In Part I of this two part post, I attempted to convey the ways in which Damian is adding subtlety to a character that, on surface, may seem pretty black and white. In short, he’s having Bobby dole out the cruelty and megalomania in a gradient of doses while adding bits of endearing behaviors so that we don’t write him off completely as straight-up evil.
Now for some speculation on the origins of Axe’s personality.
Nature / Nurture
Bobby’s father left when he was a boy, we know, but we learned last season when he visited his mother that he was shut down and angry even before that. Lack of emotional intelligence is linked to the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotions, survival instincts, and memory. Could it be that Axe’s amygdala fires differently or not at all? An idea that brings to mind a compelling award-winning film from last year: Free Solo.
Free Solo is a documentary following rock climber, Alex Honnold, as he prepared to climb El Capitan’s 2900-foot vertical rock face at Yosemite National Park. Without any ropes or holds or any equipment of any sort, he wanted to climb a rock higher than the world’s tallest building with just his bare hands. It’s a horrifying thing to even consider for any “normal” human being. One slipped grasp and there is nothing between your body and the stone ground so far below. In the film, Alex underwent a brain scan. And sure enough, when given images of scary things or shocking things, his amygdala didn’t fire up. Fear just didn’t register in his brain. He was also a bit socially awkward, but not so much so that he didn’t attract a very sweet girl, who gave him her number at an event and proceeded to fall hopelessly in love with him. He never really showed it or said it, but he loved her too, but never so much as to let that love interfere with his plan to risk it all for the climb of his life. HIs mother said the personality he displayed growing up would these days be called Asperger’s.
Now, we don’t see any social awkwardness in Bobby. And, obviously, having not scanned his brain, we don’t know whether it may be like Alex’s. Nevertheless, Bobby certainly does have the same level of fearlessness, the same devil-may-care way of going about his life. Much like Alex memorized the full face of the rock he was set on climbing, Bobby mitigates risk by knowing his financial plays backwards and forwards to confront and conquer the metaphorical rock face wall standing in his way.
Watching Free Solo, I muttered often, “omg, he’s such a selfish ass!” Which is not far off from what I mutter watching Axe. Ultimately, Alex Honnold’s mission was a success due to his utter fearlessness and his ability to memorize and then execute the entire route with focused precision. Kinda like Axe, employing similar characteristics, has a way of always landing on top.
Then there’s the Soprano-esque sociopath in Bobby too. As an anti-hero, Tony Soprano could elicit sympathy and still be a stone-cold murderer. The sympathetic bits worked beautifully for quite a while but as the series came to a close, the writing turned to show us Tony for who he really was. When he killed his own nephew for the crime of being too weak for the business, without ever shedding a tear, we knew: he’s a straight-up sociopath. His empty coldness at the end was brilliant and a perfect way to end the series.
Bobby is not a murderer of course, but he still exhibits the same capacity to go cold and blank. It’s not difficult to imagine Bobby Axelrod meeting such a cold end too. He’ll finish up alive, of course, with all his material wealth intact, but ice cold to the bone. Who knows, just to make it fun, maybe the writers will have Bobby exert one last bit of humanity, probably once Mama Wendy is long gone. We can imagine Axe embracing Wags, his brother and final betrayer, with a full mouth kiss and a “I knew it was you Fredo. You broke my heart”, spoken thru gritted teeth before sending him off to sleep with the fishes. Like this shot but with all smiles turned upside down.
Wendy, can I call you Fwendy?
One persistent question in this series has been where Wendy fits into Bobby’s life. We know he uses her to translate emotional cues from others, a role briefly provided by Rebecca this season. And we know their relationship has a history longer than either of their marriages or any of their other relationships on screen (discounting family, i.e. Bobby’s mother and Wendy’s sister, which aren’t really on screen anyway).
Remember Bobby and Wendy in the pool from Season 1? It took place in arguably the sexiest of episodes, start to finish, that the series has done to date. Here’s a look back if you need a refresher: The Deal.
In that episode Bobby and Wendy revealed some interesting bits about their history. The words were deep and loaded and foretold of something big between them.
Bobby wanted to know why Wendy was still sticking with him. He called her answer a bold statement.
I’m here for me because I built this company just as much as you did.
The bolder statement, to the viewer intrigued by their dynamic and trying to figure it all out, came when Wendy said:
I put you back together again when your whole world burned.
Wow, right? He lost everything in 9/11 and she helped to put him back together, to heal him so he could go on and build Axe Cap to where it is today. She built the company by building him and she found meaning in that act. It must have been some major cobbling together, right? The mind reeled over imagining just how far Bobby fell, how exactly Wendy helped him.
Next time Bobby, Wendy and the ghosts of 9/11 appear meaningfully on screen together was in the season finale of Season 2, Ball in Hand.
Bobby asked her to meet at the 9/11 memorial. He apologized for mistreating her and confessed to years of bad decision-making, ever since they worked together on that very site.
Would you help me find my way back?
Like the scene in the tepidarium, this was another heavy-duty scene denoting a heavy-duty relationship.
