Billions ep 11 : Magical Thinking

Master of reading the charts and anticipating risk, master of seeing the long shot and taking the short road to get there, Difference Maker Bobby Axelrod has had a slip in judgement. He hasn’t seen what every other manager and analyst, “to a man”, has seen, and by refusing to budge in the face of the majority opinion, he proceeds to lose. And lose big. Axe Capital is on the brink of losing upwards of $800 million simply due to Bobby’s stubborn and ill-conceived refusal to see the numbers he’s always been able to see. But was it a refusal to see the big picture or an incapacity? Is Axe losing his wizard skills or did he subconsciously sabotage himself? These are the questions up for exploration in this penultimate episode of the series.


For the first time in the series, we see Axe lost, confused, and a bit contrite. But even beneath the blustery confusion over what is going on in his head, you never sense a loss of confidence. The confidence seems to be a part of the DNA, somehow. I’ve tried arguing the impossibility of this point with my blogmates backchannel for weeks, but time has come for me to concede, they are totally right, Bobby Axelrod’s confidence is built solely on his ability to stay rational at all times, even when he has been hobbled, emotionally with Donnie’s death last episode and now with the cold hard numbers that may cripple this company he built from the ashes of 9/11. Whatever emotional damage he may or may not have suffered in the past is really moot, because he is not ruled by some deep emotional longing, a longing to fill an as-yet unidentified empty space. If he ever had an empty space he’s already done the work to fill it up with pure rational thinking. He’s become a bit of a robot in the process. But one willing, as this episode shows, to at least question and explore where it all comes from. As the master of rationality he is, Axe proceeds to try to figure out what’s happened by retracing his footsteps, hoping to logically deduce an answer from piecing together exactly when things went wrong. To do that, he needs Wendy’s help.


We also see in this episode exactly what skill Wendy provides to keep Axe from letting her go. What she provides is not exactly talk therapy where a patient is encouraged to go back years and explore all lingering damage in an effort to bring it to light and heal. And it’s not really cognitive behavior therapy either, where a patient is encouraged to “fake it till you make it”, i.e. go through the behavioral modifications imitating good health until good health inevitably manifests. Wendy Rhoades is a performance coach. Now, truth be told, it’s a field rife for cynicism. Really, can anyone be coached out of ineffectuality, stinkin’ thinkin’, and real honest to goodness depression? No, you can’t cheerlead away deeply engrained emotional issues. But apparently, as Wendy shows, performance coaching isn’t just about cheerleading. It’s about getting to the root of the matter, temporarily divorcing emotion from motivation, and thoughtfully working out the internal processes that lead one to do the things they do. We see Dr Wendy work her mojo on recalcitrant Bobby Axelrod and then wonder why would anyone ever waste money on any other kind of therapy?

But, hold the phone, Wendy’s off being wooed by feel-good female-friendly non-zero-sum playing Zenobia Capital, the place to where Saldana defected several episodes ago. They need someone to “curate the balance” between letting cowboys with “sawed-off shotguns” run amok (as they do at Axe Capital and most other funds) and “scented candles and an aversion to risk.” Don’t know what to make of Wendy repeatedly slipping out of the office to explore potentially greener pastures. While you have to love her drive, her perpetual reaching for something better, you also sense that it’s all a big tease: will she stay or will she go? And does it really matter? Her relationship with Axe and with his company seem absolute, carved in stone. Even when they’ve excluded her as they did from the Donnie story, she’s still present, and very much there. Even if she left, would that depth really go away? Okay, it would. Just because it’s deep doesn’t mean it’s forever. It just seems that whatever they’re going thru now is a minor glitch. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. Their relationship just seems to have that quality to it, some nebulous quality of eternity.


