This Billions review contains spoilers.
Billions Season 1 Episode 6
Billions isn’t the most structurally ambitious show ever made and that’s fine. It’s not trying to be. It would rather tell its story linearly and with litter interrupting. In its sixth episode, “The Deal,” however, it makes a pair of interesting structural decisions that reveal what is and isn’t working overall with the show so far.
The structural decision that doesn’t work out comes in the very first scene. It begins with a flash-forward in which Wendy meets Axe in some creepy bathhouse. He gets naked and enters a pool then invites her to do the same, which she does (cue: datass.jpg). We then get the chyron that every right-thinking audience member dreads: “72 Hours Earlier.”
Booooooo! If Billions‘ writing team had been watching Rick and Morty like every good American is obligated to do, they would know that this a beyond tired and useless plot device.
There is nothing to be gained from screwing around with the timeline in this (or almost any other) instance. We’re supposed to feel curious and scandalized that Wendy would step into a pool naked with Axe. But that’s just a waste of a plot device. The real reason why Axe has Wendy climb into the pool is more interesting: because he wants to broker a deal with Chuck and presumably doesn’t want Wendy wearing a wire of any sort. It’s more interesting that Wendy has enough romantic trust with her husband and platonic trust with her boss to pull off such maneuvers. And if anything, Billions is just selling one of its best assets short by distilling some of its more complex relationships into “OMG IS WENDY CHEEEATING? NAKEY PEOPLE IN POOLZZZ!”
The other structural decision finds Billions playing to its strengths, however, which is the ongoing conflict between Chuck and Axe. Billions has made some curious decisions with its storytelling but one area that it continues to excel in is just how much interaction it allows between its main combatants. In “The Deal,” we get a moment that we likely did not expect until the end of the season: Bobby Axelrod and Chuck Rhoades in a conference room, talking to each other.
Anyone can figure out a decent beginning and a decent ending but it’s the middles that often get ignored. At episode six, “The Deal” is just past the midway point of Billions first season and positioning a conference room confrontation between its two leads is not necessarily a paradigm changer for the medium of television but it is an objectively great decision for this particular show.
Making that solid decision wouldn’t mean much if the content of the scene didn’t actually deliver. Thankfully it does. The entire episode plays with the audience’s perception of what Axe would and wouldn’t accept in any deal. In the beginning, Axe gives a rousing speech to the Axe Capital crew after Bill Stern has been carted away by the F.B.I. “Anyone of us could be next!” he cries to the crowd.*
*Damian Lewis is a truly great actor and has made a living playing some aggressively “Murican characters. He’s played a real-life, legitimate World War II hero in Band of Brothers, another all-American war hero in Homeland and now a Wall Street capitalist bro. But when he has to yell a line, you can hear some of the Britishness seep in.
Meanwhile, Bill Stern’s actions while being questioned reveals that the loyalty culture at Axe Capital is far more hardcore than originally imagined. Chuck thinks he has Stern dead to rights when he finds out that Stern has a whole second family in New Jersey and if he won’t cooperate with the feds, they’ll tell his wife. Instead of cooperating, Stern says he knew they’d come with that and sends off a letter to his wife admitting to the whole thing. “I’m Keyser Soze, motherfucker,” he says.
With zealous adherents, it seems impossible that Axe would ever cut a deal, which is fine with Chuck because he’s equally zealous. Despite Bill Stern going Keyser Soze and despite both Wendy and his father telling Chuck that Axe is dug in and ready to battle in the trenches for a long time, he doesn’t want to make a deal.
That’s where Wendy comes in. Billions has done a decent job of characterizing its chief characters (save for a Chuck encounter with literal dog shit here or there) but the lack of characterization that has gone into Wendy has almost accidentally created the most interesting character. She tells Axe she has a vested interest in him saving the company because she helped build it. She’s proud of it. And obviously she has a vested interested in her husband making a deal because he’s her husband, she’s proud of him and she doesn’t want him wasting half his life on a drawn out case. Somehow, miraculously, that appeal to the pride of each man guides them both to that conference room to make the deal.
The “Deal” as such is a $1.9 billion fine – the largest ever doled out to go along with a five-year trading freeze for Axe. That alone seems untenable but Axe is happy to go along with it. Then Chuck adds another tenet for the deal: Axe must admit guilt. That was previously Axe’s no-go on a deal and it seems like for a moment the deal will be dead but still Axe is ready to sign. It’s another smart move for the show because Axe accepting a last minute condition really does make it seem like he will sign the deal and the rest of the series is going to somehow be about a trader who’s not allowed to play the stock market for five years. Figure that shit out, Showtime.
Then, of course, the same pride that brought both men to the table, tears the deal apart. Axe and Wags brag about how they can make that money back within six months. “Innocent people would never make a deal like that,” Chuck says. Then he changes the terms of the deal to a lifetime ban on trading, to which Axe tears up the deal and exits the room.
It’s here that the structure really pays off. Billions brings us a confrontation earlier than expected, makes it seem like its’ going to fundamentally change the direction of the show, then settles into just a really good mid-season ending scene. It’s like Batman and Joker’s interrogation in The Dark Knight, with the exact same amount of British actors involved.