A three in one special this week from your intrepid reporter. I was away across the merry pond having a merry time with limited vpn and limited time to spend on my usual pondering over the intricacies of this show. Was going to skip writing about Season 2 Ep. 9, 10, and 11 entirely, but once I returned home and caught up, the muse came rushing back and here I am with my bits on “Sic Transit Imperium”, “With or Without You”, and “Golden Frog Time.”
The circle of story around the unfortunate little upstate NY town gutted by Axe and used by Chuck for preliminary campaign photo ops has closed. Axe did what he had to do in Sandicot, and Chuck responded with whatever he could do, given the fact that his hands were also not entirely clean in the deal. Both Axe and Chuck come out the other end relatively unscathed. The only real casuality of the story is Bobby’s relationship with Bruno, his childhood father figure of sorts. But as Lara succinctly says: Fuck Bruno.
A delicious bit of continuity in Dollar Bill’s character in these episodes. Last season we saw him exchanging a bag of loot for inside information about the status of a company’s inventory. This season we see him working a similar track, getting information from ex-Axe employee Victor, who got his information from reconstituted shredded documents, about Belgian Klaxon car brakes gone bad. There is no question here, this is insider information, and given that the source is a justifiably disgruntled ex-employee, Axe is justifiably wary. But Dollar Bill, the unapologetic vehicle for illegality in this joint, is not uncertain. So much so that he accuses Axe of losing the well-earned stripes of an outlaw for showing any hesitation. As we learned in Season 1, Dollar Bill is Keyser Mother Fucking Soze. He’ll blow it all to smithereens before giving any of it up. In these few episodes we can confirm, the guy is consistent. (Does anyone remember that episode of the Brady Bunch when Bobby idolizes the legend of Jesse James, until he has a nightmare that the outlaw guns down his entire family? No one? Okay, I’ll save that analogy for the next time Dollar Bill displays his disregard for the law, and, mark my words, there will be a next time.)
Axe takes Bill’s words to heart, but before he jumps in with both feet to short Klaxon, he gets his people to run the numbers on the company. No one, not Ben Kim, not Mafee, and finally not even the seer of all, Taylor, sees justification for shorting what is shown by all data to be a nice strong car company. Taylor does see beyond the metrics of sales that everyone else targets to assess strength in an auto company. They take the analysis to Klaxon’s finance department and do see some weakness there. Still, Taylor knows there must be something else that is making Axe push for and want justification for a short.
Axe’s response to Taylor’s insight? Good work, let’s make you the boss of all other analysts. Taylor is charmed at the prospect but also aware that now their name will be written on the short, which, again, isn’t entirely justified by data alone. Taylor’s name on the order to short makes them complicit in the crime, should it ever come out that the order was placed on the basis of insider information.
Meanwhile, Steph Reed has given Taylor’s name to Bryan and Kate as someone who’ll readily wear a snorkel for any deep dives necessary for winning investments at Axe Capital. Bryan approaches Taylor with a plea to spill on her boss, but without going the aggressive route that Ed Harris went on Tom Cruise in The Firm. Fortuitously, Taylor has seen the same film, and, before signing the Klaxon papers, they appear to take the bait for a sit-down over cookies in the DA’s office. There, Taylor sees that, unlike Ed Harris, Bryan has nothing. Taylor then goes back to Axe now fully confident in signing the order to short Klaxon.
Prior to this move, Taylor wavered on hiring a private jet to attend a wedding in time to also attend Axe’s birthday party. Axe convinced them with the argument, if not you, then who.
You get one life, so do it all.
Now with the Klaxon deal, Taylor has stepped one step closer to overwriting the disk space previously reserved for their conscience. They pocketed a cool 500K mid-semester bonus, upgraded from the Lower East Side to a sweet condo in Sutton Place, and got a seat closer to the bimah, typically an altar and center of attraction in a synagogue or church, but here, obviously, a place closer to the altar of the church of Axe Capital.
I don’t believe in the soul not in the way it’s traditionally used nor in the more modern meaning which connotes connected-ness and being spiritually awake.
What I do believe in are actions, purpose, purity of vocation, and the challenges that come along with all those things, the things that make me feel alive.
Interesting use of the word “purity” here. As if having a soul is a black mark, an unnecessary smudge of dirt, on the purity of the work.
So, that’s the Klaxon story. Running in parallel is the Ice Juice story.
Chuck’s lawyer, Ira, has had enough of law and wants to go into the anti-aging juice business. He comes to Chuck with the Ice Juice binder and a plea for investment. Junior sends Ira to Senior whom he believes to be more liquid and less conflict-prone to invest.
Meanwhile, nothing is at it seems.
Junior lets Dad sink his blind trust into Ice Juice. He even tells Wendy that he’s bagging a winner. Ira gives notice at work, and Senior himself loads up on shares as they watch the graph climbing the minute the opening bell rings.
