Billions pulls a great trick from the big bag of tricks available to entertainment. It puts on an episode with a discrete arc — a beginning, middle, end… rising tension, climax, and denouement. And it does it in each episode while also exploring deeply profound themes fit for feature length film. This show is entertaining, no doubt. But there are ways in which it isn’t “just” entertainment. Allow me, please, to explore a few of the ways Billions pulled it out for S2Ep3 “Optimal Play”, would you?
We start the episode witnessing Bobby’s lust for expansion. He wants buildings, he wants seats, and he wants big American NFL teams. Certainly, if given the chance, he will plaster the Axelrod name over them all, so help him god.
Last we saw, Bobby made a hand shake promise to help Lawrence Boyd, recently on the radar of the DA’s office. On his way to meet Boyd to talk developments, he has a nice Upper East Side lit walk and talk with Wags.
You been on Twitter today?
Assume I haven’t.
Wags talks about Krakow’s prowess at the annual poker match for hedgies, the Alpha Cup. He says Krakow has shown time and again to put his opponents through a GTO grind. Turns out, I was bemused to learn, that’s a thing: GTO grind. [I’ll leave this link here cuz it’s weird and fun. But I have to Edit To Add that for this episode I got the meaning of “GTO Grind” totally wrong. Shows you how much I know about poker! You may notice in this post I didn’t touch on aspects of the actual game at all? That’s because I have no idea whatsoever (Spoiler!) how Krakow’s 3 3’s beat Axe’s 2 K and 2 A. If I ever did play poker, I’d have to do it in full-on burka. My poker face is anything but. Thus, my leaving well enough alone. So, GTO is a poker term: Game Theory Optimal. Wags is using it to describe a strategy that Krakow is particularly skilled at. The more you know!]
Axe says, never mind that, go take a shower. Wags replies he already did, but something about the way he says it implies perhaps a double entendre to “shower.”
In their meeting, Boyd regrets not being able to broker the NFL bid for Axe, because: optics. They lament the fact that the eyes of the DA’s office are cock-blocking business as usual for Boyd.
We better make sure we burn the gallows down before he gets to you.
The strife with Chuck coming after his new buddy Boyd aside, the impending challenge of going man-to-man against Krakow at the Alpha Cup is the bug buzzing in Bobby’s brain this episode. Bobby wants revenge for Krakow trying to poach Wendy. Maybe, in some roundabout way, Bobby’s attachment to Wendy is also based in his efforts to defeat Chuck? Whatever the case, the battle with Krakow turns into more than a simple revenge story. Krakow convinces Wendy to help him, and, thanks to her own very real weaknesses towards Axe, she complies.
After it’s all well and done, she admits:
You wanted me to knock Axe off his game and I came here knowing that … I guess some part of me wanted that too.
Likewise, for Axe, there is subtext to why he’s doing what he’s doing. Here he is settling in for a nice night with the missus, when, a quick “hey” from Wendy steals him away. The fact that Wendy feels enough warmness towards Bobby to warn him is kind. But, the phrase “this message does not require a reply”? Well, that’s a bit cold.
Now, Damianista has noted Damian’s work in this scene already but allow me to go on about it too, won’t you? You see here that special skill that Damian brings to the table. That minute flash of a look of abject rejection. The news on that screen doesn’t elicit simple anger or sorrow. Rather, it’s a perfect combination of the two, an emotion Damian is uniquely skilled at delivering and making viewers feel. Bobby is stricken, tattered. He doesn’t shed a tear, but you can feel the tears inside him.
Bobby doesn’t wallow for too long in that perfect Damian Lewis moment though. 🙂 With the news from Wendy, and knowing he can’t beat Krakow alone, Bobby is reinvigorated to find someone on his team with the potential to be a card shark.
Much to the dismay of Dollar Bill, it’s not him. When the crew learns that Axe has chosen Taylor as his second, Bill confronts Axe, only to get a speech about it all being like an NFL contract, ie fluid and negotiable. Then Bill gets the best line of the episode. As hyperbolic as it is, it fits his situation perfectly and the situation of many a person of a certain age when he sees young ones shutting him out. One of those things that are as much funny as true.
Everything I measure myself by has been called into question.
So Taylor is Bobby’s pick. And this is the part of the plot where the weighty themes come to light.
First, we see Taylor in session with Gus. Gus has great insights, but, oy, with his conclusions and directives. His insight into Taylor is:
Every time you walk away from something that makes you feel great, even though it also makes you feel sad, something inside you dies.
Okay, sure. He’s telling them they need to take the bad with the good in order to move forward. But then, his advice on just how to do that takes a fun leap:
Every time you feel emotionally messy take yourself to where the boundaries are clean. That’s why we’ve developed sex workers.
I think it’s important to note that Bobby is not taking an interest in Taylor because he sees himself in them.
Taylor wants to glide to finish lines not caring who passes by, to be good and to not feel compelled to grip the handlebars and win at all costs.
We have no indication that Bobby was ever so idealistic. His every story of his youth and upbringing has been about his cultivating emotional detachment. He prides himself on his ability to see the game divorced of all emotional entanglements and without any aspirations towards some “higher” form of happiness. He’s not interested in enlightenment. He’s not interested in transcending worldly things. Given what we know of him, it’s hard to believe he didn’t come out of the womb driven to score, ruthless, with an emotional range no more nuanced than the diametric opposites of winning or losing.
People like us don’t glide, we churn.
He is using Taylor, just as he uses all his minions. He plays his people like pawns in a game where he is the standing winner. All of Bobby’s people are cannon fodder.
