Boy, Billions is giving its stellar coterie of actors a lot more to do this season! While the plot has always remained tight and unpredictable, this show has always been character-driven, never more so than right at this moment.
You don’t have to read the business papers to hear the real world buzz around Preet Bharara’s recent firing as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of NY. In the fictional world of Billions, this is the very position occupied by Chuck. In Tuesday’s NYT, Andrew Ross Sorkin’s regular article Dealbook , quoted the so-called “sheriff of Wall Street” Bharara saying in another interview:
I have never said that insider trading is the crime of the century. It has not been my personal focus. It’s the focus of the press because there are a lot of wealthy people that like the reporting of it.
Indeed, in the world of Wall Street, and Billions, there is ethics and then there is the appearance of ethics. Prosecution is not always (or ever?) about beating the bad guy and scoring a victory for justice. A lot of the time it’s about beating a case that’s beatable and tantalizing to the press and the public. Sure, the practice of law is about setting precedent on good and bad, right and wrong, but a lot of the time (most of the time?) it’s about managing public perception of these lofty ideals. And it’s in the managing of perception where all the play happens. This theme runs throughout Billions, and is in particular focus in Episode 4 “The Oath.”
Something else notable for this episode: the virtual encyclopedia of pop culture references! A cynical person could snark it’s a good thing all the people of this world seem to have read the same books, seen the same movies, and listened to the same music. Writing about it was one rabbit hole after another and I can only imagine the fun from the actual writing of it.
Bobby lunches with Mark Cuban to pick his brain about doing business with the NFL. Bobby’s bid for a franchise was only slowed, not halted, in the last episode. Now he needs to know what he has to do to win. Cuban empathizes with Bobby and shares his own (real-life! ) struggles with the SEC. He offers Bobby the advice that non-establishment guys like they both are will always be under scrutiny.
We’re different, we didn’t inherit our money, we earned it calling bullshit early, often and very publicly.
Establishment bullwarks like the NFL, ironically, don’t like ostentatious shows of individual power. Sports franchises, as the “sacred trust” of the nation, like to keep it all nice and vanilla… again, ironically. Thus Axe is tasked with changing “hearts and minds today.” He takes that piece of advice to heart. As for Cuban’s other recommendation to stop fucking with the DA? No can do.
Wendy is similarly occupied in a tete-a-tete with a kazillionaire. Craig Heidecker made his billions on Earth and now he wants to aim higher. He’s planning a manned mission to Mars and he needs Wendy to suss out the candidate pilot. It’s like any regular HR screening interview with the slight difference that this will be a job that takes the right candidate out of earth’s orbit.
What’s happening in Chuck’s quarters? The AG is getting restless for results from the Boyd investigation. She did not take kindly to the news of Chuck’s non-leak of news of the investigation. How exactly did Chuck not leak, you ask? Well, you may recall from a previous episode, he simply called up a journalist to deny a rumor, which wasn’t even a rumor until he stated it was. Making up rumors for the sake of denying them, answering questions before they are even asked, all increasingly less implausible events in the halls of government circa 2017. The AG’s guy wants Chuck to get on it or he’ll be like Alan Rickman off the whatever floor in that Christmas movie everyone’s seen.
Axe starts acting on Cuban’s advice by ringing up his good friend, the third richest man in the world, one-named Benziger, played impeccably by Richard Thomas. For this post, I went to look at what else this actor has been doing and was surprised to find that he’s a New Yorker born and raised. That soothing Appalachian drawl telling us all about a lovely family in Depression Era Virginia was not his own? Color me surprised. (Like, as surprised as newbie’s are to find out that Damian is a Brit) Remember how everyone really wanted them to keep Rob Morrow on for more than one season, and they did? Well, here’s hoping they find room for Richard Thomas to come back too!
