Billions season 2 episode 5 is titled “Currency”, after the main play of the episode which happens to be a highly delicate currency play. Currency, the word, when spoken by Damian Lewis manifest as Bobby Axelrod, is also one among the many rhythmic words you’ll hear from him this episode, pronounced in impeccable New York-ese. We probably shouldn’t keep harping on his believability in this role. After all, that’s why they call it acting, right? Where most acting is a well-developed form of impersonation and most non-native accents are a form of ventriloquism, what Damian does with Bobby, in terms of body and language, is something else entirely. Something that is neither simply impersonation nor just ventriloquism.
The episode opens with a time jump. Wags is in Bobby’s office and before he has a chance to explain where he’s been, Bobby shuts him down with a rapid fire suite of references to Native American shamans and athletes, plus battles between Greeks and Persians. Seems Robert Axelrod may have sat in on some anthropology and military science courses at Hofstra.
The first scene of the battle begins somewhere way east of the East River, where some suit from Sansomic is congratulating a fellow on his innovative cell phone thin screen. Said fellow absorbs the applause, then proceeds to go back to his high rise and jump out the window.
Back in New York, Bobby is at the stables introducing Axe Junior to his horse guy, Nicky. Bobby helped Nicky keep his horses fed and now he’s there to ask for a favor in return.
Before we get to that, we learn a lesson Bobby has engrained into Junior’s wee freckled head.
Who makes a bet if they don’t know how it’s gonna turn out?
Junior has learned that his Pops only picks winners and he makes sure they’re winners before he even picks them. Axe’s victories at the game of chance that is his life’s work happen by him never leaving things just to chance.
So, the favor: Nicky, the horse guy, has his ear to the ground for rumblings about casino construction in upstate NY. He drops the name Donald Thayer as the rumored developer in Sandicot and the name rings a bell with Bobby.
Bobby’s phone is blowing up with pings about Sansomic. Phone call from Boyd confirms, Sansomic is stiffing delivery on phones due to failing thin screens, a failure for which a guy in Korea has “taken a mickey”. Defenestration equated to playground humiliation? I guess it’s all relative. Axe Capital has a chunk of a share in this stiff of a cell phone manufacturer and is primed to take a big hit. Boyd says Sam Brandt, a financial journalist, wants to do a piece about the loss for her weekly show. The three days before that interview leaves Bobby three days to bounce back from the hit.
Wendy and Chuck at therapy, still on opposite ends of the couch, the divider between the cushions sometimes narrowing but mostly still a chasm. When Wendy expresses her frustration at Chuck’s refusal to ever dress down, Chuck reveals his insecurity over their mismatch in the looks department. He hears the proverbial “them” saying the proverbial “what is SHE doing with HIM?” Chuck’s revelation comes as a surprise to her.
Axe has called all troops to the floor for a brainstorming session. He needs ideas on how to swing the pendulum back from the Sansomic hit. He doesn’t want Taylor there though, because they’ve been assigned the Sandicot task.
The greats never sacrifice the important for the urgent.
Taylor slips away, Axe hears everyone else’s suggestions and shuts them down one by one. Then he loses himself a bit in the urgency of the matter.
You are all selfish mother fuckers.
Not to be indelicate but the delivery of this speech and that line in this speech doesn’t really come from the lungs. Nor does it really come from the diaphragm. It emanates from below even that, maybe somewhere above the knees. You get my point, I hope. Suffice it to say, the voice that comes out of Damian Lewis in this scene is something that can make a guy pop a vein and render those on the other side of it shell-shocked. Within that speech, is the aforementioned word, “currency.” Say it in a regular middle America dialect, the tongue is soft on the r’s and somewhat loose. Now say it in New York, the tongue goes harder and moves back a bit. Damian does such a thing with that word and you’re like Damian? Damian who? This guy is Bobby Axelrod from Yonkers taking the mickey out of the poor rich saps that work for him. Never heard of anyone named Damian. With that word, currency, and the rest too, of course.
Once his people are good and sunk low, Bobby marches back to his office. Dollar Bill decides he’s had enough and marches in after him. He doesn’t want Stephanie in the office. She’s always there. He’s got an idea that cannot be shared in her presence as the head of compliance. And she’s always there. Dollar Bill leaves, his billion dollar non-compliant idea unspoken.
