We sit in the mud, my friend, and reach for the stars.
― Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons
Here we are, at the end of Season 2 of Billions, and what a ride it’s been. I know I’m not alone in wishing that these folks wrote and worked and filmed and screened all at the same time, so we wouldn’t have to suffer the excruciating dry months of waiting for the next season to start. In this season, the entire lot of them exceeded all expectations. The story was tight, the performances even tighter. It’s like they all came into their own skins this season and it was a treat to watch.
My review here won’t be a recap, because you’ve already read those. Instead I’ll focus on the father and son scenes central to Season 2, Episode 12, “Ball in Hand.” And I can’t leave the season without talking a bit about Bobby and Wendy. While most other connections between characters are clear, it seems there reigns a central mystery, still, between who Bobby and Wendy are to each other. This season, wonderfully, didn’t solve the mystery a bit, it only intensified it.
Fathers and Sons – Rhoades
Chuck puts his foot down with Wendy and is done with counseling, basically telling her if she wants to come home, she can. If she doesn’t, then all he knows is:
Life without you is a misery.
He drops the news of what he’s done to the biggest investors in his scheme, Ira and his father. Of course, they are shocked at the news and the humongous loss they’ve all suffered, all for the sake of getting Axe’s head on a platter. There have been law suits flying back and forth between Chuck and Axe all year, ever since the destruction of Axe Cap last season, so everyone knows Chuck has to stay clear of letting any of what is about to happen touch him. The long, sorted history of going after Axe as well as the conflict over Wendy, assures that Chuck cannot take any of the heat. He’s drafted the documents assuring that very thing.
Ira: You baited him.
Here’s that pesky problem of entrapment, which I alluded to in my last post. Baited, trapped…yet not entrapped, as Chuck later clarifies. Methinks we’re not done with this issue of semantics, a fine bone of contention, just yet, and, as we speak, they’re getting the brightest legal minds of NY to help them solve the issue, or at least invent the fiction around it convincingly, for Season 3. As for the money, Ira quitting his job, relying on Ice Juice to carry him through:
Chuck: You’ll get it back.
Ira: After he’s convicted, after another 4 to 7 years of dragging him thru court.
Chuck: When I’m governor…
Chuck has played a really REALLY long game, one requiring a truck load of up-front investment, with huge losses from the gate. Ira may get his money back, but Chuck Sr. certainly will not. Junior’s own trust fund is dust in the wind. He traded it all in for what he imagines and hopes will be the biggest win of his career.
Chuck Sr. is disappointed. He’s hurt and he’s sort of wondering where he went wrong. You see, Chuck Sr. doesn’t really get how his own behaviors have impacted his son.
Senior bullied Junior throughout his entire life. When he wasn’t the bully, he was making sure the kids who bullied his son, and beat him at whatever competitions prep school kids have with each other, never got past the gates of that prep school. Indeed, dear Senior may have been the very first bully in Junior’s life, leaving him susceptible to all the other bullies that came along later. Senior lived vicariously thru his son, pushing him to accomplish things that, for whatever reason, he was never able to accomplish in his own career. And Junior did as he was expected, honoring and respecting his father’s wishes, begrudgingly but mostly unconditionally. Until now.
This is what you’ve always wanted. Your son, your scion, in that office, in that chair.
Chuck is dealing a blow to his father with the fact that he asked for this. His father is not without blunt blows of his own. As a final assault on his son, blatantly meant to cause him pain, Senior pulls out pictures he’s had taken of Wendy with the Mars guy. Oh, the toxicity in this relationship runs deep. Of course, it’s not over yet, as it can never be truly over between family.
You will stand up at my funeral and say meaningful things about me, but, until then, I am done with you.
Fathers and Sons – Axelrod
Axe gets the news of his impending arrest from, who else, Lawrence Boyd. Boyd offers to return the favor of holding his watch while he’s gone.
As if we didn’t already know it, the ride-or-die wife isn’t so ride-or-die these days. Lara tells Axe in no uncertain terms that she’s not going to run away with him.
Axe meets Bach at a pool hall called the 8-Ball. Axe used to play there, and, we assume gamble and win. He waxes nostalgic about how the game used to be easier to play, which, of course, alludes to the game he’s currently played and lost.
