This Billions review contains spoilers.
Billions Season 4 Episode 1
For most of the show’s first three seasons, Billions has become quite adept at balancing the competing narratives of former U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and billionaire hedge fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis). But the season three finale significantly changed this dynamic when Rhoades and Axelrod’s delicate alliance was shattered on two different fronts. Now, with the season four premiere, “Chucky Rhoades’s Greatest Game,” the balance of power now rests on at leastthree different sets of shoulders.
Rhoades’s attempt to oust his boss, U.S. Attorney General Waylon “Jock” Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown), last season utterly failed. As a result, he has been cast back down to the very bottom of the power ladder, where he must scrounge for scraps from his domineering father while getting by on Axelrod’s good graces. The hedge fund manager, meanwhile, finds himself competing with former employee-turned-rival Taylor Amber Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), the brilliant analyst who, with the help of Russian oligarch Grigor Andolov (John Malkovich), pulled one hell of a coup last season.
If all of this backstabbing engenders feelings of paranoia, then good! That’s precisely what Co-creators and executive producers Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin want. Billions has always been about the increasingly paranoid attempts by its many players to one-up each other. With “Chucky Rhoades’s Greatest Game,” paranoia is the dominating theme. It is the crux of what makes this episode tick.
Hence why, when Axelrod enters the picture for the first time this episode, he’s surrounded by a very large security detail in his own home. They follow him all the way to Axe Capital, where they stay on hand to guard both him andthe company’s many secrets. There’s also the matter of the “new beefed up noncompetes,” a massive stack of intensely legal documents that all of Axelrod’s employees must sign. “They better be iron-fucking-clad,” he demands, and they are. So much, in fact, that when two of his analysts begin squaring off, Axelrod fires one of them “for fraternizing with our sworn fucking enemies. Taylor Mason Capital fucking picnic?”
Therein lies the primary (and new) difference between Rhoades and Axelrod this season. The latter at least retains most of the power that he’s had since Billions first went on the air, though his new competitor stands a pretty good chance of giving him a run for this money. But the former? Rhoades is left with absolutely nothing. “All my good work undone? Legacy trashed? All my accomplishments wiped out as though I were never there?” he asks rhetorically at one point. Yup, which makes it even worse for poor ol’ Chucky, since the continued efforts of the Attorney General’s office to ruin him will also ruin his name.
“His name? That’s my name he’s wearing, and it will not be besmirched,” he father, Charles Rhoades Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn), reminds him and the audience. So yeah, it’s safe to say that, while Axelrod is growing increasingly weary of the ax that Mason, Andolov and their allies are preparing to swing at him, Rhoades’s head has already been cut clean off.
If all of this sounds a bit too morose for a season premiere, don’t fret. Billions is just getting started this season. It needs to put Axelrod and Rhoades, its two sworn enemies-turned-allies, in their respective worst possible scenarios. The billionaire businessman mustbe made to feel increasingly paranoid about losing all of the money and power he’s spent the past few years amassing. The disgraced public official mustbe made to claw his way back up from the ashes of his former life. And by god, by the end of “Chucky Rhoades’s Greatest Game,” that’s precisely what our two anti-heroes are going to attempt.
And just in case you’re wondering, no, it’s not going to be pretty. Nobody’s going to die (just yet), but many people are going to be drugged, swindled and stolen from before the episode’s final moments play out. “Get yourself in goddamn position,” Chuck Sr. demands of his son. “Get off your ass and rebuild your influence because you’re going to need it.” So he does, albeit through a winding (and necessary) string of events designed to accrue favors for various parties who, in turn, can do the same for him. It also requires him to get very, verydrunk with the police commissioner, but that’s not so bad.
Or, at least it’s nothing quite like what Axelrod endures via his right-hand man, Mike “Wags” Wagner (David Costabile), who’s drugged and kidnapped while attempting to negotiate investment terms with a wealthy Saudi sheik. All of this, of course, is orchestrated by Mason and Andolov in order to beat Axelrod to the sheik’s money and discourage him from further attempts to drive his former employee’s new company into the ground. Wags is returned to Axelrod unharmed (remember the “nobody dies” thing?), but not before he composes himself well enough to deliver one hell of a rousing call to arms to his boss.
“You walking away? You’re not walking away,” says Wags. “Because yeah, he’s a Russian oligarch, but you, mon frère, are a motherfucking oligarch, too. An American oligarch. You will not relent. Taylor must pay.”