Billions Season 3, episode 1, long time coming, eh? Let’s skip the pleasantries and get down to it, shall we?The nation has turned, so Chuck walks warily to meet his new boss, wondering if he still has a job. Newly appointed Attorney General Jeffcoat circumnavigates into the biggest case in NYC right now: Eastern District vs. Bobby Axelrod. He tells a folksy tale of horse husbandry and goads Chuck with the raging sting of being the primer for the mare that Dake ultimately gets to fuck. (I believe the AG just called Bobby Axelrod a female horse.) Then he suggests, if Chuck wants to keep his job, he’ll want to look kindly on future Wall Street shenanigans. Tie goes to the runner in both baseball and in the high stakes gambling of the capitalist enterprise.
Don’t call a man out on a win.
Axe Capital has moved from their old digs to swanky Manhattan and Taylor is rallying the troops for new ideas to present to an annual hog show of hedgies. Dollar Bill wants none of it, he wants Axe’s assets unfrozen and his sensei back where he belongs. He’s chomping at the bit to get back to kicking financial sector ass in the name of his hero and mentor. The gambling force is strong in this padawan.
Axe is fuming and musing, newly single, in a grand penthouse apartment, stocked with video games and snacks for when the kids visit, but basically alone, open to suggestions from Wendy on what to do to get back all he’s lost. Wendy will get to that, but first she wants to get him thinking about what he wants for the rest of his life. Axe has told her that at this moment, he is overcome with rage. She has him do an exercise where he revisits a situation when rage served him.
Now, let’s talk about this thing that brought Bobby the most useful rage. My first liberal knee-jerk response to Bobby’s story of being a poor fifth grader getting his ass kicked by a couple of rich eighth graders was this:
THAT’s the rage that fuels him and serves him going forward? He’s angry at the rich kids because they caught him cheating? Dude, not everyone grew up with an Atari or the right pair of Nikes. A lot of kids made do without until they could, without cheating and selling counterfeit sports memorabilia. Maybe the rich deserve to be robbed. Bobby clearly thinks so. Or maybe he thinks he wasn’t really scamming anyone, just taking care of himself? Maybe self-interest trumps it all in minds like his? Everyone has the same instinct to survive, but, most of us who grew up not rich traverse the bitterness and eventually realize that maybe the best revenge is to live our best lives: Something that is ironically often out of the reach of the rich because they’re too busy collecting the Ataris and the Nikes.
Alas, such liberal logic when presented by the non-Axelrods to the Axelrods of the world falls on deaf ears for the most part. When President Obama won, a Tea Party Republican friend from high school, in the face of the joyful tears flowing all over social media, angrily Facebooked “Well, let’s just all sing kumbaya, then.” She apologized later but her first impulse spoke volumes. It sums up the right’s view of progressive thought: that it’s just dumb idealism. To them it’s only the Axes of the world who know the real score. Gamers, gamblers, those who’ve used whatever means necessary including (and maybe especially) lawlessness to go home winners. It’s (ETA: The world of Axe Capital is) the world of right vs wrong on one side and win vs loss on the other, and a 20-foot wall erected between them. Winning has only a tenuous (and easily dismissed) connection to legality, and losing is absolute and never right, irrespective of any selflessness or personal sacrifice that may have contributed to the losing.
Wendy urges Axe to take his mind out of the past, to imagine what holding on to the rage does for him now and will do to him in the future. Axe can’t go that deep, he chafes at it. He only cares to hear from one ghost at a time, so fuck Dickens.
Chuck meets with Dake to confirm all is well in the cover up of the info drop that “entrapped” Axe into shorting Ice Juice. Recall, Chuck gave Dake Axe’s case because Chuck knows he’s too close. The fact his father and best friend sunk all they had into a play for which Chuck micromanaged the info flow in the hopes that Axe would manipulate it; it’s all too close. Never mind Wendy’s short on that same trade. We’ll get to that later.