Used to be the only way to get a ball in hand was if it fell off the table. Now, one person scratches, the other can take a ball in hand and put it anywhere on the board. The game is as good as over.
Any little foul can give full power over to the opponent, thus there are no little fouls anymore. It’s not that it used be easier to get away with stuff, it’s that, to Axe (and a lot of Americans, it seems!), there hasn’t been balance in the ways the rules have changed. Games are no longer fair when one side’s ideas of what is right and wrong get more weight than the other’s. It’s like that old Looney Toons cartoon of the sheepdog and the wolf doesn’t apply anymore. Adversaries used to be able punch a clock, pursue and attack each other as was natural for them to do, then punch that clock again, wish each other a good night, and go home. There’s ever more at stake, ever more to win, ever more to lose.
He assigns the role of his Number One to Taylor, knowing they can pull it off seamlessly.
At every turn, first with Wags, then with Bach, Axe wonders what to tell his boys.
Bobby tells his boys what’s about to happen to him and to them. He doesn’t hold back anything. They don’t need the specifics. They already know where they stand in middle school hierarchies. They know they come from money and they know their mom is a hard-ass about it, but their dad is super lenient, breaking them out of camp when they want, and straight up punching the fool who dared to drive them home drunk. Their mom made them dig for clams for dinner, while their dad offered to get his unpaid interns to come over to wrap Christmas presents for charity so they wouldn’t have to. They know the score, thanks, in large part, to their no-nonsense parents.
While they don’t get any of the details, they do get the point that their Dad’s debaser ways have caught up to him somehow. And they might lose him. Not an easy thing for tweens to wrap their heads around.
Bobby knows what to say and what not so say. He knows he needs to make sure they still feel safe and loved and cared for, even if he’s not going to be around. And he readily admits he made mistakes.
I fucked up…If that makes me a bad person, you’ll have to decide that for yourselves, not just once, but many times more, as you grow older and you learn more.
Yep, parenting and being parented is an iterative process. Never ending actually. And the idea of good or bad behavior is constantly under negotiation. We forgive a lot of our parents; it’s necessary in order to grow and move on. And they forgive a lot of us.
As for Damian in this scene: there’s acting the deep wound and heaviness, and then there’s acting like you aren’t in pain. You see how he covers up his tears so the boys don’t get too scared? So much so, that you cannot NOT feel his pain.
Meanwhile, Lara is also fulfilling her parenting duties.
Bobby and Wendy
Wendy’s doing her part to batten down the hatches at Axe Cap, comfortable in her role as foxhole buddy to Wags.
Wendy: I’m the only one around here who doesn’t do the numbers. My skill is taking people and making them more of who they are.
Wendy does the deep work at Axe Cap. In the words of Chuck’s BDSM helper woman, Wendy knows a thing or two about the intricacies of temperament, the intricacies of taste. She reaches people “close to their core”, the locus of their “true expression.”
Whatever Axe Capital is right now, I know what it’s supposed to be at its best.
We’ve seen from Day One on this show that Bobby and Wendy care deeply for each other. It is a kind of love that defies description.
When they meet at the 9/11 Memorial, a site crucial to their history, Bobby says he’s regretted everything since those fateful days, he says he wants to be fixed. Really? He’s regretted becoming a billionaire? Finding Lara and building a family with her?
Unless proven otherwise by irrefutable text evidence, I’m convinced that Bobby and Wendy knew each other well before they knew anyone else or anyone else knew them. This relationship pre-dates it all.
And Bobby regrets all of it, everything post-Wendy?
Your brain thinks what he’s saying cannot possibly be true. Yet, in this moment you believe him absolutely in your heart. You believe that in this moment, he’s utterly lost, even when you KNOW he’ll bounce right back. Even when you know that in a flick of a switch he could be kicking her out again, threatening her very existence. Even then, even if he were to make good on what he told Lara he would do:
Maybe I should just blow her the fuck out of our lives…just say the word, and I’ll erase Wendy Rhoades from our world forever.
Even if he did all of that, Wendy would still be there. Not because she has nowhere else to be or because she’s a doormat to his every whim. But because she understands him, more than anyone else. Who he is with her is uniquely different from who he is at work and in his family. She understands what he feels he needs to do is often at odds with who he really is. He’s a hypocrite, a liar, a cheat when it comes to work, when it comes to things he needs to control. But when he relinquishes control, when it’s just him alone in the world, he’s pure.
