Here’s what I’ve learned from covering two seasons of Billions: Although it will always be a challenge to predict the outcome, the eventual conclusion is hardly ever a surprise.
Billions thrives on the constant game, the chase, the fight, and, as Taylor Mason so astutely put it in this season-five finale, the hatred. If there is victory, it’s short-lived and pyrrhic. “No Direction Home” checks all of those boxes — and to be clear, that’s not a criticism. It’s the best way possible to prime both the characters and the audience for season six, which is currently in production and slated for a January 2022 premiere.
The players are still the same — it’s just that most of their positions have changed. Again. The episode kicks off with Bobby Axelrod announcing his negative COVID-19 test, thus allowing Damian Lewis to finally appear in scenes with his fellow actors in person before his character pulls off an intricate, Hall-orchestrated disappearing act that concludes with him arriving in Switzerland. Yes, Axe has evaded federal charges, but, as we constantly ask with this series, at what cost? His company and his holdings are gone, frozen either by the Feds or eaten up by Mike Prince. His romance with Wendy was over before it had a chance to start, as she opted not to go on the run (though I’m not sure why; even staying behind for her kids seemed like an afterthought). Axe may be smirking over his triumph, living as a free man in the land of gourmet cheese and chocolate, but he’s all alone, with only Bob Dylan’s immortal lyrics ringing in his ears: “How does it feel? To be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.”
While I’m certain this isn’t the last we’ve seen of our Yonkers billionaire, he’s the least of Billions’ concerns heading into season six. That’s because there’s a new villain in town: Mike Prince is now a thorn in not just Chuck’s side but everyone else’s. He leaked the news of the impending arrest to Axe just in time to legally take over Axe Bank, Axe Asset Management, and Taylor Mason Carbon. This maneuver allows Prince the satisfaction he was after: permanently removing Bobby Axelrod as a professional rival and crown himself king of the financial sector. But despite working with Chuck to make that happen, Prince didn’t care a whit about Axe going to prison or being the center of a media-circus court case — that was all Chuck’s fantasy.
After Axe ruins Chuck’s dramatic arrest at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, the New York State attorney general immediately deduces that Prince was Axe’s informant. It’s at that moment that the story line truly shifts gears and sets things up for season six: Chuck’s anger and hatred (or as Taylor would call it, fuel) shifts from Axe to Prince. In a weird way, Axe, by fleeing the country, did Chuck (and Billions) a huge favor because Chuck needs that rage-driven fuel to survive.
Throughout “No Direction Home,” and especially in Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis’s two scenes together, Chuck struggles to articulate what it is that propels him to destroy everything around him for the sake of “justice.” The closest we get to that answer lies in Chuck’s one scene with Senior, where, after Chuck informs his father that he’s got Axe in his clutches — for real this time — he overhears Senior tell baby Willow that her older brother is “a great man.” So, yes, a large reason for Chuck’s actions is his lifelong quest to please Daddy, but at this point, anyone who is even a casual Billions viewer knows it’s more than that. Look at how quickly he dropped Axe when he learned Prince had betrayed him. He doesn’t need the win; he needs that fight for the win.
We can’t talk about rage-driven fuel without addressing both the saddest outcome and one of the glimmers of hope in “No Direction Home”: Taylor Mason’s snuffed-out soul. This is something Taylor has been grappling with since their arrival in season two and a topic heavily documented in my recaps. Their slow evolution into a heartless, Axe-like monster has been a long time coming, though it was still upsetting to hear them advise Rian to use their hatred to succeed. The question is, will that slight flicker of humanity that remains — the one that subsequently warned Rian to make like Tom Cruise in Minority Report and run (she didn’t, btw, much to Taylor’s visible disappointment) — be what helps or hinders them in their battle against the merciless Mike Prince, now the owner of Taylor Mason Carbon?
The greatest lesson Axe left in his wake is that everyone, from Chuck to Wendy to Taylor to Wags, had better leave their humanity at the door when they inevitably go up against Prince next season. Uplifting Ralph Waldo Emerson quotes aside, this guy is an arrogant jackass presenting himself as a monarch to a group of people who have no reason to pledge their fealty. (This is what Axe meant when he warned Wags that this period of his life “will suck,” but it’s “something [he] will live through”: Axe kept his consigliere out of prison, but the price of that freedom is Wags must play second fiddle to both Scooter and Prince.)
Who knows? Now that Axe’s name is literally being chiseled off the walls, it’s possible that everybody, including the newly returned Bonnie and the Vocab Twins Ben Kim and Tuk Lal, will join Dollar Bill and Mafee’s planned venture. (We knew Bill was serious about leaving the second he Removed. His. Dollar. Bill. From. His. Monitor.) Everybody, that is, except Wendy and Taylor, who are technically allowed to bail, albeit legally prohibited from taking Mase Carb with them. Could Prince’s reign be what definitively allows Wendy and Taylor to let bygones be bygones and form an alliance stronger than ever before? And will Chuck get in on that alliance?
I’m cautiously optimistic. Yes, Mike Prince has become the King, sitting in Bobby Axelrod’s old chair and smugly validating that he, not Chuck, made that happen. But the truth, especially on Billions, often lies in its music cues. The reprise of “Like a Rolling Stone” is a glaring reminder that Prince is just as alone as Axe, and, I’d argue, in a far more precarious situation: He’s estranged from his own daughters, he’s Chuck’s latest target, and, with the exception of Scooter, everyone surrounding him at this moment — Wendy, Wags, and Taylor — is plotting his downfall.
• That Manhattan press-conference scene where Chuck and Axe verbally sparred in front of local stalwarts PIX News 11 and Spectrum News (a.k.a. NY1)? Filmed in London. My tip of the hat to the U.K. unit (credited in all five post-pandemic episodes this season) for so seamlessly inserting Damian Lewis’s overseas appearances — and in this episode, those of his castmates — into the Stateside action.
• I liked the fake-out that bookended the episode (you think Chuck is looking for Axe at the Axe Cap offices when it turns out he’s searching for Prince), but the constant time jumps gave me some serious American Crime Story: Impeachment vibes.