We are absolutely thrilled to have a new blogger on Fan Fun! The Tail That Wags the Dog is not only a big fan of Billions but also has a personal connection to the show, exactly like we do, but in a slightly different way.
Here is a short bio in his own words:
“I am a high school math teacher – mostly focused on AP Statistics. I also run the theater program at my school. None of this is even remotely interesting or relevant except that the school I do this at also happens to be the school that I went to, which is also the school that David Costabile went to. David was a year ahead of me in high school and I was a part of five shows with him. I say “was a part of” because I was an ensemble player back in the day while David was, quite naturally, the star. I have followed his career from when he left Tufts and moved to NYC onto Broadway, then to TV, then movies, then back to TV and now here on Billions. Having found this show, I am now completely enraptured by the brilliant writing and acting of this show, and my newest bucket list item is to be able to have a drink with Dollar Bill, or maybe even get Kelly AuCoin to follow me back. :)”
The Tail That Wags The Dog is most interested in the character development in Billions and keen on tracking some of our favorite characters during the rollercoaster ride they have over the season and give us his take on where they stand and where they may be going next. Let’s give him a warm welcome! Cheers!
It’s very interesting how in episode 2 Wendy gives virtually the same advice to both Taylor and Axe that result in two different actions. She told both of them to be willing to absorb a small hit so they could succeed in the long run. With Axe, it came at the opening of the show when she told him to accept the temporary loss of his license to trade, so that he could focus on winning his case and getting back to being in charge of his company. She advised him to not make the aggressive play now so he would be free to make the aggressive plays later. She also wanted him to recognize how he hated not having the power, the control to act as he wished, and to keep that in mind the next time he acts irrationally and unethically. With Taylor it was the same thing. She told them to be willing to accept that Axe Cap might lose overall for the day, on the short term, and that they had to be ok with that, and not make a risky play that might help them in the immediate with the workers there, but would be a bad risk overall for the company and thus for them as well. Wendy told Taylor to recognize how awful this felt not to come out ahead and so to never allow themselves to be in that position again.
Contrast that with the advice she gives Chuck. Rather than have him make the conservative play and not go after Funt, since Funt shot him down before, she tells him to make the risky play, to be aggressive and go after Funt, to make the investment of his personal capital and not be ok with the current state of affairs. Who is she more concerned with protecting, Chuck, Bobby, or herself?
This Chuck-Wendy-Bobby triangle is the centerpiece of the show, but while most of the analysis and ethical determination focuses on the two male adversaries, maybe more of a lens needs to be placed on Wendy. She had the chance back in season 1 to end any conflict of interest by leaving Axe Capital. She knew her husband’s office was investigating them. I also tend to believe she had to know why they would be investigating them and that there was some legitimacy to this. I can’t believe she could have been there from the beginning, had counseled guys like Victor, Dollar Bill and the others, and NOT known that something was unkosher. If she didn’t then maybe she isn’t as insightful as we all make her out to be. And given that she was at least slightly aware that people weren’t entirely on the up and up, then when she realizes that her husband is doing his civic duty and investigating them, then she should’ve gotten out and avoided compromising his work. This becomes even clearer when she gets that plum job offer in the middle of Season 1. But she doesn’t leave, and thus the whole mess gets messier. She expresses a loyalty to Axe that she owes her husband.
Of course both Chuck and Bobby betrayed her in their own ways, so none of them are innocent, but it does and forever at that point bring into question where her loyalties lie. Is she going to counsel her husband to do whatever is necessary to bring Axe to justice? By going to Chuck and advising him to get out of Ice Juice she betrayed Bobby and broke their NDA. By shorting ICEJ she puts her husband in danger. While Wendy is made out to be on a higher moral ground that either of the two men, the truth is she is just as selfish and ethically manipulative as they are. And yet she seems to get a free pass in that regard. On the moral scale it seems to go Wendy-Bobby-Chuck, and I think those three are far more equal in their lack of morality than is acknowledged.
Chuck is seemingly back in good graces with his wife this season, at least on the surface, but you know there is discontentment underneath. That S&M session was brutal not for the erotic physical pain it is supposed to emulate, but rather for the emotional torture he puts himself through in having her talk about her affair right to his face. This wasn’t role-playing, this was real – and Wendy realizes this and doesn’t back off – finding a whole new level of pain she can give him, thinking that it must be what he wants. But I’m not so sure. He knows that she was with Bobby when he got arrested, and that they had a moment. He knows she had a fling with another man. He knows how loyal she continues to be to Bobby, and that tears at him. And she will not give him up. Of course, neither will Chuck – maybe it’s because she won’t give him up that Chuck won’t. Maybe he thinks that by putting Bobby away he hopes that Wendy will see Bobby for who he really is (as Chuck sees him).