Before he answers the call from Axe, Benziger is in conference with a journalist who guesses he must be in town to get a fellow billionaire on board his grand philanthropy project, the Giving Oath, something, one can guess, is akin to the Bill Gates and Warren Buffett campaign, Giving Pledge. Interestingly Benziger calls Bobby Robert. They proceed to talk about cased meats and Bobby, of course, knows a guy.
Speaking of cased meats, Boyd has crawled back up under “his flap” such that recently cuckolded McKinnon is running dry on real evidence against his boss. Chuck shakes hands, pats his back, and equates him to the honorable Tom Doniphon in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Not a small fact of that story: Doniphon killed the bad guy, only to let mild-mannered lawyer and political aspirant Stoddard take the glory and his bride to boot. Chuck assures the very non-John Wayne-like McKinnon that all is not lost. Then he turns around and uses that poor sap as leverage to get in good with Boyd. Which brings us to a line from Liberty Valance which sort of applies to the subtext of this episode too. It’s the whole idea of myth-creation and redemption in the eyes of the public trumping any real adherence to ethics.
So Axe is brokering the help Boyd needs to keep Chuck away, right? You know there has to be a benefit to him, or else Robert Axelrod wouldn’t be doing it. The benefit is to get something on Chuck in the bargain, of course. Axe has his man Hall propose some, shall we say, morally ambiguous solutions to Boyd. What Hall comes up with we can only guess, but suffice it to say, it’s probably not very pretty. Boyd doesn’t bite.
Back at the judicial ranch, Lonnie glories in closing big cases. Leaving him off the Boyd thing has been a blessing for him.
So, you know what else Preet Bharara and Chuck Rhoades have in common? They have both been prosecuted by their targets for going too far in their quests for justice. The case against Bharara is still in process. Bobby’s case against Chuck is trudging right along too. Chuck suffers a set-back, however, when his motion to dismiss is denied. Bobby takes this news well.
Bobby is intent on continuing a lesson learned early in his career to not only never take no for an answer but to master the alchemy necessary to transform a no into a yes. At this point in the game, Chuck is providing the “no” in reference to Bobby’s reputation which folks like the NFL are hearing loud and clear.
..unless I can make it clear he was the one crossed the line.
Fun to hear, subtle as it is, Damian getting even more New York by dropping the “who” here. Then the word “replicant” comes out of his mouth out of the blue, and you think, okay, fine, a guy who knows Highlander enough to quote it probably knows Blade Runner too.
At the rocket hangar, Wendy does her thing via a walk and talk with astronaut Elena Gabriel. She’s shown the Shaker Room, where metals undergo stress tests to gauge their suitability for space travel. When asked why she wants to go to Mars, Elena quotes the greats, first Hamlet’s soliloquy and then Star Trek, which, in Elena’s world, may actually be the same great.
Meanwhile, Chuck Sr. works his own line of inquiry. He tries to get surveillance on Axe only to find the gates are firmly locked, all sentries in place. Another surveillance mission has yielded better results, however. There’s a video of Bryan talking candidly to Dake.
Bryan continues his candid talks with Dake over bad coffee and allusions to surreal monsters. The scenery is somewhat improved on another open-air meeting at Battery Park. On first glance I thought the scene must be during Fleet Week, but, no, this tall ship is there all the time.
Bobby has his sit down with Hediker over hot dogs.
Benziger relates why giving is good.
The reason nothing levers up your happiness like giving? Because it puts you back in charge of the only thing you cared about — yourself.
Chuck’s gets his weekly lesson from ju-jitsu: Know the difference between naive aggression versus effective aggression.
Bryan catches up with Kate, decidedly not in her work clothes, perhaps on a date, and tells her, that in the course of looking for stuff on Boyd, he found her father’s name in the Panama Papers. Kate plays it cool and says there’s nothing illegal about depositing money offshore. Now, I’m not one to get an actor in trouble, but one of the many splendid cast members of this show let slip in an interview, that there may be some twists this season about offshore accounts. Perhaps he (or she!) meant this bit, or perhaps it’s an even bigger thread that we need to keep following.
