This review contains spoilers for Billions.
Billions Season 1 Episode 4
“Short Squeeze” was already the best, most fully-formed episode in Billions short life yet. It doesn’t hurt though that early on it uses one of my personal favorite symbols in all of art: a deer. Somehow through the years, deer have become the go-to symbol of innocence and nature’s majesty for all screenwriters, novelists and lazy TV critics from Cleveland.
Maybe it’s because deer represent the fragility of life or maybe it’s because they’re the closest thing to nature most suburban deep thinkers will ever encounter. Stephen King used a solitary deer in his novella “The Body” (which was eventually adapted into Stand By Me) as a cypher for childhood bliss. The Walking Dead trotted a faun out for a young Carl to share a tender moment with before tragedy yet again strikes (tragedy always be striking on The Walking Dead.) The use of a deer as a stand in for innocence or nature is in danger of becoming overused and is an overly simplistic way of presenting symbols in writing.
And I love it. Every. Single. Time. Because it works. Every. Single. Time.
“Short Squeeze” opens with Axe Capital trader, Mick Danzig (who I’ve taken to calling “Meechum” due to actor Nathan Darrow’s other gig on House of Cards), drunk as hell on high-shelf liquor and stumbling around his estate with an automatic rifle. He comes across some deer and in an incoherent rage, fires the gun at them. After the police have arrived to take him away, Axe bails him out and brings him to work. They sit in his car at 7 a.m. trying to sober up and Axe tries to get to the bottom of why Mick is spiraling out of control. He’s doing much better at work now, thanks to Wendy’s sage guidance. Still, Mick doesn’t feel anything anymore. Maybe a twinge when he’s down but nothing when he’s up. The he describes how it felt to see those deer.
“I see them out there,” he says. “Eating everything we planted, like it’s a fucking salad bar for them.”
That’s the rub. Mick is working his ass off, thinking his ass off so he can have what this whole game’s about: freedom. He wants the financial freedom to do whatever he wants like Axe does. He wants the “fuck you money.” Now here come these dumb animals who are literally still working out how not to walk into traffic… and they have more freedom than Mick.
It’s the perfect introduction to “Short Squeeze” because while Billions is about the ruthless, ceaseless accumulation of money, “Short Squeeze” begs the question “Ok, now what?”
Mick certainly think that Axe and his billions have bought him deer-like peace of mind and freedom and he’s clearly not alone. Now that Pete Decker is in the clutches on the U.S. Attorney’s office, he is able to describe to Chuck and company what being Bobby Axelrod is like.
“When you’re at his level, he’s more of a nation-state than a person,” he says. “He doesn’t need to call meetings. Everywhere he goes, they form around him.” So far Axe’s money has bought him the one thing that that every human being inarguably craves: for the world to revolve around them. But that money also buys something even more important: backstage tickets to Metallica’s only North American show this year. Rad.
Axe scrambles a jet, his childhood friends and what amounts to the best weed in the world and flies off to Canada for the experience of a lifetime. At least it should be the experience of a lifetime. Axe attempts a bold financial play before he leaves: shorting his stock of a company called CrossCo. I’m not a financial expert, nor have I seen The Big Short yet so I can’t with certainty say exactly what shorting a stock means. Through some gentle context clues Billions offers, it would appear to be a stock-trading play in which a trader gambles that a high stock price will soon plummet. Unfortunately for Axe, the rest of the financial industry, led by Chuck’s dad rally together to buy CrossCo. stock stock, betting against Axe and inflating the CrossCo. stock in the process.
The upshot of it all is that Axe spends the majority of what should be best day of his life, hiding in the concourse and screaming various commands into his phone. At one point he has to resort to buy more shares of CrossCo to maintain his short position from his rival Ken Malvern at 25 perfect.*
*Lol wut am I even writing?
At one point, Axe says to James Hettfield, yes James Hettfield is in this episode is the rest of Metallica, “I thought I’d get to a point where I’d really fly. But I’m still Earthbound.” “How do you do it, man?” To which Hettfield responds. “I play, man. I play.” A bit heavy-handed, sure. Without the Mick and the deer scene in the beginning it would be laughable. With it, it makes perfect sense.
It’s true that all that money has turned Axe into the center of the universe. It’s also true that being the center of the universe carries a lot of responsibilities among them not getting to pay close attention at a Metallica show, not getting to bang a young, idealistic singer (Kerry Bishe) and not not bailing your childhood friend out (played by The Americans’ Noah Emmerich) when he foolishly tries to get in on your short-selling play and loses everything.
In the end, the reward for all that responsibility and all that money is not a yummy garden of symbolic fredom to break through a fence and munch on…it’s more money. Axe’s short play eventually works out thanks to his insider knowledge that YumTime will be dumping CrossCo. as distributer. Still, after the play works out, Bobby instructs Wags to begin selling off all of the company’s assets and stock. People will think Axe is out of the game. “Are you?” Wags asks. To which Axe just silently leaves the office.
To Billions’ credit, “Short Squeeze” doesn’t portray money as a burden. Being outrageously, disgustingly wealthy is still preferable to being broke. But the objective truth is that money is just money and stuff if just stuff. “Short Squeeze” better than any other episode lets its rich characters do rich things while still feeling all the normal human pains that come along with membership of the human race. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe it’s all an act.
Still, we as an audience don’t want to face the reality that being ultra-rich could sometimes suck at least a little bit. But if Billions were to follow that thought-pattern to avoid hurting its audience’s feelings, it would just be a soulless, hour-long orgy of wealth and consequence-free douchebaggery. It would be Entourage.