A migraine. An algorithm. A blossoming friendship. And lots of chickens! Billions gives us a fun episode in which Axe and Chuck fight at multiple fronts and end up in Chuck’s office drinking to their friendship of a sort 😀
Chuck’s day starts with a migraine and gets downhill from there.
Chuck Senior calls from Kingsford to tell his son it is time for Pericles, ahem, Chuck, to stroll the Parthenon, ahem, the casino built on Senior’s land. They are having the grand opening with fanfare and two important union leaders with 400K potential votes for Chuck in attendance. Chuck has to show up with Wendy, smile, shake hands and seal the deal. And when Chuck resists:
Senior: “Do you think JFK complained when Ol’ Papa Joe sat him down with steel workers?”
Junior: “You’re delivering Schenectady, dad. Not Ohio.”
For those of you that do not know, a presidential candidate who did not win Ohio never won a presidential election. And, according to Senior, Schenectady is the Ohio of New York State.
The opening door does not bring Donna with Excedrin but Lonnie who only has Tums and bad news. And he really seems to enjoy himself as he tells Chuck that his firm may need to cancel the fundraising they have organized for him. Because Lonnie just got a call from Lucien Porter, a journalist, who has launched a missile that could kill Chuck’s campaign: SugarVape.
SugarVape turns out to be a company that develops vaping flavors targeting kids. Chuck, who was the US attorney at the time, did not only fail to prosecute the company but also abandoned the whistleblower. Given that Chuck Sr’s close circle is very friendly with the company CEO, Porter’s argument that Chuck did not prosecute in order to protect the big guns may sound compelling to the readers.
As he takes Excedrin tablets like they are M&Ms, Chuck uses both sticks and carrots to convince Porter this article is not a good idea. But Porter, who seems to be holding a grudge against Chuck because he did not give him any stories during his tenure at the SDNY, is not giving up. And because his first job was reviewing records, the man chooses to speak in Gerry Rafferty‘s “Baker Street” lyrics.
While it looks like these two are not going to Baker Street together, Chuck pays a visit to Ray Cruz, the whistleblower in the SugarVape case. Cruz lost his job after the incident, is currently living with his mom and is a Game of Thrones fan:
“You fucked me. Closed the damn gate. Left me the north of the wall.”
Chuck, in his own sweet manipulative way, convinces the man that if Porter publishes the article, SugarVape will go after Cruz with a massive civil suit, and get his mom’s house, the furniture and the paintings, too! This is enough for Ray Cruz to chicken out and walk back his statement.
So the genie is back in the bottle… until it is not.
When Porter confronts Bryan and Kate about Cruz not cooperating anymore, Kate intervenes. Don’t you think she would absolutely shine as the prosecutor of the SugarVape case?
Kate, in her own sweet manipulative way (well, she learnt from the best!), convinces Cruz that what he needs is Triple G in the ring punching SugarVape for him. Kate will prosecute SugarVape herself. She cannot guarantee Cruz a conviction, but she can guarantee she will bring out all the facts that will qualify Cruz as a federal whistleblower – Cruz will be paid.
Chuck, who thinks the article is off, is at home telling Wendy, who is packing for the trip to Kingsford, that she does not need to accompany him to the casino opening if she does not feel like it. But she can help him with one practice that has always helped with his migraine. Wendy is ready for it only if Chuck is in the mood for something mutual. And Chuck, who was asking for it just a second ago, now uses his headache as an excuse to get out of it! And guess what? He suddenly figures out a new practice that could help with his migraine:
Chuck’s tension headache probably peaks when he sees Porter’s article published next morning. And on top of that, there is his dad.
I am quite sure it was Chuck Senior who stopped Chuck from prosecuting SugarVape back then. And now Senior, who seems to have taken the pill, is not only getting sarcastic with his son but also tells him he needs to show up at the casino more than ever now. People should know Chuck is not hiding in shame. Well, if I know one thing about Senior he is as ambitious as that Ol’ Papa Joe!
It is quite fascinating to see Chuck in the men’s bathroom at the casino getting ready for the game. He wears a tight rubber band around his thigh, pulls it off and… yikes! Well, the rubber band ring is all he can afford for a thrill now…
The game is on as Chuck leaves the bathroom whistling Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.” So what is next for him? Self-flagellation? Or the cilice like in The Da Vinci Code?
