Those who try to burn him pay
You don’t do that to Johnny Blade
He’s the meanest guy around his town
One look and he will cut you down
Johnny Blade – Black Sabbath
We’re getting closer to the end folks! This penultimate episode of Billions was the perfect set-up for next week’s finale.
Here at the Trader’s Desk, it’s our day job to see patterns, and we saw several parallels to last season’s E11, Kompenso, so let’s discuss! And in keeping with the parallels, I’ve used the same song to start this post as I did last season’s recap of E11 (just a different verse!). I don’t want to break the pattern!
Before I get into my compare and contrast, I can’t do a post without commenting on Wendy. If there is anyone on this show who knows right from wrong, it’s Wendy. I knew she would do the right thing in the end. She knows she was wrong, owns it, and will face the consequences. I think she would have made this decision to come clean to the Medical Board even without Taylor’s input. She has always been the “moral compass” of Billions, and this season she (at least to me) became more human by showing her vulnerable side. She is a strong woman, and her journey this season does not change that. Looking at yourself, and your actions, and recognizing your faults or imperfections is one of the strongest things you can do. This puts her head and shoulders above the men in her life, who will lie, cheat, and basically do whatever they feel is necessary to advance their agenda, and rationalize any and all bad behavior. I look forward to seeing the continuing adventures of Wendy Rhoades, former MD, in Season 5!
Last season in E11 it was Comp Day (aka bonus day) at Axe Capital. Axe was in a foul mood since he was begrudgingly giving his employees what they had earned during the year. He was resentful since he felt he was the one who did all “the heavy lifting” and was actually the one who “earns the money”. All he wanted to do was “punch their teeth in”. He meets with every employee and basically makes them sing for their supper. It’s also the day he pushed Taylor over the edge during their comp meeting, which lead to Taylor opening up their own shop. Let’s compare this to Comp Day at TMC.
It’s a very different vibe at TMC on Comp Day. The employees seem happy and Taylor is not going to have individual meetings with each person and force them to “justify their existence”, since the results speak for themselves. Taylor gives everyone some good news: TMC can pay everyone “full freight” (their full bonus), more than anyone has made at their old shops. And then, gives bad news: if they leave their money in the Fund for the next 12 months it’s full freight; if they want their payout now they’ll get only $0.60 to the dollar. Taylor will give everyone time to think about their decision.
I think Taylor does this for two reasons: first, the Fund is relatively new and is still in a war with Axe Cap. Having the capital in-house will come in handy for any further skirmishes. Conserving resources makes sense. Second, seeing who will defer their payout is a way to see who still believes in TMC. Leaving your bonus in the Fund can be risky, but if you have faith in your firm and want to help protect and grow it, it’s a vote of confidence. Now, it’s not like the TMC employees are going to starve. This is only their bonuses, not their salary. Most employees at TMC are pulling down anywhere from $200-250K as an annual salary. Bonuses (which are based on performance and assets under management) are where you make the big bucks.
The TMC employees are not happy with this arrangement, and I get it. They may have left established firms to work at this new shop, and weren’t expecting this as a way of being shown they are appreciated.
Mafee, Lauren and Winston (aka Math Man) are discussing their options regarding their bonuses; should they take the money or keep it in the Fund? Taylor walks into the meeting and wants to know what the issue is. Winston is honest – he thinks this sucks! He believes Taylor is using “hedge fund social pressure” (of which I have never heard of) to stop anyone from taking the upfront, lower payment. He thinks Taylor is giving them a false choice: Taylor could pay the most valuable employees first. Math Man is not done! He also thinks Taylor started TMC because Axe took them for granted (true) and now Taylor is doing the same to them (not true). He knows Taylor needs to keep resources in house because of the war with Axe Cap, but doesn’t want his money to be a part of it. Now he is done, but its Mafee’s turn to speak:
“Fuck you Math Man!”
He wants to know why he won’t be loyal to Taylor, who had always had the employees’ back, even when they messed up. Taylor has earned trust and if Winston can’t understand that, then maybe he should do what Taylor did – walk away and prove they can do better! But, Mafee knows Winston is not a leader, he’s a complainer, a grumbler. Mafee is keeping his money with Taylor, so what’s Math Man going to do? Of course he’s going to defer his bonus. Mafee is loyal and unlike Comp Day a year ago at Axe Cap, no one is leaving because they feel unappreciated.