The gist of the scene is that the rift between once-on-now-off Kate and Bryan seems to stem from money matters. My guess is that she was fine with the imbalance in their money situation, but he wasn’t. See, there’s being poor and then there’s the guilt and insecurity that comes from not being rich….guilt because of the recurring thought (especially when you’re one of the good guys) that if only you’d worked harder or your parents had or their parents had…etc. etc. Like all privilege, wealth privilege is blind and deaf to such thoughts.
As cool as she was with Bryan, Kate sings a different tune when sharing her father’s troubles with Chuck.
Could this be a calculation to get further into Chuck’s good graces? The Head of Crim job is still up for grabs afterall. In response, Chuck shares his own Daddy issues. He seems to underestimate Chuck Sr. though.
Speaking of the vagaries of privilege: Why do the Axelrods have a mini mart in their pantry? A well-apportioned extension of the panic room, perhaps? Not bulk, mind you, but actual multiples of everything a family of four would need in case of zombie apocalypse, including, or course, some gourmet pickings from Citarella. Oh, but wait, is that tubs and tubs of Costco Kirkland brand coconut oil? I guess we found out when we first met that Taylor is a vegan. Now we know that the Axelrods are as paleo as they come.
For some reason not immediately clear, Lara is hunting for the perfect sauce. She chats with her cousin about their Happy Hangover IV business (its actual name escapes me at the moment). Cousin Mo is okay downsizing in the face of competition. Lara puts a snarky kibosh on that idea. No selling small potatoes in New Jersey for this Inwood girl. The juxtaposition of her hunting for sauce while talking about the IV business makes you momentarily think: what, intravenous barbecue sauce is her custom hangover cure? Regardless, she finds what she needs in a bottle of Yellow Bird. Gotta say, Lara never looked more real than when she quotes The Wire.
At the DA’s office we go back to optics and directing language to the lowest common denominator. We learn that, when investigated thoroughly, high-frequency trading may be prosecutable, but the fact remains that it confuses juries. Apparently, there is a sweet spot between aiming too big and being a piker, a gambler who only makes small bets. Chuck is challenging his people to find that spot, or he’s asking them to take that first loss to make room for the second wave. In either case, they’re awarded a warrant to search Boyd’s files.
At Axe Capital, we learn that Bobby does know about Lara’s business with his own employees as her clients. He seems fine with it, but, again, I think that’s going to blow eventually. You see some rumblings already with Lara standing her ground when Axe volunteers to save her from the new competition. Eventually the tough girl from the hood gets family friends to sabotage her competitors. Axe is proud.
I don’t know, Axe seems to be, pardon my French, a “don’t shit where you eat” kind of guy. There’s something off about this entire arrangement, and I sense it catching up to him soon. Bobby and Lara may think of themselves as the equally attractive, yet much more successful and happily settled version of Bonnie and Clyde, but, winter is coming. And we all remember how Bonnie and Clyde ended, right?
Wags comes in and we learn that Bobby was playing at altruism with Benziger. Kind of confusing when we saw Benziger with the journalist to now know that it was Bobby working with the journo to plant pics of him going thru the motions of committing to philanthropy. Appearances and optics. So twisty that even we, the audience, don’t see them all.
Lara can’t resist a jab at Wags overuse of her services. Speaking of trouble in paradise, what about the ethics of a medical professional sharing details of a client with his employer?
Lucky for Wags, he gets a somewhat more private reveal of an ill-gotten tattoo, first to Bobby and then to Wendy. Indeed, Wags’ misfortune may be the ice-breaker Bobby and Wendy need to start really talking again.