Axe tells Lara what happened, that he lost sight of the matrix, and that only one person can fix him: Wendy. Lara, being the ride-or-die chick she is, understands. She does later regret giving him the green light. Actually she seems to end a lot of episodes regretting giving her wayward husband the green light, yet, she keeps on giving. Again, the feminist in us (in her!) wants to find the holes. It’s sort of a “okay, hon, but don’t let it happen again” refrain, yet you can’t really see her as a doormat either. The fact she basically won the lottery by marrying this guy helps, I suppose. Basically, he is a good guy, he’s not stepping out on her, he’s not lying to her. She knows the deal on all his deals. Ultimately, there’s one great big word summarizing their relationship: Marriage. Give and take, better, worse, ride or die.


So Wendy gets Axe for the evening, and the first real therapy session she’s had with him in 3 and a half years.

Bobby starts by telling Wendy the mistake he made.

The moment Mafee said all the guys said it was the wrong move [to stay in], I had to get out. I had to prove I was the difference maker.

Wendy starts Bobby thinking by asking:

To whom….they all idolize you already.

Wendy has been employed to make sure Axe and his people keep making money. She does an adorable hand motion denoting “the rest” of Bobby, the part she’ll need to work on, the part not about making money.

This is going to take a while.


Since Bobby and Wendy are more than patient and therapist, the conversation goes two ways. Bobby gets to ask how Wendy is too. Just as Lara had predicted, Wendy can’t help but express her feelings of being left out of the loop re Donnie. Bobby explains it thusly:

People withhold crucial information all the time. We learn to manage our expectations…so that they don’t turn into mistrust or paranoia.

In this statement, Axe seems to be preaching a quite performance coach-y message of “let go to let in.” He’s equivocating leaving Wendy out of the loop, but in a way that makes total sense. It hurt and angers her to be left out, and she wants to stay on the Donnie track.but this session has to be about Axe. She knows that both she and Bobby were affected by Donnie’s death more than they have said. She knows that Axe’s failure now has to be directly tied to Donnie’s death.


Now, please allow an aside to assert an incontestable immortal truth: Rich, non-banal, focused and honest conversation between two intelligent people = the hottest thing EVER. It’s a formula that has always worked and always will work. A rich honest conversation written for these two actors, in particular? Even hotter. The chemistry here is off the charts. Wendy probes for more, Bobby gives logical answers that make all kinds of sense yet aren’t the complete story, he launches in flight, unable to sit still, she follows, playing along. They launch company property off the balcony against a backdrop of vintage Van Halen. She leads him back to focus, he hits the ball to her side, holding back none of his stroke, she flings it right back with equal power. It’s absolutely delicious watching.


At one point, Axe takes the world on his shoulders, poised to fling it away. Let’s run a bit with the metaphor here, shall we? Does Axe really take on the weight of the world? He says he feels responsibility for his people, he takes care of them. He took care of Danzig’s issue with the machine gun on the lawn, he got Donnie the best medical care. Is that what is weighing him down, making him lose focus? No, absolutely not.

source: Showtime
source: Showtime

Axe has obligations and responsibilities, sure, but he’s already translated them mostly into ownership and control. It may not be the world at all, but the sky he’s holding up. Is he Atlas, the god of endurance, condemned to hold up the sky? His obligation is not to the well-being of his people, his obligation is to hold up the goals for all his people to reach. The goal of the money, the houses, the helicopters and cars. His job is to hold up that dream deferred, and to keep earth and the sky from “resuming their primordial embrace.” It’s America, the dream, he’s holding up. And speaking of Atlas, one can’t not go to Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s great treatise against government regulation. No telling if this grand metaphor is what the writers intended, but I wouldn’t put it past them! Does Axe shrug? Hell no, he’ll destroy that thing off the balcony before he’ll ever shrug under the weight of it. Wendy knows all of this. All of this is the reason she’s still around, helping Axe hold up the sky.

Shooters gotta shoot. Unwavering belief in our capabilities, it’s essential, to a point.

But maybe your self-image is creating a blind spot.

Wendy asserts that the same blind spot which allows Axe to be the superhero, be indestructible, is not working for him now.

You need to find out what part of your self-image is false, and you need to either live up to it or lose it.