Taylor Making a Bold Move
Last season, E11 was the episode where Taylor makes the bold move to open TMC and take Grigor’s money. A year later and Taylor is still making bold moves.
Axe and Rebecca are negotiating to buy Pearlsang Appliances, as a replacement to Kling, which is controlled by TMC. The meeting is going well, but Taylor has Cook (their Hall) follow Axe and Rebecca to the Lobster Club. Taylor now knows that Pearlsang is in play and instructs Cook to “drop what you have on” it. That can only mean bad news for Axe and Rebecca.
And bad news it is. The leak is that Pearlsang uses child slave labor, which now makes it a no go for Rebecca and Axe. Taylor is hoping this is the kill shot for Sayler’s, never expecting Axe would step up to the plate and put Axe Cap at risk to buy another appliance company, Cardinale, for Rebecca. There is only one thing left for Taylor to do.
Taylor meets with Rebecca and confesses they were wrong about Axe. Taylor knew they had Rebecca behind the 8 Ball, but never thought Axe would fight so hard for Rebecca and against them. Taylor can’t let Axe buy Cardinale – that would kill Kling. They need to make a deal with Rebecca and Saler’s. Kling will go back to supplying Saler’s with household appliances at the old rates. This proposal would save both Saler’s and Axe.
Rebecca is a deal maker and a tough negotiator. She will need to be in control of Kling and be the decision maker. Another condition: Taylor stays invested in Kling, so that Taylor won’t try and sabotage Saler’s without hurting TMC. Taylor agrees. THIS is how deals are done when you have two rational, smart business people work together. It’s a bold move for Taylor to admit defeat and try and end the war that, in a way, they helped start in S3 E11. However, if Taylor thinks the war is over, they really don’t know Ares, I mean Axe.
Axe (still): Ares, the God of War
“Ares was the Greek God of War and perhaps the most unpopular of all the Olympian gods because of his quick temper, aggressiveness, and unquenchable thirst for conflict.”
The name of my post for S3 E11 Was “Is Axe Ares the God of War?” The answer then as it is now is a resounding Hell Yeah!
To Axe, everyone is a perceived or potential enemy. He “sees every challenge as a life or death contest”. If you don’t tow his line, you are against him. Last season in E11, we finally (but briefly) met Momma Axelrod, and found out that Axe has been this way since he was a kid. His first “enemy” was his Dad and always had to “take the fight” to everyone. He hasn’t stopped fighting since. We see it briefly in his interaction with Chuck in the kitchen of the Lobster Club. Chuck is not following through with his promise to go after Taylor, so Axe must threaten him, just to remind him who’s boss. Rebecca is next in the firing line.
Wags brings the bad news on Pearlsang that will lead to Axe and Rebecca having to back out of the deal to buy it. Using child slave labor will make the company “radioactive”, so they must come up with a new plan.
Axe suggests Cardinale, another appliance company as a replacement. The price tag on this company was $5B last week; now that it is possibly the only play in town for Saler’s, that number will surely rise. Saler’s doesn’t have the cash for that size acquisition.
Rebecca makes a bold ask: what if Axe buys it? That was on his radar, but he didn’t want Rebecca to feel he was riding in on a white horse to save the “damsel in distress”. Rebecca thinks it’s only right Axe come to her rescue since in her mind (and in mine) Axe is the one who put her in Taylor’s line of fire.
Rebecca speaks a truth that hits too close to home, so in a flash he goes from white knight to red dragon, taking no responsibility for his role in the situation. He told her about his “baggage” and history with Taylor, and Rebecca still insisted he be involved with Saler’s. Rebecca wanted what Axe can bring to the table: his smarts, his charm, and his willingness to use strong arm tactics, not bring a gun to her head. Axe thinks this is all about Rebecca needing his money to buy Cardinale and save her “Barbie dream house”.
Rebecca is a different kind of woman than Axe is used to dealing with. Before she hooked up with him, she was doing fine, making deals and making money. He is not her oxygen – she is self-made. She will give as good as she gets. These are the first cracks in a relationship that should work beautifully, but just can’t. Rebecca has something Axe will never appreciate: a mind of her own and common business sense.
