“From the Trader’s Desk” – The New Decas – Billions S5 Ep1

Welcome back, your dreams were your ticket out
Welcome back, to that same old place that you laughed about
“Welcome Back” – John Sebastian

Welcome back to “From the Trader’s Desk” for Season 5 of Billions!

Before I get into my recap/analysis, let me just say, boy, did I miss these characters from my screen! With everything that is going on in the world right now, having Axe, Wags, Taylor, Wendy, and yes, even Chuck, back and up to their usual shenanigans was like slipping into a comfortable pair of jeans!

Since there was not a lot of fin-speak this week, let’s see where the characters I call the Big Four (Axe, Chuck, Wendy and Taylor) are when we start the new season.

Before I start, I’d like to talk about the school-yard battle between the Axe Cappers and the TMCer’s. There is bad blood between these two camps. One reason is because the ACs see the TMCs as interlopers (and in the case of Taylor and Mafee, traitors). No one likes anyone coming into their “house” infringing on their territory.

I get it – I’ve been in the same situation. At one of the asset management firms I worked for, we had a group of quants from Chicago merged with our fundamental research team. We called them “The Goons”. (Yes, there was no love lost.) Here came this group, with their weird accents (to New Yorkers, that mid-west accent is almost as bad as a Boston one) using our copier! We didn’t pull any practical jokes on them, but we ignored them, and were as uncooperative as possible.

However, the main reason we disliked them was because our group and their group had different philosophies on stocks, and I think that is the same issue at Axe Cap. Dollar Bill, Bonnie, Ben Kim etc. are all fundamental analysts, and believe that research is the key to investing. Taylor and their group are quantitative analysts and look at pure numbers and formulas. What happens when the fundamental analyst thinks a stock should be short, but the quant thinks it should be a long? Both sides will argue their method is best, and whichever side the Portfolio Manager takes, the other side will have bitterness.

I do get what Wendy was trying to do – showing a united front to investors and the rest of the Street is important. However, I did roll my eyes until they almost fell out of my head at Becky’s speech. Wall Street is territorial; everyone is competing for clients, bonuses, recognition. Bad blood between different groups within a firm is common: Large Cap vs Small Cap, Equities vs Fixed Income, etc. But even within groups there are sharp elbows: Tech analysts look down on Consumer Staples analysts; Financials vs Healthcare. In an environment where the pie doesn’t get bigger (and lately has been getting smaller), people are going to fight for the biggest piece. There is unity for now, but for how long?

So where are the Big Four? Let’s find out!

Axe – We find Axe in a place I’d never thought I’d ever see him – in a “spiritual” drug induced journey with Wags. In this haze, he sees himself as a “King” (I’ve been saying that for a while). A King takes – “the village, then the city”. The King masses the troops to wage war (not unlike the God of War) and to “chop heads”. Graphic, I know, but in this state, Axe sees who he is and what he thinks he needs to be: always at battle.

After he comes down from that high, Axe realizes he did not necessarily like what he saw. It must be terrifying to realize you are a carnivorous monster. Even amassing $10B to become a decabillionaire doesn’t make Axe feel good. He is searching for something. Could it be that he needs an enemy? He believes that he has Chuck in his pocket, and he’s got Taylor under his watchful eye at Axe Cap. Those were his targets for so long. He needs a new adversary to fight in order to feel anything. The King will have a new combatant entering the ring, and it’s a Prince – Mike Prince. (Very curious to know if the writers did that on purpose!).

The thought of Prince getting a Vanity Fair cover puts Axe back to rights – clean shaven, back on a mission, and back to being Bobby Fucking Axelrod!

Arriving at the photoshoot, Axe is not pleased to be just “one of the crew” of new decas. He sees himself as above everyone else and wants his investors to see that as well. Wendy reminds him what makes him stand out – his posture, his stance, his eyes. And if that doesn’t do it, an interview will make it clear.