How do any of them know it’s a sure winner? They don’t, but that they make it so.
The idea starts when, from Kate, who gets the info from Steph Reed, Chuck learns that Axe bought up his Churchill books.
Chuck: How the fuck do you compete with something that powerful, that swims around for days on end, just waiting for the faintest smell of blood, so it can attack without warning, and with all the ferocity and half the conscience of a goddamn bull shark? You can’t. Unless you can anticipate where it will strike and match its strength when it does, which you can’t.
Kate: I can see books are a trigger for you.
Chuck has used Ice Juice as that very weapon, to anticipate and strike, maniacal strength against strength. He seeded incarcerated janitor Lawrence Boyd, previously of Spartan Ives, with information about Ice Juice to give to Axe in exchange for a commuted sentence. Axe takes the bait and runs with it, involving all manner of characters in the scheme to first elevate stock in Ice Juice, then bring it crashing down.
It’s blatant manipulation of a product leading to manipulation of the market. The Ice Juice story is like a full season’s worth of hijinks in one episode.
Now, Ice Juice is the poison tipped arrow in Axe’s side, giving returning agent Dake newly emboldened FBI surveillance, leading to evidence galore on Axe’s manipulation of the stock, from start to finish.
Now, lest we forget, Chuck and crew are also aware of the Klaxon thing. Spyros gathered them all together to lay out the fact that Axe was the only one to short in advance of the news of the brake failures. They may have a case there, right? Not so much. Again, it’s a matter of proving criminality. Axe may have been the only one to short because he had some insider knowledge or he may shorted simply because he felt like it, or the sky was a particular color that day, or his coffee was a certain way. Nearly impossible to prove causality, unless someone on the trail of information from shredded documents to de-shredded documents to Victor to Dollar Bill to Axe spills the beans. And that’s a long play, not assured at all to end the way Chuck and the Super Sleuths would need it to.
Ice Juice, on the other hand, is a sure thing. Does it even go so far as to be entrapment? I have no idea if such a thing is possible in this world. A cop posing as a prostitute to catch johns? That’s entrapment. A hedge fund coaxed, goaded, provoked to break a law? One they wouldn’t have broken had they not been fed information? Not sure. Something for the season finale to tell us, I imagine.
Another open thread is Axe glancing back at Boyd as he left after getting information about Ice Juice. Boyd took a swig of that 20 year old Scotch or Bourbon or whatever it was awfully quickly and desperately, didn’t he? And we saw that Axe saw that desperation. It was the swig of a man who may be really sick of waxing floors or of a man sick with guilt over something else entirely. Why did Axe believe Boyd’s information so easily? Tune in next time to find that answer too, I hope. So, while Chuck has landed on top now, who knows what the future holds.
Now, for the relationship drama running through these three episodes.
Chuck lands on top on this score as well, so to speak. Wendy likes him again. A lot. Him telling Wendy about the Ice Juice play, leaving out the specifics obviously, but giving her just enough to elicit a smile from her when he says he’s backing a winner. Then the juice itself, chock full of antioxidants as it is, shared with Wendy, Wendy finding comfort in talking to him, telling him about her guilt over hurting someone (without, of course, naming names or getting into specifics).
Finally, Wendy finding out that the boys at Axe Cap are rooting for a short on Ice Juice, her then running over to Chuck to let him know he needs to get out, only to find him standing his ground, firm in his belief that he’s got a winner (which, of course, he does, but not in any way that Wendy or anyone at Axe would know), calling her out so firmly for doubting his ability to call a winner. A firmness that gets her to scurry back to her office and make her own contribution to the short, effectively betting against her husband, but still sort of turned on that he didn’t give in to her.
I have a feeling Wendy will not be upset to be left out of the loop on this one. Chuck owes her nothing as far as getting to Axe goes. And she knows that. Nope, I think the Rhoades relationship has hit a new strength here, and will likely not falter again…for now.
Booty calls. I feel I’m finally a man of my time.
As for the Axelrods, it’s something so simple you wonder why no other show creators have thought of it before. The thing that sets Bobby off from every other anti-hero is that he doesn’t lie to his wife and he doesn’t cheat on her. He rattles off what his peers do – the prostitute yacht 500 feet behind the family yacht – everything he could do, i.e. everything we’ve seen other power players depicted on screen do. Those money shots that make premium cable such a vicarious thrill for a lot of men and women alike. What a stretch, what a risk, really, to take all of that away from your main character, make him a black swan, and not give the audience what they are used to getting, what they think they want. But, alas, they took that risk, and it worked. (Fun fact: Wags calling Bobby a black swan, like Taylor’s allusion to the anti-fragile, may again be a nod to Nassim Nicholas Taleb)
In Billions, just as we don’t get boys being boys, we also don’t get the typical women characters being catty manipulative bitches to their men and to each other.