Axe relents and will buy Cardinale for Rebecca, even if it will ding his bank account. I doubt he is doing it out of really caring about Rebecca; it’s a combination of still wanting to one-up Taylor and now Rebecca will owe him, which is a position he loves to put people in. For Rebecca, if Axe had said no to buying Cardinale it wouldn’t have been an issue in their relationship (coincidence that Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love was Ares lover?), because she can separate business from the personal. Too bad for her boyfriend, business is personal.
In order to pay for Cardinale, Axe is going to have to raise cash and sell some positions. He goes to Dollar Bill and tells him to liquidate (sell the entire position) Corwell Pharma at the open. Bill balks – that’s his DB stock P (Dollar Bill stock Pick) of the year. Bill (with back-up from Ben Kim) thinks it’s too soon to sell the position. But, the name on the door say Axe Capital, so you do as the man says, no questions asked!
Wags brings the price tag of Cardinale to Axe: a whopping $6B. Axe is not bothered; he has told his minions to sell positions so he’ll have the money. What will bother him is an ambush; I mean an intervention, waiting for him in his office.
Spyros, Bach, Wags, Dollar Bill, Victor, Ben Kim and Tuk (that’s a motley crew!) are all lined up and one by one tell Axe why he should not be putting Axe Capital at risk to buy an appliance company for Rebecca. This will not be his legacy play, so it’s not worth it.
How dare anyone question Dear Leader? This is his firm, his money, and his positions.
“I am the sun that warms you and the air you breathe. Don’t forget that!”
And if anyone doesn’t like it, they know where the door is (or the window!). Axe sees everyone trying to reason with him as an opponent. The only hope may be Wendy. She has been the only one in the past that was able to restore his equilibrium and restore him to himself.
Wendy tries to reason with Axe, but it’s no use. Wendy wants Axe to focus on beating Taylor where it really counts – in returns. For the God of War, this is not enough: “a win is not a win unless it’s a kill”. He needs a foe to focus on or else he may have no purpose. Wendy wants Axe to do the right thing (as she did), for it may “nourish” him. However, Axe’s definition of “right” is way different than Wendy’s. He believes they run on very different fuel and are not built the same.
Wendy has seen Axe go down this road of vengeance before and it never ends well for him. He thinks it’s different this time; he can see the battlefield. Wendy can’t get through to him and believes she may have “lost her touch”. Axe tries to reassure her – just because he’s not taking her advice doesn’t mean he doesn’t value her. The exhaustion of everything Wendy has gone through is visible as she gets up and leaves. Wendy may never be an “enemy” to Axe, but I think she may be getting tired of being his wartime consigliere.
Axe is sitting alone in his office (I’ve spoken of the lonely King before) when he gets a visit from Rebecca. She tells him he doesn’t have to go through with buying Cardinale. But Axe has gone ‘to war” with his own people, won, and is ready to move first thing in the morning. Rebecca is touched that Axe would go to such lengths for her, but it’s no longer necessary. She tells him of her meeting and subsequent deal with Taylor.
Axe cannot believe Rebecca made a deal with his enemy. Rebecca made the deal so Axe didn’t have to go out on a limb for her, and she also saw how the deal was causing friction in their relationship. Yes, she did it for her company, but also for them as a couple.
Axe only sees that someone has helped his nemesis. It’s the best business move, but when Axe is at war, logic goes out the window.
The side eye he gives Rebecca tells us all we need to know. Axe sees this as a betrayal, an act of out and out disloyalty. Blind loyalty is what is expected at all times, and Rebecca may no longer be welcome in his Sanctum Sanctorum.
Meanwhile, Victor is trying to work his way back into Axe’s good graces, and he has info that might help with that. This info is good for Axe, and Axe Capital, but bad for someone close to Axe. It is something regarding Saler’s toxic debt and where it can be placed. We don’t know all the details, so I’m just speculating, but if it has to do with Saler’s, it’s going to affect Rebecca and Taylor.
Wags cautions Axe on this kind of destruction – the amount of collateral damage, ruined relationships – is Axe up for that? Just to see Taylor’s blood seeping through their armor on the battlefield?
“If I’m not, why am I still wearing my armor?”
The God of War will never take off his armor. It’s who he is, and collateral damage? Well, it’s all part of a day’s work.