So where to begin about this episode – entertaining, surprising, and heartbreaking – absolutely the best so far in Season 5? The best point of departure may be the definition of “contract” as Axe gives during his game of billiards with Savion since we see a number of contracts – explicit and implicit – drawn, signed, or not, in one of the best hours Billions has given us in its history.
“A contract is an understanding between men that they’ll see things the same way, that they’ll keep code. That they’ll honor the spirit of their relationship even in unforeseen circumstances.”
Axe, Wags and Bach are sitting in Leah Calder’s – the head of the office approving state charter applications – office clueless that Chuck was there earlier with Kate to convince Ms. Calder not to approve Axe’s application and thereby preventing a crime before happening!
When Ms. Calder says this is not Minority Report, a movie where they prevent crimes based on foreknowledge provided by psychics, Chuck changes gears: As someone who knows more than a thing or two on taking a line of credit, Ms. Calder may appreciate what Chuck can pay pack with interest! And while Ms. Calder does not have a witch hunt list like McCarthy did, she has a little personal issue: Her son broke up with her fiancee but he cannot get the engagement ring – which Ms. Calder’s father smuggled out of Germany at the beginning of WWII – back. So the two have their contract drawn: Ms. Calder will first drag her feet about Axe’s state charter application so Chuck has time to get the job done, and once the ring is back, Ms. Calder will put a stop to Axe’s banking venture.
And now Ms. Calder is telling Axe there is already a bank representing the zip code Axe wants his bank to serve: Vark Community Bank. Well, yeah, the bank may not be FDIC insured, but it is a shining example of an institution that works effectively with undocumented customers. Oh, and they have to find a legitimate CEO.
Well, Axe knows that the reason behind Calder’s “all naked fucking Harvey Keitel” is either Prince or his old BFF Chuck! So he tasks Hall with finding out more on Vark Bank and Lauren with finding good CEO candidates – clean people who are willing to get dirty when needed. And as we see Wags not liking any of the candidates Lauren brings in – something he did when Taylor was interviewing quants for the company back in Season 3 Episode 3 A Generation Too Late – we know who he thinks would be the best CEO, don’t we? 😀
Vark Community Bank is not Axe’s only headache today. He finds Randy Kornbluth from the Journal and his cheap jacket in his office. It turns out Axe making a lot of publicity about his upcoming dinner with Savion and his mom and not showing up is about to hit the headlines of a local newspaper. He can easily solve the problem by apologizing to the family and having dinner with them tonight, but it seems Axe is ready to do anything so he does not need to step into that house ever again. He promises Kornbluth that he will buy him an Armani jacket if he can make that news article disappear since this kind of news will harm his chances with his new banking venture.
And Axe is off to Yonkers thinking that a game of billiards and a $500 may solve his problem. Well, Savion gets the money but calls what Axe calls “a contract” bullshit. He knows why Axe is doing what he is doing – to save his ass. So he should just fuck off. I believe this young kid impresses Axe – he probably likens Savion to himself at that age. And as someone who never carries more than $20 in my purse, I am always fascinated by Axe taking out multiple $100 out of his pocket. I guess you never know when you will pay in cash 😀
While they may look like they sit around and make like George Blanda with their fingers all day, the Axe Cap boys save the boss by destroying the Vark Bank and I LOVE IT.
It turns out Eveready is the mastermind behind the plan since it is him who offers checking the bank’s practices to detect any kind of discrimination – something he lived while he was buying an apartment in the city.
Oh, man, even New York, arguably one of the most liberal places on earth can get racist, xenophobic, and homophobic of the first degree – we have recently seen an outrageous moment of racism in Central Park. And I have a personal experience from the days we looked to buy a NYC apartment and a building on the UES told us they would not accept us because we were not US citizens. We had green cards and were on our way to becoming US citizens! It was outright xenophobia probably because we were not born in a developed country but in a developing one where more than 99% of the population is Muslim!