A line worth writing down somewhere and remembering, folks, not just for the show, but for life in general. Either own your shit or throw it off the balcony. Using it as either a weapon or as a shield does no one any good.

Bobby takes flight from the word “false” and moves the conversation into a bit of a more intimate space, into the falsehoods exchanged between parting lovers. Damn, dude. Don’t even get me started. Is it the eye contact, flickering between hot and cold, is it the dance of bodies moved by words? If only there were some wordy way to describe chemistry and put it into a box… and sell it. No, Damianista, it wasn’t just you. I saw Wendy’s blush as clear as day.


They walk and talk about the few things that make Bobby cry. Soldiers coming home and surprising their kids top the list. Bobby describes something like this video.  We learn that Bobby’s own dad never came home. What that means, we may never learn, because Wendy tells us they’ve already resolved a bunch of that. That empty space has already been filled, for the most part. In Bobby’s description of the soldier-son videos, Wendy sees the metaphor of a man taking off a mask, revealing himself for the first time, and still being loved for it. Bobby says:

That guy’s a hero, he deserves the love.

I almost expected Damian to pull out a Brody-esque “I’m no hero”. More notable here is how Bobby has put a condition on love. That some things and people deserve love. Bobby being on the money, taking care of his people, his family, all in his mind are the conditions he must meet to be loved. And Bobby is a hero who cannot afford to take off that mask as the provider, the difference maker. He can’t afford to miss or to lose. Wendy brings it all back to Donnie. She knows Bobby used Donnie as a shield and that his family was given an ample reward.

You should feel great, you saved your kingdom, and rewarded richly the knight who fell on his sword so you could do it.

He responds:

A king who does not mourn that knight? And who goes on building his own castle?

Axe confesses he’s guilty of letting Donnie die when he could have lived for a bit longer, long enough to see Christmas. What a beautiful job Maggie Siff does at registering this revelation. As a human being, Wendy is shocked, but, as a therapist she’s mostly relieved that it’s finally out. And she expertly deconstructs it, going deeper:

You’re punishing yourself because you’re understanding that you didn’t care about Donnie. Not really.

Despite what Wendy says later, there is a brief flicker of disgust on her face as she says this. As a therapist she can’t pass judgment, but again, the morality of it all is inescapable. Whatever the case, she’s gotten Bobby to go deeper and address the question of whether he may be a sociopath. According to the great Hermoine Granger, “fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.” And it’s true here as well: putting the title of “sociopath” out there has taken power away from the word. A true sociopath would never question himself on whether he’s a sociopath, he would just happily go on being one.

A normal person wouldn’t engage in the behavior. A sociopath wouldn’t give a shit. You’re somewhere in between.


And now it’s about choice. Wendy urges Bobby to choose between fixing the fact that he can’t feel things normal people feel or shut it back down and see how that works for him. Wendy has put the possibility of that choice in Axe’s head, but will he make the choice? That middle ground, we could all live there a really long time, right? Nevermind that not making the choice amounts to pretty much the same thing as shutting down anyway? Yep, this show is going for a second season. And I have a feeling Bobby’s going to be struggling with that choice a good long time. The struggle is exactly what we want to see. This long-awaited session for Bobby has been a win-win for him and for us.

Every therapy session should end with a shared doobie on a cool balcony. Wendy affirms that when it comes to Bobby, disgust is just “not on the table.” As a quiet statement of “therapist, heal thyself”, Bobby observes that some of Wendy’s wires may be crossed too. And he starts his own session with her about her shopping around for greener pastures.

You think you’ll be different there? Fixed? Working in a simpler safer situation will allow you to step back from the edge?


Material for future sessions, indeed. Yes, please.

11 thoughts on “Billions ep 11 : Magical Thinking”

  1. Did anyone else feel like Bobby’s comments about “do you think it will be different” were kinda abusive or almost gas lighting-like? Like, that’s something emotionally abusive folks say.

