Billions is first and foremost a New York show. And there is nothing more natural than the darkest day of the city, September 11, still shadowing the lives and relationships of our characters. Besides, we all know 9/11 was particularly a very dark day for financial services firms many of which had offices in the World Trade Center. Cantor Fitzgerald lost two thirds of its workforce on 9/11.
One of the first things we learn about Axe in The Pilot that he is a 9/11 survivor. He is, in fact, the only partner that survived the terrorist attacks because he was out of office in meetings while most of his colleagues and friends died. And seeing that Axe Capital is located in Westport, Connecticut, we also find out Axe Capital is among the financial houses that chose to move from Wall Street to neighboring Connecticut or New Jersey after the destruction of downtown NYC on 9/11.
We then find Axe in a conference room at Axe Capital with the widows and children of his friends that died on 9/11. Axe has been giving college scholarships to these kids for years. He has been keeping it private that there has never been a press release or an interview with him about it.
A comment made by Axe’s late partner Rake’s widow June changes the mood in the room.
“It’s just wrong that you are the one standing there… “
Is she trying to say that Rake was the bright guy and Axe was the sidekick who got lucky and inherited the company when Rake died? At this point I am dying to learn more about the history of the company and, in particular, about the relationship between Axe and Rake.
We also find out Axe’s wife Lara lost her brother Dean in September 11 attacks. He was one of the first responder fire fighters who was not able to escape the towers that day.
Lara, as she openly threatens June about “bringing her beef public”, refers to her blue collar roots adding in a bit of information that she never set foot on a yacht other than the Staten Island Ferry until she started dating Axe. We learn later in Episode 9 Where the F*** is Donnie that they first met in an aid tent after 9/11. Lara was just out of nursing school at the time. And Lara’s brother Dean’s name now lives through their firstborn.
The relationship between Axe and his in-house performance coach Wendy Rhoades also has a clear 9/11 connection. As Axe is asking for advice regarding his potentially impulsive purchase – a humongous Hamptons beach house – which he knows he wants to make only for “dick-measuring purposes” Wendy tells him this is progress. Because when she met him 15 years ago, he was not realizing his motivation behind his crazy purchases until months after he made them. And this brings them to talk about the time they met.
“I guess… considering when we started… I was staggering around crying along with half of us still breathing…”
Given that they started working together after 9/11, Wendy knows Axe at his most vulnerable. At his most fragile. Struggling to keep calm and vowing to keep the company alive. And she has been by his side since. A bond extremely hard to break.
September 11 is also the reason why Chuck is extremely cautious in pursuing a legal case against Axe. Axe’s generosity to FDNY and NYPD has made him “a folk hero” in the city that Chuck knows it is politically almost infeasible to go after THAT Bobby Axelrod. So he is looking for an opening that would potentially taint the reputation Axe has as the “man of the people” and he finds it in the beach house!
Chuck seems to be genuinely pissed about Axe’s public image that he cannot stop himself from saying this out aloud to Axe’s face when they meet at Delivering Alpha conference (as a response to Axe provoking him) :
“You’re the only one running the big money they cheer for… You work that September 11 shit for what it’s worth… “
Chuck believes Axe has manipulated the public through his generosity to the city and its people after September 11. But it could be that this generosity is how Axe finds his answer to WHY: His way of giving thanks for his life being spared on that day. When we see Axe earlier in the men’s room taking a deep breath and washing his face before going into the room with families all of which lost a husband and a father on 9/11, his pain is genuine. He lives it all over again, he may be overwhelmed by the survivor’s guilt still alive deep inside him. And he did not just survive but has also financially thrived after 9/11. Besides, he met the two women who have kept him grounded since and helped him build an empire, too.
Damian Lewis is such a versatile actor that there is not an ounce of Brody in his Axe. He is a completely different man. Having said that the only moment I thought of Brody in The Pilot is this scene with Bobby at the sink just because it made me think of Brody in Q&A. In pain. Broken. All alone. It’s just a few seconds but Damian perfectly capturing the guilt Bobby feels deep inside somewhere blows me away.
9/11 pops up again in Episode 3 Yum Time in the form of a storm brewing that could seriously damage Axe’s “man of the people” image. June, the widow of Rake, Axe’s partner who died in 9/11 attacks, has a 70,000 word story to tell!
Her memoir is titled September 12: The Day After. Will we finally find out about Axe and Rake’s history? I lower my expectations about learning the story the moment Lara finds out about the manuscript. Lara has her own ways to get June’s attention: No gym for June. No golf for June and her friends. No Stanford for June’s son (Axelrods made a big gift to the university!). And, lo and behold, Chapter 10 will never see the light of day! June signs a non-disclosure for Chapter 10 when she comes apologetically to Lara’s door and finds out Stanford President personally told Lara about the mistake they did with June’s son’s application and that he’s very likely to be a freshman there next year. Congratulations! 😀 I really don’t want to know if such manipulations are possible in academia when huge gifts are in the play. Anyhow… why does Lara press so much to keep Chapter 10 hidden from public eye? It should be HUGE!
Well, we find out how HUGE it actually is when Kate finally lands Chapter 10 in Episode 8 Boasts and Rails! Chapter 10 reveals HOW Axe built his empire and thrived after 9/11 and it also partially accounts for why Axe was extremely overwhelmed in The Pilot just before he got into a room with the families of his late friends.
