Let’s try something new. Let’s talk about Billions Season 2 Episode 8, “The Kingmaker”, as if it were a soap, a tabloid, heck, a professional wrestling match. The soapiness of this episode cannot be denied. Soaps get a bum rap. When they are good, there is great drama there, folks. Great storytelling. And the hardest working people in the business. And true to the genres of tabloid, soap, and wrestling match, “The Kingmaker” hit all the marks for great drama.
White Hats (Ten Gallons)
Black Jack Foley passes over Chuck for Buffalo Bob
In his optimally humidified humidor, while extracting some aged-to-funky-perfection fundadores, Chuck Sr tells his son that Foley did not appreciate Junior punting on the clerkship for his granddaughter. As a retort to the disrespect, Foley invited Chuck Sr. to a soiree without inviting Junior. More importantly, Foley primed the governor’s seat to go to someone else, State Senator from Buffalo, Bob Sweeney. Chuck Jr. dismisses the diss and says he should not be required to gargle balls in order to get a political seat. In the Chuck Jr. special brand of self-righteous idealism, he declares:
We don’t have kings, Dad. We live in a democracy.
You sound like a fucking hippie.
Despite his protestations, Chuck Jr. has been sparked by dad to see about this seat. So, how does Chuck win over Foley? By turning the screws of name recognition on Buffalo Bob. Bob is nonplussed:
Name recognition means dick.
Chuck Jr.’s visit to Bob is also meant to intimidate him with Junior’s encouraging poll returns. He also addresses the fact that Bob is stronger in upstate NY and therefore the ticket could use him in the seat as Chuck’s second, Lt. Governor. The show dividing New York into an amorphous Upstate and Downstate is the first nail struck by the soapy hammer. Okay, speaking as someone who only ever experienced downstate, upstate does seem to have some generic, easily targeted interests, and Manhattan and Long Island are each worlds apart in their own interests. Good thing Sandicot is fictional, doing the heavy lifting its doing, metaphorically, for all of Upstate New York.
Over truffle-tinged cocktails, Chuck asks Ira to get low down on Bob Sweeney. Ira balks at first, but knows the score:
I’m well-mannered, I’m not nice.
When he’s done the deed, Ira sends over a box with a game-y white truffle and Sweeney’s info. With a heading like “Potential Weak Points” the intent of the document is crystal clear. Sweeney’s one of those pesky ultra conservatives with a record of being pro-life and pro-gun. That’s well and good, no ugliness there despite the cognitive disconnect. The problem comes with the revelation that he sent his son to gay conversion therapy. A sympathetic counselor at camp collected letters from campers, among them Sweeney’s son. Those letters are now hard copy evidence primed to be used against Sweeney.
Chuck confronts Sweeney with his findings. Interesting quandary: Sweeney could get out of the ugliness of his history by issuing a public mea culpa, but that would only work if he already had name recognition and a record known to the greater New York public. Since he doesn’t, the only way people will learn his name is thru the reveal of the ugly history. Kudos to the writers for such a subtle lovely window into the Catch-22 of public recognition.
There you have it: Buffalo Bob is out of the picture.
Junior does eventually gets his invitation to Chez Foley. Hand-engraved, no less. If we need any further indication of Foley’s status, his house has a name: Hawk’s Lair.
Bobby’s Saddled with Yul Brenner Riding a Brokeback Pony
or Wags knows Scrap about Ore, but he knows TnA bars and the Clients who Frequent Them
Despite all efforts to get to the bottom of why Foley cut him off at the pass to the casino in Sandicot, Axe remains frustrated that he can’t even get the guy to meet him. He asks Wags to rough him up “old school”, by which, of course, he means find his weaknesses and exploit them.
A tough task, Wags says, since Foley’s companies aren’t publicly traded. Also, Axe Cap has no ins to the steel sector. Axe tells him to find out where Foley gets his iron:
He can’t own all the mines.
When asked to source Foley’s ore, Taylor says steel uses scrap now, not ore. Nonetheless, they’re on it.
In the background, Mafee’s on thin wire again. Wags interrupts him turning down a wine-and-dine with a rival broker. Mafee believes Axe Cap to be loyal to Spartan Ives, and, thus, unable to allow wooing by other brokers. Wags slaps his boot on Mafee’s desk to tell him how wrong he is. Also, he doesn’t want to be treated like Courtney Love in ’93. (whose seminal first EP, BTW, is my go-to treadmill music to this day.)