The acrimony and scheming between Lara and Wendy has a different feel to it than what we’re used to. We saw Lara’s cattiness to Wendy about good marriages, clearly meant as a low blow and delivered as such. And Wendy, in these episodes, gets her revenge. But, remember Wendy never wanted to go to Axe’s party, she didn’t want to be social with Lara, until Lara insisted. Maybe Lara’s persistence was so she’d have the opportunity to hammer home the point that Axe would be off limits to Wendy, to let Wendy know that Lara knew the caveat to Wendy’s return to Axe Cap because she had Axe’s confidence.
Wendy did not hesitate a bit to disabuse her of that notion. She did it matter-of-factly, not with overt viciousness, not with contempt. Wendy didn’t exhibit any of that undisguised clawing manifest so often in the so-called “bitch face” you see women characters deliver.
Maggie Siff’s delivery, of course, works wonders in making Wendy Rhoades such a strong non-cliche character. Wendy conceding that she knew she was returning barb for barb and actually feeling bad for doing it also makes a heck of a difference. It’s a brand of intellectualized cattiness where the writing isn’t assuming that a woman’s natural, subconscious state is one of manipulation and low blows. These are characters who wrap their brains around their actions. And that makes all the difference.
Indeed, the relationship between Lara and Bobby hits its biggest bump yet: the fact that Axe lied for the first time ever. It may all be on tenterhooks, but the writing here ironically adds significantly to what we know about their relationship. The history, the story, the marriage itself, is all strengthened in our minds by Lara’s absence and Bobby’s panicking at her absence. There is less Lara but more about her and what she means to Bobby. It’s a story told thru voice messages. And, we see (could it be for the first time?) how beautifully skillful Damian is at what essentially amounts to a series of monologues.
Axe wakes up to find Lara gone with the boys. She knows about the lie he told her about it being his idea to no longer have sessions with Wendy. And he goes into panic mode. Here’s all his panic, some word for word, some paraphrased.
msg 1: Call me. You can’t just….Just call me.
msg 2: “Not trying to make an excuse…I was trying to protect you, I know you weren’t happy with Wendy coming back and I was trying to respect that, I was trying to give you comfort. Maybe I could’ve done it different…but you could’ve done this a different way too.”
msg 3: Gloves coming off. Taking my boys, what the fuck? Whatever you think of Wendy Rhoades, she’s good for Axe Capital and what’s good for Axe Capital is ultimately good for you. You used to know that.
msg 4: Anger is gone, giving way to sweetness as Bobby recalls how it all began. The memory of being hit by the thunderbolt, being drunk on each other, going deep. Not sappy, not needy, just sweet and honest words, providing our first real picture into what drew them together. More of a picture than any interaction or conversation we’d ever seen them have on screen. So, yeah, just as well she didn’t pick up the phone for this one.
After this message, Bobby’s history with Lara, what he saw in her, is affirmed some more when he talks to Wendy about her. Wendy gets it, and Bobby knows she gets it, but then a switch is pulled in that brain of his, and he sees Wendy as another commodity open to transaction.
msg 5: I’ll kick Wendy to the curb if that’s what it takes to bring you home.
msg 6: Back to anger, this time with sinister threats. “You think I can’t control this, or you? That you’re teaching me some fucking lesson? I teach the fucking lessons.” Phew, very lucky indeed for Lara to not have picked up the phone this time. Harsh! He may have even scared himself with this one.
msg 7: Drunk. Equal parts angry and sad. If I was any other guy, the things I could have done, could still do. If you don’t come back.
Lara does come back but it’s not the same. The full gamut of messages, from sweet to sinister, from glaringly sober to wildly drunk, all disappear with a touch of a button.
And there we leave it…for now.
Another really big thing we got here and worth noting was the fear Bobby Axelrod elicits in both the women in his life. The women are as bad-ass as women can be, but, still, when in a moment of vulnerability with an alpha male like Bobby, there is fear. This is something else you don’t really see in other drama.
In most other things we’ve seen, when a woman is meant to kick the ass of a man, she does it, and it’s done, no hesitation, no repercussions. Both Wendy and Lara know there are repercussions to crossing Bobby. This renders every interaction between them and Bobby more real than anything we’ve seen before in other shows.
Like, when Wendy is ushered by creepy Hall into Bobby’s car, Wendy is genuinely scared, right? When Lara gets into the car with Axe as they skip out on his party, and, then, after she’s come back home, and he wants to gets closer, Lara is genuinely unsure, and, despite the caviar-laden pizza, let’s face it, she’s scared. I hope I didn’t just imagine seeing this fear in both of them. Because if it was purposeful, i.e. purposefully written and portrayed, then it’s frankly a brilliant thing to show.
Women, no matter how powerful, are still, STILL, at some disadvantage, however incremental, in relation to a powerful man. Quite a big thing to acknowledge. Kudos to Billions for doing it.