Billions ep 10 : Quality of Life

No secret that I was pretty disgusted with Axe in the last episode. In this episode some of his humanity is back, beautifully on display, and, thankfully, there’s a visible thaw in the ice-cold of last week’s fire house scene.

When he gets news of Donnie’s death, Damian lends Bobby that cast over the eyes that looks like someone has clubbed him in the knees. He’s hobbled. The episode proceeds to careen back and forth in time in an expert way that fills in all the holes that need filling in Donnie’s story.


At the funeral, Wendy stands up for Donnie and for her office mates against her husband. She blocks Chuck off at the pass. “I knew the man.” “Better than you let on, I’m sure.” She knows all about Chuck’s lie and she doesn’t see his side of the issue at all. All she sees is that Donnie was a pawn in Chuck’s game to get Bobby and now he’s dead. One has to wonder if she realizes (or accepts?) that Donnie was just as much a pawn to Bobby too?




There’s the parallel story of the quislings who left Axe in the cover of night, with files and accounts. Axe promised to hobble them, and he proceeds to make motions towards that.


And there’s the parallel story of Dollar Bill Stearn, aka Keyser Mother Fucking Sodze, cooling his heels in jail. Now, remember that Chuck had put Lonnie on Judge Wilcox, the judge on Dollar Bill’s case, to find dirt on him, to weaken him. It seems that was a move to be of use for a couple moves ahead of this one currently on the chess board. Wilcox dismisses the case before it can get to trial, and, viola, Axe Capital gets away with raking in $89 million return on a $211,000 investment.

Chuck is disturbed by the ruling, but he’s got plans, as cryptic as they may be:

We need to get circular in our thinking. Turn the impediments into our own blockers.

Next we see Mafee (’bout time I graduated “Just the Tip” to his real name) is waiting outside Axe’s office, making moves on the hottie receptionist. Do hot women really say things like “You’re out of my league?” I guess they do. While this cuteness unfolds, Dollar Bill Keyser has returned victorious to the office. Axe bellows for him to come into the office and what happens next may just be the best comedic moment ever to happen in a serious drama. Not often are we treated to such deep belly laughs in drama. The scene was like a gloriously hilarious dance. And, boy, can Damian Lewis dance. Like a footballer doing ballet and leaving you howling at the screen as he’s doing it.

I’m gonna poke you, poke me back.

I’ll poke you all goddamn day.

The music (Quite Contrary by Parker Millsap) helped the mood of the scene considerably as did Kelly AuCoin as Damian’s dance partner. That such a scene happens in the midst of an episode ostensibly about a death and a funeral…it’s nothing short of genius. No overstatement there. It’s a scene that I can wager will go down in comedic history and be imitated in years to come.(and imitators will fail, because it’s already been done to perfection)



Back at the funeral, midst rustling leaves in beautiful Wave Hills, against a backdrop of the Hudson River and NJ Palisades in the distance, you can practically smell the crisp air. Walter speaks Donnie’s last wishes.

Have them bury my picture in autumn leaves and make a wish for the world (that has nothing to do with the financial markets).

Lonnie gives Chuck an earful on Wilcox’s connection to a for-profit prison. The good judge has been sending kids to serve long sentences for minor crimes. He’s been “building his business from the bench.” Ripped from the headlines, this one.

Bryan and Kate take Chuck’s advice to take the day. Bryan ends up in Kate’s very grown-up apartment and they proceed to take some grown-up steps in their relationship.

Chuck comes home to find his Dad full of nurturing advice. Now I was raised to respect my elders and I mostly did, but when my parents were wrong, they heard it. Most adult children take unfair treatment from their parents usually only when they are tied to them by purse strings. In other cases, isn’t it rare, particularly in the West, to see adult children take crap from their parents? Good to see Chuck finally develop spine enough to kick his toxic sludge of a father to the curb. But not before the bug of the idea of a congressional seat in beautiful Mt. Kisco has been planted in Chuck’s head, as bugs of ideas put into our heads by our parents often do find root one way or another.

Paul Giamatti puts in an expert performance as a long-suffering man-child, perpetually “bathed in anger and defeat.” The Chuck speech he gives at the start of the show about being a grandmaster at chess and losing, not due to lack of skill, but due to something much more unwieldy, especially when we’re young: blind unfocused rage. In his interactions with his father, we see where that rage comes from. His father obviously has some unfinished business of his own and wants to finish it up vicariously thru his son. A sin a lot of parents are guilty of, and one that breeds a very specific rage in a child. We see the origins of Chuck’s life-long lament of losing to his adversaries, real and imagined.