Chuck makes the rounds, shakes the hands but cannot have pictures taken with the union leaders who could provide the votes. And he hears from his dad why Michael Bolton, who is performing at the Casino’s Grand Opening, is a legend: He did not stop while others either quit or died. If others lose, you win. And Chuck could be a winner if he can outlast his opponent.
Axe’s day starts in his war room. I believe we are seeing Wendy and Hall at a meeting together for the first time. This is as serious as it gets.
Hall shares the news that he was not able to establish internal surveillance at Taylor Mason Capital (TMC). Cook, Taylor’s Hall, may not be George Smiley but it seems he has Hall’s respect as a thorough man. Yet, since TMC’s remote logins have not been entirely secured yet, Hall has the company’s positions and trading patterns. And where Axe finds less than a body blow, Wendy sees an opportunity that may help them with a body blow later. How about getting Taylor unsettled by buying up positions they want to increase in size? This can disrupt their confidence in their mathematical perfection and induce them to make a major mistake. Hall is impressed.
Wendy is a completely different beast this season. She exhibits much more emotion than ever both at home and at work. Now that she believes Taylor has manipulated her, she seems to be out there for revenge, too, that she recommends “water torture.”
“Drip. Drip. Drip.”
As Axe arrives at Axe Capital to task Ben Kim with locking in the TMC positions, there is a surprise waiting for him.
Dollar Bill is singing “Atlantic City” by the Boss which also happens to be the opening song of the episode.
It turns out the Arkansas Chicken Index is dictated by the number of chickens in the state. Bill knows through his contact at Mobilized Meals who delivers food to the chicken man every day that the guy is basically too lazy to count the chickens. He only makes a few calls to the major producers to get the bird numbers and they obviously give them low numbers to keep the prices up. So while there are plenty of chickens in Arkansas, the chicken man will now say there are fewer chickens driving the prices up. Axe Cap needs to be long. While Wags finds it confusing, Axe knows why the producers keep the chicken man in place.
“Because he’s wrong in the way producers want him to be. They installed him and now they keep him.”
And Bill’s certainty level puts a smile on his face. This is a $300M win for Axe Capital…
…until it is not.
Dollar Bill is not uncertain anymore when the Chicken Index report is delayed indefinitely. He hurries to Arkansas to check if someone else paid the chicken man to fuck up the index only to find out that the man is dead. And while Bill is prepared to find his replacement and buy him off, the department of agriculture sends the Flying Squad to count the chickens. Can Bill buy 7 people at once?
Well, according to Axe, if Arnold Rothstein could buy the White Sox including Shoeless Joe Jackson so could Dollar Bill 😀 Now, all I know about baseball is thanks to Kevin Costner’s baseball movies each of which I watched several times. And that is why Axe’s comment about Shoeless Joe puts a smile on my face: Field of Dreams.
In the meantime, Axe front-running (trading based on advanced knowledge of pending orders from Taylor) their positions unsettles Taylor, well, for a minute. Well, Wendy had to share with Axe that there is only little evidence about the effectiveness of Chinese water torture! Taylor knows Axe is doing it to get into their head and Cook will now make sure TMC internet security has no vulnerability.
As they lose digital access to TMC trades, Hall shows up with an Israeli spy equipment with a spatial light modulator that can take pictures even through a privacy glass. Wags is very impressed by the Mossad; however, he does not get why the camera is not installed yet. But, hey, it is. This one is for Hall’s personal use 😀
We heard about Taylor’s dad back in Season 2 when Taylor was to fire someone as Head of Research but needed affirmation from Wendy. Taylor told Wendy that their dad was a mathematician at an aerospace company. When the company closed down his division and laid him off when Taylor was in 7th grade, it affected their home life enormously.
And today Douglas Mason is visiting Taylor. Douglas does not seem to have got used to his daughter’s pronouns yet and is still talking about Taylor as his sweet 6 year old little girl who wanted to marry him when she grew up. The only language the two of them seem to communicate in is mathematics and the conversation about Vadim Linetsky and his development of the derivative Taylor works out on the board is actually a conversation about a parent and the child he raises. This is my favorite kind of analogy Billions uses brilliantly in its story telling.