We’re loyal to the bottom line.
White Hats (Less Than Ten Gallons)
Kate gives Bryan Gus, who, we learn, is a kinestheseologist and not a medical doctor so not bound by doctor patient confidentiality. Bryan resists, he wants to do what Chuck says: stay clear of Axe.
But, as so happens, in soapy goodness, Kate and Bryan run into each other at the Gus event. Love how people on this show protest vehemently to something and end up doing that very thing. Also, how lovely is this exchange?
Kate: This is the kind of shit that made me…
Bryan: What? Like me or dump me?
When they meet after the conference, Bryan gets Gus’ attention by calling out his banishment by Axe, i.e. his being made a Ronin. This resonates with Gus because his seminar is called Kamikaze and he purports to teach disciples the way of the shogun in 8 easy steps. Bryan, armed with Go lingo, drops some more some shogun stuff on Gus:
Axe lacks five of the eight virtues of the bushido.
Gus is responsive:
Six, he wasn’t even polite.
FWIW, the two virtues of the bushido that Axe definitely has, IMHO? Loyalty and heroic courage. Eventually, Gus tells Bryan and Kate that he never got close enough for the real info they need, but he knows someone who did: Steph Reed.
Bryan and Kate visit Steph, who says she saw some Hannah Arendt stuff happening to herself at Axe and felt relieved to be let go. Bryan wants specifics on the evil. She’s bound by an NDA to not divulge.
Kate spots Steph’s medal for serving in Iraq. Remembering that she’s honor bound, Steph says she can talk, but only under subpeona. Bryan goes to Chuck with the skinny and Chuck admits to wanting to slurp it up like ramen, but won’t. If he wants the governor’s mansion in this sight, he needs to let Axe go, for now.
Lara is going to Sandicot as a motion of good faith, building a school for the town they just gutted. As Axe offers to send one of his minions or accompany her and they perfunctorily kiss good-bye, Lara says that sunny Binghamton is a more pressing concern for Bobby. Is Binghamton preternaturally sunny this day? Or is Axe going to SUNY Binghamton? And why? Pardon the snark. This blog is written by one who did undergrad at a SUNY and another one who worked at that same SUNY, so, of course, we know that it’s pronounced SUE-ny, for State UNIversity of New York, not sunny. Anyway…
Bobby’s at a scrap yard. Is the scrap yard in Binghamton? Whatever the case, he wants to buy up all of Foley’s supply, but Foley’s guy is not selling. No-bullshit Bobby says in his perfect no-bullshit way:
I’m going to skip the part where I say “Who’s Foley?” and “What does he have to do with this?”
He ups the ante to 370% of what scrap is usually sold for, with the truism that:
There’s always a number.
Foley’s guy won’t budge:
I do business in this state, I live in this state, Foley can make both of those more unpleasant than six hours on the cross at Calvary.
Bobby realizes the guy is more scared of Foley than he is of him. Then he evokes a billion dollars, not as an offer, but, given the guy’s ears perking up, as proof that, in fact, there IS always a number. Snap.
Wags and Mafee are dined by the broker wanting to undercut their commitment to a firm whose CEO is now a jailbird, Spartan-Ives. Wags doesn’t mince words:
How much will you undercut Spartan Ives?
10% lower fees plus a dinner isn’t enough to suit Wags needs.
Let me show you how I like it….fire, walk with me.
A reference to Twin Peaks, could it be? Don’t even get me started on how ready the world is for a revival, however brief, of that groundbreaking stuff of nightmares. (They say May 2017, ya’ll.)
Cut to a high-end titty bar. And, what do we have here? A Spartan-Ives guy sees Wags with the rival broker. Wags, of course, knew the S-I guy would be there and gets the guy to counter the other broker’s offer by reducing their fee 20%.
Wags then goes to Axe with this happy news and finds a wound-up and uptight boss. He offers some advice:
There’s no reason to spend this much energy, time, and money trying to parse the secret motives of some son of St. Tammany.
Another reference to Foley going all the way back to Boss Tweed. Nice.