Maybe that’s why Chuck decides to invest all of his capital (both monetary and otherwise) into bringing Axelrod down. He sacrifices all of his trust fund. He sacrifices his dad, his best friend, even moves his colleagues around at his whim. He tries to manipulate the legal system, cashing in on favors from some while asking favors of others, all in an effort to ensure that Axe goes down. He is like Eliot Ness in The Untouchables “I have foresworn myself. I have broken every law I have sworn to uphold, I have become what I beheld and I am content that I have done right!” He is also now taking action directly against the AG’s wishes. His chutzpah could be his downfall.
Bobby broke the law. Quite simply, he broke. He broke it more in trying to cover it up (sending Maria Gonzalez away). That was an absurdly dastardly thing to do – he has ruined her life all because she was a potential problem for him. A problem that she never asked for but was coerced into being. Bobby is currently a lousy husband who is more concerned with repairing his firm than repairing the relationship with his wife. He is a deadbeat dad. And yet, for many he is the protagonist for this show. We want to see him succeed. How in the hell does that happen?
I attribute it to brilliant writing and equally brilliant acting. We are conditioned to root for Bobby just as we are conditioned to root against Chuck (the one who is, you know, on the right side of the law – but again because of brilliant acting on the part of Paul Giamatti we root against him – some of us anyway). We want to see Bobby succeed because Bobby is a genius and can see things we can’t. And that applies to Taylor as well – Bobby anticipated the tsunami, Taylor didn’t. They still have much to learn. But Bobby out of control is dangerous to Bobby’s future.
Can Wendy, Wags and Taylor keep him in check? It’s more fun when they don’t – but can he sacrifice that, and can we as viewers be willing to let that be sacrificed so that he can go back to being free again? Will the writers even let us do that? It seems like Bobby also just can’t help himself – on the surface it looks like he took steps to get himself in the clear and keep doing what he loves, but by doing both actions he has now widened the circle of people who know he is breaking the law, which means he is opening himself up to more problems. Again, vanity thy name is Axelrod.
Where do they go from here? Lara and Bobby are now legally separated and on the inevitable road to divorce (or are they already there?) What happens to her, and her character, if suddenly she isn’t in the picture? Why would she stick around anywhere near him? I have to think that they will reconcile at some point, but that may be a long way down the road. In the meantime, she may have to survive on “only” $150 million. Yeah, life’s rough. Actually, I find Bobby’s line there total BS. I don’t believe for a second that the government could take that much of his billions – I think he is saying that so that Lara sticks around and doesn’t leave him entirely. Either way, I think Bobby is still playing Lara rather than being up front with her. In season 1 it was Chuck and Wendy at odds which boiled over into the separation at the end of that season, and it took all of the second season for them to reconcile. Now it seems it is Lara and Bobby’s turn. But can they show the self-awareness that Chuck and Wendy did as they patched things up in Season 2? I’m not so sure. Which again leads back to my original question, what happens to Lara if they are divorced and he is out of her life?
First off can I say that I find Taylor a fascinating character, and someone who obviously has become more central to the show, which is a good thing. I loved the reference to Theo Epstein, which was brilliant on levels I don’t know that everyone understands. Wags tried to shoot down her “Quants” focus by saying that Billy Beane never won a World Series. Beane is the general manager of the Oakland Athletics and is known for embracing a sabermetric approach to building a team (“Moneyball”)
It is true that Oakland has yet to win a World Series using this approach. As Taylor correctly points out though, Theo Epstein used the same approach to win two of them while with the Boston Red Sox (breaking an 86-year championship drought for my beloved Sox in the process).
The difference between the two teams was their payroll. Epstein had a payroll more than twice that of what Beane had with the A’s, so he was able to do things that Beane didn’t have the resources for. This would be the difference say between Axe Capital using Quants to their advantage and a smaller hedge fund using them. A smaller hedge fund would need any little advantage it can get to even be competitive with the bigger firms, while a bigger firm may not need the Quant approach, but by using it they have a chance to outperform everyone else, even the other big firms. So Taylor’s analogy works perfectly there (well, the writer’s analogy works perfectly there.)
However, that same logic kind of works against Taylor when they talk about the Pulaski football team with Mafee. The Pulaski team is famous for adopting a strategy whereby they never punt on 4th down, no matter the situation. The coach employs statistics which show that the optimal play in the long run is to go for it, so they go for it, every time. And it has been extremely successful for the team. They’ve only lost twice in the past four years. The problem with this analogy though is the same thing that makes the Billy Beane one work. Winning football games for Pulaski HS is not the same as winning in the NFL. Axe Capital is the NFL. Pulaski HS would be a mom and pop firm. The analogy loses some of its punch there.