While I was busy trying to destroy him, I’d forget to win.

Next we see Dollar Bill crossing over to the “edgy” digs of the quislings. He’s doing Axe’s bidding, planting some seeds for their ruin.

Chuck reads Judge Wilcox the riot act, so to speak. He agrees to retire. But Chuck has other plans and makes a grand show of arresting the good judge in the middle of his retirement party. Score one for the good guys, I guess. Albeit, some of the cases, of Black and Latinos sentenced to long sentences while the white middle class walked scott free were ones that came across Chuck’s very desk. Fun easter egg fact: the Baldinger Prison System invested in by Judge Wilcox is a call back to the prison used in another script penned by Koppleman and Levien: Rounders.

Wendy goes to visit Walter. With Donnie’s death, Walter has been left with a house full of secret Santa Christmas gifts. Wendy offers to help, but Walter lets her know that Lara has it covered. He starts to tell Wendy that Donnie felt bad about excluding her. Wendy doesn’t get to hear what that means. Lara comes in, shoulders cold and turned away from anything Wendy has to say or offer to do. She’s sealing the borders around her husband’s company. Closing ranks around the Axe family.

At a time like this, a family pulls together. That’s what Axe Capital is – a family.

Wendy, not hiding the sting one bit, responds firmly:

One I’m a part of too.

To which, Lara falsely concedes, laden with coldness:

Of course you are.

The relationship between these two women in Bobby’s orbit is progressing into a new dimension, first with the confrontation in the last episode, and now this scene where Lara basically says to Wendy, “get the fuck out, you’re not needed here.” So this may be a good time to talk about what this is NOT.

Granted, it’s a fact not often readily confessed, but nonetheless still true, at least some of the time: A woman will more likely trust the asshole man who doesn’t give a crap about her before she ever trusts the other woman in the same orbit as that asshole man who doesn’t give a crap. “Yeah, he’s a jerk, but he’s MY jerk.” But what these women are in the midst of cannot be classified as that kind of a “cat fight.” Neither of them is insecure enough for those kind of games.

Sure, both women are well-versed in the skills of manipulation, but I don’t sense anything sinister or catty or petty in the way they manipulate. It’s not manipulation for the sake of manipulation as it is with a lot of female characters. Neither are they femme fatales needing rescue or doormats, victims of men trudging all over them. Neither is shown as perpetually thirsty for love, acceptance, understanding. Neither has let their age or the fact they are mothers weaken them,, not that those two things SHOULD weaken a woman, but, let’s face it, all of media shows that to be the case. Yes, Lara gives up her career but only as a way to strengthen herself. I can’t recall a woman character shown who would give up everything and be stronger for it. As a feminist you want to look for the holes in what she’s done, but there aren’t any. And Wendy, she leads with her mind. And now a bit of her heart has been hurt too. This company who she thinks of as her own, a place she loves and where she wants to stay, is keeping her out of the loop, excluding her, seemingly at a time when they could use her particular skill set the most. Lastly, both women want the best for themselves and for their families and they both work hard, each her own way, to achieve it. There’s nothing petty here at all. And that’s what makes these female characters something to be celebrated.

And the scene is great. Poor Walter caught between equally powerful women, him equally admiring both, not wanting to take sides, but, of course, having to, because, after all we know who is paying his bills henceforth.

Wendy approaches Bobby at the funeral, with a glass and a bottle. Damian’s body language in this scene is a wonder to behold. Bobby is so closed off, so tightly wound around himself. When Wendy asks “You okay?”, the answer is a quick “Sure.” (Remember that scene in Homeland when Dana asks Brody if he’s coming home and he says, “Sure, I’m coming home”, and she says, “Not like that, Dad, say it like you mean it”? Well, Bobby’s “Sure” here is not as clear to read. Afterall he’s not a man wearing a suicide vest, but it has the perfect fraction of that same coldness, the same lie behind it, much less intense, but still readable) There are minute things Damian does with his face, his neck, that bely his “Sure”.  The thick layer of defense is still there, the thick layer of self-preservation, but, this time we can see a little past it. And, again, as it did with Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” in a past episode, the choice in music here, Parker Millsap, Heaven Sent  betrays all we need to know about Bobby in this scene. (BTW, Parker Millsap is like 22, if you can believe it…tell you what, this show is really contributing to my iTunes bill!)

