“So passes the Empire”
Kings, Caesars, Mob Dons. When we think of these titles we may think of power, wealth, and loyalty. To a certain extent that is true. However, what they also have in common is the struggle to keep their place at the top, how they get there and how they fall. Kings, Caesars and Mob Dons all get to the top through violence, and usually end their reigns that way as well. Through the course of their reign, they often become distrustful of even their most loyal subjects and become deceitful in order to keep everyone off balance. In the end, they are paranoid, isolated, and alone.
What does that have to do with Billions? The titles and events of the previous two episodes “The Kingmaker” and “Sic Transit Imperium”, made me think of Axe in that light. He got to the top through violence; as we learn in “Boasts and Rails” his actions during the murder and devastation of 9/11 made Axe a lot of money, and the destruction of his former company lead to the opening of Axe Capital (I write about that here). He also has wealth, power, and from many of his employees, loyalty. However, he too is constantly fighting to stay at the top. He sees the Visigoths coming, whether in the form of the government (and Chuck in particular) or other fund managers, and he will fight them all. The Axe we see in “Sic Transit Imperium” is a tired, isolated, and reflective King, wondering if it is all worth it.
A scene that has Axe, Wags and Dollar Bill is going to be memorable. Three big personalities on your screen and there is a good chance you are going to get some unforgettable lines. I love Axe, and Wags as well, but Dollar Bill shines here.
Dollar Bill wants to give Axe an early birthday gift – a short on Klaxon Auto. He has info that they will have to recall their cars, which will tank the stock. Season 1 Axe wouldn’t have had a second thought about pulling the trigger. Now, Axe needs to think about it. What he has been through has shaken him and he needs to be cautious. Wags is a loyal lieutenant and backs up his boss. No need to give the government anything to even sniff at. Dollar Bill is not having it. Wags and Bill almost come to blows, and Dollar Bill gives one of the best lines in the show: “That’s why you will never buy and sell equities!” telling Wags basically to grow a pair. Bill will not kowtow to anyone when he knows he is right. As much as Axe appreciates Dollar Bill, he is on the other side now, and needs to be calm when making these types of decisions.
Bill asks Axe: “What business are we in? I thought this was the business of profit, free men and women” beyond the “rules”. “If we can’t live how we want, then the terrorists have already won.” It is interesting how Bill equates the government with terrorists. This makes Axe pause. “This is a guy who is giving me all the right questions.” As an aside, I’m going to love any scene that has a “Who is John Gault” reference, as “Atlas Shrugged” is one of my favorite books.
In these exchanges I believe we see the reflective King thinking about what exactly is he doing? And how he has changed due to the events the last few months? Taylor mentions Taleb’s “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder” in “Victory Lap”. “Antifragile” also says “some things benefit from shocks. They thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors.” I don’t think Axe fits this theory. He is getting further and further away from whom and what he was; what made him Caesar. It’s the reason I believe he is making such bad choices, like storming into the Yale Club in “The Kingmaker”.
I was going to start hating on Deb in her session with Wendy, but we find out it’s just Axe using her to bounce his feelings off Wendy, since she won’t see him. OK Deb, you are safe! I did not like the way Axe just dismissed her when she brought up her position in the company. I was once where Deb was – I was an assistant and wanted to take on more responsibility. I was incredibly lucky to have someone who saw something in me and was willing to give me a opportunity and believe in me. If I had a boss like Axe, who wouldn’t even listen, I probably won’t be writing this today. Sometimes all you need is for just one person to open that door for you. Once you’re in, it’s all on you – you have to perform, but having someone who is willing to take a chance on you it worth its weight in gold.
It seems like Dollar Bill’s little Libertarian speech made someone other than Axe think. Wags is worried maybe they have gone soft. Axe reminds him they made a choice to stop living on the edge. But, really, isn’t that what life is about in a way? You don’t have to live on the edge the way Axe does, but having a little excitement and little danger isn’t such a bad thing.
Axe is a no on Klaxon once he sees Chuck is making noise in Sandicot. Axe knows Chuck will never stop, because he would never stop. For two people who hate each other so much, they are so much alike in many ways!
I am convinced that Wags is the devil (not that that is a bad thing!). The smile he has on his face when he tells Taylor “you’re one of us now” must be the same smile the devil has on his face when he cheats a soul!
Axe wants to set up a permanent trust and gets Ayles from “Naming Rights” to help out. In order to launder his reputation, Ayles suggests Axe cancel his lavish birthday party. I found it quite interesting that Axe thinks being reactionary equals weak. Axe has been nothing but reactionary so many times recently.