Another interesting characteristic with regards to Taylor I am following is the non-binary nature of Taylor. Obviously this was a ground-breaking move on the part of the writers, and they are to be commended for that. And I don’t know of anyone better suited for the role than Asia Kate Dillon. What is interesting so far is how that has not played a factor at all in any of the storylines, at least not in Season 2. Yes there were lines about how to refer to Taylor with the proper pronouns and all, but their gender has not really been a factor in the storylines. In some ways that is good, as it shows that their non-binary gender status has no relevance to their being valuable to Axe, it shows one should be measured by their merits, not their characteristics. On the other hand, there is possibly a chance to make a statement here by (finally) having a TV character of this nature. Are they doing a disservice to other non-binary people by not highlighting it more? I don’t know the answer to that, but I wonder if it is something the writers (and Asia) think about as they go over Taylor’s storylines.
(one sidebar to this: I noticed that when Taylor and Wags were interviewing the second candidate, the smug youngster, that she seemed to react just a bit when he said “She’s no fool” in reference to Wags being incredulous that they didn’t fire the young Quant. This, along with the incident in the steam bath in the first episode, show that maybe Taylor’s gender status may play more of a relevance this season than it did in last season. With all that Taylor has to deal with, it will be interesting to see if this element plays a part in their actions. One would think not, that Taylor is very much in control, but wouldn’t it be interesting if something were to get Taylor to think outside of their analytical comfort zone, and this was it?
I do have one issue with Taylor in how they treat Mafee in episode 3. Wasn’t it only a few months ago that Taylor was Mafee’s intern? I realize Taylor’s had a Phoenix-like rise to the top, but did they forget those who helped them get there so quickly? Yes Taylor is treating Mafee like they treat everyone else, very calculated and business-like, but doesn’t Mafee deserve a little more than that? I feel like Mafee is the resident punching bag of Axe Capital, not that it is undeserved, which leads me to my next point …
Where have all the PMs gone?
What happened to all of the great PMs at Axe Capital? Besides Dollar Bill, who else has that killer attitude that Bobby (and now Taylor) is looking for? Victor. Danzig. Saldana (speaking of which, are there no more female PMs at Axe Cap?) Those three were all killers, all bred in the mold of Bobby. Now we have Mafee, Ben Kim and Rudy – all very likable guys – I really do like their characters, but they seem to be more in place at some other firm than Axe Capital. None of them seems to have the killer instinct that a Bobby Axelrod and a Mike Wagner would be looking for in an analyst. I do love Ben’s sheepishness, the way he was trying to cover up his screen in episode 2 was hilarious, and the way he tries to deliver a clever line like his counterparts can – “I’m here to break the glass!” is a riot – but I still question why he is there. Lady Trader – am I off base here? Mafee has become soft, and he was soft to begin with. Even Mafee’s friend Eveready, who was introduced as this hot shot willing to make the hard call – “Austerity” – has become lukewarm. Besides Dollar Bill, none of them have the bravado that you would expect out of an Axe Cap PM. It’s Taylor, Dollar Bill and a bunch of pussies as DB accurately described it. How can this be the analytical team of the most cutting edge hedge fund? While they make great fun characters to follow, the directions of these characters runs counter to their supposed role in the firm. Each of these guys needs to go on some kind of aggressive winning streak to justify their employment. A true logician like Taylor should have fired them a while ago. Even Wags is softening up somewhat, which is scary …
Wags has become a much deeper character this season. Whereas in season two he was a cross between Gordon Gecko and Jordan Belfort , this season he has embraced his inner Tom Hagen giving Bobby tempered and sage advice to keep him out of trouble.
Of course he can still rip off an insult like no one else can (think Chef Ryan), but we find him backtracking there, showing real fear and concern for his well-being, being the reserved one between he and Axe! And then the softball questions and the cuckold-like nature in which he conducted himself in front of Taylor in the third Quant interview. Where is that Tasmanian Devil of a COO we’ve all grown to know and love? I’m not saying I hate this new turn – it is actually the right thing for him to do, I just wonder if he is losing his edge along with the rest of Axe Capital? Are Taylor and Dollar Bill the only firebrands left? If so then they have a lot more to worry about than just Bobby not being there. We shall see.
One of the great things about this show and the complex writing are the parallels and balances within the characters. Obviously the square off between Bobby and Chuck is the central one. But then you have Wendy and Lara both fighting for Bobby’s attention, though in different ways and ways which back in Season 1 may have been compatible but now are fully incompatible. You have Taylor and Dake – both prodigies in their own fields introduced in season 2, both rising to rapid heights by the end of it, and both having to adjust to their new seats of power while staying true to who they are. You have the moral compass that is Connerty versus the embodiment of the Seven Deadly Sins in Wags. You have the loyal star players in Sacker and Dollar Bill. While the medium for all of this is the financial market, the juice of the show lies in the interplay of these well-written characters, and the brilliant performances by the actors who portray them. We can only wait and see what’s in store for all of them in each new episode.