Billions, Season 3, episode 11, “Kompenso” was an episode built around annual comp reviews, those pesky one-on-ones with the boss where you justify your existence/paycheck, hope for good reviews of your work while fearing the worst. Who woulda thunk such events make for good drama?
This episode felt smaller, tighter, and therefore richer than the wide net thrown over oligarch intrigue and government-for-the-chosen shenanigans in the past few episodes. Lots of sit-downs, therefore lots of chance to build real connection between characters. All stories benefit from at least a couple episodes of close attention paid to the people, the balance and counter-balance of human connection, particularly for those characters who freakin hate human connection. If you hadn’t guessed already, you know for sure in this episode, that Bobby Axelrod is just not a people person.
Damian said somewhere it’s impossible to play a character who you don’t sympathize with on some level. I’d venture to say his sympathy for Axe is razor thin as this season comes to a close. Understanding Axe is one thing, being sympathetic to him is another. Not rocket science understanding him. Orrin summarizes it perfectly: A win isn’t a win unless it’s a kill. Yep, exactly. Of course, seconds after Orrin gives his impassioned analysis, he signs on to continue the flow of checks to his firm. Axe is not a kind boss, but, hey, the money’s good, so who’s to complain?
To get fired up for the day ahead, Bobby attempts to seek Lara’s advice. When they were married, she apparently did the job of helping him see straight on days like today. He stops short though and decides to continue instead with the annual tradition of goading his ex-boss, Bill McGann of McGann Commodities.
We see Axe sauntering into a ritzy joint in hoodie and jeans to tell off his old boss. Look, it’s Katherine Chancellor’s son, Arnie! A superb fit for this show if ever there was one. Corbin Bernsen was doing the handsome playboy sleeze ball with a transparently vulnerable heart made of mush while most of the current crop were practicing their moonwalks in their back yards. Apparently McGann was not very nice about giving Axe the raises he deserved back in the day and Axe just wanted to intrude on the guy’s meal now, on Axe Cap’s own comp day, to offer a sarcastic thanks for driving him so hard. The scene served to plant a seed, perhaps foretelling, years from now, when Taylor makes an annual tradition of doing the same exact thing to Axe.
Bobby has similar meetings with all his people. The new gal, who already got her comp when she signed on, still asks for more because she knows that’s what your supposed to do, especially when the boss is a man who appreciates guts. Mafee won’t play the whine, he knows what he did for Wendy was worth a lot to Axe and Axe recompenses him accordingly. Ben Kim gets no money but he goes up the ranks to PM, just as he wishes. The one employee who Axe is not willing to give an inch to is Taylor.
He knows that Taylor carried a lot of weight for him when we was stuck at home watching cable TV. They held the place together and rightfully think they deserve a piece of the earnings brought in during that tenure. Axe can’t see that many zeros landing in a virtual newbie’s pocket. He tells Lara later that what Taylor wants can’t be given, it has to be taken. I’m guessing that means there has to be a fight for numbers as high as they discussed. It can’t just be a handout. The idea that handouts, even in the form of duly earned paychecks, are detrimental to getting good work out of good people speaks volumes on where Bobby lands on the political spectrum. Charity makes people weak whereas dangling carrots and keeping the dream deferred ensures the chase, keeping employees strong.
You hear about bosses who know how to read their people, know what they need to have in terms of attention and incentives in order to keep producing. Bobby does seem to be one of those bosses, but, in this respect, he’s no Tony Soprano. Not to redundantly keep bringing up the ghosts of shows that started the entire anti-hero as lead thing, but that Tony? Now he was a boss who knew his people. He knew how to make them feel like they were getting what they needed, as far as respect, position in the hierarchy, etc., all the while still doing whatever the heck he wanted and calling all the shots. Of course, Tony made sure no one who worked for him was all that bright to begin with. In Taylor, Bobby doesn’t have that luxury. They are as smart as a whip. The intelligence that first called Axe’s attention to Taylor is the very thing holding him back from giving them what they request and deserve.