Sorry but I will keep talking about this a bit more since we have just seen the most horrible kind of racism happening in Minneapolis and the protests following that. Thomas Hobbes talks about the social contract in Leviathan as individuals collectively giving some of their natural rights to a sovereign power that can protect them from the insecurity of the state of nature. But he also talks about the individuals having the right to disobey or resist when their lives are in danger. And, unfortunately, we are at the point where the social contract does not seem to work anymore.
Back to Billions… Axe Cap boys give an Academy Award worthy performances in a movie directed by Spyros in total character as the director where Vark Community Bank CEO gives an 8.5% interest on a home loan to newly wed immigrants Ben and Tuk while he gives a 2.8% to the white working man Dollar Bill!
Oh, and I have to say Billions does it again with Tuk’s cuddle noises – this is my kind of humor that would go directly into a post Bookworm and I wrote a few years ago about why we loved the show’s sense of humor!
Axe asks Kornbluth to give this recording to the local reporter on the condition that he drops the dinner story. And when it does not happen, he asks Kornbluth to break the news about Vark Bank himself and he is off to Yonkers – this time to ask his mom for a favor…
Could she please pay a visit to Savion’s mom and remind her of the local code: “Don’t talk.” And his third headache starts during this visit. Why is her mom driving a Honda Pilot while he bought a Lexus for her? While Ms. Axelrod says she wanted a simpler car and so sold the Lexus, Axe has Hall look into her auto registration and recent transactions. I mean Axe does not trust even his own mother?!?!
And when Hall brings back news about his mom, Axe is off to Yonkers… again… It turns out Ms. Axelrod saw her former husband at a bus stop who told her that he had trouble finding a job and so she gave him his car and bought a Honda Pilot for herself. I bet she has no idea Mr. Axelrod fled California when got chased for bad credit, moved to Arizona for some home repair business had a bankruptcy and fled Arizona before coming to New York. And he was probably waiting at that bus stop knowing he would run into his former wife and make her feel for him.
And even though Axe having Hall look into his mom’s transactions and threatening to cut her off if she speaks to him again is not the nicest thing, I believe his anger is justified. His dad seems to be a true predator.
Taylor and Wendy are now drawing the contract for the golden opportunity they have discovered: an impact fund. Axe has 50% so the two of them will allocate the rest. Taylor’s first offer of 10% is a nonstarter for Wendy and Lauren thinks 15% is the maximum Wendy should have. Lauren does not trust Wendy: the business is about value and loyalty and while Wendy scores very high in value she does not score high in loyalty because, according to Lauren, Wendy will always stick with Axe. And that is why, Taylor – exactly like Rebecca did with them in Season 4 Episode 11 Lamster – gives Wendy a true stake in Taylor Mason Carbon: 40% seems to be high enough to have a trusting relationship – an implicit contract and protect and grow the company together. And having seen the worst version of Wendy, I trust Taylor knows what they are doing!
The two partners are also negotiating over which Taylor Mason Capital employees should stay at the Taylor Mason Carbon. Wendy thinks they have to fire Winston, and I think Winston thinking of the movie Matrix when they ask him whether he could see the matrix strengthens her hand. Still, Taylor is willing to give Winston a chance to prove that he is a value added to the new company while Wendy is eager to bring in people that would be a perfect fit for the job.
One such person is Rian (Eva Victor) who turned down an offer from Axe Capital earlier because she was not emotionally ready to work for a “profit juggernaut.” But as soon as she realizes Taylor and Wendy are serious about responsible investment, she brings out her Taco Algo. Women, half of the world population, need feminine hygiene products for at least 3 decades in their lifetimes and many do not have access. Rian’s algo uses public health records, cotton prices and shipping rates to find the most optimal way to get resources where they are needed the most and can also anticipate demand. And she is ready to tackle the downside of the project: Biodegradables will address potential environmental pollution. There are firms that want to scale up but they need capital.