Goodness knows what’ll become of Taylor after this initiation. I’m looking forward to Taylor continuing to call bullshit on the Axe way of thinking. Either that, or they’re cannon fodder too.
Asia Kate Dillon is playing the ambivalence perfectly. At times they become sort of robotic, taking in the data, formulating logical conclusions from it. But when they ultimately beat Krakow and he explodes, Taylor doesn’t quite know how to process the anger. Nor do they know how to process the backslapping and fist bumps from her cohorts at Axe Capital.
Whoever sculpted the winning trophy had a great sense of humor. Can an award for the winner of a dick-measuring contest be any more phallic?
Loses a bit of its phallicness (phallicity?) when they carry it back to Axe’s office, though.
So we see that for Bobby, ultimate destruction of the enemy is the only possible win. And he’ll make sure it happens using all the resources at his disposal.
The only person with whom Bobby lacks the power of unquestioned authority is Wendy. In boldfaced petulance he’ll equate her to a mistress, manicurist, and masseuse. But beneath all the childish jabs, all he wants is to whine “But…you’re MINE!”
In this respect, Axe doesn’t behave as a man whose success was hard-won. People who have had to overcome obstacles are often more mature in their thinking. He doesn’t behave as someone who had odds stacked against him as a kid in Yonkers, carrying around the golf clubs of the rich for pennies, going to Hofstra because that’s all he could afford. People who have had to scrape and fight all their lives don’t feel entitled to have it all, even when they do have it all. OR, after some time of NOT having to scrape by, after some time of living high on the hog, do even street smart kids with nothing to their names but a dream, do even THEY transform into entitled brats? Anyway, I digress.
Indeed, Axe and Wendy share a lot of not-so-surreptitious looks the evening of the poker match. In soap lingo, it’s called eye sex. But with these two it’s not about THAT. Mind you, if it ever did come to that, this viewer will not be averting her gaze. It’s more of an intellectual strategic glare, if that’s even a thing.
That is to say, they are clearly on each other’s radar, in ways that neither of them really want. Does Bobby want to be so beholden, so weakened, by one of his employees? Probably not. Does Wendy want to linger around her old boss, reading his every emotion and reaction? Most decidedly not. But they are both feeling and doing those very things. And that energy is great to watch. It would be disingenuous to deny the “will they won’t they” component here, but, that’s not really the point of them either.
So what’s been going on in Chuck’s world this episode? Not a poker match, alas. Or maybe it is? Certainly a wider net thrown around the theme of optimal play. We see Wendy and Chuck in therapy, and, again, get some nice interchanges about what marriage means to both of them. Seems the event that prompted them to seek therapy both for themselves and their son was his question to Chuck one day:
I thought vow meant promise?
Children make lists. Even when they’re bouncing off walls like monkeys, they thrive on order. So Kevin asks his dad to vow a bunch of stuff to him. And the ultimate vow from Chuck is to put his kids first:
…my most sacred vow.
Despite this moment of intimacy and connection, when Chuck talks about the money crunch at the Yale Club, Wendy doubles down and tells him he should get a place of his own. Chuck is not willing to commit to an apartment. He doesn’t want to commit to anything that would mean moving further away from their commitment to their marriage. Ultimately, he gives in, and to get that cash he needs for his own place, Chuck trades in his prized autographed copy of a Churchill box set.
Later, Chuck gets a small win by finding Boyd’s weakness. Surprise, surprise, it’s about giving private jet rides to the wives of his employees and servicing their (and his own) needs in the slumber lounge.
And what’s going on in the Axelrod marriage, you ask? Well, we already saw Bobby put a hold on foreplay to read an email. We also see Lara going full claws out when she runs into Wendy at the poker tournament. The cattiness is very soapy in this scene, all smiling non-smiles.
Lara continues cat-like behavior in sniffing out a business opportunity among Bobby’s employees. It comes via Wags, who remains immersed to his eyeballs in a debauched lifestyle. He divulges to Lara that he has people who cure hangovers intravenously, and they make house calls. As we learned with high-end dating site, Raya, a couple weeks ago, this too is actually a thing . Cue certified Nurse Lara and her nurse cousin to see the opportunity and deliver on it the very next day. Question now is, what is Axe going to think about this? Not to imply she needs his permission, but it is his office after all, right? I envision him admiring her chutzpah, at least initially. But, probably not for long.
Now, to balance Chuck’s small victory, we must have a small defeat in the Axelrod camp, right? This comes as Axe loses his bid on the NFL franchise. This, due to:
…recent legal aspersions, 9/11 revelations
I’m glad they are still carrying along the 9/11 theme. I had hoped they’d go deeper, but even this much, the fact that Bobby is forever tainted by what he did that day, is plenty.
As a sort of extension of that 9/11 theme, the quality Axe has of seeing opportunity in destruction, in the last scene we see him fingering through Chuck’s prized Churchill collection.
Gotta admit to a bit of a queasy feeling seeing Bobby’s brutish barbaric hands on those books. (Yes, yes, I know, Churchill was no church mouse himself.) Then, Axe’s commandment to grab up all Churchill books everywhere for all perpetuity? Well, that just leads this viewer to the horrible thought that one day when he feels particularly defeated, Axe will light a funeral pyre for all those books and send them floating across his perfect Hamptons pool.
We saw in this episode that Axe not only aspires to defy history and humanist ideas, he wants to annihilate it all. Why just win when you can destroy? The show probably won’t go as far as funeral pyres for humanity. (I tend to envision more darkness than most American TV ventures into) Or it might, who knows?
Let’s all just keep watching, shall we?