We’ve always known that Chuck Rhoades Jr. and Bobby Axelrod worked better as enemies, so closing out Billions’’s strongest season yet by hitting the reset button seems like the most organic decision possible. But as we head into season five, there is no question that the best part of this rebooted rivalry will be watching Wendy potentially inch toward a romantic relationship with Axe — and watching Taylor manipulate Chuck and Axe into self-destruction.
As in any excellent season finale, “Extreme Sandbox” — written by showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien — also saw the decks cleared and the stage set for next season, leaving some major casualties in its wake.
I know I overthought the ending of last week’s episode by erroneously speculating that Axe would hurt Wendy instead of Rebecca as part of his revenge on Taylor. My only excuse is that the demise of his relationship with Rebecca already seemed a foregone conclusion after she made the deal with Taylor, so I guess I was preparing for a much bigger implosion. As much as I liked Rebecca and Axe as a couple, I knew this love affair would never survive Rebecca’s betrayal.
Anyway, Axe and Rebecca are finished after he sabotages her dream business while she’s off on a strategically contrived girls’ trip with Wendy.
Unable to reconcile Saler’s department stores working with Taylor (Taylor controlled the chain’s main appliance supplier, Kling), Axe shuts down all Saler’s locations and moves all its “toxic debt” into Kling, thus forcing Kling to declare bankruptcy and decimating Mason Capital in the process. He rationalizes this decision by correctly acknowledging that the company is a “sinking ship” and figuring that Rebecca’s billion-dollar paycheck from the Saler’s liquidation would soften the blow.
Um, no? Especially not after Axe’s unnerving monologue to Rebecca in which he admits that even after they hypothetically married and had kids, he would still hold a grudge.
I guess I should give Axe credit for being so self-aware that he saved Rebecca years of anguish. The breakup (and loss of Saler’s) may hurt now, but oh, did you dodge a bullet there, Becky: This is a guy who said, to your face, that one day, he would make you suffer “tenfold” for your “traitorous” actions. Never mind the fact that Axe is so damn controlling he wouldn’t even let his girlfriend, the friggin’ Saler’s CEO, make decisions pertaining to her own company.
Since Axe will gladly play the long game to get what he wants, now I’m starting to wonder if his intentions here were all part of a ploy to move Wendy out of the friend zone. Let’s look at the evidence: First, he took Rebecca out of the picture. Second, he got Wendy’s medical license reinstated (by making a $25 million donation to pancreatic cancer research, naturally), which he had to know would cause further friction in the Rhoades marriage, because Chuck didn’t lift a finger to help his wife in that regard. Third, Axe started riding Chuck hard about arresting Taylor, pushing whatever alliance they had to its breaking point. Fourth, when Wendy arrived at Axe’s doorstep following her 567th separation from Chuck, Axe refrained from seducing her (earlier in the episode, he notably tells Wags he’s a “real gentleman” only to Wendy).
But since this episode could also be subtitled “What the Audience Didn’t See Theater” — this tactic was a bit overused, though necessary — there is the possibility that next season will showcase what really happened after Axe and Wendy finished making up the guest-room bed. I never wanted to see them hook up, but at the same time, where else could they go from here? I kind of need it to happen already.
As for Jock and Connerty, a.k.a. the episode’s biggest losers, there is one conclusion that cannot be disputed: Chuck Rhoades is a genius. The colossal shocker of “Extreme Sandbox” is the revelation that all of the real-estate criminal activities Chuck, Senior, Todd Krakow, and Ira were engaging in throughout the season were part of a masterful entrapment scheme to push Jock and Connerty into breaking the law. The questionable permits, the illegal loan, the wiretapping — all came from Chuck’s vengeful brain. He created a setup so elaborate yet so tailored to his onetime protégé’s predictable nature that I cannot think of anything more humiliating than Connerty finding out that he was “the Idiot” all along. Yep, not only was the U.S. Attorney caught breaking into Senior’s safe (rigged camera!), he played right into Chuck’s hands by ignoring Sacker’s 19-plus warnings and listening to what he thought was a redacted recording of Chuck and Senior admitting to fraud. Turns out what was on that tape was designed solely to ensnare him.
But Connerty won’t be serving his prison time alone. Remember that American-flag pin Chuck handed to Sacker in last week’s episode? Well, in “What We Didn’t See Theater,” we find out it contained a microphone that Sacker surreptitiously attached to Connerty’s jacket, which recorded Jock ordering Connerty to listen to the redacted tape.
Now that Chuck has exacted the revenge that has haunted him all season, it’s time to set his sights on an old target: Bobby Axelrod. Axe knew that once the Saler’s closures forced Kling to declare bankruptcy, Taylor would be vulnerable enough to take desperate measures. If he could make it look like they were engaging in illegal activity, he could blackmail them into returning to Axe Capital, under his control. So Axe tricks Taylor by hiring Rudy (nice pipes there, Chris Carfizzi!) to pitch a shady deal involving Nigerian oil and tasking Chuck with capturing their meeting on video and subsequently arresting them — regardless of the fact that Taylor refused Rudy’s offer.
Tired of Axe’s greedy antics and furious that the billionaire is the root cause of his failed marriage (take at least some of the blame there, Chucky), Chuck instead asks Taylor to be his inside person at Axe Cap. Bereft of other options, Taylor agrees to both return to their former place of employ and work with Chuck.
On the surface, Taylor has been reduced to a pawn, a person both Chuck and Axe can manipulate for their personal gain. What neither Axe nor Chuck realize — and for crissakes, why doesn’t Axe get this by now? — is that Taylor still has the capacity to outsmart them both. Taylor knows that Chuck and Axe are engaged in an “Infinite Game” that barely has anything to do with them anymore and will use that to their advantage. By playing Chuck and Axe against each other, Taylor merely needs to sit back and watch as the two toxic enemies annihilate themselves.
As Elvis Costello sings during the episode’s closing moments, “I ask myself, is all hope lost?” I have to answer with a resounding “no.” Taylor, in their rage and exhaustion from their season-long battles, could easily have fallen into the same patterns as Chuck and Axe. The fact that they are not plotting vengeance, but instead a calculated win, is an assurance that their soul is alive and well — and it’s the only true survivor of the season.
• Saved you a Google search: The stockbroker turned artist Axe and Rebecca are discussing during their foreshadowing “The greater one wants to be, the more one has to suffer” debate is Paul Gauguin.
• If we all received a Ben Kim–caliber “Hi!” on our first day back at work, the world would be a better place.