It doesn’t make sense, I know. And I feel like I’m being an Axelrod apologist. And maybe I am, but, I don’t know, Damian has this way of getting us inside the hearts of the people he plays, showing us things that even they may not be able to see in themselves.
Like Damian himself has said, it’s not about sympathy…he doesn’t want you to blindly side with his character…it’s about empathy. He wants you to see what that character sees, feel what he feels, walk in his shoes for those 12 hours of television. Hate him or love him is really beside the point. It’s about us really knowing the character. And, with Bobby Axelrod, Damian has succeeded in doing just that.
With Wendy and Bobby, it’s not just about shared history, or mutual attraction, or mutual respect, although it may be any or all of those things at some point. Actually, truth be told, if they slept together now, it would be anticlimactic to what their relationship already is. Better to just relegate that image to fan fic for now (which I did earlier, here, in anticipation of the season, and could not help but to update now that the season is over…stay tuned for that update!).
As Damianista shared, she saw the scene at the memorial being filmed on a bitterly cold day in December (a day after my birthday, no less) and, yes, my first question was “Was Wendy there?” but then I went on to squee all over the place…
Oh go ahead…I’m flying high that the scene was at the 9/11 memorial. Nothing can “spoil” that now 😀😀😀
Is he there with Wendy? That would be EPIC!
Just HOWLED! YEEEEEESSSSS!
Whaat??? He’s getting arrested??? Oh NO!
WOW! That’s a great spoiler! He will KILL that event and all that comes after.
WOW. It’s going to be SO GOOD!
WOW 😳 WOW 😳 WOW 😳
LOOOOOVE that Wendy is there!
This is my dream come true!!! I just thought of what I would want most….and that is exactly what you describe! Anything else would’ve been “meh”. The power of positive thinking. 😀😀😀
Believe me, getting this spoiler and anticipating this scene did not detract ONE BIT from actually seeing it. It was somehow both exactly what I wanted to see while also surpassing expectations. I mean, it was visually beautiful, but also beautiful in that it wasn’t a mere plot point. Sure, Chuck saw them there and maybe Lara will find out that Wendy got the hug goodbye that she didn’t, and these things will, doubtlessly, have bearing on the plot. What I mean by it not being a plot point is that it didn’t have to go down like this in order for the plot to progress. Bobby could’ve been arrested at home with his wife by his side, while still estranged from her. Wendy could’ve said good bye to Bobby some other way, still managing to distance her from Chuck, in his eyes. The fact it happened at the 9/11 memorial, with these two incredible actors so fully engaged, the emotional truth of their connection fully on display for all to see…the magic of that moment didn’t have anything to do with plot. It was about these two people and what they mean to each other.
I had the chance to live tweet the episode, and my one tweet that got the most play, and, is still, in fact, pinging away with RTs and hearts as we speak is this one:
— JaniaJania (@zarqa) May 8, 2017
It was a scene that pulled at the heart strings alright. In hindsight, I think what she actually whispered to him may have been as banal and non-earth shattering as “You’ll be okay.” Usually I hate when shows try to manipulate an emotional response, instead of building one organically, and this little whisper may have been one of those times of writerly manipulation. (ie if it had been organic, we would have seen these two whispering to each other before and heard their whispers, rendering this one unheard whisper even more “real”) Regardless, it worked. Boy, did it work, and big time. It worked for me, and, apparently, for the folks who liked my tweet. (So much for armchair quarterbacking from this unemployed wannabe writer, heh)
It worked mostly because of the focused performances, how these two are so fully present when on screen together, that ineffable quality of “great chemistry.” Despite what’s come before or what will likely come after, you believe everything they say and do in this very moment. Really a magical thing for actors to be able to do. Everything else sheds away, and all you’re left with is where they are now, what they say and do, and that they are there together.
Stepping out of the magic of this scene…here’s to a fantastically compelling season from all angles. Even when we anticipated events, we never anticipated it all, or as deeply delivered as it all ended up being. Billions is a rich show, ya’ll. Rich in that it tackles topics and is peopled by characters that are SO timely, so crucial to our understanding of our world right now. It plays a great part in answering the why’s and where fore’s of how we ended up where we are. And, yeah, I really want next season to start, like tomorrow.