Continuing the rollicking cadence of win/loss and cat/mouse, Billions picks up the pace in an energetic Episode 2.
“Dead Cat Bounce” is book-ended by a fake smile with handshake on one end and a sincere sneer and handshake on the other, going deeper exactly where we need it to go.
Axe is still a nervous cat, but a merry one, as he publically humiliates arch nemesis du jour, Todd Krakow, in the opening scene and continues throughout the episode to dig the claws deeper into the side of this twerp who tried to steal Wendy from him.
A conduit to the merriment is Lawrence Boyd of Spartan-Ives, who as you may recall from last season bailed on Axe when he was most in need of a prime investor to show support for Axe Capital. (Remember Bobby walking in to what he thought would be a meeting and finding instead a bunch of dip shits on mail room night?) True, Bobby will traipse around town, get humiliated at Barclay, and still sit happily next to the throne of the guys who have the money, playing bull to their red flag, but when he smiles at the big wigs, you can tell he doesn’t really mean it.
Damian in this episode seems to have taken on a few more alpha American male tropes. Bobby is manspreading in every chair he sits in, propping his legs irreverantly on his desk, sniffing dismissively, and doing that bit of impolite thing that guys do with their mouths like their flossing their teeth with their tongues. His bullying robes are on and he’s primed to continue the fight for his fate.
Last week, Mafee gave Axe a taste of wunderkind Taylor’s talent with data and anticipating good plays. This week, Axe wants to skip right over Mafee and talk directly with his “better half.” After seeing the confrontation on stage between Axe and Krakow, Taylor anticipated their “roiling antipathy” and offers insights on some weaknesses in one of Krakow’s plays. Long story short: there’s a tech company with a fancy new device to be manufactured in China. Krakow has been “bullish and omniscient” in throwing cash at the Chinese company. Taylor concludes that the only route to omniscience is satellite images. But, wait, that’s not all. The satellite images are themselves not to be trusted. Seems companies under the gaze of a watchful government demanding good numbers can manipulate the appearance of production. So Taylor in their own omniscience not only saw the satellite data but saw that something was off about it. This kid is smart and Axe is intrigued.
Now, he’s set to make the play he needs to fell Krakow, but not before hearing some further insight from his chief of keeping-passion-in-check, Stephanie. Her stepping in where she needs to is really a way for Axe to sense that Wags is NOT stepping in where he needs to.
Axe gets a visit from the AG’s investigator, and here, you really see the bully in Axe come out. He rattles off a rhetorical flourish of all the things that make him suspicious. Orrin Bach rolls his eyes. Dake’s smile indicates he’s been on this side of the bully dynamic before. So fun to see Damian play a bully. He’s never over-the-top asshole, just the bare minimum he needs to assert his superiority on whomever he’s speaking to. Dake suffers the bullying with a smile and comes back with a sweet offer for Axe. His offer is to let hedge fund managers be hedge fund managers while maintaining the expectation that those in the business of justice should answer to a higher authority. He wants Axe to testify that the $5 million he gave to Wendy was a bribe to Chuck. Axe is intrigued by the offer but smarts when he hears that Wendy will be indicted too.
Eventually Anana-tek (the tech company with the nifty new product and dodgy manufacturer), as Axe with Taylor’s help predicted, will go down 50%. Krakow, as the fund manager, will have to fire the CEO. (Gosh, I wish I could wrap my head around just how it is qualitatively different to be a predator vs. a rescuer of failing businesses in this world….maybe Lady Trader can help with that?)
The deal leads to the revelation that Taylor, a character (as well as the bright actor who plays her, Asia Kate Dillon) who embodies much of what we need to know about intersectionality, likes being right. Bobby nicely shows his lust for excellence wherever he can find it. With Taylor it becomes almost predatory. Witness the lion circling around fresh new quarry.
Bobby understands that Taylor could care less about the money, although, of course, no one says no to money in this world. As Axe says to them:
Money is an abstraction.
Taylor confesses that in Axe’s world:
Breathing the air… can be discomforting.
The air is thinner.
Cue a lovely scene, awash in east coast twilight. (Kudos to the directors of photography here who know good light)
Bobby tells Taylor that “the aquarium” she’s in may not be the barrier they think it is, it may be a lens allowing them to see more clearly. I don’t know about you, but with this line, my mind went to that Pink Floyd lyric:
We’re just two lost souls, swimming in a fishbowl, year after year.
Wow to the fact that Bobby thinks such an existence breeds empathy, a heightened sense of awareness, a lens, to the world. Chronic optimist this bloke Bobby Axelrod! In short, he convinces Taylor to stay. I’m glad. Have to love a new actor who can hold their own against Damian. It’s the eye contact, keep it confident and unwavering, that’s all Damian needs.
Meanwhile, Chuck is imploring his people to save his ass from the wrath of the Attorney General. His lawyer has advised slaying an enemy for the AG. He also advises that Chuck hide his own trust fund offshore. We learn here that Chuck has put his own money in a blind trust, untouchable while he’s in office. What a concept! Bryan, Kate and Lonnie, much like Mafee, bumble around ideas too. Chuck obtusely tells his people to:
Steer wide around Axe Capital, that’s not going to help.