I responded to a comment on another post about Stephanie’s real purpose at Axe. She’s a great idea on paper for Axe to show that he’s on the up and up. But, in reality, her only job so far has been to be a warm body symbolizing compliance to everyone else in the room and nothing more. Not really an idea person, or one to execute missions, mediate connections, things you would expect from a right-hand to the boss. In this episode, she goes a step further than compliance and tells Bobby it may be okay to lose. She tells him he’s human and that everyone hurts sometimes, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. Bobby looks at her as if she’s speaking a foreign language then dismisses her to resume the hunt for missing Wags.
At the DA’s office, Dake is sniffing around Lonnie. Now that Bryan has closed the door somewhat, Dake needs a fresh doorstop. He seems to think Lonnie is his guy and later shares this news with a mysterious new face we hear worked for Mondale. More than the AG driving Dake’s work in Chuck’s office, it seems.
Bobby’s taking in some sun on the balcony when he’s approached by Deb, MaFee’s “don’t call me babe” babe. She shares with Axe some of MaFee’s nocturnal emissions, his fears, his desperation. Bobby finds MaFee hiding in the loo, smoking a cigarette, badly. Bobby waits for telepathic transmission of MaFee’s thoughts until MaFee gathers the guts to spill. His old college buddy, a fellow lacrosse player, one they call Eveready, a hot shot who’s been making it big in the currency racket since they graduated has contacted MaFee with a sweetheart currency play.
Chez Axelrod, Chef Ryan has prepared a perfect lobster lunch for Bobby and his new friend Eveready. The big currency play is that Nigeria is about to devalue their currency. Eveready’s current employer is shy about stepping in to short, it being a play against the economy of a sovereign nation and all. But such hesitation doesn’t sit well with Eveready’s philosophies. Axe can relate. He punctuates his readiness to go where most men fear to tread by cracking the perfectly plump red lobster claw in half with his hands and letting the juice run down his fingers. Like a boss.
In his pitch to Bobby, Eveready mentions the five families. Currency plays aren’t one man jobs, he says, they’re bigger. What with an entire nation’s economy at stake, there are folks watching such plays, so they have to be handled more delicately than most. But, are there really five families of hedge fund managers? Like the five families of the mob? Tell me please is there a global cabal anywhere that isn’t run by The Five Families? In fact, maybe we’re all just the neglected step-children of The Five Families? With our bowls out, perpetually pouting a Dickensian “Yes, please, I want some more?”
While Bobby is hearing about the vagaries of trading in currencies, he also gets an ask from Lara. She wants him to get Boyd to set up a meeting for her and Mo to raise some capital for their business. She seems to think she and Mo are ready for a Shark Tank style pitch to the folks with money.
Later, at the meeting, Lara uses the right lingo, but not much else and gets a pleasant “Anything for your husband” on the way out.
Over a custom tailoring session, Bobby confers with Boyd about the currency play. Boyd suggests getting together with the rest of the crew “playing the margins”. You know, Axe, all the folks you’ve competed and conspired against, get together with those guys, because now’s the time to play nice.
At the DA’s office, Bryan is hosting Go club. Chuck tells Bryan to give surveillance a heads up into a couples night happening with the Boyds and McKinnons. The wire they have on McKinnon is set to yield results soon.
The Five Families, or at least four of them, meet in a diner. The place looks like one of those 24 hour joints along Queens Blvd that’re great for benders when you have enough change in your pocket to afford something other than the White Castle across the street.
In this meeting, we learn that the currency trade is only winnable if you go in big and heavy enough to manipulate it yourself. The threshold is 5 billion, Axe is putting in 2 and needs the 3 others, Malverne, Krakow, and Birch, to each put in 1 apiece. Okay, so maybe Bobby is two of the five families here. Or maybe I misheard the entire line and I’m running with something I made up. Let’s move on. Since these are all faces we’ve seen before as oppositional to Axe, he’s on the defensive a bit. Damian does the look of someone who’s asking for help, while never wanting to be in a position to ask for help.
