A lean, fat-free season of Billions continues its wonderfully streamlined pace, developing new characters and allowing old ones to sink further into the quicksand. This week focuses on Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) and Bryan (Toby Leonard Moore), as they work people near them and reveal more about their own characters in the process. Meanwhile, Chuck (Paul Giamatti) continues to fight his way back from the brink of destruction as he tries to build a case against a man who might not have done much wrong, and Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) admits that his obsession with both adult members of the Rhoades family is defining his days and nights.
As Axe weighs his options regarding the purchase of an unnamed NFL team, Chuck and Wendy (Maggie Siff) are in therapy. It’s a nice scene of character depth that’s away from the plot machinations of the show, and further evidence that the Rhoades could be headed toward some sort of civility. Wendy tells Chuck that he’s a good father, and Giamatti plays the beat well, capturing how much it matters to Chuck even though he doesn’t want to show it and look weak. They’re going to need money to buy a new place, meaning the separation could become permanent, and Chuck will have to sell something important to him to make it happen.
Axe’s new nemesis Todd Krakow (Danny Strong) is tweeting about a poker game called the Alpha Cup, in which millionaires play to give the prize money to their favorite charity. Krakow keeps winning, but Axe has a new idea about how to take the Cup this year — his new secret weapon at work, Taylor. Meanwhile, Hall (Terry Kinney) informs Axe that his true nemesis, Rhoades, “is not exploitable at this moment.” Axe can’t accept that. He reveals that he hears Chuck’s name in his sleep and “under every thought.” They must find a way to take him down, but somehow leave Wendy loyal to Axe. That’s the trick.
Rhoades needs to know how they’re going to build a case against a relatively squeaky-clean Lawrence Boyd (Eric Bogosian). They’re having real trouble finding legitimate dirt on him, but Sacher (Condola Rashad) drops the only minor detail they found. A flight attendant on a private jet made a major investment before a merger was announced, likely after overhearing something, which isn’t a crime but she may not know that. They’re going to drag a woman through the mud to get Boyd. Bryan clearly doesn’t like the play.
Axe invites Taylor to play on his team at the Alpha Cup, which infuriates Dollar Bill (the great Kelly AuCoin), who gets a telling line: “Everything I measure myself by has been called into question.” Axe knows that building up Taylor doesn’t only serve his business needs, but changes the way the rest of his staff approaches their testosterone-heavy game. Dollar Bill isn’t just losing out to someone with a different gender identity; he’s losing in the male-heavy sport of poker in something called the Alpha Cup.
Interestingly, Taylor doesn’t want to play. They reveal that they were once great at poker, but began to regret playing when it came to real opponents in college, including classmates and professors. To be blunt, Taylor was too good in live games, and there’s a different kind of macho pressure in person. The competition isn’t worth the pressure. The best moment comes when Taylor realizes that Axe knew all of this already, figuring it out by the cant of his head and the tone of his voice. At the same time, Krakow is wooing Wendy to be his coach at the Alpha Cup, which she agrees to do.
As Taylor and Axe develop their partnership, Bryan and Sacher work the flight attendant, McKayla (Gia Crovatin). Sacher plays the Bad Cop, and then the suave Bryan swoops in as the Good Cop. He’ll protect her if she helps him — and she quickly agrees. She straps a wire to her leg (with Bryan’s flirtatious assistance) and even gets Boyd on camera, sleeping with the wife of one of his soldiers, who will now turn on his leader. The flight attendant play may have been a bit harsh, but it does get Chuck some damaging info on Boyd, even if he has to show a man footage of his wife sleeping with his boss to get it.
After Rhoades sells some very valuable books (worth $40,000!) to help save his family, and Taylor gets a hilarious pep talk from Dr. Gus (Marc Kudisch), it’s time for the centerpiece of this week’s episode: the Alpha Cup. Axe, Krakow, and Boyd arrive in that order, playing a few mind games with one another. Axe is pissed about Wendy working with Krakow, even if she denies working for him. In one of the week’s best lines, Axe says, “I bet that’s what his masseuse and manicurist tell themselves too.” After setting up Boyd with his right-hand man Hall, it’s time for the game!
Axe gets to a table with Krakow, and the pair side bets for $500,000. Wendy notices that Krakow isn’t blinking, which means he’ll probably blink like crazy when he gets a big hand. She advises he take a breath and relax. Axe gets big slick (an ace and a king) against Krakow’s pocket 3s. Krakow trips his 3s on the flop, but an ace falls, too, leading Axe to think he’s over with top pair. When a king falls on the turn, it’s clear that Axe is screwed because there are very few pockets that can beat his hand. He pushes in and Krakow calls him, knocking him out of the game when one of Axe’s four outs doesn’t fall on the river. Taylor is the only one left on the Axe Capital team, but Axe is confident enough to bet $1 million that they’ll outlast Krakow.
As Wags (David Costabile) slide into moral decay and liver destruction continues in the background of the season, Krakow and Taylor get to the final table together. Krakow is increasingly slimy, saying things like, “Just you and me, hot stuff.” As much as I’d like to see the smug prick lose, Taylor honestly feels bad taking down such an insecure asshole. There’s no victory in it. Krakow’s behavior hides his own pain, and Taylor doesn’t want to lean into the feeling of hate — a lesson that Axe should learn himself. Krakow drops the side bet to try and play mind games, but he gets burned by a hand that Taylor simply plays better than he does: They know he’s bluffing because of his non-bet after the flop, which means he probably doesn’t have a king or a queen. He calls them “cupcake” and a “freak” and I’m increasingly hoping something bad will happen to this troll of a human being.
The most interesting thing happens the next day: All of Axe Capital is celebrating Taylor’s win over Krakow — but they are not happy. Not at all. They’re not in this to beat up bullies because that desire gives bullies value. Bliss is not caring whether the bully wins OR if you beat them. So there’s nothing really to celebrate. Taylor also noticed how much Axe was playing to Wendy, trying to break Krakow in front of her, and they don’t like being a pawn.
The NFL isn’t so sure about Axe’s motives either, giving a “yellow light” to his bid because of the 9/11 revelations, the recent investigation, and the general air of scandal that surrounds him. He decides to beat the already-highest-ever bid by $100 million. Axe thinks there’s nothing he can’t buy. Including all copies of the books that Chuck sold earlier in the episode. Rhoades will never get them back. Axe’s obsession continues.
• The great documentarian Alex Gibney directed this episode, and it’s a tight, well-made hour. Among his other work, make sure you see Going Clear, Zero Days, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Taxi to the Dark Side.
• Taylor’s poker username in college was ZackCody892. A reference to the kids show The Suite Life of Zack & Cody? And maybe a birth month and year? I could believe they’re 24.
• Two great music cues this week: “Trouble” by Keith Richards, which introduced the poker game, and one of my personal favorite songs from one of my favorite albums, “Begin the Begin,” at the end. “The insurgency began and you missed it.”
• It would be negligent to not mention that Billions co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien co-wrote one of the best poker movies ever made, Rounders. If you liked the poker material here, go watch it.