Times have changed and times are strange
Here I come, but I ain’t the same
Mama, I’m coming home
Mama, I’m Coming Home – Ozzy Osbourne
TGIF and welcome to The Trader’s Desk. As has been the pattern the last few weeks, I’ll give a brief explanation of what an Opportunity Zone is, some quick observations, and then focus on Axe and why “stinking” of Yonkers is a double-edged sword for him.
What is an Opportunity Zone? (The WSJ review of Billions gives a really great explanation – I use some of it here)
Opportunity zones are real. The idea is part of the 2017 tax overhaul (however the Treasury Department just finalized rules for them in late 2019). Investors who have significant capital gains can take that money and invest it into an opportunity fund, for which they get a tax break. The fund in turn invests in businesses in designated disadvantaged neighborhoods. There’s no limit on how much you can invest, but you need to keep it invested for at least 10 years to get the tax benefit. That makes it less attractive for hedge funds, which likely won’t want to tie up their capital for that long. Consequently, in the real world, hedge funds have not moved aggressively into opportunity zones. There is also the question of just throwing money at these areas. While building shopping malls, business complexes and some housing is nice, if you don’t address the root of the issues, then in a few years all you have are empty shopping malls and business complexes.
Last week, Axe gave a rousing speech at a prestigious prep school, warning the children that while their parents and teachers were telling them the world was a warm cocoon there were monsters out in the real world waiting to tear them apart! And, this week we see where those pampered, insulated little darlings wound up – Yale Law School! Thank goodness Cat was there to set those kids right! If I ever get arrested, please remind me to make sure my defense team didn’t go to Yale Law!
We see Mike Prince playing one-on-one with former NBA superstar Dominique Wilkins. Since Mike Prince is from Indiana, I was surprised he wasn’t playing with fellow Hoosier, the legendary Larry Bird. Now that would have been something!
The Axe-Wendy relationship is all kinds of weird this week. In one scene Axe almost takes Wendy’s head off for dressing him down “in front of a Junior” (I surely wouldn’t consider Taylor a junior!), then seems like an awkward teenager on a first date in another. I have been vocal (as have most of my Fan Fun brethren) that I don’t want Axe and Wendy to be any more than friends. I think that both Axe and Wendy are lonely and may be looking for comfort in someone they know and trust. Although, he may not feel that way if he finds out what’s going down with Taylor and Wendy.
Wendy and Taylor make a good team, there is no denying it. It is the reason Axe suggested Taylor take Wendy to the meeting with the oil CEO. They are a good balance for each other. Their good cop/bad cop routine won them the Argyra deal, and now Taylor wants to make this team the next Rowan and Martin! Wendy is the one who reminds Taylor that being successful and doing good can only be done by putting any baggage aside and focusing on the process, not an individual win. I have been writing the last few weeks about how this long game Taylor is playing in order to take down both Axe and Chuck has been interfering with them being effective. Perhaps Taylor is realizing that as well. Or recruiting Wendy to Team Taylor is all part of the big plan. I don’t know – this is what Billions does to you! You see subterfuge around every corner! Whichever the case, Wendy sure seems up for the possibility of suiting up for a new team.
And why would Wendy even consider this? I think Wendy is finally coming into her own. She is realizing that making herself happy must be a priority. The men in her life have left her tired, frustrated and exasperated. She can’t count on Chuck and possibly she’s wearied of taming a tiger named Axe. Even at the end of last season, she questioned if she was helping Axe in the way she used to. The clean Godfather-free zone of Team Taylor might just be what she needs. Then again, maybe this is a set up as well. Axe could be sending Wendy in to get close to Taylor as they did last season just to take them down. I know, I’m seeing conspiracy theories all around, but this is Billions, so nothing is as it seems!
And speaking of nothing being as it seems, as I watched Wendy and Nico, I couldn’t help but think that almost everything Wendy was saying to Nico, could also apply to Axe. She tells Nico it sounds like he is suffering from Imposter Syndrome, and I think we all can agree Axe suffers from a bit of that as well (I’ll get into that a bit more later in the post).