Axe says, where others are afraid of their fears and try to hide them away, he uses his fear to gain lucidity. What he sees with that added lucidity is that Foley’s incursions aren’t run-of-the-mill politics, it’s personal.
Ever the resourceful billionaire, Axe finagles a meet-up with Jack Foley over mangy timber wolves bastardized by coyote blood at a petting zoo slash nature conservancy.
Bobby gets a call from Foley. He’s heard about the conservancy ask and wants to cut it off at the pass.
Foley: So, you got what you came for. You now know…
Axe: That you weren’t trying to fuck me over out of some personal animus. Someone asked you a favor…mind telling me who?
Foley is now begrudgingly (the begrudging of which he admits) compelled to give a spiel on Location Boards and committees. Ask a direct question, you will get a lie is what Foley seems to have communicated to Axe. And he knows that it’s a lie that is supposed to make Axe feel “ill, like an out of season oyster.” A brilliantly written scene, brilliantly performed. Foley saying words he knows he has to say and fully acknowledging that he’s saying them just because he knows he has to say them. And Axe wanting directness, demanding it in all other places he lives in, but knowing full well that he cannot demand it of this man, who is obviously of a higher standing than him. A man who has exerted a power over him, whom he hasn’t been able to defeat with all the gifts and tools at his disposal. Foley is untouchable. It’s the un-touchability of the establishment.
Foley likes being in a position to choose sides. He’s worked to get to this point where his choice of side makes a difference, and he will stick to the loyalties he’s built over the course of his career, as outmoded as such loyalties are. Axe is gifted, but he’s too green, too new to warrant such loyalties. The very fact he’s disclosing all this to the new kid shows how much Foley respects Axe. Just not enough to tell him the truth.
The switch of who wears the crown is palpable. Not only in Bobby’s furtive glances around Foley’s understated estate. Nor in Foley standing over Bobby, telling him: nice work kid, but you’ve reached a dead end. There is a King, built from old New York, staunchly loyal to it, and there is Bobby, a kid of the streets who will go back to the streets again if it means getting exactly to where he is today. I’m describing in much less subtle terms than the actual scene, which was done in much more beautifully understated way, more so than any scene ever of a confrontation between old money and new.
Fortuitously Axe has run into an old friend, an old Axe Cap “earner” who left and wore a wire, trying and failing to get something on Axe for the FBI, then went to jail and is now a caterer. Axe offers the guy his house paid off in exchange for information, access, to Foley’s party.
Wendy, or She Who Wears No Hats
Taylor goes to Wendy to talk about Mafee. Taylor sees that Mafee is faltering, and ascribes some of that to their rise. Wendy asks about their relationships. The answer comes easy to robotic Taylor:
Good. Because the culture is set from the top. Since Axe likes me, other people do, or pretend to.
Why does he like you?
In Taylor’s mind there are two reasons that someone would like you: either they see themselves in you or they see something they can use. For Axe, Taylor confesses it’s possibly both.
Wendy scoffs (a bit unprofessionally) at this over-simplification:
There is another reason people like each other. They see something they’re lacking, and they want to be near it.
I hear that, Dr. Wendy. Word.
Taylor turns tables. (Gotta love when tables are turned on Wendy.) Taylor asks her if that’s the basis of the connection between her and Axe. Wendy isn’t surprised to hear Taylor’s intuition. She responds honestly that she and Axe met at a similar time, when they were both “trying to figure out what they were going to be.” Wendy likens herself and Axe to where Taylor is now. She tells her to buy Mafee something to show they care.
Taylor give Mafee a wrestling poster.
Wendy takes Chuck’s night with the kids. Chuck’s in tails, and Wendy wants a re-do on the Kevin photo-op fight. She says that honesty has to be the best policy, no matter how disagreeable the subject. Chuck confesses going on a date with the Swiss ju-jitsu lady. Says it was just a kiss but it felt like adultery. Wendy does not admit her own dalliance into the arena of adultery. It’s a bit of a nice visual play, because we flashback to the tangled sheets with the Mars guy, and then to silent Wendy and Chuck and we think momentarily that she did confess….but she doesn’t. Flashbacks, another symptom of soap-dom. A cheap and easy way to recycle footage when you have 40 minutes of new material to deliver for upwards of 200 days a year. When flashbacks are to scenes that happened the day before, you know they’re hard up to meet that 40 minute quota of new content. The flashback was done nicely here though, it had emotional resonance. Instead of the truth, Wendy tells Chuck he does not look ridiculous in the tails, he looks hot. Oh, fucking physician, Wendy, heal thyself, why don’t ya.
