Grab a bucket of fried chicken, unwrap a Reggie bar, and let’s dig in to this feast of an episode.
Up until now, Chuck and Axe’s alliance was dubious at best, amorphous at worst. Their interactions were minimal enough that I didn’t see the need to delve into them just yet. But this is Billions, after all, so I suspected there was a method to the madness — and, oh, was there ever. In the final minutes of “Chickentown,” Chuck, solidifying his position as a submissive in both his personal and professional lives, indebts himself to Axe in a way I doubt he’ll ever be able to repay.
Any Billions fan knows that Chuck’s reputation as a prosecutorial champion is all smoke and mirrors. Do a little digging (as Bryan Connerty has been), and underneath is a man who sells out the vulnerable to protect his daddy’s rich friends. Chuck spends the episode trying to quash an article that will blow the whistle on his career hypocrisy, and ultimately fails in his mission because he forgot once again that Kate Sacher (Condola Rashad) is a political animal. His bid for State Attorney General appears to be over before it’s begun: No amount of crooning from Michael Bolton — whom Charles Senior hired to perform at his son’s glad-handing event — will help your campaign when no one wants their picture taken with you.
If politics is a dirty game, then Chuck is about to soil himself with, ironically, his sudsiest next move: In the shadows of his office, in hushed tones (we get it, Billions, you like overstated drama), he promises the favor-equivalent of a blank check if Axe not only funds his campaign, but also drains his opponent’s resources.
There is no way this partnership is going to end well for Chuck. Axe agrees to his request, but the billionaire is shrewdly holding back on naming his price until they’re on “the other side of the war.” Remember how Chuck got his jollies this episode by snapping a rubber band against his thigh? (Paul Giamatti does all his own stunts on the show.) Well, I got the same rush from Axe’s nonresponse. Whatever he wants, it’s not good — and what’s bad for Chuck is good for me.
(Who here thinks it has to do with Wendy?)
Shockingly (no, not really), that isn’t Axe’s only shady meeting of the night. Right before he positions himself as the dominant in his alliance with Chuck, Axe has his first face-to-face of the season with his even thornier adversary, Taylor. Billions is never a show to shy away from a good nocturnal setting to raise the intimidation factor — this one has the two of them standing at the water’s edge — but after yet another episode spent outsmarting each other, Taylor is waving a white flag.
Still in possession of a moral center (at least I think they are), Taylor opens up peace talks, making the astute point that neither they nor Axe are operating in top form due to their feud. Axe consents to a truce, but Taylor’s gotta know he was lying, because where’s the fun in an armistice for our hoodie-loving antihero? Considering they’ve flawlessly predicted his sneaky tactics, I have to believe Taylor had a microphone planted in Axe’s car when he mentions the “next part” of his evil plan to Wags. After all, Taylor is someone who deliberately made a mistake in a derivative, somehow knowing that they were being recorded by Israeli spy technology capable of penetrating privacy glass. Axe may have finished the episode by firmly pressing his feet on Chuck’s and Taylor’s necks, but my money is on Taylor to grab an oxygen mask before any real damage is done.
Also, this wouldn’t be a proper recap of “Chickentown” if “Dollar” Bill Stearn (Kelly AuCoin) wasn’t given his due, even though he ends up being the episode’s biggest loser. Bill’s romp through Arkansas poultry country is a showcase for AuCoin, who flexes his scene-stealing muscles in his first major storyline since being promoted to a series regular.
Mistaking Axe Cap for an Asbury Park club, Bill introduces his plan to corner the chicken market to Axe and Wags by belting the opening lyrics to Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” (which references a “chicken man” — also the name of Bill’s guy on the inside).
Bill is not uncertain about his intel, so he gets the green light to move forward. Too bad he didn’t have the same level of not-uncertainty about the health of the Chicken Man (Danny L. Chapman), whose sudden death has the zip-up-fleece aficionado contemplating a minimum-wage future in KFC’s employ.
You know how Bill once tossed a Molotov cocktail onto his family for the sake of his boss? Yeah, that’s nothing compared to the “chicken holocaust” he has in store to recoup Axe Cap’s losses. In this rare case, Bill’s flair for the theatrical (after arriving in Arkansas to do damage control, a phone call with Axe reveals his plans for a “final solution”) is what saves the company from Ice Juice 2.0.
The next several beats of this subplot are a master class in unscrupulous lunacy: Set to a twangy tune called “Chicken Bill” (Billions, I love you), a dust-masked Bill kicks open the door of a quarantine facility where feathers descend like snowflakes, carrying a bag seemingly moving of its own accord. Fortunately for the nation’s poultry consumers, Axe and Wags land on the scene just in time to avert Bill’s intention to toss a diseased capon into a healthy chicken supply.
Now, while I’m not condoning Bill’s actions, I don’t blame him for taking the “I learned it from watching you!” approach: If Axe could contaminate juices, why can’t Bill do the same with fowl? (Because, as Wags rationalizes, DIY doesn’t work when it comes to poisoning a section of the population. “It requires meticulous calibration. Otherwise we’re all in Contagion.”)
That, and Axe doesn’t want to be indicted again. Sure, it’s nice that he stopped Bill from causing another health crisis, but something tells me it wasn’t for humanitarian reasons.
After throwing a temper tantrum over Axe’s decision to accept a loss — Bill, these outbursts demonstrate why work-life balance is so important; go spend time with your two families — the Axe Cap sycophant is persuaded to let the sick chicken go in a language he can understand.
In the series’ second, and much funnier, use of the immortal closing line from Chinatown, David Costabile, AuCoin, and Damian Lewis not only replicate the blocking from the last scene of the classic 1974 film, they pay homage to it in a way only Billions could: “Forget it, Bill,” says Wags. “It’s Chickentown.”
• Billions wisely dropped its soap-opera template for the subplot featuring Taylor’s father, Douglas Mason (Kevin Pollak, a welcome addition to any TV show). His strained relationship with Taylor is palpable, but it’s not because Douglas is narrow-minded — he’s a guy coming to terms with the fact that his child never was his “little girl.” Taylor deserves better than what they’re getting from Douglas, but at the same time, I like that I don’t hate him.
• That “Baker Street” sax riff is still playing in your head, isn’t it?