With Billions, you’ve got that easy on the eye and ear appeal going, but, look closer and there’s so much more. Look closer still, and there’s, like, everything.
Billions Season 3 Episode 4, “Hell of a Ride”, shows us, more than any episode so far, that “everything.” That is, everything, sans women. Though the women are well-written, this show will never be in danger of passing the Bechdel test, and that’s fine, because it is a story about men and their use and misuse of power and of men begetting men, which, to bring it all home, does indeed apply to everything. This episode is about men’s legacy and men’s vanity and the intersections between the two.
Wags is doing the most “advanced real estate play” of all time as he tries to procure his burial plot. He wants to do death right and that means his own piece of the island of Manhattan as his eternal resting place.
Legend has it that Native Americans sold the island for $24 to Dutch settlers. It’s appreciated a bit since then, and there’s not much of it left. You’d think there were corpses layered upon corpses under that soil. Native Americans, Dutch, German, every single creed and culture of immigrant to ever grace this nation squeezed into whatever soft spots they could find within that bedrock. That fact aside, Wags seems to be keen on reserving his own parcel.
Is jumping hoops to get a 6 X 6 plot of land a question of vanity or a matter of legacy? Likely, it’s both. The hubris of it all only comes to you later, and, not to be reductionist, but such a desire to leave a mark, even in the very act of dying, seems here powered by a Y chromosome.
Bobby is doing time re-watching his favorite films.
I’m stuck here watching skulls get crushed on TV. So I need Taylor crushing skulls on my behalf.
He’s also keeping up with his non-trading obligations, like those he has to charity. He’s approached at a charity event by board member Oscar Langstraat with a bright new idea: venture philanthropy. A charitable organization taking ownership of the resources they want to redistribute in the world: what a concept. As desire for and production of that resource grows, so does the return on investment, growing the pocketbooks of the charitable organization. Like buying wells, leveraging them, and having the oversight in place to assure that they never run dry. Here, the resource is solar-powered air-conditioned tents for central Africa, and Oscar wants Axe to back him up at the next board meeting.
Not even charity wants anything to do with Axe though. He confronts their hypocrisy and two-facedness:
My presence shines an unwanted light, because I’m actually someone that works for a living.
Bobby is steeped in bullish defiance, but as they all reject him outright, witness that wee hint of dejection, like a boy realizing he has no friends at all on the field, taking his ball and going home. Making it impossible to hate this man, dammit.
When presented with the idea, Bobby notes that the philanthropy is not exactly big on risk-taking, “like Coach Tikhonov in Lake Placid.” That is, of course, the Russian coach for the losing team in ice hockey at the 1980 Olympics. The US pulled a miracle and won the gold that year against favorited Russia and if you were alive back then, it was a pretty freakin big deal. Was going to gloss over this as yet another “sports ball analogy” (sports puck analogy, to be exact) but then I remembered what the US goalie Jim Craig did when the team won. As the team was piling on each other, draping themselves in the flag and each other’s joy, Jim Craig skated around with a mystified look on his face. He ignored the celebration all around him and mouthed something caught by all the cameras. Anyone watching could read his lips clearly: “Where’s my father?” He couldn’t celebrate until he confirmed that his father had seen him win. Maybe Bobby’s mention of that game was yet another throwaway allusion, or maybe this little tidbit of great American history was purposefully seeded as one big theme of this episode.
Because darned if this episode isn’t exactly about that need of sons to make their fathers proud, even as they take advantage of the toxicity transmitted via DNA.
Sons and fathers here being Charles and Chuck, of course. Until now we’d seen the Ice Juice play as right vs wrong, law (in its twisted way to create a real prosecutable crime) vs lawlessness (in its maniacal way of winning at all costs). This episode frames the conflict differently. We see now that two powerful bullwarks played tiddly winks with an up and coming small business, destroying a fresh new IPO right out of the gate. Ice Juice is now about entrenched power structure against the little guy. They are both, Chuck and Axe, “complicit in sabotage.” And Chuck Sr. is a part of that collusion. He’s the patriarch of it.
