This review contains spoilers.
1.5 The Good Life
When you name an episode after the 7th best track on Weezer’s best album, you best come correct. The Good Life falls short in this regard but still amounts to a perfectly fine, above average episode.
The big issue at hand here is that, just five episodes in, Billions is already re-using plays from its pretty shallow bag of tricks. I was impressed with the interplay between the two previous episodes: YumTime and Short Squeeze. In the former, Axe muscled his way onto YumTime’s board to influence decision-making. In the next episode, Short Squeeze, Axe used his position at YumTime to end their distribution relationship with the company, CrossCo and subsequently makes a killing short-selling CrossCo stock.
This week, Axe does almost the exact same thing. He makes it seem like he is getting out of the public trading game entirely after his transcendent experience at a Metallica concert. He instructs his right-hand man Wags to begin selling off all of Axe Capital’s investments starting with the telecom stocks. Meanwhile he lives the “good life,” which amounts to riding bikes, buying eggs from a guy named Tito and setting up a screening of Citizen Kane in his theatre that he seems to have a real hard time finishing.
Axe is deliberately vague to anyone who asks whether he’s getting out of the game entirely or if this is just a ploy. And wouldn’t you know it, Axe getting out of the game in the fifth episode of a show that’s fundamentally about acquiring obscene wealth turns out to be just a ploy.
Billions’ instincts are in the right place. It wants the audience to experience what it’s like to watch Axe work from the outside looking in. He’s a master chess player, ten moves ahead of everyone else. Still, to run the same play two weeks in a row is a misstep for the show and disorienting. Five episodes in, the show has gone to the same twisty-well often enough that the experience of watching Axe worm his way through the trading industry isn’t exhilarating, it’s boring. Axe is doing some stuff? Wake me up when we find out what he was really up to.
Still, when that revelation eventually does come, it can’t be denied that it’s at least interesting. Axe’s knows that there was stock fraud in the telecom industry so his choice to start unloading all the telecom shares first was a deliberate decision and his “retirement” a sham. After the telecom news breaks, he “unretires” and resumes trading in all the other industries. It’s a satisfying “a-ha” moment but, again, it’s frustrating that it’s the same trick two weeks in a row. As is the insistence on not knowing the “real” Bobby Axelrod.
Was it all just a ploy or was it really a mid-life crisis? Billions will never tell! Mua ha ha! That kind of indistinct character motivations is a solid plan but it’s just too much five episodes in. TV is serialised for a reason. Give us more time to actually get a baseline understanding of a character before making his motivations needlessly murky.
Meanwhile, Chuck is pretty much an open book. His investigation has received what it needs from Pete Decker and now it’s moving on to “Dollar” Bill Stern.*
*Bill Stern is played by Kelly AuCoin, a.k.a Pastor Tim on The Americans. With him, Noah Emmerich and Susan Misner, Billions is a Holly Taylor or Alison Wright short of an Americans all-star team.
Bill Stern is another Axe Capital trader mixed up with some shady trading. In this case it’s a bribe for an executive at Pepsum Pharmaceuticals. Chuck, Bryan and the other minds at the U.S. District Attorney’s office jet off to Iowa to meet with a farmer named Grunwald. Grunwald met with Stern and told him information about Pepsum before it was public. Chuck, being the pro that he is, Brendon-Dasseys poor Grunwald and gets him to incriminate himself when he really thinks he’s just incriminating Stern.
Here is another example of Billions repeating itself from recent weeks: Chuck’s ruthlessness has already been well-covered in episodes where he confronts a friend of his father’s at an ice cream stand he put in prison and again when he makes a poor citizen pick up dog shit with his barehands. Billions has some good characters and good actors on its hands but insists on playing the same notes over and over again. Chuck eventually does get his dream of bringing Bill Stern in for questioning and fulfills Axe’s nightmare of FBI windbreakers storming Axe Capital.
There’s a moment before that, however, that is a better illustration of Chuck’s character and is just through and through more interesting. Chuck’s sexual submissiveness to his wife could be laughable and risks descending into an outright James Adomian Paul Giamatti impression. Still, there’s something about Giamatti’s and Maggie Siff’s performances that makes it work.
After screwing over Grunwald, Chuck hops on Kinkplayfinder.com and heads to a kink club in Iowa. In the parking lot he calls Wendy to let her know he feels out of control, which he is. She merely instructs him to go inside and take the phone with him so she can bark out humiliating instructions. On a show where characters continually repeat and shout their own character traits, Wendy and Chuck’s relationship is the most unexpected and human thing on the show.
Wendy is really the linchpin for this whole thing. As a therapist and wife, she tends to be a reactive character, which could come across as poor, sexist writing. But the character walks such an interesting and effective tightrope between Axe and Chuck that I’m convinced that’s who she really is and it works. Chuck and Axe have their moments but Billions seems almost self-conscious about making sure we either understand their motivations to a T or can’t comprehend them at all. It’s the looser, more improvisational Wendy that’s holding this all together. Albeit by a string but that’s good enough for an decent enough episode of TV.
Read Alec’s review of the previous episode, The Short Squeeze, here.