Winston is obviously under a lot of stress and finds an ally in Mafee, who has already experienced the worst version of Wendy, that they are living in ExMachina.Yet, he steps up to keep his job and he comes up with the best way to offload the non-green investments TM Capital has had to ease the transition to TM Carbon! Winston keeps his job while I am not sure if keeping a guy who is a Stevie Wonder Can See Truther is wise.
Allerd’s research points to a potential failure if they take Ms. Calder’s case to court. So Chuck now needs someone to get the ring from Calder’s ex-daughter-in-law-to-be’s apartment in a doorman building in the Upper East Side. Because there is a doorman, the apartment locks have been changed and that there is a possibility of a safe, he needs someone with very special skills:
Hello, Jackie !
I have to disagree with Ms. Calder: This is actually Minority Report at its best since Chuck who has pictures of Jackie at a Bugatti dealer knows Jackie is casing the place thanks to knowing the night guard from jail! Chuck is now saving him from grand auto theft which carries a heavy charge only to have Jackie commit another crime! The State AG has a good bargaining chip to convince Jackie to do what he wants: His baby brother!
Ah Bryan! It turns out he is in jail. And given that he has some rough conditions there, Jackie agrees to a contract with Chuck where he is supposed to deliver the ring in return for Chuck having Bryan move to Otisville “Prison Camp” – close to the city and that has a gym, library, and vending machines – and giving a stellar recommendation to Bryan’s parole board. Oh and one more condition for Chuck: He needs to visit Bryan in jail.
I give it to Connerty Brothers that they score in this episode.
Bryan delivers a punch to Chuck – it is two birds with one stone isn’t it? He gets his anger out of his chest but also makes sure everyone that sees Chuck thinks he got the bruise from yet another BDSM adventure! I wonder whether Bryan will come out of jail on parole and move to the “dark side” later in the season!
Jackie, on the other hand, delivers the ring to Kate at her Yonkers apartment and figures out her arousal template: Sex in Italian?!?! This should be Kate’s softest spot because otherwise this blooming relationship is a bit too iffy – how can Kate, someone that does everything right, get into bed with Jackie otherwise?
Talking about blooming relationships…
Tanner, who apparently feels A LOT as well as exposed in Wendy’s presence is taking her to an old building that will be coming down soon. We find out Tanner’s idols are Miles Davis and Hank Aaron while Wendy’s are Megan Rapinoe and Haruki Murakami (who happens to be Brian Koppelman’s favorite living writer) and I love the way Tanner talks about what we grab onto while everything comes down around us – may they be buildings, empires, or relationships- and that he wants to hold onto something good, Wendy, when this building comes down…
Concurrently, Chuck and Cat are having a date at Chuck’s place. Cat teases Chuck about the bruise and I like it that she does not judge his sexual interests. It is just that if they will be together, their sex life cannot be only about BDSM. This understanding between Cat and Chuck to which Chuck happily agrees to and sticks to later in the episode is another good example of contracts our lives are composed of – a common understanding between two or more people about behavior varying from stopping at red light to raising one’s hand in class to speak.
By the way, have you noticed that even though they still eat a lot of yummy looking food, our characters eat at home or in the office but not at restaurants anymore in Billions? I think this is both the executive producers being cautious even before Covid-19 arrived in the US and having the actors eat only on set but also the characters adjusting to the life after Covid-19 even though the virus has not been mentioned yet on the show. Since they always integrate what is going on in the world into the storyline, I look forward to seeing how the coronavirus crisis will appear on Billions – from, say, Axe shorting/longing different industries to Ben Kim washing his hands excessively or Dollar Bill trying to manage life with two families. My biggest fantasy though is Dollar Bill filling bottles he brings from home with free hand sanitizer Axe Cap provides in the office 🙂
Both Chuck’s and Wendy’s romantic evenings are cut short due to an emergency: When Chuck Senior passes out as he is playing with his daughter and is brought to the emergency room after passing out at home, the hospital reaches out to all emergency contacts and, lo and behold, Tanner, Wendy, Chuck and Cat are all in Senior’s hospital room! Wendy recognizes Cat easily since she read her book and found it helpful (does she imply the book helped her with leaving Chuck?) and Tanner’s boots give him away as a painter. I think Cat and Tanner do the right thing by leaving the hospital room before Chuck and Wendy have a go at each other!
