This review contains spoilers.
1.11 Magical Thinking
Magical Thinking is the penultimate episode of Billions season one and it deserves credit for not acting like it. The end of a season is when the action is supposed to be ramping up, not beginning to wrap up, but after last week’s explosive (and somewhat confusing) conclusion to the saga of Donnie Caan, Billions wisely takes a step back and slows things down.
But it does so in a winking, fairly transparent way. Save for the opening BioLance conference call*, the entirety of Magical Thinking is set after hours. Once Axe dismisses all of the Axe Capital employees about a fifth of the way through the episode and Lu asks Lara when’s the last time she went out in the old neighbourhood, it’s clear that the show is deliberately setting up a structure in which it’s going to pair off its characters for some after-hours reflections.
*It’s nice to actually finally see a public company’s investor conference call on the show. I’m not a stock-trader but I would imagine like 90% of a day-trader’s time has to be spent listening to inane conference calls.
The parties in question are: Axe and Wendy, who are having a marathon therapy session; Lara and Lu, who are going to get back in touch with their rebellious youth; Connerty and Kate, who are going to bone on a District Attorney’s Office desk and Chuck and himself, wandering the streets of New York, wondering why his wife won’t return his texts.
For the most part, Billions uses the after-hours setting to great effect. There is something undeniably poetic even for the metaphorically illiterate about private spaces after dark. An area that is solely dedicated to activity and kinetic energy and productivity becoming as still and quiet as a tomb after the sun goes down is always novel. It’s why every kid holds a secret desire of being locked in a school or mall after it’s closed so they can reign over a tiny, eerily quiet kingdom – an experience that Lara and Lu actually get to share when they pay to get into a mall’s jewellery store in the dead of night.
It’s a smart choice for the show and lends a real air of importance to the character’s interactions throughout. That poses the question, however, are these characters interactions actually important or do they just seem that way due to a shrewd narrative move from the show?
The answer, as often seems to be the case for Billions is … kind of, kind of not. When breaking down the plots in motion, it’s clear that 50% of them are doomed from the very start. Lara and Lu’s journey to rediscover the magic of their youth is essentially a dud. This is partly because Lu is underdeveloped as a character and also because anytime someone mentions “visiting the old neighbourhood,” an audience’s eyes glaze over.
It’s also troubling that Lu is so concerned with Lara reconnecting with her childhood self and then happily accepts a helicopter ride as part of the deal. There’s no consistency to the character of Lu and moments like those are part of the reason why.
Connerty and Kate’s adventure in the office is the other after-hours vignette that is pretty much dead on arrival. With their mole now dead and their investigation having hit a dead end, Bryan and Kate are charged with boxing up the majority of their Axe corkboard. The task leaks into the off hours where they then have fun and connect over making out in Chuck’s office and shooting off fireworks on the roof.
I’m hesitant to criticise actors for much of anything as acting is such a vulnerable artistic pursuit. Still, it seems like the majority of the blame on this one goes to the lack of chemistry between the actors involved with an assist from some clunky writing.
Per usual then, The Axe, Wendy and Chuck portions constitute the most interesting aspect of Magical Thinking but even then there are some limitations. Axe and Wendy’s night-long therapy session is at first quite specious. It’s very rare that super self-aware characters make for interesting, compelling art because in real-life even the people who insist they are self-aware rarely are. It’s hard to connect with a human being or a character who has the wherewithal to know that a misreading of a financial play requires an episode-long mano-a-mano exploration into his soul. On Mad Men, for instance, Axe’s admission that he stole some of Donnie’s time left for selfish purposes is not something that would have needed to have been verbalized or at least something that wouldn’t have come up until seasons later. But this isn’t Mad Men in terms of quality or approach and I’ll forgive Billions for wanting to do something different, albeit less realistic and affecting.
That self-awareness streak makes the first 20 minutes or so of Axe and Wendy’s therapy session rather uninteresting to put it bluntly. They talk in pseudo-intellectual alpha male/female terms and reminisce about the good old days.*
*Or am I crazy or does Axe intimate that he and Wendy once had a sexual relationship before she abruptly left him for Chuck?
But once things get done to brass tacks, Billions actually has some interesting character observations to make. After Axe tells Wendy the truth about the Donnie situation, an emotional victory for Axe and strategical victory for Wendy, he follows up with the question he’s been wanting to ask from the start.
“People who have the capacity to feel nothing. They call them sociopaths. Is that what I am?” he asks Wendy.
Wendy then theorises that he lost money on the BioLance deal to absolve himself of his guilt. Subconsciously, it’s what his mind does to punish himself.
“A normal person wouldn’t engage in this behaviour,” she tells him. “But a sociopath wouldn’t give a shit. You’re somewhere between.”
That’s a pretty apt and fascinating breakdown of Axe’s personality. Normally a show would leave these kinds of realizations to its audience and it’s arguable that it’s a mark of a good show when they do. Part of me, however, admires Billions’ stubborn insistence on having a character writing his own thinkpiece about himself – robbing the internet of the chance to do so.
The same goes for Chuck. He spends the majority of his after-hours portion of the episode, wandering around Manhattan, making a deal with his father here, meeting with an old law school buddy at a sleazy bar there. Chuck seems to have the same ability to self-diagnose as Axe does. He’s not happy because his marriage has become unsettled. He and Wendy are experiencing “continental drift” as he calls it and he knows that the alternative lifestyle of Tinder-ing for hot twenty-year-olds is not for him.
The realization takes him to Axe Capital where he witnesses Axe and Wendy bonding on the balcony. They aren’t kissing or having sex, which is a boundary I admire Billions for still not crossing, but the level of intimacy is undeniable. It drives Chuck to a seedy BDSM club where he finds out he’s been being followed all day.
He returns home where Wendy is in the shower and he takes the opportunity to open up her laptop to view the notes of her and Axe’s session. It’s subtlety the most flagrant violation of their marriage thus far and therefore the perfect capper to this low-key penultimate episode. A man died in the previous episode but Chuck opening a laptop in this one is far more traumatic.
Read Alec’s review of the previous episode, Quality Of Life, here.