Now, here we are with Season 4, New Year’s Day, and we are presented with yet more of their back story, this time an explanation of why Axe is so attached to Wendy.
I need you more than anyone else here. At least I have since… Have a told you why and when exactly I knew you were going to be my partner in all of this, forever?
Axe recalls an event right after 9/11 when Wendy fought for him when he couldn’t fight for himself.
Wendy: You’d been awake for, what, 3 weeks straight? I remember wondering how you were doing it. How you stayed so lucid.
Bobby: I didn’t feel it.
Axe remembered the facts of the event, the actions of the 9/11 families, his numbness in response, what he couldn’t say, and word for word exactly what she did succeed in saying in his defense. He remembered all the details but nowhere do we get him recalling the emotion of it. He flatly did not feel it, again speaking much to his lack of emotional intelligence. What this conversation showed us in regards to Bobby’s emotions or lack thereof, regrettably (and ironically) took away from the depth of their relationship. He bared it all, but the fact it was about an action and not an emotion, about the mathematical formula of tit for tat, made it decidedly less resonant.
You were loyal to me in the face of the world, but, in private, you held me to account, and you were loyal to the bigger cause.
Gives me no joy to say that the “wow” of the initial exchange from Season 1 and the intensity of the meeting at the 9/11 memorial from Season 2 was significantly diminished by this scene. Wendy didn’t even remember what she did, so obviously it wasn’t a significant moment for her. The fact that Bobby did remember it and it meant so much to him actually put the two of them less in sync than they had been previously.
Wendy was moved by his words, but, was Bobby moved by having said them? I don’t think so. His words seemed to be no more than a tool to keep her on the hook. Whatever affection he has for her is equal exactly to the degree of loyalty she shows to him, no more, no less.
I guess her reaction is enough to make the scene resonate? She seemed to be more endeared to him for it. And, even though I didn’t sense genuine feeling from his words, Maggie Siff’s reaction to them induced something -like an empathy for Bobby, one degree removed. Nonetheless, her reaction was full of emotion and his retelling was so totally absent of emotion that the scene introduced a level of imbalance in their relationship now.
Maybe all of this was the intention, who knows. The show is certainly still quite adeptly maintaining the “Will they or won’t they” dynamic. To me, this scene said more firmly than ever before: “They won’t and shouldn’t!” A feeling hammered home even further when she goes to his place in the season finale and spends the night in his spare bedroom. A scene, where again, we see Bobby clueless and Wendy not the strong, independent, “top” she has been for the past four years. I didn’t enjoy where they were going with that scene (ie Wendy as desperate) and I can only hope that it was meant as comedy.
Reading back the comments on my post for The Deal, I was surprised to find myself saying:
What I’d really like to see is Wendy losing her shit over this guy. And fighting it every step of the way. That dynamic has always appealed to me for some reason in all stories: a woman wanting a guy despite her better judgement, despite all logic, despite everything.
And, now, three years and much more drama later, this is exactly what I don’t want to see. There’s a glaring imbalance between them. I don’t want to see Wendy pining away or become a doormat for a man who is apparently biologically incapable of returning her affections. On the other hand, again using the story of Free Solo as analogy, Alex Honnold, without exerting the least bit of emotional capital, got a really cool and sweet girl to fall in love with him. This headline sums it up nicely: Love Proves A Steeper Challenge for Honnold Than El Cap. Alex and Sanni are still together and look extremely happy, at least on social media. And she seems to be anything but a doormat. Obviously, something about him must be working for her. Maybe something like that same thing will work for Wendy? But that’ll require a deeper dive into her psyche, showing her full complexity, which given this show’s propensity to keep things light, and the fact that Wendy is not the central character, will likely not happen. Guess we’ll have to keep watching to see.
V for Vendetta
It seems this season, the blank space inside Bobby where a soul should be has been overtaken by lust for revenge. The idea of vendetta is a motivating factor in pretty much every mobster drama ever told. In that genre, where stakes are life and death, the blood feud can be very emotionally resonant. I guess we’ll see how it pans out for Billions, which, despite all the “existential” risks and negotiations, is not really existential at all. I mean, no one is about to die here. Someone may go to prison, eventually, but, likely a cushy white-collar prison for minimal time. Gone is the intricate financial morass of the first and second seasons, where the intellectual heft of the fin speak and labyrinthine lawyerly talk made up for the lack of consequences any of these people will ever have to face. Now it seems to be straight up vendetta, with Chuck primed to take over the mantle of revenge next season.
Do we have any more sympathy for Bobby now that we’ve seen him driven not just to win but also by revenge? I mean, revenge connotes passion, an emotion, however destructive it may be. Bobby’s ways with revenge though didn’t open him up to passion. So, no, this season brought no additional sympathy for him. We do, however, understand him a bit more, even if we like him a bit less.
I have a feeling Damian will step up to the challenge of being Bobby’s advocate, in spite of the story devolving into one revenge plot after another. He’ll do whatever he can to try to win us back over to feel some compassion for Axe, find something to “like.” And we’ll be here for it!