It turns out Axe was in his attorney’s office on 9/11 going over his severance package. WTF? Yes. His trades were over the line and might be illegal that the company was getting ready to kick him out! And, Axe, when the first plane hits the North Tower, went ahead and shorted aviation stocks followed by hotels and shipping. WHOA. After the second plane hit the South Tower, his colleagues were dead. And their deaths saved his career. He took the money he made from these shorts — 750 million dollars in a single day — and the rest of what his dead partners had and, as the only surviving partner of Wachtel, Raichlein and Rice, renamed the company as Axe Capital.
Hmmm…. what to make of Axe now? Well, what he did on 9/11 is, as Bryan and Terri also point out, is not illegal. It is not actionable. It just feels morally wrong. Billions once again turns legality and morality on their heads and gives us food for thought: Is what Axe did on 9/11 as black and white as it seems or not?
The biggest surprise may be that Axe does not come across as a man in panic or in pain or in guilt when Mike Dimonda publishes the story. When his fixers are ready to “fix” the news, he says no. It is true and he never lies about it. I believe Axe has made peace with what he did that day. And it is probably Wendy who helped him reach this peace as she put the man together after 9/11. Axe did the trades before the world knew it was a terrorist attack and he thought the families of his dead friends would need that money. So he did what he knew and did the best: Trade. He is not proud of it. It is what it is. But I just think this is his facade. I believe he still looks for a nod.
One comes from Wendy. The way she rushes to see him once the news story breaks tells me she knows how vulnerable Axe can get about his past. She tells him he does not have to be ashamed of anything, at least, in a relativistic sense. Wendy, having seen him at his most vulnerable, does not want him to crumble. And, it probably means the world to Axe when he gets another nod from Bruno who seems to be the only father figure for him.
Repercussions are intense enough to seriously damage Axe’s “man of the people” image. It starts with Axelrods finding their Rolls Royce (Bentley) graffitied with “Fuck You Pigs” as they leave a neighborhood joint. Protestors turn Axe Capital parking lot into Zuccotti Park chanting “Towers down, profits up!” Raul Gomez from the NYPD Pension Fund moves his money elsewhere. Lara’s siblings set up court in her restaurant telling her she is married to a criminal who should clean up his mess. Besides, they encourage Lara to divorce Axe and she can still be rich in case she wants that “blood money.”
The biggest tough blow comes from the firefighters to whose foundation Axe has given millions of dollars over more than a decade. And the firefighters at the fire house Lara’s late brother Dean worked are the only people Axe talks to about his 9/11 trades.
Axe makes his case — a very hard sell — to the crowd. When told he is talking like a politician, he gives them even more than Dimonda gives the public in his article: That he stepped on the gas after the second tower was hit. He did not do it for himself. He felt responsible for the families of his friends that perished in the attacks. He is not proud of it. But he, I feel, does not want to come across as vulnerable, either. So he keeps the facade cool even though there is a split second that I feel the facade is crumbling when he addresses a firefighter he knows:
“Paul, talk to me.”
Damian walks the perfect walk on this very thin line. Later, in an intimate moment, Axe tells Lara he does not know how to deal with severe situations other than operating on autopilot. I believe the autopilot in Axe’s world is equivalent to doing what is rational that is completely detached from all emotions which may hint to why he does what he does on 9/11. Do not get me wrong, I am not making this argument to justify his actions. I am just trying to understand where he is coming from.
Axe’s “public image” is in such deep shit that even the AG’s office that was hesitant about going after Axe because it is election year is now happy to open the purse for Chuck to get the job done. And I believe it is as legitimate to question Adam DeGiulio’s “a big takedown will make all justice look good” as it is legitimate to question Axe’s 9/11 trades! The case the SDNY is working to bring against Axe has nothing to do with his trades on 9/11. What they are trying to do is to use the now troubled public opinion about him to have an easy time bringing charges and prosecuting him. And the AG is ready to go on podium “to class things up” when the Southern District lands this case safely. Oh yeah it is election year 🙂
Well, too bad for the AG, but she is gone before they ultimately arrest Axe at the 9/11 Memorial where the twin towers once stood in Season 2 Finale Ball in Hand.
We all know the entire Bobby Axelrod story kicked off at the World Trade Center, on September 11, when the planes hit the towers. And he now faces what he has feared the most, the wind breakers, at the exact location his rise to power began. This is some genius writing!
Season 3 finds Axe, separated from his wife and indicted, now living in an ultra fancy penthouse in Tribeca with the stunning view of One World Trade Center. Given that his rise to glory started when the planes hit the towers and that his arrest happened at the 9/11 Memorial where the towers once stood, it is quite ironic that it is his view right now.
9/11 comes back to bite Axe in the ass in Season 3 Episode 10 Redemption when he tries to raise capital for Axe Capital once the charges against him were dropped. His good friend Raul’s phone calls to Firefighters Fund (seriously, Axe?) and Sanitation Workers Fund (too many retired firefighters) do not work out forcing Axe to have an “unpalatable” meeting with Frotty Anisman and ultimately betraying Taylor.
Well, what goes around comes around. The biggest blow to Axe may be coming from Taylor in Season 4. The new season trailer has Taylor visiting the FDNY Fund probably for a pitch. We can confidently assume the Fund has not only heard that Taylor is the most brilliant young mind around but also that they left Axe Capital to open their own shop! Don’t you think they would be delighted to invest with them?
That should hurt Axe. No wonder he tells Chuck he wants to see Taylor in a fuckin’ cell.