Taylor: “But even when one keeps things mathematical, a satisfying solution is not always available.
Douglas: “Then you change the math.”
Taylor: “Human beings can’t command math. You can’t bend it to your will. It doesn’t exist to satisfy you. This is an example. Linetsky knew if he were to create a derivative, it would develop organically in a way he couldn’t control. His only options were to understand and accept where it was taking him, or step away. He had to be able to live with that.”
When Douglas later tells Taylor he knows the “woke” stuff matters even if he is not very good at it, Taylor seems to have difficulty holding their tears back. Asia Kate Dillon is brilliant in the scene.
As Axe and Wags discuss the very important question of whether Wags needs a girlfriend over a bottle of Michter’s, Hall gets into the office with “a thing of beauty” like the Reggie Bar.
Axe is impressed.
“This is the can opener in the fallout shelter.”
Axe knows that Taylor knows they front-run them and this “thing of beauty” is all about how they will spin it to pick up the percentages that Axe Capital was stealing from them. And the most hilarious thing is that while Axe has been trying to get into Taylor’s head, Taylor has now got into his. Axe is obsessed with Taylor’s derivative and pulling an all-nighter to figure it out.
The Chicken Index is up and Axe Cap faces a huge loss. Moreover, Dollar Bill calls them to announce that he has a solution for the chicken problem: The Final Solution. Oh, man! Axe and Wags are now on their way to stop the Chicken Holocaust. Yes, I know, Axe himself hired people to poison themselves with Ice Juice but even then he checked with Dr. Gilbert to make sure the virus would not give serious harm to those people. But if Dollar Bill aka Chicken Bill, who steals a chicken with bird flu from the quarantine area, does what he has in mind, it can have dire consequences for public health. That is where Axe draws the line. Good to know 😀 Yet, Dollar Bill may need more than a few sessions with Wendy to rebuild his confidence.
“Forget it, Bill. It’s Chickentown.”
Gotta love the Chinatown reference!
As Bill and Wags are eating chicken (so soon?!?!) on the flight back home, Axe is still working on Taylor’s algorithm and finally has his aha moment: Taylor has made a mistake. But that does not mean that Axe front-running their positions has induced a real mistake like Wendy suggested earlier. And it is not a Sicilian message like Wags suggests, either. Even I know that Sicilian messages come in the form of a horse head in your bed or something 😀 Axe is right this is a Kappa Mu Epsilon (National Mathematics Honor Society) message asking for Treaty of Versailles.
When Axe and Taylor meet at Jersey City waterfront with a stunning view of Manhattan behind them, Axe reminds his former protege they had to think twice about assassinating the Archduke before offering him peace. He also says he understood they were looking for a truce as soon as he looked at the algorithm. Huh? Liar!
The explanation Taylor gives for why they should not engage in war is rational. They also offer favorable terms for Axe to invest in their company and is ready to let the market think Axe is in the dominant position. But then why would Axe still find war as his optimal play? I would argue this is not only about revenge but there also exists a commitment problem in their relationship. Taylor is still a beginner that Axe can deal with them. But what if they wait until they grow strong enough and then come back and attack Axe? It would be much harder to beat them then. No wonder commitment problems are cited as a major rationalist explanation for war. And I would urge Axe to keep in mind that Taylor is able to do these calculations and not underestimate them as a “trusting person.”
Axe and Chuck have a night cap in Chuck’s office. Chuck is honest with Axe. He has had handshakes with a number of people he does not necessarily like and he is willing to do millions more if this gets him what he wants. But he knows it will not be enough this time around. He openly asks assistance Axe to help put him in the State AG’s seat.
Axe is cautious.
“Last time you were a lawman, it wasn’t so good for me.”
“This time it’ll be different.”
“You sure about that? I’ve seen a lot of Westerns. A man changes when he puts on that star.”
“No sir. Not on the inside. I wear the badge, I’ll be able to do for you. Favors reap favors.”
As Gerry Rafferty sings “Baker Street” I wonder if this upcoming meeting was giving Chuck the tension headaches. Because, I mean, who knew a handshake with Axe would be the most effective pain killer? 😀 And I wonder whether the favor Axe asks on the other end of the war will cause tension headaches for Chuck!