Also, “yous three”, you all heard that right? Damian joked somewhere that when he started work on Billions he presented the powers that be with his Joe Pesci accent. They told him to stop. Adorbs self-deprecation notwithstanding, it’s clear that Damian has been honing the craft of the Pesci, tempering it just right, releasing it in increments, only in moments that require it, often only when Bobby’s guard is down, such that no one can stop him now. He’s not impersonating a New Yorker, he’s become one.
As for answering the question of why these three would help him now:
Which is the more powerful driver, boning me or your own self-interest?
Once the three say they’re in, Axe leaves them in the hands of Eveready to go over the deets. This and the three lumberjacks he ordered for them are his treat.
Chez Rhoades, Dad is packing lunches for the kids and taking a hit for the family’s upheaval, the estranged marriage, the general domestic disruptions.
Not too much of a stretch that Bobby is indeed betrayed by one of his three diner buddies. The betrayer happens to be Birch, who you may recall was Bobby’s first onscreen kill last season. Revenge served a full season cold still smelling pungent and sweet. Birch does the exact opposite of what Axe asked them all to do. He propped up the currency and let his buddies know too about what was going down so they could do the same. As a result, to stave off the vultures, Nigeria hiked up its interest rate.
New Axe employee Eveready says his data was on point and that a “global cockfight” is still a possibility. Axe must go higher up the chain, out of the margins. Eveready says he needs to tap someone
Vaunted, an economist, objective, trusted.
The goal is to get the expert to publicly assert that Nigeria should devalue its currency. Nigeria, it’s your only hope, that person should say out loud. That person is Boyd.
Chuck has a new sparring partner for ju-jitsu. A Swiss lady sculptor. He casually drops that a semester spent in Zurich is what allowed him to guess her accent accurately. She offers to show him her work. He’s intrigued.
Krakow and Malverne saunter knowingly into Bobby’s office to silently ask “What now?” Bobby says he’s already bought up Birch’s deserted position and offers to buy theirs as well. This is quite possibly a very big bluff, but no matter, the players all admire the balls on display, and when one’s balls are to be so admired, even a bad bluff is bound to turn out alright. Word play aside, it’s interesting to note here that for none of these guys is it really about the money. It’s about the game. The winner is the one who preens the most beautifully. The most beautiful preening is more valuable than the $5 billion at play, maybe? I don’t know. Axe’s reasoning:
I am dug the fuck in, no third world nation hinged on a dying industry and a propped up currency is going to ride me out of my position. I will drive them into the goddamn ground.
Taylor offers nothing more than a confirmation that Sandicot is indeed a shithole town in upstate NY.
Bobby dines with Donald Thayer, the casino guy, and trades his ’69 Dodge Challenger for information. He outbid Thayer on this same car at auction a few years ago and had the keys ready in case he still wanted it. Casino guy happily takes the keys and wants more: a part in the municipal bond play. He finally gives up Sandicot as indeed the site for impending development of a casino. Also, when Axe says “Casino guys are all old-line crooks”, casino guy Thayer readily agrees. Despite the discussion over what I’m sure is excellent smelling food at Momofuku, the Sandicot deal is still smelling like Atlantic City.
Chuck and Bryan are setting up surveillance. Is that a Philly cheese steak on bread with the perfect combination of crunch and chew that Chuck spies on the surveillance guy’s desk? Lovely poetry capturing the essential deep anguish of the carb wary.
One bite would be like drowning in a puddle.
At dinner, McKinnon has too much to drink and spills wine all over his cheating wife’s cleavage. The ladies go to the ladies, leaving him to either let loose on his boss or keep the play in motion. As the suspenseful music rises up to feed our doubts, McKinnon sobers up enough to get Boyd to spill his manipulations of 10 year treasury bonds. Chuck’s practiced Franklin effect worked. Believing he was no longer under scrutiny, Boyd told his people to “put the band back together.”
Tail the auction…Feds can spare the 15 bips…then we move on to the 26 weeks.
No need to dissect these words to know they mean trouble when spoken into a wire heard by a district attorney. Chuck now has enough for an arrest and a case against “vaunted, trusted economist” Boyd.
Time jump over, we’re back to where the episode started. Wags continues to tell Bobby what Wendy did for him that succeeded in piecing him back together. He takes us on a flashback where we see in ways that perhaps may be more pleasant to un-see, that she hunted him down to his hotel room after he missed their first appointment. Wendy shoos away the IV nurse and takes still hung over Wags for some fresh air in the park.