Then, Axe closes the deal on the quislings, finishes them off with a quick thwack to the legs. They get to stay in business, but, basically as an annex to Axe Capital.

Swallow that, and wash it down with this.


Time jump back to the funeral. Bobby makes a speech at the funeral about how he doesn’t make speeches at funerals. Can we take from this speech and from Wendy’s expression that Bobby did not attend the funeral of the co-workers he lost in the South Tower?

I like to keep moving so I don’t have to think about it… I’m not the type to grapple with it all.

Methinks he doth protest too much. There’s more there; Damian showed us more of the stuff hidden beneath the thick layer this time.

How I love that Wendy decides to take on that bottle of champagne solo. A woman after my heart. As a medical professional. she feels guilt for Donnie’s death, for sending him back to the fray when he could have lived his last days at home with his family. Trying to cheer her up, Wags let slip that Donnie walked with 40 million. He chalks it up to hyperbole. Wendy’s no slack. She knows the door to Axe Capital is closing with her foot still in it.


Finally, we see the doctor who treated Donnie’s cancer. Walter thanks him for doing all he could, and, by the doctor’s expression in return, we know that something is left to tell of Donnie’s story. And then Bobby’s face as he hears Walter speak of Christmas, how Donnie would have loved to have lived to see one last Christmas.


And, we get the big reveal of the episode, back to the beginning.

Bobby was an investor in biotech because biotech is a lucrative sector. Folks have made lots of money whenever a new wonder treatment or drug is revealed. And folks who have inside information about a new treatment or drug, of course, make exponentially more money. So Axe understandably has connections in biotech and medical research. He offers to hook Donnie up with a premier oncologist, Ari Gilbert. Not a minute after his generous offer, Axe’s beautiful mind has proceeded to the next step and he wants to meet Donnie later. That took like five seconds, right? For Axe to get from ‘Oh, shit, you’re dying, let’s try to fix this” to “Oh, shit, you’re dying, let’s see how we can use this.” When they meet at the end of the day, Axe guages where Donnie is financially, whether he needs help with his family, what his plans were for his legacy. Then Axe tells him about a guaranteed 40 million.

The rewards of paradise here on earth.

Then we’ve already seen the scene that comes chronologically after this one: where Axe offers to triple Donnie’s stack and gives him Rubinex, which we learn later to be the bait for the DA’s office and the FBI. Thus, we see Bobby’s mind make the connection between terminal illness and opportunity. Yes, agreed, Bobby wanted to provide his dying employee with a legacy for his kids. But, was it an altruistic act, based in true caring and generosity? And did Bobby himself not stand to make a pretty penny too, not to mention getting one over on his enemies, big time? Even if we choose to not embitter ourselves sitting in judgement, the morality of it all is inescapable. We learn, of course, that the cancer specialist who is brought on to give Donnie the best treatment possible, Dr. Ari, is deep in Bobby’s pocket.


There is nothing personal in Bobby’s knowledge of biotech and medical resources. Just as there was nothing personal in his knowledge of people who could make Dimonda the next Charlie Rose, or Midwest farmers with sick kids and inside knowledge of crop research. It’s all data he has under storage in his beautiful wizard mind.

In fact, there is very little personal about Bobby at all. Where is his authentic private self? We saw just a hint of it last episode in the scene with Lara “I shut’s what I know”. But that scene mostly read as appeasement. He was soothing and appeasing his wife over her loss of her restaurant and farm. He knew she needed words, and he provided some. It was a confession of sorts and an explanation, but it was only just barely a window into his authentic private self.

It seems that Bobby’s tenuous authentic private self may live somewhere between Lara and Wendy, somewhere neither woman can ever know completely? We’ve seen him ask Wendy why she’s staying, but he’s never disclosed, either directly or indirectly, why he’s keeping her around. In this episode, Lara drops a bit of a bombshell telling him that she heard Wendy grilling Walter. Of course, we know that Wendy was doing no such thing, but I do believe Lara heard it as that. She’s not lying or being manipulative, trying to throw the “other woman” under the bus. Bobby lets it slide, just as he lets most personal stuff slide. He’s keeping Wendy. Now, is this because Wendy knows his authentic private self in a way no one else can? Or does Wendy, as the team empath, provide the conduit he needs into himself, this “self” who is out of his own reach? We learn in this episode that Bobby has not employed Wendy as a conduit to himself (ie had a session with her) in over 3 years. Why is that? And maybe, as we approach the final episodes of this first season, it’s time for that session?