    1. Now that you mention it, yes! Wendy seems to be the only one in Axe’s sphere who he can’t control in any way. He did the same thing asking her about the $250K she took out to give to Saldana/Zenobia. It’s her money, why does he need to know how she spends it? He seems to know how his other people spend theirs: Dollar Bill with the two familes, etc. But with Wendy, there are so many unknowns, and Bobby is perplexed by her…when Hall asks if he trusts her, Axe says “I want to.” He somehow can’t let her go, either. And he can’t let go trying to figure her out the way he’s got everything else in his life figured out, anticipated. This is the point I’m sort of stuck pondering every time. He needs her. He feels dependent on her. We only really saw why in this last episode. And we need to see more.
      I think if he is being abusive, Wendy has the tools to combat it. What makes Bobby into an abuser is a question I hope they explore further.

  2. As soon as I finished the episode I knew that THIS SESSION asked for its own separate post and you DID it. Hats off!

    I love it how we bring our backchannel conversations to our posts and yeah we may be right about him almost being a robot, you are absolutely right that he may NOT be a robot forever. And he just starts to give out at some point — which I love. Happy to see Bobby Axelrod is a human being. And yeah he needs to allow himself to be one should he not want to go on and be a sociopath. Having said that… even when he decides to do something that he has not done for the last 3.5 years, the session that is, he is rational. He knows what kind of questions Wendy will ask him (Donnie!) and makes his cost/benefit analysis and jumps into the session. He knows this is the right thing to do if he wants to be on top of things tomorrow!

    Love it that you have also seen the blush! Chemistry off the charts indeed. And I am with you, you already know that, real conversation between two intelligent people is THE BEST thing ever. And, hey, it may really be more intimate than, say, sex. That is why I just want them to stay the way they are. And I know Axe and Lara will be okay, but I am sorry I am not able to say the same for Wendy and Chuck at this point.

    I am starting to think Wendy, in fact, deep down, wants Axe to know that she’s looking at other shops. I don’t think she really wants to leave, but she feels that she needs to leave to have her family life go on, because she is sick and tired of the pissing contest between her home husband and work husband 🙂 And, I believe, she is happy when he starts drilling about her looking for another job. She wants him TO SAY THAT, she wants him to tell her to stay. And, I think she WILL.

    Finally… as someone that grew up with a single parent, I know about the need to be loved. You just feel it so strongly especially when it is just you and your mom and no other siblings. Axe wearing a mask may have started way before, when he was very young, as a way to cope with this absolute need to be loved. When you think you will not be loved for who you are, you just wear your mask and make yourself loved. It may be painful. But it works. Axe may over time start doing this constantly — both at work and at home. Fascinating stuff.

    1. He absolutely takes a practical approach to all of it, totally divorced of all emotion. And the session helped to reveal some of the “Why” of his way of doing things. And the “why” of keeping Wendy around.
      Not sure I like Wendy playing games to get Axe to tell her to stay. He’s already done so in an earlier episode when he said “your value is absolute.” What else does she want from him? I don’t want to see her in the position of wanting anything from him, actually. But, then we had the line of “I’m interested in knowing what [my staying] means to you.” I still don’t completely know what that meant. Because we all know he can’t really be described as a giver, in any of his relationships, public or private. He just doesn’t seem to know better…the politics of give and take are a bit lost on him. It’s so interesting trying to figure him out! And I thank our lucky stars that we get another season to do it!!
      As I said below, if they keep having conversations like these, I’m fine if it never goes any further!

      1. We don’t know if she is playing games with Axe, but I feel like she does want him to know that she may leave. So he should not take her granted. Wendy is a professional but even the most professional may at times not stop herself from playing games, I guess, and hey, she is a dominatrix so maybe that side of hers sometimes just triggers this kind of behavior. I agree with you Axe is not a “giver” in his relationships but still Wendy is the only one in Axe’s circles that he uses “please” and “thank you” with. She has a special position. And I think she may from time to time have the need to feel that she is special. She is a professional but also a human being. And they are beyond patient – doctor relationship. This is a fascinating, complex relationship that is a pleasure to micro analyze. I love it!

