he’s working with Wags (David Costabile), trying to manage his temper and raise his game.
After being more and more impressed with Taylor, Axe has to meet with Dake. He’s not playing along with the investigator’s game, even if it could mean the end for his nemesis. Dake lays it all on the table: The Department of Justice will give Axelrod immunity from prosecution if he testifies that the $5 million was a bribe. It would send Chuck to jail. It would likely send Wendy right after him. And therein lies the rub. Axe can’t take the kill shot with Chuck in his sights if the shrapnel kills Wendy too.
Speaking of personal calculations, Chuck thinks he’s found the right case to save his job and his reputation. It’s a whistle-blower at a big-box company who wants to reveal an unpaid overtime scam. The case takes aim at an enemy of the attorney general, someone who has been funding a super-PAC to take her down. However, Chuck will soon learn that this strategy isn’t going to work. He has to take Wendy’s advice and do a 180, coming up with something totally different.
While Chuck is pivoting from his strategy, Axe realizes that Taylor has a gift. In a fantastic scene in which Lewis and Dillon shine, he negotiates with Taylor to get them to work at Axe Capital. Taylor isn’t biting, even as the job offer rises to $1 million. As Axe says, “You see things differently. That’s an edge.” Axe knows that the macho-testosterone approach of his company can only take him so far, and someone with a totally unique vantage point could be an incredible weapon in his arsenal. Lewis and Dillon have incredible chemistry — his macho male energy versus their unique style — and I can’t wait to see this relationship develop further.
In the final scenes, we learn that Chuck figured out how to save his job. Instead of taking down an enemy of the AG, he needs to take down a friend. If he opens a case against an ally of the AG and then she fires him? It will look like she’s protecting someone. That someone turns out to be Lawrence Boyd, who goes to Axe for help in how to beat his new nemesis. “Answer this,” he asks. “Are you a bastard?”
• Billions should be a front-runner for the Emmy award in outstanding casting. Not only are the leads great, but Bogosian, Denham, and Strong are inspired choices. And I have a feeling we’ll be talking a lot about Asia Kate Dillon in the coming weeks.
• They’re acting here, but both Bogosian and Strong are also great writers in in their own rights. The former wrote the Pulitzer-nominated play Talk Radio, and the latter won two Emmys for Game Change.
• This episode was directed by Anna Fleck and Ryan Boden, two vets from season one and the great filmmakers behind Sugar and Half Nelson. They rule.
• This was Lewis’s best episode in a long time, and he’s clearly inspired by the his new castmates. His scenes with Strong, Dillon, and Bogosian are great.
• Final scenes and credit song: “Fill in the Blank” by Car Seat Headrest. I love the range of this show’s music choices. Always unpredictable.
• I find it curious that both Axe and Chuck’s right-hand men are drifting away from them, with Bryan expressing increased dissatisfaction and Wags totally off his game. Wags will probably get his groove back, but where is Bryan’s character headed? We’ll see.