“Your Mom or Dad made you feel like a disappointment”
If that is not Axe, then I don’t know what is. We know he doesn’t have the best relationship with his Mom, and no relationship with his Dad. Damianista has done an amazing series about Axe and his Dad, and really gets into it. I think that in some ways, Axe took his Dad walking out very personally (and what kid at the age of 12 wouldn’t) and used it as fuel to propel him forward. For Nico this fear of disappointing someone is a current artistic block, for Axe it was his motivation to prove someone wrong.
“Visualize yourself on the other side – successful, satisfied, confident. See the work, your best. See that it all turned out OK. See the effort it took to get you there.”
Even though Nico thinks it’s BS, it works for him because he lets it. Wendy could say these exact words to Axe (and probably has) and he may stop and think about them for a moment, then would just go on and see life as a war to be won.
And finally, the look of pride on Axe’s face when Franklin Sacker says “you must have that effect on many” about Axe rattling people was priceless.
Axe vs Bobby From Yonkers
I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow recap of the Axe/Yonkers story. Damianista does a great job of that here. Instead I’m going to give you my perspective of why we saw a very clear battle between Axe and Bobby from Yonkers.
When you grow up in New York, you know there are neighborhoods that are considered good and bad. There’s not a list (at least not one that I know of), but you just know it. The neighborhoods where police car sirens are a constant background noise, your summer activity consists of playing in the johnny pump instead of a pool, your winters shoveling out your neighbors because the plows have not come, those are the working class areas. When you live there, you don’t know it’s not a good area – it’s all you know. When you venture out of your hood, and see how others live, and how others from the “better” neighborhoods treat you, that’s when you realize it. For some, they wear their neighborhood as a badge of honor and are proud to stay there; some just can’t wait to get out and almost erase that part of their lives. In many ways, Axe walks a fine line of both, using his rough upbringing as the reason why he’s as tough as nails, but not really wanting anyone to see him still be Bobby from Yonkers.
Axe may be feeling a bit like Eliza Doolittle from My Fair Lady (a character I fully relate to). He doesn’t necessarily feel like he belongs in the rarified air he circulates in (it’s the reason he wears his metal t-shirts and sneakers all the time, to stand out), but he knows he is not Bobby from Yonkers anymore and would never fit in back in his “ancestral lands”. So, where exactly does he fit in? He has carved out a lonely existence trying to be one thing, while avoiding being another. He knows he doesn’t have the UES background or Ivy League cred that would let him be welcome at that court tennis club, and he knows others do as well. It’s his money that lets him into all the places Bobby from Yonkers would never be welcome in. It probably makes him feel like a fraud sometimes, so I do think he suffers from Imposter Syndrome to some extent.
Axe has money, lots and lots of it. But it doesn’t make him happy. Why? Because he won’t let himself be happy. In some ways, maybe he doesn’t think he deserves to be. Yes, he has worked hard to get to where he is, but could it be that the voice of his Dad, or that inner saboteur (Bobby from Yonkers) we all have that keeps telling him he is still not good enough? When that voice motivates you to get ahead, that is great; but that voice is also the thing that stops you from appreciating how far you have come.
All these things come to a head during the phone conversation with Mike Prince. You could see the trepidation Axe had about going back into his old house; it was going to take the smallest spark to have him bolt.
“Yonkers is you. You are Yonkers. You’ve never really left. It’s in your manner. Your bearing. You stink of the place. And now you’re back in it.”
Those words cut Axe to the quick. He was exposed – Prince sees Bobby from Yonkers – the person Axe has done so much to no longer be. Going back into that house would be like taking a step backwards for Axe. There is no way Axe is going to let that happen. He has poured his blood, sweat and tears to become Axe, hedge fund titan. He feels going back into that house would be admitting he is still Bobby from Yonkers. It was no surprise to me he ran.
The problem with running from your past is you really can’t. A part of Axe will always be that Yonkers kid. Once he learns that it doesn’t have to define him, I think he’d be able to breathe again.