Wendy’s urging for the general well-being of her kids who need a relationship with their grandparents coupled with his own desire to make familial peace with what went down with Ice Juice, Chuck finds a way to present his father an award at his 50th reunion. His father is none too receptive. It’s complicated. At first, Senior admonishes Junior for stepping into the hallowed ground of his greatest conquests. He talks about women he bagged in the residence halls, summarizing the feelings of the Greatest Generation towards their GenX progeny.
Fact that [AIDS] stopped your generation says it all. We forged ahead, damn the torpedoes.
Then, when Senior has been cornered by Connerty to come clean about his role in the Ice Juice play and to confirm that Junior signed off on his trust being used to sabotage the company, he refuses to give up his boy. Senior tells Connerty he touched the trust because he saw a win and it was within his rights as trustee. Chuck was the victim. And that they were both victims of Axe.
Senior wants to challenge his son, forge him into a better man, pay for his first lay at fourteen, beat up bullies along the way, and, ultimately, defend him from those that would do him harm. Meanwhile he’s completely blind to the damage he’s instilling.
Chuck doesn’t hear of his father stepping up for him. As a screw-you back to dear dad for the Yale snub, Chuck gets Jack Foley to take back the promise of a casino on land now owned by Senior. Recall that Senior got Jack Foley to get the government to move the site of the casino from Sandicot to Kingsford to stick one to Axe for Junior’s sake. Now Junior has gotten Jack Foley to get the government to take back Kingsford for the elk.
Eastern elk need all the help they can get. Delicate species require a certain habitat. Whereas a casino, like a fungus, will thrive in any dank climate.
Such is the love and hate, push and pull, tit for tat between father and son. In the end, Senior is proud of his son for sticking it to him, damn the torpedoes. With a kiss as toxic and raw as the “you broke my heart” kiss Michael Corleone landed on Fredo, Senior seals the fact that when you teach a kid to fight, and value nothing more than his ability to fight, that’s exactly what that kid will do, even when you’re the victim of the blows.
Another version in this episode of a man’s projection of himself into the world is Craig Heidecker, the tech guy who tried to woo Wendy away from Axe Cap and landed her in bed instead.
Can’t have a mission to Mars without Axe Cap playing the money of the thing. And Mafee invoking Bowie’s erstwhile Major Tom.
And the papers want to know whose shirts he wears.
Given the history of Heidecker’s mission failures and other data, Taylor logically concludes that it’s a sure short. But both they and Mafee confess to wanting the mission to succeed.
My bet is against his business model, not his vision.
Is the mission to Mars yet another kind of masculine vanity and need for legacy, another compulsion to leave a mark here and beyond? Tragically, Taylor is right and Heidecker goes the way of his business. A mission built on both the vain devotion to precision and perfection and the legacy-establishing idea of being the first one there concludes with a dire end for the man. Yet, the vision and dream lives on! Perhaps our dreams are the only legacy possible in the end?
Thru her reaction to Heidecker coming so close to fulfilling his dream and then dying for it, we see a personal side to Wendy that we haven’t seen before. She realizes that Chuck knew about her fling with Heidecker and forgives her even as he was hurt deeply by it. The marriage thing is on point with these two. And how lovely the scene in the bar over cups of bourbon. (had a song lyric stuck in my head over this scene: “Switch up my cup, I kill any pain”)
To help resolve the grief over the death of a hero with the fact that the company benefited from that death, Wendy has advice for Taylor. (she really should write a book with this stuff, it’d sell faster than the Sopranos cookbook)
Conflicting emotions require we resolve the conflict…One emotion has to prevail. Otherwise you languish while the dispute carries on and you miss opportunities…..When you’re here, mind the truth that makes you money.
As for Bobby’s battle with philanthropy, Wendy offers:
Embrace the victory of self-awareness. Because out in the world, you might be taking losses for a while.
She leaves with a whisper that she’ll be taking losses as well. Yes, it appears things are about to get even more personal for Dr. Rhoades. It’s a man’s world replete with bows that won’t bend. Something has to break eventually.