They determine that Wags idea of infinite zen garden — drinking, women, drugs — doesn’t quite jive with the actual definition of an infinite zen garden — simplicity, harmony, purity. In recalling where it all began, Wags takes a flashback within the flashback to a drink with a guy he hates:
I drink with pricks I hate all the time, it’s the job. It’s the ones who aren’t that stand out like giants.
This elicits the memory of running into a guy he used to work with, his mentor at Lehmann, who he greatly admired. Upon running into him on a sunny east side street, he finds that the genius has lost the spark, has early onset Alzheimer’s and doesn’t recognize him at all.
Wendy says, sure, you saw “mortality…diminished utility” in your hero. She asks him why it cut so deep. Wags answer is simple, so simple actually, that it boggles the mind why neither he nor his co-workers saw it before. Wags problem is that Axe hired Steph. Wendy translates:
You feel unneeded? Nothing left but death?
Time to pivot…to evolve into what it is you’ll become next.
Okay, never mind that sometimes folks can spend decades walking around while dying, and sometimes it’s not really a conscious decision to just “snap out of it”. Alas, those aren’t possibilities in Wendy’s realm of expertise.
Back from the flashback to Axe’s office, despite the insta-detox and renewal, Wags offers himself to be let out to pasture. Axe says no way. Steph called him human, she had to go.
Chez Axelrod, Bobby’s jangling keys wake up Lara. He’s just stopping by to change on this way to the TV interview. She asks him to tell Boyd he fucked up her Shark Tank aspirations.
…treated me like I was just the wife.
Bobby calmly proceeds to hold back nothing as he schools her on the syllabus to Business 101. It’s all about voice control that this speech doesn’t transmit as condescending and mean.
Nothing about what you do is patentable or a unique user experience. You haven’t identified an isolated market segment, haven’t truly branded your concept. You. Weren’t. Ready.
On set, Bobby gets news of Boyd’s impending arrest. He leans in and you think he’s going to whisper a May 1 to his friend. (My turn for a reference, let’s see how many playing at home catch that one.) But he doesn’t.
In his interview, Bobby sports a bracelet woven by the Yoruba people of Nigeria. The visual cue is the jumping off point he needs to diss the poor state of Nigeria and its currency. Boyd re-states the thesis that the Nigerian currency must needs be devalued and they’re done. Malachie Crunch successful.
You find as you get older that parts of your mind become increasingly inaccessible. If you don’t catch something and wait too long to seal it up, you find later that the more you try to retrieve it, the further back it seems to retreat. There’s frustratingly high turnover in the parts of our brains devoted to shopping lists and our kids’ activity schedules, then there are some parts of the brain so deep and so seemingly permanent that you don’t even know they exist until some crazy Showtime series comes knocking on your cerebral cortex. And, what happens to be etched so persistently on those parts of the brain? Oh, just crucial info like crossword answers, visions of the tiny beginnings of crinkles in the corners of an ex-lover’s eyes which you haven’t seen in 25 years, and names like Pinky Tuscadero. Leave it to Billions to give one a Proustian moment.
Instead of cold and calculating, Axe’s betrayal of not warning Boyd of the arrest until the interviews were done is warm and regretful. It’s not me screwed you over, it’s the crazy business we’re all in, he says. Capitalism as scapegoat, a great move for any born player.
The windbreakers move in to arrest Boyd. Interestingly the cameras already there don’t turn to capture the surely news-making event of Boyd’s arrest. Wouldn’t any news show lap up the ratings of a live arrest? Maybe the fact the cameras stayed put speak to the insularity in the world of finance for both those who make the news and those who tell it. Maybe there’s an unspoken honor code. Rather, an unspoken code of covering each other’s asses.
All’s we know is that memories burn long and deep in this business.
Finally, after his win, Chuck celebrates alone at the Mile End deli in a scene that, again, deliciously evoked Proust. And maybe there’s a third play on the episode title. Currency is also the “now.” To the joy of the now.
I raised to my lips a spoonful of the cake . . . a shudder ran through my whole body and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place – Remembrance of Things Past