Back to Wendy with the astronaut. Somewhat inexplicably, Elena provides Wendy an analogy for a perfect mind-meld, a perfect union between two people, in the musical harmony between Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett of Wilco. Why they are talking about this, I don’t really get, except maybe to gauge Elena’s interpersonal needs and desires? Yes, traveling to Mars and living there is bound to get lonely, right? So, okay, I guess I do get it. But, still, Elena is like 25, right? Making her born in 1992. Wilco, as Tweedy/Bennett, lasted until 2001, when Elena would’ve been nine years old. I just know when I was nine I was listening to whatever Top 40 or Classic Rock was on the radio. But, yeah, sure, kids can be precocious about music, or maybe she discovered them later.
Anyway, the song Wendy and Elena mention with the “Jesus, Don’t Cry” refrain is called “Jesus Etc.” and comes from Wilco’s best-selling album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Great lyrics, but, this other song I found is much nicer musically, I think, and shows us what Elena was talking about.
Like, by all means, let’s let whatever is brewing between Bobby and Wendy brew, but the romantic fool tiny sliver of my brain could not help but think of them in the lyrics of this very pretty song. And, ultimately, despite what this scene was meant to tell us and Wendy about the astronaut, I think it put in Wendy’s mind someone with whom she used to be connected and is no longer. Whether that thought was of her husband or Bobby, or both in different ways, is yet to be determined.
As for the astronaut, Wendy somewhat cruelly nixes her suitability for the mission. She tells Heidecker that Elena needs some time in the Shaker Room. She needs to undergo real stress tests to gauge her ability to handle the challenges of space travel. Then Wendy further expands on her own career needs.
Wendy does not want to judge her patients’ suitability for the Shaker, she wants to BE the Shaker. She gets satisfaction from her work only when she’s in a position to motivate, not just analyze and categorize, tasks she says “anyone with a DSM-V and a label maker” can do.
Thus, Wendy adds working for Heidecker to the ever-increasing lists of jobs she refuses. But not before offering Heidecker some free analysis on why he wants to leave earth and/or why he prefers the company of hairless 21 year old girls.
Bruno’s nephew Marco comes back as we knew he would for his long-awaited sit-down with Axe. Basically, he wants Axe to pour money into his economically distressed upstate NY shithole of a town, Sandicot (a fictional name). In return, Marco’s got an in with the governor’s office and hopes to develop casinos that would be very lucrative for Axe in the long run. Anyone smell Atlantic City with this idea?
Anyway, Bobby listens attentively and then sends Taylor off on the project of determining if it’s a good bet, and, more importantly, whether investment in a down and out town would provide the white-washing his marred reputation needs.
At historic literary gentleman’s club, Lotos Club, Chuck ingratiates himself to Boyd by practicing the Franklin Effect of begging a favor from your rival, a psychological trick that works, but, I expect could also backfire into condescending insincerity, depending on who you practice it with. Boyd starts off quoting Roy Cohn, prosecutor of suspected spies and would-be spies during McCarthy’s Red Scare.
I don’t write polite letters, I don’t plea bargain, I like to fight.
Chuck brushes that aside and basically asks Boyd, “if I can’t have you, then who can I have?” Boyd takes the bait and suggests Chuck could have one of his mid-level guys who are already under investigation for compliance. They hash out a win-win situation of Chuck getting to prosecute a winnable case and Boyd getting to munificently fire the guy after six months. Thus McKinnon is made worm’s meat. The meeting ends on a macaroon.
When Bobby learns of this deal, his side-eye can only mean one thing: he doesn’t like it.
Now comes time for Chuck to prepare for the deposition with Bobby. He and lawyer Ira go over strategy, and Ira wants to be the one to sing “Bomaye” at the Rumble in the Jungle. This alludes to the historic Ali v. Foreman fight. Ali’s fans chanted a Lingala phrase meaning “Kill him.”
As for the actual rumble between Chuck and Bobby, I sense it requires a post all its own and this has gotten way too long as it is. Let me just leave you with my lovingly gif’ed from scratch highlights of a true tour de force of a scene.