This review contains spoilers.
1.10 Quality Of Life
As you no doubt noticed from the helpful tip above, this review of Billions contains spoilers. Unfortunately, there is no such spoiler warning included on episode ten’s official synopsis from Showtime. It reads:
“Following a death, Axe and Wendy do some soul-searching; Chuck suffers a setback; a corrupt judge dismisses the case; Axe takes his revenge.”
That’s not some “available-only-to-critics-in-a-special-screening-room” synopsis of Quality Of Life – that’s literally just what pops up in Google when you search “Billions” then click “episode 10″.
I’ve long made fun of the spoiler-phobic as I’ve yet to encounter a spoiler that has actually “spoiled” my enjoyment of a show before I watch it. Still, my condolences go out to anyone both invested in Billions and afraid of spoilers if you happened to read that synopsis because it’s hard to imagine something more succinctly covering everything you’d need to know about Quality Of Life.
Here were my guesses prior to even watching the episode.
1.Following a death, Axe and Wendy do some soul-searching. Okay, the death is likely Donnie Caan since he, you know, spit blood all over an interrogation room in the previous episode.
Outcome: Correct. Who cares what Axe and Wendy’s soul-searching were about?
2. Chuck suffers a setback. Ok, at least this is vague enough. Probably something to do with the Axelrod case.
Outcome: Um… still not clear on what this setback is. More on this later.
3. A corrupt judge dismisses the case. This is literally just word for word describing something critical that happens in the episode. There is only one corrupt judge as a character and there is only one case currently being tried (Dollar Bill Sterns).
Outcome: Wtf, Billions?
4. Axe takes his revenge. Could that be on the handful of employees who left Axe Capital to set up their own shot?
This level of telegraphing the plot is undoubtedly annoying. But having gotten that little hissy fit out of my system, I quite liked this episode, with one big exception.
Let’s talk about that exception up front. I feel morally obligated to be honest when a piece of art emotionally affects me – makes me cry, makes me laugh, etc. It’s a little harder to admit, however, when I’m completely and irrevocably confused. Unfortunately, I must admit to being intellectually helpless at some points in Quality Of Life.
For one, I cannot make heads or tails of what Axe’s plot with Donnie was. Undoubtedly some of it was selfish and some of it was to provide Donnie a nice nest egg for his family but I couldn’t begin to tell you what percentage each motivation falls in to. And beyond that, I just don’t understand A. the logistics of how it worked and B. why everyone and their mother were so quickly able to decipher exactly what had gone down.
Chuck begins the episode addressing his troops, some still literally blood-splattered from Donnie’s little episode. Chuck shares an anecdote about how he was supposed to be a grandmaster chess player but would routinely become too distracted by his rage at his opponents to actually win matches. That somehow transitions into “Here I am again – beaten. Though it has yet to be confirmed, there is no doubt Donnie Caan is going to die.”
He then speaks ill of Bobby Axelrod, saying he is “a man who would use his dying friend in the manner that he did.”
I…what? I am legitimately confused as to how Chuck was able to suss out that this was a long con of sorts. And not only that even after he does figure it out, I don’t know how he’s able to so easily predict that his failure in this particular instance will cause the Eastern District to take over the case. Like…how are they able to work it out so quickly?
Was the Eastern District attorney like “Rhoades had a guy die in an interrogation cell. Definitely a classic case of a successful stock-trader using his terminally ill friend to go as a double-double agent undercover and pull off one big trade before he dies. We see dozens of these a week. How could Rhoades be so clueless??”
Beyond that, I also can’t figure out what the plan exactly was. Did Axe send Donnie in to make one big trade that the government wouldn’t be able to prosecute because they thought it would eventually lead to nabbing Axe? Or was this just a fanciful way of sidetracking the Attorney’s office to get them off Axe’s back for a couple of months.
And while we’re bitching – the atypical formatting of this episode while creative in theory really doesn’t help with the confusion. It takes a long time to even nail down the chronology of events as they related to Donnie’s funeral and it’s really not worth the work.
But wait… what was I talking about earlier? Oh right. I actually somehow, despite a litany of grievances enjoyed this episode. Because even when the logic is baffling, the structure is frustrating and the world-building as lackluster as ever – the emotional beats work.
There are some real moments of both creativity and legitimate emotional payoff in Quality Of Life.
The creativity comes to play in both Axe and Chuck’s respective revenge plots. After Judge Whit Wilcox dismisses Dollar Bill Stern’s case quickly and without any legitimate cause, Chuck decides to follow through on a revenge plot. His quest for info on the Judge pays off when he finds out the Judge is not only racist but corrupt. He lets wealthy white clients off and in return jails poor minorities and then benefits off an investment in a private prison.
Chuck convinces Wilcox to retire then crashes his retirement party and has the Eastern district arrest him on the corruption charges. That’s what we’ve been waiting for Chuck to cash in his brilliant mind on – not wasting it in Congress like his dad suggests this week or heaven forbid – making some schmuck pick up dog muck again.
Axe made it clear last week that there would be a reckoning for the three turncoats at his firm who abandoned ship to create their own investment firm, Ionosphere. I originally thought it would be cooler if Billions let that threat linger for a bit before cashing in on it when we least expected it. Instead, Axe opts for a quicker route and it’s a credit to his ruthless creativity that it’s as satisfying as it is.
After Dollar Bill is released by Judge Wilcox he returns to Axe Capital to a hero’s welcome. Axe, however, stages an explosive fight with Stern so that he can leave the firm and join Ionosphere to destroy it from the inside-out. It’s undeniably amazing to watch the two men pretend to scream at each other while simultaneously saying they love each other.
Stern gets in with Ionosphere effortlessly and then immediately ruins them on a bogus stock tip. Then Axe steps in to offer them a deal. He’ll assume all their debt if they agree to his terms. They are now a subsidiary of Axe Capital and they must do whatever he says. They may never have holdings that exceed $999,999,999 and he reserves the right to terminate them at any moment. In effect, they are his servants. The Ionosphere folks have no choice but to comply.
That’s cold, but what might be even colder is the reveal at episode’s end. Axe truly loved Donnie as a friend and when he found out about Donnie’s cancer, brings him to a world-renowned oncologist. The doctor confirms that Donnie doesn’t have long but then adds that there is an experimental treatment out of Pittsburgh that might buy him some more time. Axe opts out of telling Donnie that, citing a “quality of life” issue.
Then after Donnie’s funeral, Donnie’s husband mentions that Donnie expressed he could just last a little bit longer to make it to Christmas so that he can be the office Santa one more time. It’s a perfect, devastating moment. Did Axe’s haste to make a buck rob someone of precious time? Or does it even matter as Donnie’s family now has all the money they need thanks to Axe. Not entirely unlike the surviving family members of Bobby’s colleagues killed in 9/11. Doing selfish things for selfish reasons that somehow end up benefitting a lot of innocent people is quickly becoming the Axelrod special.
The episode has many of the same logical and structural issues that have plagued Billions all season. It also has well-earned moments of both emotional catharsis. In the grand scheme of TV-making, the latter is far more important.
Read Alec’s review of the previous episode, Where The F*** Is Donnie?, here.