Ball in Hand
Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades, Christopher Denham as Oliver Dake.
A second season of Billions that felt richer and more complex than the first has come to a brilliant close as our heroes — Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) — again serve as partners in a vengeful dance, echoing each other in the closing shots. Both men climb the stairs to their homes, although the lights are off in Axe’s house, indicating that he’ll likely have to face what’s ahead of him alone, while Chuck walks up his flight holding the hand of the woman he loves, Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff). Given the way Wendy ends the season with Axe, one wonders if she isn’t thinking more about him than Chuck. At the same time, Chuck realized this season how far he’s willing to go to get Axe, including selling out his best friend and his father, while Axe discovered the one person most likely to keep his ship afloat while he tries to bail water is the employee who wasn’t sure they fit in.
“Ball in Hand” is a remarkably high-paced affair, cutting across multiple locations and character arcs. It’s one of the most crowded episodes of Billions in terms of what it accomplishes, yet directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck keep it humming in a way that never feels cluttered or chaotic. It’s a truly fantastic accomplishment considering how much happens, and how consistently Fleck, Boden, and the episode’s trio of writers (Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Adam R. Perlman) allow the action to come from characters rather than forcing it. We learn something crucial about almost every major player in this one excellent hour.
The episode begins with a montage set the morning after the Ice Juice debacle. Chuck works out, Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) shaves their head, Bryan (Toby Leonard Moore) gets out of the shower (with a friend), and Boyd (Eric Bogosian) gets out of jail. Axe, however, is alone. Boyd comes to Axe’s house to warn him that he’s getting arrested today, sending Axe into panic mode. His wife Lara’s (Malin Akerman) first response is a fascinating one: She instantly tells him that she won’t run and neither will the kids. Not only does she think Axe will run, but she won’t join him. He won’t, but the detail is informative, and Lara almost looks disappointed that Axe won’t just leave her life.
As we learned at the end of last week’s episode, Dake (Christopher Denham) is going to lead the takedown, but he makes clear to Chuck that he won’t do any favors in return. Chuck is concerned about the money trail for Ice Juice leading back to him. So is Minchak (Mary Louise Parker), who basically instructs Chuck to get his father to sign an affidavit that attests Junior never knew about the trust fund tampering to invest. Later, when Chuck reveals the depth of his treachery to his father and Ira (Ben Shenkman), both men are understandably furious at how much they were used. Chuck Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn) is on the verge of tears, but it’s a bit like Dr. Frankenstein lamenting the monster he’s created, given how much Chuck Sr. has done to get his son on the path to Albany. He learned by watching you, dad. Nevertheless, Chuck has some balls to ask Ira to “act out of rationality and not emotion.”
Meanwhile, Axe is in panic mode. He’s burning materials at work, and asking Taylor to come up with a liquidation model to protect the company when it all goes down. Axe goes to Dollar Bill (Kelly AuCoin) as well, and puts Wags (David Costabile) into protective mode. He’s basically getting all of his soldiers in line. He also asks Bill what’s going to happen when he gets arrested, indicating that Axe even feels some fear, an emotion that plays into the scene in which he says good-bye to his sons. These scenes are crucial to the way this season finale plays out, allowing us to see the human side of Axe instead of just the damaged warrior.
Most interesting is how the writers work the differences between Axe’s relationships with Wendy and Lara. Mrs. Axelrod is in panic mode herself, taking a suitcase of cash and investing it in her company for safekeeping. She even goes to Bach (Glenn Fleshler) and asks whether a divorce would protect her more. Meanwhile, Wendy seems to be invigorated by the challenge facing Axe. She works with Wags to rally the troops, and it’s so telling that the final person whom Axe speaks to before his arrest is not his wife, but the partner of the man taking him down. Before he’s hauled away, he asks her, “Would you help me find my way back?” Isn’t that something a spouse does? It’s also telling that Axe is with Wendy when he’s taken in, not with Lara and his kids. And that it takes place at the 9/11 Memorial, symbolizing a key event that bent the arc of Axe’s life.
In the end, Bryan will lead the prosecution of Axe through the Eastern office; Sacher (Condola Rashad) will be made chief of crime if she stays; Taylor will be CIO while Axe is gone; Bill and Wags will stand by their company; Chuck Sr. doesn’t want to talk to his son ever again; and Lonnie (Malachi Weir) looks like he’s quitting. Everyone had an arc this season. It would have been so easy for the second season of Billions to focus solely on Axe versus Chuck with Wendy and Lara as key supporters, but the writers eyed a far more ambitious target. It paid off, making for a season that felt more thematically consistent and complete.
Of course, Billions has to end the season with a major scene between Axe and Chuck. What does their latest confrontation tell us about where the show is headed? Axe claims he will find “whatever it is and whatever thread he left behind” and destroy Chuck with it. What did Chuck miss? Where is his Achilles heel? And do you believe Chuck when he says that all the loss he’s dealt with and all the risks he took were “worth it” to get Axe arrested? It almost sounds like he’s trying to convince himself.
In the final scenes, Axe makes bail and comes out to see … nobody. Lara and the kids are eating alone. There’s a short montage of the people damaged by Chuck and Axe’s greed and avarice — a brilliant bookend to the “good morning” montage that opened the episode. And Axe is alone again. He gets out of his car to a dark and empty house. Chuck sees Wendy on the street and they hug. As they hold hands, they take the stairs together.
• Two great music cues in a season that used music expertly: “So Long Baby Goodbye” by the Blasters to open the episode, and “Homecoming” by Josh Ritter to close it.
• This was Damian Lewis’s best season of television since the first season of Homeland, and he should seriously be in the Best Actor conversation for anyone with an Emmy ballot. While you’re at it, put down Asia Kate Dillon for Best Supporting Actor. They were both phenomenal, which is why they’re my co-MVPs. (Honorable mentions go to Paul Giamatti, Maggie Siff, David Costabile, and Kelly AuCoin.) How about you?
• Where do you think season two will go? The show has set up a lot of intriguing questions: How will Axe get out of such airtight charges? Is Wendy back with Chuck because it’s the best way to protect Axe? Or is their reunion a genuine one?
• Thanks for reading! I know I’ll miss Axe and Chuck until 2018.