It feels like any new episodes of scripted television nowadays should come with a disclaimer. In the case of the Showtime drama Billions, I imagine it would read something like this: “What you’re about to see was written and shot before the American outbreak of COVID-19. Therefore, the behavior of Billions’ main characters may come off as even more solipsistic than usual.” So if you’re gonna watch a show about the morally reprehensible activities of the uber-wealthy in what now looks like an alternate-dimension New York City, my advice is to leave reality at the door. Think of it as a reflection of recent, but not current, history. And the start of a debate over whether or not rage rooms will still be a thing post-pandemic.
Seven episodes of season five were filmed before the coronavirus forced a production shutdown. But if “The New Decas,” written by co-showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien is any indication, it’s still business as usual for the ruthless moneymakers and dubious justice warriors populating the Billions world.
It’s unclear exactly how much time has passed since last year’s finale, but it’s been a few months: long enough for Charles Rhoades, Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn) to kick his long-suffering wife, Ellen (Deborah Rush), to the curb, and marry his indigenous baby mama, Roxanne (Lily Gladstone); and for Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) to grow his ginger hair into something Jackson Maine worthy.
Charles “Chuck” Rhoades Jr. (Paul Giamatti) has gone back to the drawing board, both personally and professionally. He’s resumed his quest to take down Axe, now pursuing the hedge-fund billionaire on a cryptocurrency-mining charge — with the intel being fed to him by Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), who was forced to return to Axe Capital in the season-four finale as Chuck’s operative. He’s also attempting self-improvement, but to paraphrase his soon-to-be ex-wife, Wendy Rhoades, M.D. (Maggie Siff), I believe he believes he can change.
With Chuck’s previous adversaries Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) and Waylon “Jock” Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown) scrubbed from the story line, it now allows for Condola Rashad’s intrepid prosecutor, Kate Sacker, to take a more central role. This is a long-overdue creative decision, but it’s much welcomed. Now working alongside her one-time mentor again, Kate is gearing up for a congressional run (we’ve known since season one that she’s got her eyes on the White House) — and requiring that Chuck brief her on all his gameplay.
Wendy, living separately from Chuck in a spacious apartment courtesy of Axe, has been in a holding pattern these past several months. Her marriage over save for legal documentation, Wendy gets a harsh look at her pathetic future in “The New Decas” if she doesn’t start breaking some of the rules she had no say in making.
We open at Senior and Roxanne’s lavish wedding, and while it’s weird that Wendy is there, it’s absolutely ludicrous that Ellen is as well. Chuck’s mother is a product of her generation and her upper-crust culture, where women were to keep quiet and to listen to their husbands. It’s extraordinary to watch Ellen dolefully explain to Wendy that she’s in attendance because this is her family. “Soldier forth, that’s what Charles always told me,” Ellen says. “And he’s right.”
Remember the Pancake Eater story from last season? This is the lasting psychological damage that Senior causes the people in his life — and if Roxanne isn’t careful, the same fate will befall her and her daughter. Wendy, however, has no intention of becoming a broken shell of a woman like her mother-in-law: “Maybe it’s time to stop listening to what Rhoades men say, and start thinking for ourselves for a fucking change.”
Not sure what took you so long, Wendy, but I’ll take it. After Chuck goes MIA later that night (triggered by his father’s wedded bliss, he seeks solace in his dominatrix-for-hire), he’s greeted in the morning with numerous frantic texts and voicemails from Wendy. Their teenage son, Kevin (Zachary Unger), got alcohol poisoning from downing too many whiskeys at the reception. Wendy, frustrated that she actually had to parent her kids, announces she’s ready to make a public statement that the marriage is over. When Chuck inevitably procrastinates on this one request, Wendy makes a bold move to finish things once and for all, releasing the news on her own.
As for Axe, now that he’s neutralized his season-four enemy, Taylor (or so he thinks), dude needs a new fight to get the juices flowing. He spends the first half of the episode suffering from billionaire ennui — he’s now personally worth $10 billion, but he’s so numb to it, he likens this milestone to finding $20 in the street. Nothing — not a cross-continent, “Bad Company”–soundtracked motorcycle trip with consigliere Michael “Wags” Wagner (David Costabile), or a vomit-inducing ayahuasca trip in the Pacific Northwest wilderness — can pull him out of his funk.
That is, until he’s invited to do a Vanity Fair cover shoot celebrating the newest deca-billionaires. He initially declines, but as soon as Wags lets it slip that fellow deca Mike Prince (Corey Stoll) will likely get the cover instead, we cut to a freshly barbered Axe and Wags gliding into a photo studio — where Axe is peeved to learn the cover will be a group shot. Bruising his ego further is the arrival of midwestern golden boy — and in case it hasn’t dawned on you yet, Axe’s season-five rival — Mike Prince. Unlike Axe, who rules his company like an autocrat, Prince presents himself as someone who’s only as good as his team, dropping chestnuts like, “A man with no humility is a man with no pride at all.”
After Axe skips out on the shoot at the last minute — he’s called away on cryptomining-scheme matters — Prince not only maneuvers a solo Vanity Fair cover, but the article itself suggests Axe is fading into obsolescence. Or, to put it into a present-day analogy: Prince is the nice-guy magnate funding COVID-19 testing while Axe is trying to profit from the pandemic.
At least now Axe has a new fight to focus his energies on. Step one: “Get close to bring him down.”
But it’s not just Mike Prince who’s on the receiving end of the age-old “keep your enemies closer” strategy. Taylor reveals to Axe that they’ve been spying for Chuck — which I have to believe is all part of their grand plan. This prompts Axe to show up at Chuck’s Brooklyn home with an ominous “act of friendship”: Chuck’s prized first-edition, inscribed volumes of The Second World War by Winston Churchill — which he sold in season two, only for Axe to purchase out of spite. Axe demands Chuck drop the cryptomining case, or else risk the world returning to “a hot and uncomfortable place.” Chuck offers to make it a civil, rather than a criminal case, but nothing more.
If anything, Axe’s latest move revealed his hand to Chuck. He meets up with Kate to inform her that Taylor performed a triple cross: The only reason why Axe would’ve played the Churchill card is Taylor must’ve squealed. And just like Axe, Chuck intends to keep his elusive enemy close to the vest. Thus begins yet the next chapter in the Chuck and Axe cat-and-mouse saga, something l like to call, the Friendship Game.
• How much has COVID-19 saturated our thinking? The motivational speech that Becky “the Man” Lynch (Rebecca Quin) delivers to the Axe Cap employees, especially when paired with Wendy’s “we’re all in this together” line, belongs on quarantine pamphlets.
• I’m curious if Senior actually divorced Ellen or is pulling a Dollar Bill (Kelly AuCoin) here.