While Billions Season 3 shoot started in New York last week, we still have so much to talk about Season 2. So please stay tuned for our Billions posts discussing different aspects of our favorite show in the coming weeks and months as we follow the new season shoot as closely as possible!
Now, it is no secret I am fascinated by Bobby Axelrod’s backstory in Billions, in particular his family background. A few glimpses we had into the life of young Bobby in Season 1 made me think hard and deep about his past and write a two-part post here and here asking a number of questions I hoped to get answers for in Season 2. And one question I was dying to know the answer for was as follows — I copy and paste from my earlier post:
“So it was NO surprise for us when Axe revealed his dad “never came back” in Episode 11 Magical Thinking. Still, we don’t know if his dad went to Vietnam and never came back or if he just left home and never came back… Even though each scenario is brutal in its own way, dad is a hero in the former scenario and he is certainly not one in the latter.”
Season 2 did not only answer this question but also provided rich material to discuss how the heavy childhood trauma Bobby went through ultimately shaped him as a man, a husband, and a father. And here is my effort not to make a case for Bobby Axelrod but to understand why he does what he does.
In Episode 8 The Kingmaker, Bobby reveals about his dad when he rides his motorbike to the Yale Club to crash the “old money” party!
That scene is PERFECT in its demonstration of the difference between old money and new money. Bobby Axelrod may be THE billionaire in the room but his money does not count there. Bobby does not have the Upper East Side upbringing, the prep school education or the Ivy League experience that would make him welcome to the club. And as he stands there in front of these men born with a silver spoon in their mouths, Bobby Axelrod is just the boy whose dad never came back.
“You know, they say that a boy never really becomes a man until he’s buried his father. Now, mine has been dead to me since the moment he walked out when I was 12 years old. I don’t remember if I cried, but I do remember that I was forced to grow the fuck up. So it always warms my heart when I see a boy who still has his father’s shoulder to lean on, his father’s contacts to deploy, his father’s balls clanking around in place of his own, which haven’t quite dropped yet.
Hold on to this man, Chuck, for one day soon, he will be gone and then you will finally have to do something for yourself.”
How can you not root now for the boy who had to grow up the day his father left? The boy who worked as a paper boy every weekday for three years between ages 11 and 14 and later as a golf caddy for $16 an hour to save pocket money for the year?
I don’t know if Bobby’s life would have taken a completely different path should his dad have been around longer. I understand young Bobby had to grow up the day his father left, because I had to grow up, too, when my father died of a heart attack on a family vacation when I was 8. Now, I know having my dad around would have made my and my mother’s life much better. Given Bobby’s dad left his family and never looked back, it may be that having that kind of man around longer could be more harmful for a child than him being away. But, still, a father leaving his child probably leaves extremely deep marks in the child that he needs to live with them all his life. And I wonder if this heavy childhood trauma he went through partially accounts for the level of “possessiveness” we have witnessed in Bobby Axelrod in the most intimate relationships in his life: No one can walk out on Bobby Axelrod.
When Wendy leaves Axe Capital, Bobby makes sure Hall is on her tail 24/7 following her every movement. CREEPY, and yes in caps, too! And when Bobby visits Wendy’s new digs under an assumed name in Season 1 Episode 1 Risk Management, he does not shy away from saying “that motherfucker is trying to poach my most valuable…” for Krakow and gets the ultimate finger from Wendy:
“I am not your anything.”
I will not lie to you. I feel for Bobby at that very moment but then I come back to my senses: SHE IS NOT HIS ANYTHING. He does not own Wendy and Wendy reminding him THAT is certainly the right thing to do. I also sense Wendy knows about Bobby’s possessiveness and she may, consciously or subconsciously, be taking pleasure in saying those words to him.
The kind of revenge Bobby takes from Krakow in Season 2 Episode 2 Dead Cat Bounce for trying to “poach” Wendy attests to, in my humble opinion, some pathological level of possessiveness. Once he hears about Wendy doing a gig at Krakow Capital and that Krakow is trying to recruit her, Bobby’s response, thanks to Taylor’s genius, is to publicly humiliate him about his “business” in China. Next, when Wendy lets him know she will be coaching Krakow at the Alpha Cup Poker Tournament in Season 2 Episode 3 Optimal Play, he, once again, uses Taylor’s genius, now at poker table, to completely break him. We find out later in Episode 6 Indian Four that Axe put together the civil action against Chuck not just to make Chuck’s life miserable but also as an incentive for Wendy to return to Axe Capital on the condition Axe withdraws the cases. Wendy is right. Motherfucker, indeed.
The possessiveness comes out even more aggressively in Season 2 Episode 10 With or Without You when Lara leaves home when she finds out her husband lied to her about Wendy.
Oh My God.
The transformation of Bobby Axelrod from kind to creepy over the episode is simply mind-blowing! He starts with a kind “Will you just call me? Please?” then turns angry “You know what? You leaving is one thing, but taking my boys, what the fuck?” then becomes a hopeless romantic “Do you remember that night in Paris?… Call me please” and then completely strategic “Just say the word and I’ll erase Wendy Rhoades from our world forever.”
Bobby, shitless about the possibility of losing his family, cannot control his emotions and his behavior gets quite disturbing over the episode. And I think, knowing, or at least sensing losing his family is his biggest fear, Lara does leave for a day to teach him a credible lesson! Bobby drops by Capparello’s for a slice of Bruno’s pizza but probably also for some fatherly advice. He gets THIS instead:
“You’re my business partner. So, you get the slice and a coke on the arm. But that don’t buy you a conversation with me.”