At this point who “gets” Bobby doesn’t really matter. To whomever he shows his authentic private self, I’m just hoping that we get to see it too!

Chuck is right. Axe used his dying friend to get one over on his enemy. But Chuck fancies himself not playing such games. And, of course, he’s not above such games. They’re all, every single one of them, masters at three dimensional chess, thinking two, four, six moves ahead of their opponent. Pretty darn fascinating game to watch.


8 thoughts on “Billions ep 10 : Quality of Life”

  1. Axe Capital should hire you on the spot, lady, should Wendy decide to go take that lucrative job at the blue chip consulting firm 🙂 A brilliant analysis of all brilliant minds we care about in Billions.

    So it’s not personal. It’s all business. I think your observation is spot on. And, in that context, I think, Axe’s “auto pilot” is “all business.” He has probably given up on getting into the morals or emotions of anything long ago just to focus on what is rational. This is how he keeps going. Maybe he was not like that until 3.5 years ago when he was having real sessions with Wendy. I don’t know if it was because he was too busy to have them or it was because something happened 3.5 years ago that the sessions ended there. But still Axe has kept Wendy around because her value to the firm is “absolute” and she can get people from 0 to 100 in 10 seconds. And I really think he needs a real session. It cannot be soon enough!

    It’s heartbreaking to see the conversation between Axe and Dr. Gilbert at many levels. First, quality of life. As someone that had to live with cancer in her family for some time, I have an idea or two about quality of life. The question Axe asks the doctor is a legitimate question. There is discussion even in medical world about the costs and benefits of lengthening someone’s life for 3 months under rigorous treatment and usually in hospital versus leaving this person have some quality of life with his family. Having said this… Axe is just making this argument because it is the best he can come up with. If Donnie goes to Pittsburgh, he will take the treatment there and he has to focus on that completely which would make the 40 million dollar deal go off. Now, maybe if Axe told Donnie, not maybe, in fact, I am sure Donnie would still take the deal. But, it should ultimately be HIS choice. But he does not even find out about an option he could have. But the most heartbreaking part is not really about Axe but about the doctor. How dare he accepts not to bring “this” up? The show is not trying to moralize anything but it is doing a great job of showing us how the system is rotten! We see politics, business and law walking hand in hand and in the same way big business and pharmaceuticals, and doctors all intermingled with each other. And then whose quality of life should we talk about? And whose quality of life is Axe talking about? HIS much more than Donnie’s. Sad and true.

    Your analysis of Lara and Wendy is just perfect. Exactly. These women are not insecure and would not get into a catfight. Every time we see them meet though they are much colder to each other so I am curious how their next meeting will turn out to be. Lara is just protecting her family, this is her job as she repeatedly reminds Axe over the season. So, just a little glimpse of Wendy and Walter talking about Donnie flags Wendy for Lara. And… Wendy… poor Wendy. This was the episode she has really felt being left alone both by her home husband and work husband. Asking for a session with Axe is her last try to get on his good side and keep what she has? She loves her job. But she may need to make some difficult decisions.

    And may I just say I have watched the end of this episode way too many times? The way Axe looks at Donnie’s pic and then my most favorite song of the show so far “Tubthumping” starts and I just feel Axe is asking deep down for Donnie boy’s forgiveness… but he really is not the type to grapple with it, as he rightly points out earlier… he just holds his own, stands tall and walks away… he just walks away… and I think, and this is not in any way a defense or a pity on the guy, that Bobby Axelrod could be the loneliest man in the world. And, sigh, I am falling in love with Damian’s acting all over again. That walk. It gets me. It just gets me.

  2. Indeed, he’s got the walk of a runway model, but totally natural. The cut of his overcoat was perfect too, of course. I too fell in love with Bobby all over again in this episode. It was fabulous all around: the time jumps, the comedy smack dab in the middle of a funeral, lots of good stuff.