Just as Axe is starting to feel more comfortable, who walks in the door but the new foe – Mike Prince! Prince is a deca as well, and an investor, but one who wants to “focus on others” and is all about the team and sharing praise. Neither Axe nor I are buying any of this manure! Dude, you named your conference “The Mike”! How egotistical is that?

Axe gets word on a bust on a crypto mining scheme he is involved with, and must leave the shoot, forgoing the interview. When the cat’s away, the mice will play! Prince and his Wags, Scooter (not necessarily the name I would like for my Number One) are able to finagle getting the cover! It’s not an NFL franchise, but this is another thing Chuck (indirectly) costs Axe!

Axe is questioning why he doesn’t feel happy, and the only person he can go to is Wendy. Hitting the $10B mark was nice, for a moment, then nothing. He doesn’t feel as if he has “won”. Wendy tells him he won’t allow himself to feel the win, for then the game is over.

Can people like Axe – the ultra-successful – get to where they are if they don’t continue to keep winning? Never satisfied, never complacent, always looking to keep moving forward. For example, Larry Ellison is the co-founder of Oracle Corp. He is worth $65B and is 75 years old. He could retire and concentrate on his philanthropy and his hobbies (like a Bill Gates). Instead, he is still the Chairman of the Board and Chief Technology Officer of Oracle. He still is the keynote speaker at Oracle World every year, and still participates in the quarterly earnings conference calls with analysts. He also has no problem throwing shade at his competitors (sound familiar?). That need to continue to win can be a curse if you let it consume you, or it can be the fuel that propels you to new heights. I think Axe is teetering on the edge of both.

Winning isn’t in the cards for Axe on this day as he finds out he loses the cover of Vanity Fair to Mike Prince. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Prince basically tries to write Axe’s obituary:

“Investors with a traditional strategy, like Axe, have become legends; but legends fade, and their value is then mostly in the stories about them, lessons to the future generation on what to do, what not to do.”

The game is on, and Axe knows how to play this: keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. He rings up Prince and tells him he’ll attend “The Mike” and do a fireside chat (these are usually one on one talks at conferences featuring a big name in an industry).

Axe must deal with his frenemy Chuck first. After finding out from Taylor that Chuck is gunning for him, Axe needs to remind Chuck why having him as a friend is beneficial. He gives Chuck a gift: his first edition of Churchill’s The Second World War, signed by Churchill himself, and all the others that Axe cornered the market on to once punish Chuck. Just a friendly reminder that Axe can give and take away. In return Chuck will try and make sure Axe only pays some fines for being involved with the crypto mining scheme.

And just like that, they are BFF’s again! However, it’s the coldest friendship I’ve ever seen.

Chuck – We find Chuck at his Dad’s wedding, seated at table 15 (where I come from, if you’re sitting at a high numbered table, you are almost an afterthought!) with the biggest group of Definitely Not Wilburys you could compile. However, that is not his biggest issue; Wendy is also in attendance and from the conversation, it sounds as if they are heading for the big D (divorce). Even at this festive occasion, Chuck must be Chuck, which means work comes first, especially if it’s a plan to take out Axe. Kate crashes the wedding to let Chuck know she’s ready to move on a raid on a cryptocurrency mining scheme.

If it’s not one thing it’s another for Chuck, so after getting stranded on the dance floor by Wendy, it’s time to make a toast to the newlyweds. Chuck starts his speech off laying the groundwork as if he’s going to give it to his Dad with both barrels in true Chuck Rhoades fashion, but it seems at the last minute (and after glancing at Wendy), defers. (I don’t say this often, but boy did I want to hear exactly what he was going to say!) Maybe if he had thought like this in the past, you know before he threw Wendy under the bus, he’d still be on the dance floor with her.

Chuck can’t catch a break! Wendy has been trying to reach him all night, but where was he? In a basement somewhere, taking a beating! Once again, when Wendy needed him, he was nowhere to be found.