  3. This session was jam packed with so much and I am glad you have broken it down for us. I certainly agree that more intimate discussions between the two would be very welcome. Oh, she blushed!

    And I absolutely love this

    “A line worth writing down somewhere and remembering, folks, not just for the show, but for life in general. Either own your shit or throw it off the balcony. Using it as either a weapon or as a shield does no one any good.”

    1. I swear every corporate environment could use a person like Wendy, and I’m surprised more don’t. When so much of our lives are spent at work, it makes sense to go deep into personal motivations. True, there is conflict of interest upon conflict of interest on this dynamic. Like would the company shrink really be able to tell the boss he was off his rocker and needs some serious help? I doubt it. Anyway, the dynamic between Axe and Wendy is a place where we can spend a lot of time. At this point, frankly, I don’t care if they never get naked again. (albeit, not like I’d be turning away from my screen if they do happen to, again :)) As long as they keep having conversations like these, I’ll be set!

  4. Did any one of you feel that Axe’s “false” comment referred to a relationship that Wendy broke off with him?” It would have been unprofessional on her part any way being his psychiatrist but she might have relented and saw him one last time?

    I am curious how you saw that comment.


    1. Truthfully, I’m not sure what to make of that bit. The way he sidled up to her and went all sexy and flirty and playful. At first I thought he may be referring to something that happened between them in the past, but then he sort of played stupid and said the analogy just popped into his head. And I can’t even tell if he’s playing stupid or really is some sort of dufus savant, who demands to know every little detail of those around him but doesn’t seem to know himself very well at all. Wendy seemed to be taken aback by the analogy too, the idea of one last roll in the hay at the end of a relationship. But she seemed amused by it too, and, I like to think, a little taken aback by the wretched sexiness of him bringing it up.
      I think if they did have a fling in the past then it happened before she came on as the company psychiatrist, before either of them were married. If it happened at all, it may have happened right when they first met. So that time she metaphorically pulled him out of the fire of 9/11 may have been as a lover and not as a therapist. Great things to imagine, even if they didn’t happen.
      So many unknowns about their relationship, past, present and future! This episode sealed some of their dynamic but I’m thinking and hoping it only scratched the surface. Lucky for us the show is going into a second season!

  5. I loved the way the session seems to break down the false facade of emotionlessness in Axe’s own brain. It’s easy to sometimes think we do not feel and hence not feel, till something happens to break the illusion.

    The balcony scene- yeah the chemistry is off the charts and their relationship is timeless. What I love is how he respects what she thinks about him so much that his focus on her when she speaks her mind about him is incredible.

    Poor Chuck, I don’t think he thinks that Wendy will betray him, it’s just that his equation and chemistry with Wendy are nowhere close to that he sees of Wendy and Bobby Axelrod and that’s what gets him down. It’s hard to justify your spouse staying in a marriage when you see him or her having some inexplicable real connection with another person.

    Am so impressed by how well written this article on the session is.

    1. Thank you so much! It’s great to have thoughtful readers stop by and comment. 🙂

      The biggest element of mystery (for me) in their relationship is just how much Bobby seems to NEED Wendy, not just to keep his people productive, but for himself, some deep ancient need that only she can fill. I hope you read Bookworm’s post for today, where she pulls out brilliantly telling quotes from the story of Peter Pan, vis a vis the relationship between Peter and Wendy, to further describe the dynamic between Bobby and his very own Wendy. The analogy is brilliant. Wendy was the only one Peter could cry in front of. To the rest, he had to present a persona. How beautiful to consider that Wendy Rhoades serves that very same purpose for Bobby?

      So much about it is inexplicable. So much we haven’t seen, eg the circumstances under which they met and how she helped him through 9/11. Maybe we will never see it. The show hasn’t done any flashbacks yet, and may never, for all we know. But with this episode, the show laid a real foundation for us imagining the history that created the depth in their relationship.

      The way Bobby listens to Wendy is a beautiful thing. The way Damian has really LISTENED to what to this role requires of him is so beautifully tangible. Exciting to see where they’ll go next!

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