    It’s an enviable skill, to see only the rational. I just don’t think it’s ever entirely possible for humans to give up on all emotion. One can suppress emotion for years, for entire lifetimes, but “pain demands to be felt.” (That’s a quote from a very quotable YA book, The Fault in Our Stars, hehe) I’m very interested in finding out what happened 3 and half years ago for Axe to close off what I’ve called the “conduit to his emotions”. I hope it’s not arbitrary, but it just may be.

    When thinking about this show, I keep going back to the Sopranos. Insofar as all characters are archetypes and a show like The Sopranos defined a new brand of archetype, it may not be an entirely unfair comparison. Tony stopped therapy for a while, when he was going thru a particularly violent time. Exerting himself thru violence took care of his panic attacks right away and he didn’t need to see Melfi any more. Maybe Axe, likewise, stopped therapy when he decided to go really deeply into insider trading? When he decided that being rich wasn’t enough, he needed to be filthy rich? And exerting himself thru that took the place of any needs he may have felt for Wendy’s empathy? Just thinking aloud here. 🙂 Whatever the case, Bobby’s psyche is such a fascinating space…the minds of all these people are fascinating spaces. Last week I felt those spaces were closing off a bit, but they opened back up to us so beautifully in this episode.

  3. I echo Damianista about the possible vacancy at Axe Capital. It was good to see Bobby showing a bit more emotion even if the words he was saying were attempting to contradict what his face was saying. I had a chuckle as he started his speech by saying “I don’t do funerals”…and yet here you are.

    It is an interesting question as to whether she realises about Donnie from Bobby’s POV. It seems that even the great Dr Rhoades can wear blinkers when she wants. It seemed obvious to me and no doubt to Bobby, certainly was to Lara that Chuck was not recused. Others knew/guessed it, but she genuinely seemed oblivious to it. I would hazard a guess that she has not yet realised about Bobby/Donnie, but the pieces were there for her in QOL and she just has to put them together.

    You have Lara and Wendy so well Analised. I was on team Wendy this week. I quite like Lara and appreciate where she is coming from, but was not happy with her this week. Wendy looked so sad and isolated.

    The best matter about this piece is you have covered the episode well, but have also asked more questions…which demand answers! I also know you have more to come.

  4. “At this point who “gets” Bobby doesn’t really matter. To whomever he shows his authentic private self, I’m just hoping that we get to see it too!”

    I love this! Could it be that even he doesn’t know who his authentic self is anymore? Has he just lost himself in being a hedge fund king, having always to be on top, always in control, that the kid listening to Metallica has all but vanished?

    All the more to see how fitting “Master of Puppets” lyrics fit right in!

    1. Yes! If Axe is living those lyrics, then maybe we can’t really hope for catharsis or any sort of absolution. Maybe this is all there is to him now. The struggle though, that’s what I like to see. We saw some lovely bits of his struggle in this episode! I could watch Bobby’s struggle with himself for years. 🙂

      “Master of Puppets” is about cocaine, but, of course, the master can be anything ….in Axe’s case it’s money:

      “Chop your breakfast on a mirror
      Taste me you will see
      More is all you need”

      A momentary lapse into questioning what the hell is going on, and if this is really what he wanted:
      “Where’s the dreams that I’ve been after?”

      But then back to the addiction, resigning himself to live the hell:
      “Hell is worth all that, natural habitat
      Just a rhyme without a reason
      Never-ending maze, drift on numbered days
      Now your life is out of season”

      Great song, and, recently, the first heavy metal album ever to be preserved for all posterity in the Library of Congress! 😀

  5. What a deep and fascinating analysis! Frankly, each episode makes more sense when I watch it a second time the next week after reading all three recaps here 🙂

  6. All of you are such great writers. Sharp recap. I hadn’t thought of the Dr. Melfi/Wendy comparison. Very interesting.

    And Damian has said in interviews what he got from talking to the hedge fund people and billionaires is they are into playing the game. Maybe it’s an addiction. But it must go beyond money and just playing the game is why they do it. And winning. Like gambling.

    They are sure setting up some intense moral dilemmas for us to ponder. One after another.

    I haven’t been to Wave Hill in a very long time. Want to go visit. It really is a gorgeous park and gardens. That scene of him walking away at the end was so cinematic. Beautifully shot.

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