While the preparations for Axe’s big birthday bash are being set up, Axe doesn’t seem too excited. He looks like the tired King, just wanting to escape from the heaviness of wearing the crown. He confides in Lara that half his life is “ass covering and optics”, not in what he truly is good at and loves, investing and trading. He sounds like he is losing his way, and not doing what comes naturally to him. It is rather sad. When he suggests they cancel the party. Lara won’t hear of it. She believes he should be celebrated, and why would he want to disappoint his friends? And one of the most poignant things I have heard Axe say: “They work for me, they are not my friends.” It may or may not be true, but just the fact that Axe thinks that says so much about him. He doesn’t believe his employees could be his friends, could actually care about him. Again, it is sad.
Axe is trying to get back to his roots. He outlines a strike zone with tape on the wall outside Axe Capital. He’s throwing a rubber ball against the strike zone, imagining he is pitching in a stickball game. I love how the writers put this into the show. A young Bobby Axelrod would have certainly played stickball in the streets of Yonkers, as we did in Brooklyn. We self-pitched our stickball games, but the outlining of the strike zone on the wall was what we did when we played wiffle ball. This scene is just a man, trying to get back to a simple time in his life when choosing the sides of your stickball team was the most important part of your day. I believe in times of distress, many of us look to our youth and yearn for that nostalgia of not having the responsibilities we have as adults. That scene brought back lots of great memories of summer days growing up in Brooklyn.
Taylor needs to know if not showing up for Axe’s party would be acceptable. Axe tells them they are not obligated to attend, but is interested in why they don’t want to go. Who wouldn’t want to party with Axe? Taylor would like to go to their sister’s wedding, and there are not a lot of flights to Mackinac Island and worries about their carbon footprint if they take a private jet (as we saw in “The Kingmaker” Axe has two, he could lend them one!). Because Axe can rationalize anything, he tells them to buy some offsets – donate to the rainforest! Taylor is still coming to terms that they are “one of them”, and can live a grand lifestyle they never thought they would.
Axe didn’t think he would be living the life he has now either if it weren’t for a gambler who had a seat on a commodities exchange who befriended him at the track. He took Axe to the floor of the New York Board of Trade at 4 World Trade Center (which was home to 5 commodities exchanges on what was at the time one of the world’s largest trading floors), and Axe could read the tape like he read the odds on the board at the track. He bought at seat on the Exchange, and that was it.
Taylor asks the right question: was that a common career trajectory? As Axe states, not anymore; but back when I started in the late 1980’s, you could start a career on the Street that way. So many people I know got started in similar ways, or were “runners” on the Amex or NYSE. They worked hard, learned the business, and moved their way up. Today, if you don’t have a bunch of letters after your name on your resume, you can’t even get in the door. It is a shame, since there are many people who have the instinct to be good traders, who don’t need the “formal” education (like Axe and I!) who will never get a chance. The snobbiness of Wall Street is very ugly at times.
Hall finds out that Bill’s source on Klaxon was Victor, who Axe publically fired and humiliated. Axe visits Victor to look him in the eye and see if he can work with him again.
Victor is still pissed, but wants back in, and is willing to give Axe his prime ideas if Axe sets him up in a satellite shop. Axe tells Victor “you can’t be who you are and it’s ripping you up.” Sounds like Axe is talking about himself as well. Axe agrees. I have defended Axe in the grey area of insider trading several times; however, if he pulls the trigger on Klaxon, it’s pure insider trading.
It’s party time at Chez Axelrod, but Axe is a no show. Wendy does show up, and what seems like a nice chat with Lara exposes the lie Axe had been keeping from Lara about Wendy: it wasn’t his idea to not talk to Wendy, it was hers. The pain and anger in Lara’s face was stunning. Lara doesn’t care who Axe lies to, as long as it’s not to her.
Axe calls Lara to ask her to meet him out front. How she kept it together, I don’t know. I have always believed that if someone is angry at you, it’s so much better if they yell and scream at you, because if they’re not, they are internalizing that anger, and figuring out where they are going to bury your body!
Axe wants to blow this party. He knows it was a mistake. “I forgot where I’m from. I don’t care about any of this.” He wants to be with her, someplace that matters.
Axe takes her to Yonkers Raceway. He is getting back to his roots, remembering who he really is, where he came from and how he got there.
He takes Lara to a place that matters – to him. He is oblivious to the fact that she is seething. It’s the isolated King, who doesn’t even realize he may have just lost his Queen.