Wendy does attempt to heal herself by picking up the phone after half a glass of lonely wine to continue her session with Taylor and the worries over Mafee. Taylor had asked Wendy if their feelings about Mafee were helpful.
Wendy only now answers that question:
More than any stock you’ll ever champion, more than any time you’ll impress somebody by being right. You haven’t noticed yet. By the time anyone notices, it’s usually too late, but that place has a way of obscuring, corroding, eating you from the fucking inside. And you have a rare chance to survive. You’re so far ahead of where Axe and I were when we were your age. We hadn’t made hard choices. You know yourself better. And your feelings are a lifeline connecting you back to that place, screaming at you from your core, “Don’t forget me. Don’t forget. I don’t like to lie.”
Obviously Wendy needs to tell herself these things. She has been corroded, eaten away from the inside. She doesn’t want to lie, but she does. Why? To protect Chuck’s feelings? Or to protect her own ass? She knows this conflict within herself.
Wendy wants Taylor to never stop feeling. And if there is ever a danger again of that happening, to come find her:
Before it’s too late, for both of us.
The implication is, I think, that it IS too late for Axe. Yet, Wendy hasn’t given up on him, can’t give up on him, yet. The subtext is that, perhaps, Axe, having grown up right along side Wendy, has had the same conflicts, but has not been as self-aware. But that story is for another day. (one can hope)
BTW, as long as this show is going to delve into flashbacks, why not give us a flashback of Bobby and Wendy in their late twenties just starting to try to figure it all out? Here’s an idea: Bobby and Wendy, in their twenties, unmarried, unattached, hungry for adventure and freedom and for building themselves into what they want to be — best friends, and maybe more, in a Chelsea walk-up, the long hot summer of ’99, when Chelsea still had garret-like walk-ups. (Writer-for-hire willing to pen that story for anyone interested. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)
Man Who Doesn’t Need Hats
Foley’s party is bumping, and he’s gotten Ben Folds to entertain the aristocrats.
Chuck is invited back for a private conference with the man himself. He eyes a volume of Churchill’s works, editions very like the ones he had to give up recently in order to afford a place of his own.
Goodness, Foley is a character. He tells Chuck he’s heard a lot about him from his dad. Something out of the soapier tomes of Shakespeare, him then saying:
He’d never go around with photos of the bastards.
Then he disses his own kids for never showing the potential or the drive. He gives Chuck some of the same treatment he gave Bobby. Namely, putting him in his place in the bigger scheme of things. Boy, you never really sense a show is missing something until someone like David Straitharn comes along to fill in that missing piece. Foley provides exactly the energy this show needs of the uber-patriarch, old money, establishment bullwark. It’s an energy which both Bobby and Chuck need to work off of when they aren’t working off of each other.
Axe’s eyes into the party pay off when he sees a shot of Foley sharing a toast with the Rhoades father and son.
He hops on his bike and motors down to the Yale club, where he proceeds to eschew decorum and barge in on the boys in the smoking room. Bobby’s got that perfect hunched-over angry beast of a stomping walk down those hollowed halls until he doubles back and finds Chuck.
Chuck motions away the security folks and says:
If you wanted to play squash, you should have called ahead.
Axe rattles off what he’s done to Sandicot, what the Rhoades’ interference has lead him to do. I wrote a lot more gushing on this scene, which I’ll leave for later, for now.
Axe leaves with some choice words about Junior carrying around Pops clanking balls since his haven’t dropped yet. It’s uncertain if Bobby realizes that it truly was Senior who pulled the strings but that point is moot, because Junior sees the “happy accident” of what has just happened:
Axelrod has decimated the part of the state where I poll the weakest.
In pulling that offense, Axe has now shown himself to be defenseless. Now Chuck is in the position to sweep in and save the town from the big bad hedge fund manager, and, in the bargain, win their support in his bid for governor.
The optimally primed fundadores are lit and Junior and Senior exit arm in arm smiling to a backdrop of that ravishing symbol of old New York, old-moneyed Chrysler, and the tune of Fucked Up’s “Turn the Season.”