Now that the only father figure in his life has also left him, Bobby loses it on Voice Mail:
“I teach the fucking lessons and you are about to get one. I will lock you the fuck down and operate you by fucking remote control with a flick of my motherfucking fingers, Lar!”
Whoa! We never saw Bobby in this kind of desperation, agony, or anger, not even after he lost a billion dollars at BioLance. And it makes sense that the possibility of being walked out on, and even the slightest possibility of losing his boys, may be WAY BIGGER for the boy whose dad never came back than losing a billion dollars.
While he tries to drown his sorrows in a Michter’s bottle alone at home, Bobby leaves his longest and dumbest message on Lara’s phone: Oh, “the fucking opportunities” he had! SIGH. And I take the panic with which he deletes his voicemails on Lara’s phone when she comes home with the boys that night as a sign of how scared Bobby is about the possibility of losing his family. His wife. His kids. The stable and happy family life which he longed when he was a boy and to which he probably committed years ago promising to himself that he would not be the man his father was to his wife and to his kid. I am not making a case for Bobby Axelrod here. I just think I understand where his actions are coming from.
His brother-in-law Matt to whom Bobby pays a visit to ask after Lara and arrogantly tells he bought his house for him, seems to know Bobby well.
“You don’t own it any more than you own her.”
While the trauma of his father leaving him may be responsible for the possessiveness Bobby exhibits in his personal relationships, it may also partially explain why he is playing the GOOD COP to Lara’s BAD COP in parenting and that he is always honest and true with his children even when it is quite hard to be. Bobby wants to be everything to his boys that his father was not to him.
Lara is not happy with their boys not being street smart. She wants them not to take their comfortable life for granted, respect working people like Chef Ryan and not have it easy all the time. From taking kids to clamming to sending them to camp — an experience cut short thanks to dad! — to having them pack gifts for Donnie’s “Secret Santa” project, Lara believes in teachable moments. And she gets pissed, and rightly so, when Bobby bypasses her to make it easy for the boys.
Bobby wants his kids to know he is always there for them. He wants to give them all he longed for as a boy, and, maybe above all, he wants TO BE LOVED as a dad, too. Well, this is another signature personality trait of a kid growing up with a single parent. You long to be loved even when you are surrounded by love, because as much as you are loved, there is always something missing. So I do not think Bobby is deliberately going against Lara’s wishes in parenting, but he is doing it out of love. I personally think he may regret a bit when he has two teenagers feeling entitled to it all in near future, but I understand where his parenting is coming from.
One beautiful parenting moment appears in Season 2 Finale Ball in Hand. Knowing that he will get arrested later in the day, one question that constantly bugs Bobby is what he will say to his boys about the arrest.
Easy one for Wags:
“Tell them the truth. The government is a bunch of fucking liars.”
Bach is better at advice:
“Remind them that they know who you really are no matter what anyone says.”
This is certainly not an easy conversation to have with kids. Most kids see their dad as a superhero and finding out that he is not could be brutal for them. And no one probably knows it better than Bobby Axelrod. But he is determined not to fail his boys and him admitting what he would not admit to many to Dean and Gordie may be the BEST moment in Billions.
“The government is a bunch of fucking liars, guys… Listen. Look, that’s not true. Sometimes they lie. Sometimes they tell the truth, just like everyone… Like me… Most folks, they find this out about their dad much later, but everyone finds it out. I’m a flawed man. I’m not perfect. I’m not always right. I don’t always win. I fucked up. I did do something wrong.”
In closing, I need to come back for a second to the only father figure in Bobby’s life: Bruno.
When his dirty “9/11” laundry is all out in the news in Season 1 Episode 8 Boasts and Rails, Bobby stops by Bruno’s seemingly to give back the check he sent him earlier for his share of the profits as the pizzeria’s partner. But he is, in my opinion, there to see his “father’s” reaction to what happened that day. And, the nod Bruno gives, I think, makes Bobby’s day. Because whatever age we are, we always look for parental approval.
Probably based on his previous experience that Bobby typically hears him, in Season 2 Episode 7 Victory Lap, Bruno drives his Chevy to Bobby’s driveway lined with luxury cars to give his two cents about Sandicot.
“These people, they’re just like you while growing up.”
On one hand, I see the pain in Bobby’s face as he hears Bruno. He KNOWS and that may be the reason why even Taylor’s compelling reference to Taleb did not convince him about Sandicot earlier in the episode. I wonder whether not getting the nod he needs from dad gives him extra pain. On the other hand, we know Bobby did not shy away from being rude to Bruno, from intruding into his home in the middle of the night and dragging him to Marco’s office, to not inviting him in when he drives all the way from Yonkers and, ultimately, telling him “there will still be a finder’s fee.” Seriously? Is this how he expects to get a nod from dad? He just “axes” their father-son relationship.
I don’t know whether Bobby’s confession to Wendy in Season 2 Finale Ball in Hand that all decisions he has made since they worked down in Lower Manhattan together after 9/11 were WRONG included the wrong he did with Bruno. I genuinely HOPE, in Season 3, he makes it up to the man who let him have pizza without paying for weeks when he was a young boy. And he does not even have to do a big gesture. As Wendy rightly points out in Episode 6 Indian Four:
“Grand gestures are not necessary. When it comes to you, Bobby, it’s the small kindnesses I prefer.”