But, first, the most fun moment of the episode, at least for us geeks anyway. Dake says he’s only willing to go so far for Chuck. Chuck reminds Dake that he’s a Calvinist, and therefore a believer that we’re all just sinners at the hands of an angry god, born of sin, essentially irredeemable of it. So what’s one more sin? Clean set up for the truism: Without a promise of redemption, there is no morality. Gotta love when TV finds fun loopholes in religious philosophy, eh, fellow geeks?
Dake wants to assure that Chuck has cleaned up the crime scene to the best of his ability. Chuck wants to assure that Wendy is protected under the deal despite her own share of the short.
Wendy’s short has had no adverse impact on the Rhoades’ marriage, and has in fact strengthened it. Had Wendy known what Chuck was doing, she would have stopped him, and he would’ve stopped but that would’ve been a point of no return for their marriage. Not sure how sellable this point is, but let’s go with it for now. Everything is out, Chuck has shared what he did to manipulate the play, Wendy has shared that she trusted Axe Cap more than her own husband and shorted the play.
Perhaps wishful thinking, but the point we need to take home is that maybe Wendy shorted to, in a way, protect Chuck? She believes in their partnership as equals. In her mind, since their assets are shared, her winning on the short would be enough to cancel out Chuck’s loss. I’m ascribing heroic intention to Wendy Rhoades where they may be none, I know. Until shown otherwise, let’s let Wendy remain the hero in all of this, m’okay?
Still, that can’t be the end of Wendy’s culpability. So, time to insert some random speculation.
Back in Season 2, “Golden Frog Time”, remember Axe and Wags gave Mafee a fair bit of grief over dipping into a particular asset to add to the Ice Juice short? When he told them it was for Wendy, they weren’t pleased.
Guilty people, as we all know, tend to divide up their stuff and name it different things. They use fake names, and names for laundering. They do this to get bad money clean and to hide some under the mattress, some in the freezer, and some tucked away under the pool cleaning equipment. So was that asset that Mafee dipped into to cover Wendy’s short one of those financial properties that weren’t supposed be touched? What if Wendy’s name on that allocation lends some greater weight to the charge against Axe? Just a thought to tuck away for later.
Getting back to this episode, on second thought maybe the Calvinist thing wasn’t the biggest laugh. It’s Krakow as Treasury Secretary. OMG. LOL. In this episode, he tries to poach Taylor to take over his business while he’s literally printing money. Cue a nice display of loyalty when Taylor tells him to take a hike. That’s hopefully not the last we hear from the Treasury Secretary though. Because, omg, way to make us laugh at the absurdity of the current political situation, show.
In what at first seems inexplicable, Lara has partnered with Birch to manage her piece of the Axelrod assets. Birch sees it as a friends and family benefit of this skill set, Axe says what skill set and that they are neither friends nor family.
You have about as much edge as Mr. Rogers.
My question on this: why does Birch get to see where all the bodies are buried? (Aside: I’ve got a theory on what the future holds for Ben Kim having this knowledge too while also being an object of company ridicule for his nerdy ways, as well as victim of unsolicited back rubs, but I’ll let that theory cook a bit.) Why does smart businesswoman Lara need Birch’s eyes on the Axelrod numbers? The only explanation is that Birch is a cushion, however brief he may serve that role, against her bumping up to her ruthless ex. For the first time in three seasons, Lara’s flashes of longing and blatant moves to protect herself from being further hurt by her husband has me rooting for her. You feel her lingering love for Bobby in this episode. Funny how sometimes it’s easier to root for a couple to get back together than it is to root for a couple who already has it all tied up with a pretty bow.
But hold up, speaking of having it tied up, I need to contradict myself again. The Rhoades do have it locked up, not with a pretty bow, but, still, in a profoundly deep way, and that doesn’t take from their watchability and rootability one bit. Chuck knows he needs to deal with the fact of Wendy’s brief tryst with the astronaut guy, and, he needs to tap into the pain, both as a human and with his basic animal instincts. He needs to experience fresh pain to take away the pain of seeing his wife with another man. Pain may be cumulative, but unlike joy and love, it is not additive. Pain can indeed take away pain. And sometimes, as any cutter or other practitioner of self-harm will tell you, physical pain can take away emotional pain. Recruiting your partner, the one who actually brought you that emotional pain, is all the better, because it keeps it all neat and defined and something you can do together and leave behind with the dog cages and whips when it’s done. This show has used the BDSM stuff comically, and with this scene it uses it for what it is: a way to negotiate raw emotion in a manageable way causing the least destruction. So, yeah, the Rhoades have it on lock, so far. And I’m rooting for them too.