When he finally shows up at Axe’s spare apartment, I mean Wendy’s temporary place, the look of disappointment on Wendy’s face says it all. “I don’t know how I missed your calls.” Really? He’s talking to Wendy! She knows him better than he knows himself and telling that type of lie to Wendy is why she’s his soon to be ex! He will never learn. He even tried to rationalize his choice (and in a way blame Wendy) by saying he didn’t know how much the wedding would trigger him and make him feel alone. He just never takes responsibility for anything.

He knows he has not done right by Wendy and he tells her he is determined to find his way back, and back to her. The problem is, he’s said this so many times before, and here we are. I don’t think he is just saying to gain favor with Wendy; he believes it, but his nature is to serve Chuck first. It’s a gut punch to him when she tells him to send out a press release – today – they are getting divorced.

Even while his telling Wendy he’s going to evolve, we know he’s still playing games to get Axe. The crypto mining raid is just a way to snare Axe. He still believes that Axe is the reason his life is a shamble! Axe has always been and seems will always be Chuck’s White Whale!

While waiting to meet with said whale, Chuck gets a news alert and it’s a big one: Wendy’s press release announcing their impending divorce has hit the wires. His response to it is very hypocritical, so very Chuck. He’s pissed she made a unilateral decision, but isn’t that what he did to her? Chuck may be the most un-self-aware man on the planet.

Once Chuck knows Taylor flipped and spilled the beans to Axe, (books really are a trigger to Chuck) he brings in Kate to set his plans in motion. Chuck seems to have nothing to lose, and that is when people are their most dangerous.

Wendy – In what has to be one of the most uncomfortable situations ever, we find Wendy at Chuck Sr.’s wedding, speaking to her soon to be ex mother -in-law. Why is the current ex Mrs. Rhoades even there? She tells the soon-to-be ex Mrs. Rhoades that “families stick together”. Even during a friendly dance, Chuck Sr is trying to get Wendy to “re-up with the unit”. Wendy 2.0 is not buying it. (Can I say how happy I am that the “new” Wendy is still with us from S4!!)

Thinking he can “save” Wendy from his Dad, Chuck cuts in, but she’s doesn’t seem incredibly happy about it. She’s over Chuck and his gestures that are just too late. You can tell where she’s at in this relationship, as she sees their end as “bloody and tragic” like Bonnie and Clyde. Wendy has moved on – no literally -she leaves Chuck alone on the dance floor, making her own getaway. Cold, but I like it!

After a frantic night of taking care of her alcohol-poisoned son, and trying to reach Chuck, he finally shows up. And where is Wendy staying now that she’s moved out of the townhouse? Well, her new digs are non-other than one of Axe’s “spare” apartments! (Previously seen in S2E10, “With or Without You”). You can tell by the look on her face she knows exactly why Chuck was MIA and is done. She is not going to fall for Chuck and his excuses anymore. Wendy believes that part of being a responsible person is to make sure you are there for those you care about when they need you, and she’s not just talking to Chuck about this incident.

She wants to believe Chuck when he says he’s going to change, but she’s heard that too many times. How many chances can she give him? Wendy does what a good therapist would tell a patient in this position – its time for Wendy to care about Wendy. Her happiness needs to depend on one person – herself. It’s time for her to be a bit selfish and put her needs first, and to that I say bravo! As they say: “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell are you going to love someone else?” This separation has convinced Wendy that divorce is the next step and asks Chuck to put out a statement.

However, like most things now, Wendy must do things herself. She enlists Lauren to help her draft the press release regarding the divorce that Chuck just couldn’t find the time to do. I thought it was interesting one of the reasons Wendy wants this out was is that if one of them is seen with someone else, it’s not a scoop. Does she have someone in mind already?

Taylor – We find Taylor trying to navigate the crosscurrents of playing Axe and Chuck. It’s so obvious to Lauren that this is weighing on Taylor that she gives them a pass to a rage room to let out some steam. Taylor says they have everything under control, but do they really?