True enough, not even the best bosses like days like comp day. They know it’s a time for them to compromise, make concessions. And the day is especially painful this year for Axe because it’s his own money he’s doling out. Like regurgitating his very own guts into hungry gaping mouths under him in the nest. Wendy sees the pain, and, as is her wont, she tells him to suck it up. She simply knows that losing Taylor would be a mistake for the company. She shares that very thing with the company’s current largest investor, Lara Axelrod, who, quite the grown-up of late, listens and heeds Wendy’s advice to give Bobby the advice he’s not able to ask for himself. (That hesitation he felt needs some unpacking, maybe later)
You know, I dismissed the idea of Taylor exacting revenge on Bobby for destroying their relationship with Oscar, thinking that Taylor is way too strong a character to relegate to the diner booth, five families style, like Axe had done with his other competitors back when he was gathering support for taking down Lawrence Boyd. No one puts Taylor in that kind of corner. Color me happily proven wrong, because, lo and behold, Taylor is indeed exacting revenge. But in a much more kick-ass way than Negative Nelly I could have foreseen. Taylor going in with Andolov could end in tears. (After all, John Malkovich isn’t signing on as recurring, is he?) But, it promises to be fun watching along the way. One can only hope that Taylor will land on their feet, stronger and more determined than ever to do business their way, Axe’s gas lighting and relentless self-interest be damned. Please let this show allow the student to depose the master, if only for like half a season. Please allow us that one kernel of hope, violently diminished of late, that people like Axe won’t always be the ones landing on top. Amen.
Now, the gift Bobby gives Wags tells another story. His dad’s old girlie magazines? Dug out from his mother’s basement. The way the scene played out revealed, I think, that Axe hadn’t really been estranged from his mother, he simply kept his distance. Much as he does with most people who venture too close. Her working-class accent coupled with a generally defeated demeanor read as if Bobby’s mother had suffered a fair amount of abuse, from her husband, and maybe even from her son. She didn’t succeed in getting inside his head, the way most parents do, not on purpose, but organically, when they parent well, comforting, empathizing and when they don’t, yelling and demeaning. Bobby seems to have suffered neither extreme. He’s neither here nor there as far as we can see. Gotta say the way he nonchalantly flipped thru the magazine in front of mum, unfolding the centerfold just for a glance, was loaded with some kind of way. Can men do such things with their mothers right there? I don’t think I’ve ever met such a man. Sure, the best mother-son relationships probably are very open in terms of such things, but surely not that open? That gesture from Bobby leads to the fantasy that his issues may be even deeper than we’ve imagined. (Hope springs eternal!)
Quite differently from Bobby’s day, Chuck spends the episode trying to put things right with his former best friend, the brother he chose, heartbroken and wronged Ira. He of the shaved truffles is now saddled with a tinder-date turned wife who’s bleeding him dry. Chuck hasn’t made peace with his part in dashing Ira’s hopes with the Ice Juice thing, not to mention slashing his life savings. He vows to help Ira by forcing him to see he married a no-good gold digger in Taiga (that name, sheesh. Also, good grief, I’m old).
Junior won’t succeed in getting the divorce papers signed though. Chuck Sr. has quite different views on marriage and he’s not one to wait for an invitation before offering his advice. Senior’s marriage speech went slightly OTT (over the top soapsters) with homespun advice on the clap (what is this 1945?). But for the rest of it: So much truth. If one isn’t lucky enough to marry a life long best friend, one with shared interests and appetites, complimentary needs of physical and emotional connection, then marriage, if one really wants to stay married, is about compromise, with a capital C. And flushing the pills and making the babies a shared project, which, arguably, is the main purpose of the institution to begin with. I always thought monogamy was about ensuring a stable environment for the babies, and maybe, for women, it is. But, monogamy as the socialist ideal Senior says it is makes sense too, from the male perspective. It is what keeps all Bettys leashed to all Dons, so that the non-Dons can stand a fighting chance in hell of landing a reliable bed mate for the rest of their days.
Whatever the case for it, most people who are married want to stay that way. Whereas Junior finagled an equitable out for both parties, Senior gave us all a great treatise on how to stay in. He managed to convince truffle shaver Taiga that it was in her hot little best interest too. With an allowance of 50K a year, and a guy who really likes her and is otherwise quite harmless, why the hell not?
Went looking for a pithy quote to sew this one up. Something like “compromise, thy name is…” something. Found something more fun instead. You’ll never guess where the English language got the word compromise: Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice. Consider it sewn.