It helps that Damian Lewis and Maggie Siff seem to have done some work at dialing down the chemistry. Goodness knows how one does such a thing, but I wouldn’t put it past them to manage somehow. Maybe it was as simple as having Wendy append “bro” to whatever first thing she said to him this season. The bond between Bobby and Wendy is as strong as ever though, despite the dialing down. And that bond is all any of us care about anyway.
See, both Bobby and Wendy know that Bobby has no game when it comes to self-reflection and wrapping his otherwise brilliant brain around the emotions that drive him. She is his wise counsel and he needs her. It’s when Bobby is with Wendy that we can take off our own social justice warrior goggles and see his vulnerabilities. Witness the way he listens to her intently, but sort of surreptitiously, so as not to give himself away too much.
A man like Robert Axelrod is supposed to know it all. He can’t give anyone any hint of him not having everything in his life lined up and locked down. The way he shoves his hands in his pockets in self-protection is saying he knows when she’s right and that he needs to do something out of his comfort zone. In this case, it’s handing all his money and the reins of his company over fully to Taylor’s capable hands.
Yes, indeed, even the bluest of us can feel for Bobby, particularly when he’s in Wendy’s aura. But the true blue one on the canvas remains Bryan Connerty, freshly anointed prosecutor in the case against Bobby. Bryan gets a great speech this episode, speaking for us down and out progressives. When Bach comes to him, uncharacteristically with hat in hand, to ask for them to take it easy on Axe, saying that’s what those higher in power would want, Connerty lets him have it: The AG in the new administration may not want to prosecute the same crimes his predecessor supported the prosecution of, but the Axe case doesn’t qualify. The Axe case, in fact, provides cover over bigger financial crimes because it hurts Average Joe two ways: 1) rendering any schmuck who drinks the juice violently ill, and 2) sinking a winning IPO. The idea of sabotage appeals to public perception. Succinct nuanced observation on why we care about some cases and not others.
Finally, some visual treats maybe awaiting us this year now that Axe is single, for the time being. Will he get to sow some wild oats, maybe join Wags in his T & A bar jaunts? Can imagine him huffily leaving such excursions, unsatisfied, complaining about the imbalance in return for investment. Better to call up a girl to your place, let her do her bit, get her out before first bell and call it a night well spent. Axe is ruled by pragmatism. So he’s using a professional to polish the stones. Surely even the most puritanical among us has to find adorable him asking if he needs to feed her before she gets to work?
Billions is doing in this season what all the NYT treatments sympathizing with the deplorables has also tried to do (and failed at, if you read Twitter). The show is providing a window into the single-minded attitude of fuck the guy who can’t play the game like it’s a game. A window for those of us left shell-shocked by the events of November 2016, when we were left raw at the notion that our neighbors, our friends, could be so hateful, so antagonistic to the ideals of fairness, social justice, the notion that we are our brother’s keeper. How in this beautiful dream of a country did hate win, is what we all thought. But it’s not that simple, is it.
NYT, in their featuring the voices of the right, is trying to show a bit of the complexity in the us vs them setup we were all made victims of, but it’s Billions that is primed to succeed at it. It is dissecting the anatomy of self-interest, single-minded adherence to self-determination. All in the body and mind of Bobby Axelrod. Sure, those of us still reeling don’t want to be manipulated into sympathy for the devil. (Hey, a Stones song outta the blue!) We know Damian gives us morally ambiguous characters and makes us fall in love with them despite our better judgment and he’s primed to do that here. But not without showing us the truth of it first. All we can say to that is: Let’s roll.