Once again, the writers of Billions give us a story of two men who are so masterful at what they do they are more similar than they’d ever be willing to admit. This week, both Chuck Rhoades Jr. (Paul Giamatti) and Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) made chess moves that could look sacrificial, allowing their opponent to think they have the upper hand, but they’re each thinking several moves ahead. In essence, both men gave to receive. Rhoades asked a favor of Laurence Boyd (Eric Bogosian), the man whom he’s investigating, to give his opponent the impression of power, while Axe tried to change his reputation by letting people think he was about to make a gigantic charitable donation in order to get an NFL franchise.
While Chuck and Axe are playing the games they play, wives Wendy (Maggie Siff) and Lara (Malin Akerman) are learning things about their professional selves as well. Wendy meets with an Elon Musk–esque billionaire who is bankrolling a manned mission to Mars and wants her to approve of his candidate for the job. After a few interesting discussions, Wendy tells him to pass, revealing that the seemingly perfect candidate is too perfect. She hasn’t faced enough adversity or rejection to deal with stress. More important, this venture teaches Wendy that she doesn’t like analyzing other people as much as she does motivating them, and, at the end of the episode, she takes on a seriously on-a-bender Wags (David Costabile) as a patient. A Yosemite Sam tattoo on your ass that you don’t remember getting requires something even more powerful than rehab — it takes Wendy Rhoades.
Meanwhile, Lara’s “Nurse to the Rich” gig is threatened by a competitor willing to undercut her prices and steal her clients. We’re reminded that Bobby may not be the most cutthroat Axelrod when Lara pays a couple of old friends to set up her competitor not just for failure, but jail time (they pay one of the nurses to solicit sex, opening up the door to prostitution charges for all involved). Lara will do whatever it takes to succeed, and I’d like to see that part of her personality expanded upon in future episodes. She could be the real Lady Macbeth of this show.
As interesting as the Wendy and Lara arcs are, the meat of the episode is Chuck and Axe maneuvering themselves toward what we’ve been waiting for: their first meeting since the end of last season.
Most of Axe’s arc this episode was about an attempt at image rehabilitation. He desperately wants an NFL team, but as a cameo-ing Mark Cuban tells him early in the episode, he’s “prefucked.” He’s made too many enemies, and he didn’t get his money the old-fashioned way, stepping on too many people on his way up the ladder. He needs to change hearts and minds, and the best way to do that is to speak to Sanford Bensinger (Richard Thomas), a man who takes massive sums of money from power players for charity through a program called the Giving Oath.
While Axe is preparing to give his money away, Chuck is preparing to lose how he makes his living. He’s running out of time to build a case against Laurence Boyd, and if he doesn’t make progress soon, he’ll be shown the “Hans Gruber Memorial Exit.” Chuck soon learns that there’s no progress to make. Even the Spartan Ives employee they turned last episode has nothing. The treasury bid rigging that he revealed has stopped. There’s nothing illegal going on. Chuck Rhoades needs a new strategy.
Bach (Glenn Fleshler) tries to convince his best client that a new strategy might be in order for him, too. While it’s certainly nice that Rhoades’s motion to dismiss was denied, Bach tells Axe that he’s down to the final three for the NFL bid. As they wonderfully quote Blade Runner to each other — I love how movie references are essentially a macho way to build trust in this world — Bach stresses how bad a deposition of Rhoades could go for Axe in the middle of the NFL bidding process. Depos are risky and unpredictable. The timing isn’t right. Again, it’s not unlike the poker game from last week. It’s not what you have but how you play it, and how you force your opponent to play his cards as well. But Axe can’t let his vendetta go. Will vengeance cost him his dream?
The film references in an episode thick with them continue as Rake (Christopher Denham) plays Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men to Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), refusing to go away nicely. He reminds him that the Boyd investigation is done and Rhoades’s days are numbered. Bryan can finish off Chuck, earning some points for taking the final punch against a man who will be knocked out no matter what.
Axe meets with Bensinger in one of the episode’s best scenes. Bensinger explains how giving away money is the only thing that feels better than making it. “It puts you back in charge of the only thing that you ever really cared about,” he says. “Yourself.” It’s a hell of a pitch, but it was all a photo op. Axe set up people outside to make it look like he’s giving away money, hopeful it would alter his rep enough to make his NFL bid more attractive.
After watching some daddy-obtained surveillance that shows how much Bryan has been talking to Rake, Chuck meets with Boyd, asking what he’s willing to do to stop the war. Boyd is a Roy Cohn disciple (so was our current president, by the way), which is problematic to some people, but he points out that Chuck hasn’t mentored a single soul. Chuck proposes a way out: Boyd puts on an internal investigation, Chuck signs off on it. Boyd balks, given how long it will take, and offers up a few mid-level guys with questionable behavior to end the war.
A bunch of great individual scenes follow (including Taylor’s only appearance and Bryan telling Rake to shove it), but it’s all building to the deposition — the showdown between Chuck and Axe. Chuck tells Ira (Ben Shenkman) that he won’t say a word, but he does immediately. He can’t help it. He mocks the day that Axe tore his whole building apart. Axe volleys back about the state of the Rhoades marriage. It’s just like old times. The legal issue at play is “damages.” Axe is arguing financial damages from Rhoades coming to see him, but he’d have to open his books to prove it. He can’t do that, of course.
In the middle of the meeting, Bensinger calls. He figured out that he was being used, and he did not like it. He called to personally tell Axe that the NFL deal is dead. Bensinger verbally demolishes him, saying, “You’re not royalty, you’re a robber baron.” Axe looks upset and vulnerable, which is rare. Then he turns it on; it’s in that half-smile. He marches back into the deposition. He’s got a financial damage to blame on Chuck Rhoades: “You cost me a professional football team.”
• I think this episode set a series record for different cast members with speaking roles. I didn’t even talk about the great Jeffrey DeMunn, who revealed Chuck Sr.’s still playing a significant role, or Condola Rashad’s Sacher, who learned her father may not be an angel either.
• Noah Emmerich directed this episode! The unforgettable Stan Beeman from The Americans reunited with his boss from that show, who was played by Richard Thomas.
• A note of praise for the supporting players who don’t get enough credit. In just a couple scenes, I was reminded how perfectly cast Glenn Fleshler and David Costabile are on this show.
• The Tennyson quote from the Boyd-Rhoades scene was “In the afternoon they came unto a land …” from “The Lotos-eaters” by Lord Alfred Tennyson, if you’re curious.
• Wendy and Elena reference Wilco, and this song specifically, as a perfect music moment.
• Speaking of perfect music, the episode ends with “Peace Sells” by Megadeth. “What do you mean, ‘I hurt your feelings’? I didn’t know you had any feelings.” Sounds like something Axe and Chuck would say to each other.