This Billions review contains spoilers
Billions Season 1 Episode 8
There are many reasons to watch scripted TV: to laugh, to experience a sense of community with fellow Shonda-land watchers, to have some white noise on in the background when you live by yourself and the loneliness begins to feel so thick and pervasive it follows you around from room to room like an oppressive, ghoulish specter. Or again: to laugh or whatever. But there is another reason for why we watch TV that remains constant across all other artistic media as well: to see or experience something we never have before.
On that front, it’s beyond time to give Billions some credit. In its 8th episode, Billions is what it is: an average to above average pay cable show. It must be acknowledged, however, that it is pursuing at least two plot lines that A. I have never seen before and just as importantly B. Are pretty interesting.
The first aspect is something I’ve highlighted several times but escalates into an even better level in “Boast and Rails”: the relationships among Axe, Chuck and Wendy. Billions is a better show for having Maggie Siff as Wendy on it. Not because Wendy Rhoades is a once-in-a-lifetime character but rather she is the lynchpin of perhaps one of the more interesting troikas on television right now and a unique (to me at least) plot line.
After Chuck gets tipsy over whiskey drinks with Bryan he returns home to Wendy and finally verbalizes how he feels about Wendy’s relationship with Axe. He’s tried to communicate just much he hates Wendy working there previously and all the explanations have felt shallow. He hates Bobby Axelrod, of course. He hates corrupt business practices, of course. And at the beginning of the episode he hates that Bobby is able to set up a meet and greet with all-time Yankees great (LOL.) Mark Teixeira* for the Rhoades’ son Kevin.
*Billions streak of truly bizarre guest stars remains intact first with “I-Just-Love-The-Music” James Hetfield and now “Let-Me-Tell-You-About-My-IPO” Mark Texieiria
His disdain for Wendy and Axe’s relationship goes even further than that, however. Wendy tells Chuck that she loves him and Chuck responds that he loves her more than anything in the world then adds “Lots of people love each other but you and Axe. That’s something else. That’s deep. And I fucking hate it.”
Wow. That’s pretty heady, human stuff for a show about financial fraud. It’s not that Chuck is worried that Wendy loves Axe, he knows she doesn’t or at the very least knows she would love Chuck more anyway. And he’s not worried about them carrying on a sexual or romantic relationship. Chuck and Wendy’s sex life is so specific to them that Axe wouldn’t want to be involved and even if he was maybe Chuck could work that into the ultimate trust-based kinky power play of all time. No, it’s that Wendy and Axe share something markedly different from a loving relationship. Chuck doesn’t have a word for it. But of all the billions of people on Earth (HEY, THAT’S THE NAME OF THE SHOW) Wendy was able to connect with Chuck’s white whale of a nemesis to form part of an impressive duo.
It’s in this unexplainable relationship where Billions has found the most dramatically fertile ground. And it’s an even better treat that the show seems to know what to do with it by underplaying it. Wendy doesn’t get explosively angry. No one has to spend the night on the couch. But at the same time, there are no easy answers. How could there be in something so relatively unprecedented? Additionally, the show hasn’t relied on this particular clusterfuck of interconnected relationships and rivalries as a crutch, letting them simmer in the background until conversations need to be had.
Unfortunately, that restraint with the Axe-Chuck-Wendy plot, line while creating a truly unique scenario and something that will be in my own personal TV canon brain for a long time, also means there are lots of minutes to fill in the show of other stuff. And it’s that “other stuff” where Billions continues to be punishingly average.
The central conflict of “Boast and Rails” isn’t much of a conflict at all. Chuck, while still officially recused from the Axe Capital case is coaching Bryan Connerty from the sidelines. Bryan has run into an issue because Axe knows he has a mole within Axe Capital and is trying to smoke them out. Chuck instructs Bryan to frame a patsy at Axe Capital for Axe to find to preserve Donnie as the mole.
The problems here are two-fold. One is Chuck’s recommendation to Bryan to get his hands dirty has been done to death in storytelling. I don’t doubt that the decision to frame an innocent man is a big one for Bryan, the character, but to us, the audience, it’s just a bore. Especially, since Billions turns it into a weird, extended “kids these days” metaphor. Chuck can’t relate to the younger people on his staff and the New York Times reporter because they eat healthy Korean food and Vietnamese banh mi instead of pouring whole milk into their coffee*
*No one should drink milk with their coffee, anyway. Milk is the fucking worst. Maybe I could have settled for a visual metaphor in which the fridge at the Rhoades residence had half and half and heavy cream and Chuck reached for the cream.
The other factor here is why is Axe letting any of this happen in the first place? As the end of the episode reveals (and as I swear I predicted but just didn’t include in my review last week), Axe knows that Donnie is a “mole” and is working with him to set up some sort of grand play agains the federal government. This all could have been avoided and poor “The Pouch” could still have his job is Axe just asked that his P.I. not have a janitor mole in the District Attorney’s office. Then we also would have been spared more old-mansplaining at the kids and their deteriorating morals dinner scene from Kate’s dad-who-was-that-one-guy-in-The-Matrix-Reloaded. What is it, old people? Frame innocent people or nah? Stop getting your wires crossed!
This insistence on doing things we’ve seen before means for a somewhat boring episode, twist-y ending or no. Still, there is one more, slightly underplayed plot line that feels unique or at least exceedingly rare. We find out what Axe’s big, guilty secret is. On the morning of September 11, 2001, he was not in the office of his financial firm for a very specific reason. He was meeting with his lawyers as the firm was preparing to fire him for unethical trading practices. And as if that weren’t enough after Axe saw a plane hit the first tower, he called up the European markets to dump all the aviation and travel stocks he could, making a killing on the backs of his soon-to-be-dead colleagues.
That’s … dark. And if I were watching a news story reveal that in real life, I would be disgusted. Here is where the rarity comes in though: Billions convincingly sells this as an amoral act at worst and maybe even a compassionate one at best. Instead of denying it to his P.R. team, Axe admits to it and says the hundreds of millions of dollars he made doing so was in the best interesting of his team-members surviving family. He’s not wrong there. And later on, Wendy meets with Axe and assures him “You were in a tough position so you did what you knew how to do: you traded.” If Wendy says it, it must be true.
Being mad at Axe at profiting of of a terrorist attack would be like being mad at Pac-Man for gobbling up digitized fruit: it’s just what they do. In these morally gray moments, Billions is its best version of itself. Still, the other kimchi-eating, yelling-at-cloud version of Billions continues to gobble up most of the screentime. That’s a shame.