To which Bryan, soaking in distrust of his boss, quips:
It’s hinky. I’m going to steer wide around all of it.
One of the ideas, proposed by Kate, is to go after Spartan-Ives. Lonnie shoots it down as a place that may as well be a “finishing school for Treasury Secretaries”, meaning that it is entrenched as a friend of the administration, not the enemy Chuck needs. Soon, Chuck comes upon a genuine enemy, a big retailer that has been anonymously funding a superPAC against the AG’s office, but the AG shoots that down as something that’d be a great battle…for Chuck’s successor.
Back at home, Chuck Sr. confronts Wendy on the impasse in the Rhoades’ marriage. So curious to note the different attitudes about marriage: Rhoades vs. Axelrod. Remember Lara’s brother’s advice when news of Bobby’s connection to 9/11 hit the fan?
You married a criminal, walk away from the shame, divorce his ass.
Now we have Chuck Sr. weighing in about what marriage means. Never mind that he’s maintained a longtime mistress and whatever else under the table of wedded bliss. Granted he comes from the side of the patriarch unwilling to sully his name, Chuck Sr.’s advice to Wendy still speaks volumes:
Unless it’s broken plates and steak knives, you get thru it.
I’ve always said that Lara is one of rare breed of ride or die spouses, but maybe Chuck Sr. is the real stalwart here. Call it a stretch, but I think the differing attitudes towards marriage also mirror the fact that the Axelrods are new money, primed to move on to the next, and the Rhoades are old, attached to obligation and tradition.
Anyhoo, the point is that the Rhoades marriage seems to be written by folks who care about writing about marriage. Too often in these testosterone-heavy shows, the relationships are incidental at best. Here, in both the Axelrod and the Rhoades marriages, there is real attention to the anatomy of what makes it work or not work. Very cool to see.
On that same point, I have to call out Wendy and Chuck’s couples therapy session. What a hoot that they’re already pretty darn communicative relative to average estranged couples. Upon hearing the therapist start the usual “power of words” lesson, they immediately exchange a look and ask her to leave. The therapist is an intruder interrupting the conversation they were already having, the more direct communication that was already happening between them. They talk! That’s like 80% of marriage right there. And they can talk without talking. Chuck just has to give Wendy a look and she knows, there is no time in their busy shared lives for therapy. Their marriage is stronger than they think it is.
Wendy has also been visited by the AG’s guy Dake. He reasonably asserts that $5 million is a bit much for services rendered, dontcha think? She’s firm in denying impropriety, but she has to say she is not NOT uncertain about hearing Chuck talk to his people about Axe even after he said he had recused himself.
Later when they’re exchanging sentry duty at Chez Rhoades, Wendy offers some coaching of her own. Not in a smarmy derisive way, just matter-of-factly, as an extension of the knowledge she’s gained from working with lifetime gamblers. She tells him the key is to know when to pivot. Some folks have the ability to look at loss and pivot 180 degrees away from it while some absorb the loss and even give up trying. When she’s giving him this tidbit (not really advice, per se), there is sympathy in her face and in her posture and maybe even a bit of resigned love.
Consequently, Chuck sees the light on his way to meet his fate at the AG’s office in DC. He sees the pivot available in going after Kate’s suggestion, Spartan-Ives, afterall. That the company is a friend to the administration will only mean that the AG will be under scrutiny if she does NOT go after it. And there you have it, Chuck has bounced right back. As Damianista so astutely pointed out in her recap, it’s not the flailing tech company working with a dodgy manufacturer who’s the “Dead Cat Bounce” of this episode, it’s Chuck.
Must note a couple of seeds planted in this episode, which will, no doubt come up later. First, there’s a throwaway scene of Lara working out with her cousin, proposing a business venture. She’s hankering to get back to work and one can only assume she hasn’t spoken to Axe about it yet. Second, when Bobby goes to pick up pizza for the kids from his old friend Bruno, he’s introduced to a young politician, Bruno’s nephew, a newly crowned County Executive from Sandicot. Is this a kid looking for political capital from Bobby’s rich friends? Time will tell.
Another much far-reaching seed planted is: What the heck is going on with Wags? He seems to be losing his mojo, ala Donnie last season, but I don’t think it’s cancer this time. Here’s what I think: Wags values perfection. He feels lost when what he thinks is perfect (ie Bobby Axelrod) turns out to have flaws. And/or maybe his reward centers are worn down. Whatever reward he gets from this life isn’t enough anymore.
Lastly we have the bookend to the fake smile at the beginning of the episode. Lawrence Boyd has learned that the DA’s office is after him and he asks Bobby for his playbook in beating Chuck. Bobby gives him the what-for for his desertion last season, this time a totally sincere scowling instead of a fake smile. Then he asks whether Boyd is:
Willing to wade outside the bounds of conventional morality.
Boyd says: been there done that. And they’re off.