This review contains spoilers.
1.2 Naming Rights
Not ten minutes into Naming Rights, Billions falls into what could be called the generic pay cable drama trap. Networks like HBO, Starz and Showtime have all this freedom and largely do great things with it, creating shows that have forever altered our perception of what artful television can be. Sometimes, however, it seems like show runners or network execs take a look at their TV-MA rating and are like “This L, D, V is great but let’s see what we can do about that N.”
And let’s not be prudes here. Nobody minds some good N. Nudity and sexuality can be fantastic when it’s either truly novel or just flat out gratuitous and stylized. In Billions’ defence, the previously unseen, unmentioned, unnamed character Tara Moore engaging in some varsity-level sex and drug acts with an equally-anonymous blonde is plenty gratuitous. What’s objectionable about it, however, is Billions‘ lame attempt to justify it later on.
You see, Tara Moore works for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Axe’s “black bag guy” Hall secures a video of Moore having sex with her blonde paramour and doing cocaine, the latter of which would end her career under Chuck Rhoades. Ergo, Bobby Axelrod now has a mole in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Making characters bend in every which way in service of plot rather than character is always silly. But ruining our fond memories of a truly unnecessary and gratuitous sex scene in service of simple old “point A to point B” plot is just abominable. Billions wants to sit back in its chair, prop its feet up on its desk and go “See? Art.” But it arguably would have been more artful just to have included the scene.
Naming Rights is filled with lots of other moments of of false pay cable drama bravado turned corniness. In addition to Tara Moore’s tryst, some of the dialogue is just flat out gross and un-clever. “Stock’s gonna pop like a prom Queen’s cherry,” one day-trading drone intones. Gale from Breaking Bad* literally says “That was a prom-night promise. Just the tip.” Shudder
*Ok, the character’s name is Mike “Wags” Wagner” and I’ll pay the remarkable David Costabile the respect he’s earned by referring to his characters’ name from here on out but it’s so hard not to type “Gale from Breaking Bad”
And of course, part of the point is that the men and women of Axe Capital are largely gross meatheads but even gross meatheads can think of something clever to say now and then. The context of each line kind of suggest that even the writers find them clever, which if so: God have mercy on us all.
Still, I find it hard to stay mad at Billions during Naming Rights. That’s because I still fundamentally believe in the quality of its big three: “Chuck Rhoades, Wendy Rhoades and Bobby Axelrod.” Sure, all three are still a bit broadly defined but this episode begins the process of chiselling away some of the excess bits of character to reveal a little bit of human being.
Wendy acquits herself nicely during Axe’s fake SEC raid, which is also an interesting touch into the financial nature of the show. Axe hires an oversight and disclosure department but, instead of telling anyone, has them pose as SEC agents to examine everyone’s computer for improper trading. Wendy rightly points out that she is a healthcare professional and flat out turns down the agents request to see her records, fake or not. The show has done well with Wendy thus far, avoiding any “low-drama” betrayal shenanigans by having her be unquestionably loyal to both her husband and boss. She’s also displayed some good old-fashioned chutzpah (Rachel Mencken would be proud).
The only concern for her right now is that the show takes what must be very complex work for her and gives her all the solutions too easily. When Axe fires Victor as a result of the ‘raid,” Wendy immediately knows he fired the wrong psychological profile of a guy and knows the answer is to visit him at his house for a mea culpa. Plumbing the psychological depths of other human beings is hard and in Billions’ haste to portray Wendy as hyper competent it runs the risk of creating a spin-off of the “Magical Negro” trope in the “Magical Maggie Siff.” But not yet.
Her husband, Chuck, also turns in a strong episode. He receives word from the busiest New York Times reporter in the world that another broker, Birch (Jerry O’Connell) will soon be investigated for insider trading. Chuck opts to bring Birch in to cut a deal to get more intel of Axelrod as that’s still his number one target. Chuck’s focus is refreshing. Twelve-episode seasons are weirdly somewhat long by today’s shrinking standards and there must have been temptation on the writers’ part to slow things down a bit and let Chuck burn a few episodes trying to nail Birch so we could see how it’s done but nope: Chuck doesn’t take his eye off the ball. This creates a strong sense of purpose, which is very welcome for a show still in its infancy.
Then the episode offers up another interesting Chuck scene that helps illustrate where that sense of urgency may come. Chuck’s position is so powerful and his responsibility to the country so absolute that he can’t even take his kids out to get ice cream without running into someone he put behind bars for stock fraud. “I didn’t root for the posse. I rooted for Butch and Sundance, “ his assistant Bryan tells Chuck later. “Of course you did, we all did. But that’s not who we are anymore.” Chuck’s the kind of guy who knows how to play his role. And I continue to love that that’s all this Axelrod thing is: role-playing. Axelrod’s the most powerful man on one side of the law and on Chuck’s side of the law he’s bound to take him down.
And that brings us back to Axe. Before the nudity, there was an interesting connection to make about Axelrod’s motivation in Naming Rights. Axe is singularly-obsessed with changing the name of the Eades building to the Axelrod building. He compiles the remaining Eades family into a room with some lawyers and tells them exactly why. The now-deceased Eades was a dick to him one time when he was a young caddy on a golf course. Childhood trauma as motivation is overdone, and Axe’s “villain” monologue is a bit on the nose and he cuts his offer in half to the family that he knows will still be forced to take due to their debts.
Still, it’s what Axe says after that kind of saves him as a character. When his wife says “Now the Axelrod name will be affixed to this building for all time,” he responds: “Until some guy richer than me wants it to come down.” Axe, like Chuck, knows its all just a game with big, rich pieces.
Read Alec’s review of the previous episode, Pilot, here.