This review contains spoilers.
1.12 The Conversation
Anti-climactic is a dirty word for a season finale of television. In a perfect world, the 11, 12, 22 or how ever many episodes leading up to a finale are supposed to end in some kind of explosive, climactic resolution.
By most definitions, Billions‘ first season finale could be described as “anti-climactic.” Nobody dies, nobody ends up in jail and the only potential case against Bobby Axelrod is quickly dashed away. Still, despite all of this, The Conversation is a good season finale for Billions and one of the best episodes the show has produced to date.
“The Conversation,” has an awkward, on-the-nose title displaying what it rightfully believes to be the most important and climactic part of the episode and the season. “The Conversation” indeed ends with the Axe and Chuck mano a mano debate we’ve been waiting on for so long. But it goes deeper than that, the entire episode is filled with conversations that could be construed as the eponymous one the title mentions.
The first big conversation is between Chuck and Wendy. After Axe accuses Wendy of ratting him out to the feds about paying off local cops, she realises it only could have been Chuck who did it and confronts him. Chuck doesn’t even try to deny it as if he’s been waiting for this conversation to happen soon. Their verbal sparring is refreshingly messy and it’s not clear what is actually at the root of all of this. But a clear theme emerges. Chuck has allowed his jealousy of Axe to fester and does not like Wendy working for what he perceives to be a criminal. Wendy hates the man that Chuck is becoming because of this jealousy and sees the beginnings of Chuck’s own criminality beginning to bloom.
Billions rightfully realizes that it’s no small deal what Chuck has done. He’s rescued Lonnie from the Eastern District and before he can unpack in his new office, Chuck is charged with following the Mick Danzig lead to take down Axe on corruption.*
*Going with the theme of anti-climactic, it’s something small that the audience gave no second thought about eight episodes ago that is the biggest threat to Axe in the finale.
Chuck seems hopelessly ignorant to the fact that what he’s doing in pursuit of Axe is plenty corrupt as well but Bryan isn’t. Bryan has often been a wet noodle throughout the first season but the finale actually nails down his purpose as a character… and wouldn’t you know it it comes through another conversation.
Axe meets with Bryan at his pizzeria after hours and offers him a job to come work at his new funds. The pay increase would be staggering. Still, Bryan turns and leaves without an answer and Axe rightfully points out “I didn’t hear a no.”
Bryan may be the only character on the show who is interested in the law playing out like it should: legally. But now he’s caught between two men who have no intention of doing so. Sure, Chuck eventually does the right thing and drops the case against Axe after his conversation with Wendy. The fact that he came so close to following through, however, means for Bryan that there might not be a “right side” of things to come down on here.
And that leads to the final “conversation.”
It’s to the show’s credit, however, that nothing of real consequence is at stake when Chuck approaches Axe in the bowels of Axe Capital, torn apart by Axe’s paranoid scrambling to find a non-existent wire. The titular “conversation” at the end of the episode is about the respective characters, not the case at hand because the case at hand is over for the moment. Chuck couldn’t nail down Axe on the insider trading charges and then decides to let the corruption charges for bribing police officers go too, lest he become as corrupt as Axe himself.
Billions has at times had difficulties marrying the strengths of its core characters with the importance of its plot line so the best decision it makes for itself in this final episode is to discard that plot altogether. The conversation between Axe and Chuck isn’t climactic in a plot sense then because nothing is at stake legally or narratively. Everything is at stake, however, for each character personally.
Both Axe and Chuck have lost the one thing that mattered the most to them that money couldn’t buy: Wendy. Wendy quits Axe Capital after coming to terms with the fact that her friend and boss is a criminal and kicks Chuck out of the house for beginning to go down the path of a criminal as well by snooping into her private emails to nail down Axe. It’s such an appropriate, dare-I-say Shakespearean ending to the season that it justifies a lot of the nonsense that came before it. And my choice of words in “nonsense” is very deliberate as so much of what leads up to Axe and Chuck’s conversation is exactly that.
They seem to realize this themselves, even if they can’t bring themselves to admit it. Billions began as a show where two characters hated each other for no explicit reason other than the fact that they were supposed to as dictated by their particular roles in life. Chuck is a cop and Axe is a robber. Forget that they go about playing the game the same way and forget the fact that the lynchpin of their entire lives happens to be the same woman.
What’s interesting about their conversation at the end is that they’ve learned nothing. When Chuck approaches Axe it isn’t to do anything productive. It’s just to talk at him. And that’s what he does, he just talks at him about what he’s doing is illegal and it’s up to people like him to stop him. Axe, understandably disagrees and essentially just talks at him back, saying there is nothing wrong or un-American about making money.
Neither of them are right and neither of them are wrong. What they are is sick and obsessed. Sick and obsessed with each other, their respective roles and this meaningless game they’ve concocted about destroying each other. When Chuck says “The only thing more dangerous than a man with unlimited resources is a man with nothing to lose,” and then Titus Andronicus’ excellent “Dimed Out” blairs, it’s supposed to be a moment of triumph for Chuck.
But it’s not. There is no honour in having nothing to lose any more than there is honour in having unlimited resources. They’re just simple states of being. And Chuck essentially cast everything aside just to win a fight he felt like he had to win, as did Axe. Still, while there is no triumph in Chuck and Axe’s final moments, there is some for the show as the arc of the series has finally, after a full season become crystal clear.
This isn’t a winner-take-all match between two hyper-competent alpha males. This is a lose-everything proposition for everyone involved. The only logical conclusion for the story of Chuck and Axe is the two of them holding onto to nothing except their hate for each other. And the possibility of that has me excited about the possibilities of Billions in a way I didn’t expect or anticipate.
Read Alec’s review of the previous episode, Magical Thinking, here.