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Billions Season Premiere Recap: You Gotta Pick Sides

Billions

Chucky Rhoades’s Greatest Game
Season 4 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating *****

Billions

Chucky Rhoades’s Greatest Game
Season 4 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating *****
Photo: Jeff Neumann/Showtime

If you had trouble untangling yourself from the intricate web that was the Billions season-four premiere, you’re not alone. Even star Paul Giamatti has admitted that he can’t keep track of the Showtime drama’s mind-bending plot twists. That’s not to say “Chucky Rhoades’s Greatest Game” isn’t a fantastic episode, but it is an exhausting one. And by the end, we’re still left asking the same question: Is the quest for such all-encompassing power worth it?

For now, the main players — Chuck Rhoades Jr. (Giamatti), Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis), Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff), and Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon) — are going to answer with a resounding “yes.” Four seasons in, and the adrenaline rush of the game continues to fuel their existence. Never mind that it’s come at some seriously crippling costs: Axe has lost his family and now requires a personal detail of six bodyguards (getting mixed up with Russian oligarchs will do that). Chuck, stripped of his U.S. Attorney title, has been reduced to a private law practice in which the strings are, unsurprisingly, being pulled by his blue-blooded father, Charles Rhoades Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn, still making his loathsome character one of the most delicious things about Billions). And Taylor is learning some uncomfortable lessons about the high-stakes world of which they so desperately want (and deserve) a piece.

After three and a half seasons at each other’s throats, Chuck and Axe are now busy obsessing over new enemies. Taylor and Grigor Andolov (John Malkovich) for Axe; Attorney General Waylon “Jock” Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown) for Chuck. But there’s no subtlety in this episode, which was penned by co-showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien, about the ominous death theme hovering over both alpha-male leads, who have downshifted from sworn adversaries to hesitant allies. Did they trade in their mutual antagonism for something far more threatening? Very possible.

On the lighter side, Billions’ musical and gastronomical A games show no signs of slowing down in season four. Chuck’s biggest plot point in the premiere involves the demoted lawyer hitting multiple power-meal restaurants to achieve the ultimate goal of currency with a VIP, aptly set to “The King of New York” by Fun Lovin’ Criminals. And Chuck and Axe are reintroduced via two spectacular song selections: Truth be told, I thought Axe wearing a Motörhead Ace of Spades T-shirt and having the title track heralding his return was too on the nose — but then again, it’s also “Axe being very Axe-y,” so it works. Chuck’s intro is probably the most shocking part of the premiere, because the last thing anyone expected to see was the buttoned-up attorney not just clapping along to Al Green’s “I Feel Good,” but Engaging. In. Air. Drumming.

Back to the drama: Other than a single phone call, Chuck and Axe’s story lines didn’t intersect this episode, but I can’t imagine that’s going to remain the status quo for long. Axe is understandably consumed with two things: Rebuilding the capital he lost following Taylor’s betrayal in the season-three finale, and ruining his former protégé in the process. In any other season, Axe could’ve completed these tasks in the time he once spent devouring ortolans (this is a guy who deported someone “for fun”). But Taylor, whom I do not want to see destroyed, has a complex ally in their corner: Andolov.

For most of the episode, Axe is sent on a wild goose chase of his consigliere, Mike “Wags” Wagner (David Costabile), who disappeared after a night of partying with a representative from the fictional Arab nation of Qadir, with whom Axe Capital is negotiating a sovereign-wealth-fund deal. Wags’s kidnapping by the Qadir embassy is made to look like a leverage play, but it was actually a ruse to get Axe in a room with Andolov. Since “The Happy Days”–loving villain has money invested in Mason Capital, he warns Axe to leave Taylor alone — because if he hurts Taylor, he hurts Andolov, and you really, really don’t want to hurt Grigor Andolov.

So where does that leave Axe? At first, stymied by the knowledge that Andolov is more powerful than him (oh, boo-hoo). But a few ego-stroking words from Wags is all it takes for the wheels to start turning in the billionaire’s maniacal head. If anything, Axe is savoring the challenge of “slowly, invisibly” taking down Taylor without Andolov finding out. I am basking in Axe’s ridiculous pursuit, because his resolve just goes to show that not even mortality will stop him from obtaining vengeance. In other words, I’m cool with his willingness to play Russian roulette with his own life, because he already played God with Donnie Caan’s.

Which brings us to the other guy hell-bent on revenge. Chuck has no intention of remaining in private practice, though returning to his lofty perch is going to be difficult now that AG Jeffcoat’s new pawn (and Chuck’s replacement as U.S. Attorney), Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), is investigating all of his past cases for possible “misconduct.” So Chuck’s decision to turn down that aforementioned VIP’s request for a gun permit is met with disdain from Charles Sr., who, naturally, orchestrated their Al Green–soundtracked meeting.

Bottom line is, Chuck needs formidable allies like VIP Larry Brogan (David Aaron Baker), so if Brogan wants a gun permit (there’s that portentous scent of death approaching again), he’ll get it. This means Chuck has to use the only capital he has left: His ability to curry favors with New York’s elite. Or, as he brilliantly describes it to Wendy, “I’ll have to pay Peter to pay Paul — and George, Ringo, and John too.” In a single day, he maneuvers Hanukkah-service tickets, skiing privileges, and the relocation of a charter school (he called in that favor from Axe himself; did I mention it was so a registered sex offender didn’t have to move? Never change, Billions), all so a talented but long-in-the-tooth Dominican kid can continue playing in the Police Benevolent Association’s Little League.

Now, Commissioner Sansome (Michael Rispoli) is in Chuck’s debt, which he settles with the coveted gun permit. But, hey, now Chuck’s moving back up the ladder, so, yay?

Hardly. If the whole episode doesn’t convince you that everyone is treading on dangerous ground, the final scene is a neon sign that says, “YOU’RE PLAYING WITH FIRE, CHUCKY.” A drunken Chuck and Sansome stumble out of the last stop on the episode’s foodie walking tour, Sparks Steak House, which they realize was the location of a grisly mob murder from 30-plus years ago. As they reenact the shoot-out, lying down next to Sansome’s car, the camera pans upward, lighting the men in such a macabre way that if that doesn’t scream foreshadowing, I don’t know what does.

Whatever it takes to be the King of New York, right?

Loose Change

• Mason Capital is also vying to acquire Qadir’s sovereign wealth, which means that Taylor, upon the advice of their new COO, Sara Hammon (Samantha Mathis), is forced to “suit up” in body-hugging sheath dresses — and a Wendy Rhoades wig. They succeed in their endeavor, but it’s upsetting, though not surprising, that Taylor is forced to sacrifice their true self just to win at this game.

• Wags executing a flawless rendition of the “I Feel for You” Chaka Khan rap is my new happy place.

• No, Charles Sr., that is not how BDSM works.

Billions Recap: You Gotta Pick Sides