We usually don’t think of Taylor as having very strong emotions. I’ve said Taylor is almost like Mr. Spock in that they keep their feelings in check. Not being emotional helps you have clarity of a situation and make rational choices. It’s one of the reasons Taylor is a good investor and a good poker player. The few times we have seen Taylor let their guard down and feel, (think Oscar in S3, and their Dad in S4) Axe used it against them. They need to control their feelings in order to protect themselves.

However, Taylor has never been one to shy away from exacting revenge; and unlike Chuck and Axe, Taylor’s retaliation was a reaction to something done to them. For Axe and Chuck revenge is just part of their DNA. It’s why I wonder if Taylor is up for this game. Double and triple crossing is hard work; you need to remember all the lies, all the misdirection. It doesn’t seem like the type of environment Taylor would thrive in. Perhaps that is why when Chuck meets with Taylor, he feels the need to remind them why they are helping him take down Axe, and why Axe feels the need to remind Taylor why they work at Axe Capital.

I don’t know if it is part of the bigger plan, but Taylor tells Axe they have been working with Chuck to take Axe down. One of Axe’s best skills is reading people, so he already knew (or at least says he did). He knows Taylor has a need to be at Axe Capital. It’s not about the money or the name recognition; it’s about being alive. This is very similar to the talk Axe had with Taylor back in S2 E2 “Dead Cat Bounce” when he was trying to convince them to forgo business school and join Axe Cap. Taylor needs to feel that energy when they can see what others cannot, very similar to Axe. But, where Taylor is controlled in this energy, Axe is chaos.

Axe believes Taylor can manage Chuck; Chuck believes Taylor can manage Axe. Taylor just might be able to manage both, but first they’ll smash up a rage room as it seems the one person Taylor is having trouble managing is themselves.



Author: Lady Trader

"Lady Trader" is a Brooklyn girl, and a Wall Street lifer! Recently fought cancer, and won! I love heavy metal, history, sci-fi, oh, and blogging about Billions and it's great lead actor, Damian Lewis!

2 thoughts on ““From the Trader’s Desk” – The New Decas – Billions S5 Ep1”

  1. Fantastic recap! It’s a great idea to look at the episode from the perspective of the Big Four.

    Your commentary about the school yard rumble at Axe Capital is very informative. So the relations between colleagues is a bit different on Wall Street even when they work at the same firm. It is also interesting that there is hierarchy – such as people specializing in certain sectors see themselves superiors to others.

    And, hey, I didn’t think about it, but you may be right – what Axe needs to feel happy may be new adversary – and a worthy one he finds in Prince. He is the first one Axe finds TBTFW and dangerous that he stops Victor from looking into his business. Oh and we are totally on the same page about Prince – I don’t buy his bullshit. What an ego he should have to call his conference “The Mike” and moving behind scenes to have a solo cover… I think his words about team spirit and so on are just words!

    It seems to me that the frenemies may be friends face to face and enemies behind each other’s backs this season – yet another new kind of relationship for them, a kind of relationship that may need further strategizing. And I think Taylor may now be playing their own game. I wonder what they do at the end of the episode is an harbinger of what is to come! How fun it would be if Taylor ultimately took both men down!

    1. Thank you so much! I thought it was a good way to start off the season, seeing where everyone was, kind of like where the pieces are all on the board!

      Wall Street seems to attract big egos, so I don’t know if it’s a hierarchy, but analysts from certain sectors (let’s say tech) think that the stocks they cover are the most important to a portfolio, while another (say healthcare) thinks that the companies they cover are “real” companies, and tech is just a overvalued nonsense (as stocks, not companies). A group’s bonuses are first base on how that group did versus a peer group. Then when the group gets it’s share, it’s divided between the team, but based on individual performance. I cannot tell you how competitive it gets!

      The one thing we know is that Axe is smart (most of the time when he’s not being emotional!). He knows who he can and can’t bully. Prince can’t be bullied, so Axe knows he needs to move this mountain another way. It will be curious to see how Chuck uses Prince this season!

      Yeah, that “friendship” is bound for the ash heap, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Taylor, and possibly Wendy take him down.

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