Approximately four months ago, Billions said auf Wiedersehen to Damian Lewis’s renegade tycoon Bobby Axelrod. In the season-five finale, Axe’s dubious financial practices finally caught up to the larger-than-life billionaire, forcing him to abscond to Switzerland. Shortly after the finale aired, Lewis confirmed his departure from the series. Considering the actor had spent the last five episodes of his Billions tenure shooting his scenes remotely from England, the news wasn’t exactly shocking.
Also not shocking? Twitter’s reaction to Lewis’s news, which saw many fans declaring any Axe-less Billions episodes DOA. Now, if Lewis had left the show at the end of the first or even second season, I, too, would probably be on Team Cancel Billions. But since Axe had appeared heavily via Zoom and FaceTime anyway, the series could organically transition from the original Chuck Rhoades versus Bobby Axelrod aggro spectacle into its current ensemble-drama incarnation.
That’s not to say Billions isn’t still finding its footing. Of course, the big question mark is Mike Prince, the sanctimonious deca-billionaire who took over Axe Capital at the end of last season, with Corey Stoll now occupying Lewis’s top-billing slot. If I’m being brutally honest, Prince is nowhere near as captivating as the pugnacious Axe, but, again, returning to the ensemble drama argument, he doesn’t have to be. Because despite betraying Chuck last season, Prince is not the sole source of Chuck’s ire.
In fact, the WTF? cold open of “Cannonade” suggests that Mike Prince is the furthest thought from Chuck’s mind. The blue-blooded New York attorney general has ostensibly traded his power suit for a plaid flannel jacket and is leading a mob literally carrying pitchforks and lanterns to a large estate where several cannons are being loaded. When Chuck announces to an unseen adversary that “this cannon has fired its last salvo,” I had to wonder if I was watching some bizzaro John Adams reboot.
No, Paul Giamatti isn’t reprising his Emmy-winning role as the second American president. Following Axe’s disappearing act, Chuck has temporarily decamped to the adorably named hamlet of Stony Gorge, New York, to indulge in some self-care. But we know nothing gets his justice juices flowing like tangling himself up in a war of his own creation. Fortunately, the great Michael McKean is on hand push every single one of the state AG’s buttons. McKean plays Melville Revere, Chuck’s entitled billionaire neighbor who gets his jollies by firing off his Revolutionary War cannons twice a day. Much to Chuck’s chagrin, Revere has also purchased the town’s compliance with a new fire truck and police gear.
Downstate, the bumpy transition from Axe Capital into Michael Prince Capital continues. The office atmosphere is a Circle of Distrust, with Prince constantly reminding his employees that he’s not Bobby Axelrod, which isn’t a reassuring tactic. First of all, the audience knows he has the potential to be way worse than Axe — because Axe never hid his true colors. Secondly, this crew doesn’t necessarily want him to be so different from their former leader, with Bonnie astutely summing up the new order by observing, “We used to work for a killer, now he wants to know how we feel?” Plus, the three people Prince needs most in his corner have zero interest in working toward unity: Taylor views him with suspicion, Wendy with bitterness, and Wags with apathy.
Not only does Prince lack the trust of his own team, but, thanks to Axe’s criminal history, the SEC has slapped MPC with a six-month probationary period — and investors are poised to bail. So who are the investors he really needs to hold onto? Why Melville Revere and Charles Rhoades Sr., of course! During a civilized Stony Gorge meeting between Chuck and Prince over glasses of Glenlivet, in which Prince gives Chuck his zillionth “I’m not Axe” spiel while pleading with him to leave Revere alone. It’s here that Chuck’s new mission comes into focus: Instead of concentrating his efforts on a single enemy, Chuck wants to take down all billionaires, Prince included. He dismisses Prince’s exhortations of following the letter of the law, claiming in his season-six thesis statement that billionaires are guilty of “breaking the laws of decency.”
Before Prince can arm himself against Chuck, he needs to get his own house in order, which he does by requesting sharp, direct guidance from Wendy: Her advice is that he kill every toxic vestige of Axe Cap — and get Wags on his side while he’s at it. Although it doesn’t take long for Wags to prove he’s indispensable to the company, crushing Scooter’s superficial employee profiles Erin Brockovich style.
As everyone on the trading floor braces for layoffs, Prince flips the script. He acknowledges that MPC must get rid of “compromised individuals,” but, surprise! He’s not firing his employees; he’s firing his investors! Everyone — except for a single Axe Cap relic, the New York Firefighters (hmm) — has been given their walking papers, including a dumbfounded Senior and Revere. It’s a big, dramatic, twisty scene that fits well into the Billions formula, though I wonder if it’s part of Wendy’s grand plan. Earlier, in session, she paraphrased Don Draper by counseling, “If you don’t like the legacy, change out everything from that legacy.” Not only does Prince follow her advice, but he also continues on the Draper-inspired path by announcing the formation of “The Prince List,” which requires that future clients “qualify to invest with us.” Yes, MPC has placed itself at a financial disadvantage, but at least now it’s presenting with a unified front.
Back in Stony Gorge, another unified front approaches Revere, with Chuck and his pitchfork-waving mob piling onto what has already been a terrible day for the constitutional-law enthusiast. Having rallied the initially tentative townsfolk behind him, Chuck presents Revere with a restraining order against cannon fire — as well as an environmental conservationist threatening court action over the presence of endangered bog turtles.
We could delight in Revere’s downfall until we remember that this is Billions, and the only way Chuck was going to win this battle was by putting his thumb on the scale. As in bribing the conversationist with project funding in exchange for planting bog turtles on Revere’s land. Call it sabotage for the greater good.
I think what’s going to make Billions 2.0 an intriguing watch is unlike Bobby Axelrod, who never professed to have good intentions, Mike Prince and Chuck Rhoades think they’re decent people. We already know they’re not, so let’s just pour a glass of Michter’s and have a ball watching two rich guys twist themselves into pretzels trying to prove us otherwise.
• Those time jumps still confuse the hell out of me, but the “One Week Ago” segment contains a praiseworthy detail: It’s the moment Billions recognized that a scene featuring a wealthy, middle-aged white man having a heart attack while riding a Peloton would look hopelessly derivative. But thanks to some zesty ADR by David Costabile, Wags assures his colleagues he’s “not going out like Mr. Big” — and the scene is saved from the Cringe Hall of Fame.
• To be fair to Billions’ unfortunate Peloton cameo, filming on season six was well underway several months before And Just Like That … premiered in December.
• I feel like the name “Melville Revere” was too on the nose. Even for Billions.
• Did you know Victor Mateo translates French literature in his spare time? Impressive.