This review contains spoilers.
1.7 The Punch
When I’m taking notes during episodes, I often forget character names. This isn’t always an indication that a show is bad or boring but rather that my brain can’t keep track of the tens of thousands of characters I’ve surely encountered through years of TV-watching. When it happens, I try not to judge the show and just jot down a quick description of the character so I can go back and fill it in with the correct name later. You know, things like “tall cop with mustache,” “mean lady with dog” or “Ray Liotta in the last 20 minutes of Goodfellas.”*
*Of the dozens of people on set during filming of Billions, why didn’t anyone ask the question: “this headhunter character, Chase… is he supposed to look like he needs a shower and ten coffees?” I don’t know, man, roll with it.”
During The Punch, I realized about halfway through that I had written down the qualifier “obnoxious” for at least three different characters. There is “obnoxious drunk driver dad (Bruce Laynor)”, “obnoxious SEC guy (Ari Spyros).” And who could forget “obnoxious True Detective creep (Axe’s P.I. Orrin Bach)?” I still stand by my notion that the “big three” of Billions are still worthwhile characters played by worthwhile actors, but damn if everyone else isn’t truly, wildly obnoxious.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with an obnoxious character if that’s the tone the writers are trying to hit and it’s enhancing the story. But in Billions, so many characters are obnoxious either through sheer accident or because the writers are using a cheap shortcut to make their non-obnoxious characters more sympathetic. Billions is going with the latter with enough enthusiasm and gusto to make Dexter Morgan and Frank Underwood blush.
Billions has decent enough main characters but for some reason it doesn’t believe the audience will see them that way. And the only way it seems to know to go about making those already sympathetic characters sympathetic is by introducing a never-ending string of one-note douche-tastic fart-sniffers. They’ve introduced so many at this point that it’s had the opposite effect. Instead of making Axe, Wendy and Chuck more sympathetic it just makes them seem so stupid and hatable for even occupying a world that is exclusively occupied by one-note douche-tastic fart-sniffers.
We should have seen this coming back in episode three when Chuck forced some Schmoe to pick up dog shit.* The only way that Billions knows how to make its chief characters interact with everyone else is through sheer shittiness and aggressive dick-measuring.
*My favorite line in this whole episode, maybe this whole TV season so far is when Chuck sagely admits “Sometimes even I lose perspective.” The guy who forced another U.S. citizen to stoop down to the ground and pick up dog faeces with his bare hands sometimes loses perspective? This is the first I’m hearing of it!
The Punch begins with a neighbour driving the Axelrod boys home from a Chuck E. Cheese-style restaurant drunk and somehow he almost becomes a sympathetic character by the end of it. Not because it’s bad that Axe punches him, that seems pretty solid but rather because he’s so cartoonish it’s hard to even hold anything against him. He gets hammered at a Chuck E. Cheese (though not so visibly drunk that I’m confused as to how the mom who calls the Lara Axelrod to tell her can even figure out he’s too drunk to drive), says some pessimistic stuff about money while handing the kids $100 bills and later on asks a crowd of revelers “who wants margs?!?!” How could Axe even get mad a cartoon character like that? He’s a transparently obnoxious idiot who exists only for the singular purpose of messing up. It would be like dropping your kids off with Wile E. Coyote and then being upset that they spent the whole day chasing the Road Runner.
It’s Lara’s reaction, however, that really pushes the plotline far past anything that could have been redeemed. Somehow, Lara interprets her children being driven home drunk by an adult as a sign that her pre-teen boys are not street smart enough. That is so bafflingly, hilariously, disturbingly wrong-headed that it almost could have somehow come out the other side of the logical spectrum to have been an interesting character moment for Lara. Interesting as in, “oh so this is how this strange, sheltered woman thinks!” It falls well short of that, however, as The Punch happily follows Lara along on this ludicrous flight of fancy. The Axelrod boys learn how to dig for clams, camp out in the woods and most importantly: appreciate their cheese omelettes. It’s…weird.
If The Punch were shown exclusively from the viewpoint of Dean and Gordie Axelrod it would be the best horror movie of 2016. First they get driven home by a drunk adult, then their unhinged father races over to beat up that man. If that weren’t traumatic enough, their mom then begins to approach them with a lifeless smile on her face and throws them sleeping bags.
“Mom what are you doing???”
“I’m not doing anything. You two are going camping.”
“Because Mr. Laynor drove you home drunk.”
“Mom, I’m so confused. Please stop. You’re scaring me!”
*Lara smiles and nods.*
The rest of The Punch can’t bring much else to the table other than obnoxious minor characters and staggering logical fallacies. Sometimes both at once! As Axe tries to bury the video of him punching Laynor, he meets with “obnoxious New York Times writer (Shaw).” Axe is under the impression that the leaking of a video that shows him, a shirtless beautiful billionaire, beating up a drunk driver to defend his kids followed by a Hollywood-worthy taunt will somehow destroy him. A logical jump to say the least. Shaw, who has previously revealed himself to be pretty unbribable almost immediately gives in to a bribe from Axe that he might get him a meeting to host a Meet the Press style show. That’s good enough for Shaw who says he’ll delay publishing the story a day. What I would have given for a scene of Shaw calling his New York Times editors yelling “take that Axelrod story out of the CMS! We have to wait a day because reasons.”
The delay works as Axe is able to track down the full cell phone video that somehow exonerates him – to the point where an officer of the law says that the video “includes admission of a DUI…so your reaction was justifiable.” Your reaction was justifiable? That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works!
Chuck’s side of The Punch is marginally better. At least his dealing with an obnoxious character has a legitimately satisfying conclusion. After “obnoxious SEC guy (Ari Spyros)” pushes for a bigger role in the Axelrod investigation, Chuck finally tracks down Martina Slovis – an old classmate of Chuck and Ari’s. Chuck reveals to Ari that he knows Ari raped Slovis back in college and Ari backs down, clearly defeated. Is it as satisfying as Ari actually being prosecuted for said rape? No. But at least it beats the hell out of making him pick up dog poop. And the fact that an important turning of a mole within Axe Capital happens off-screen is kind of interesting. Plus, Donnie Caan is an interesting enough character.
Aside from that, however, The Punch is baffling … just baffling. There is almost not a single moment that logically leads to another moment. Instead it’s just a loosely held together series of interactions devoid of any context. That’s not even to mention the overreliance on bringing in obnoxious characters for its “amoral-ish” main characters to conquer. That would be lazy writing at any point of a TV season but right after climactic confrontation between the two stars mid-season? That’s borderline criminal.
Read Alec’s review of the previous episode, The Deal, here.