This Billions review contains spoilers
Billions Season 1 Episode 9
Money doesn’t exist.
That may sound like the opening line of a half-baked anarchist manifesto but it’s also a statement of fact. Money has always been a conceptual creation going back through the trading of goods and services through the era of the gold standard. Now, however, money is more intangible than ever as cash is less abundant and the vast majority of the world’s wealth exists as ones and zeroes on computer screens.
Still money is unquestionably one of the most powerful forces on the planet because we insist it is. And that’s a lesson Donnie Caan comes to learn in the aptly titled “Where the Fuck is Donnie?”
Donnie Caan is a far more interesting character than he should be given his relatively limited amount of screentime and rather sudden push into prominence. I like, however, that he seems to have sprung out of nowhere as an important plot catalyst as the character himself is perfectly unassuming.
By both the standards and physicality and behavior Donnie seems like the platonic ideal of a rat. The fact that it’s by design as Axe hand-picked him to be the mole that the U.S. government would think they have in their pocket makes Donnie fascinating rather than cliché.
In “Where the Fuck is Donnie?” Donnie becomes a more fully fledged character and it all centers around the moment that he’s forced to confront just how powerful money is despite its intangible “ones and zeroes” nature.
Axe is ready to begin whatever long con (or “Caan”) he’s pulling on the District Attorney’s office and instructs Donnie to begin buying up shares of Chemlot. Donnie sits down at his desk and is soon looking at a graphic on his screen that reads “Chemlot – 1.8 million shares.”
Rattled by the number staring back at him, he retreats into the Axe Capital kitchen where he encounters Wendy. Since Wendy is the most omniscient being in the universe, she immediately picks up that something is wrong with Donnie and he must be therapized. “It’s just so much money,” he says, before returning to his desk and dutifully purchasing the shares. Then he takes his dress shirt off, delicately drapes it over his chair and just takes off.
Donnie is both the best part of “Where the Fuck is Donnie?” and the best example that Billions may not fully understand what the fuck it’s doing. Nine episodes in, Billions is the rare show that seems capable of executing the small details that can make a show great but is also incapable of making the broad details interesting enough to be watchable.
There’s a reason I’m a TV critic and not a TV writer. That shit’s hard. I am arrogant enough, however, to assert that there is a better version of this episode out there in the ether that was not written. It’s an episode that either focuses exclusively on Donnie and his spiritual journey to Cleveland* or at the very least uses him as the A-story instead of the C.
*I’m a longtime resident of Cleveland and my dayjob is just a block away from the Convention Center where Donnie finds enlightenment. I can confirm there is no such restaurant named “Trapper Lodge” anywhere near the premises. And why would there be? Cleveland isn’t New York City but we certainly don’t have rustic, lodge-themed bed and breakfasts in our financial district. Donnie, my man, hit up a Michael Symon joint or something.
Donnie’s crisis of faith and personality is the most interesting part of an episode whose title fundamentally refers to his absence. And while it doesn’t necessarily lead anywhere plot-wise until his final interrogation scene in which he spits up blood and collapses, what come before it it’s at least interesting and novel.
Instead, let’s take a look at what “Where the Fuck is Donnie” devotes its time to instead. It takes a rather perfunctory approach to the world’s reaction to Bobby’s outing as an opportunistic douche. Protestors gather outside of Axe Capital and Axe does it best to win a power play against them only he and Wags know they’re involved in. Meanwhile, the local fire department forces Lara’s newly Michelin-starred restaurant to close down with fire-code harassment and crop destruction.
Bobby’s justifications for his moral missteps remain believable and interesting but the public’s reaction to them just aren’t new or creative or at the end of the day: worthy of screen time enough.
On the Chuck side of things, events are similarly inconsequential. Chuck learns that a famously pro-capitalist judge has been assigned to Dollar Bill Stern’s case and he begins to put in motion a plan to blackmail him if need be. His young ward Bryan breaks things off with Terri and makes tentative dinner plans with object of his flirtations, Kate. The fact that Bryan and Kate never make it to their date is pretty indicative of the state of affairs for the non-Donnie players in “Where the Fuck is Donnie?”
It’s a table-setting episode and that’s fine. No show deserves the death penalty for merely shuffling the pieces around when they need to be moved but it is frustrating that there was another more dramatically viable move on the table that was ignored. Chuck, Axe, Bryan, et. all could have been getting prepared for the Dollar Bill trial, dealing with the fallout of a 9/11 cover-up, getting ready for a date, etc. on their own time, while more time was invested in a man actually going through a strange, satisfying crisis of faith.
Donnie Caan faced down the existential dilemma that the thing that moves dominates his life is a series of flashing lights on a computer screen. For a show named after billion-unit increments of the source of that dilemma, Billions should have spent more time with Donnie and where the fuck he was.