Senior has renal failure – yikes – and the prognosis is not great if he does not have kidney transplant. I assume the two Chucks do not have compatible blood types – otherwise Chuck would immediately offer his dad one of his kidneys… right? But we hear him only saying he is working on it when the old man learns, even though he built a wing for the hospital and raised funds to build another, due to his age and his cigar/alcohol consumption, he is not eligible for the transplant list! I wonder if Chuck can provide a “get out of jail free” card to an inmate who is willing to donate Senior one of his kidneys? Can you imagine the Connerty Brothers having the right blood type? I know I am probably way off but I mean wouldn’t it be hilarious?
As The Journal breaks the news about Vark Bank’s discriminatory practices, people withdraw their money at such high rates that it is almost certain that the bank will not be able to recover from this shock – paving the way for Axe’s bank. But not so fast…
Even with their application as smooth as a freshly waxed PBA lane (or a prom queen as in Wags’ dirty mind!), the perfect CEO candidate (Wags himself wearing a manicure and a Chemical Bank summer experience under his belt) and Vark Bank out of the picture (Ben Kim takes Kornbluth to Armani for a “decent” jacket and Axe Capper boys are off to Paris or Vegas for steaks!) Ms. Calder closes the door Axe’s application and also threatens an outright ban when she sees Axe’s lack of trust towards her.
As much as the episode is about contracts we live by, it is also about fathers and sons – and I believe there is also an unspoken contract, a trust bond, between a father and a son.
On one hand, we have Chuck Senior, the Pancake Eater, a monstrous husband, a terrible dad who still has always had his son’s back so kind of held his side of the contract. And now Chuck will do whatever it gets for the old man to have the kidney transplant.
On the other hand, we have Axe’s dad who we already knew did not hold his side of the contract but who also has a story way worse than the pancake eater one!
Axe is in Yonkers in front of his childhood home which he has bought and is now having Savion and his mom move to a new house he bought for them in Scarsdale where Savion will probably have access to better schools, and ultimately, a better life. They may not see each other again, but Savion should know that Axe will be there for him if Savion needs him. And in Axe’s fatherly advice to the young man lies his own life:
“I want you to know that your father will sniff you out. He will find you in the rarefied air of Scarsdale. And the even more rarefied air of living debt free. He’ll want to reenter your life. Try to chip off a piece. Don’t let him.”
I disagreed with many fans last week when they heavily criticized Axe for skipping dinner with Savion and his mom. Here is the relevant part from my Episode 4 Opportunity Zone review:
“Axe is certainly dragging his feet when he and Chef Ryan arrive at Savion’s home for dinner. And on top of that, he gets a call, an insulting one, from Prince who seems to be attending a black tie event at Lincoln Center.
“Hell, man, 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.”
My jaw drops not at what Prince says because he wants to get Axe rattled and knows what buttons to press, but at the fact that Axe gets rattled. So as much as he is proud to be a boy from Yonkers that beat the odds, his old neighborhood, and especially his childhood home seem to represent a toxic life where young Bobby used to go out just to breathe. I genuinely believe this is also the reason Axe kindly turned down the dinner invitation the first time, he could not dare get into that house – back into his childhood. His terrible memories should still be haunting him. And add to this Prince’s words on the phone, and Axe does the unthinkable: He sends Chef Ryan in to feed the family while he gets out of “this dipshit town” immediately. I hope he makes it up to Savion and his mom soon.”
I have been fascinated by Axe’s background from day one and written a six-part series about Bobby Axelrod: The Boy Whose Dad Never Came Back. And I knew that it was about him not being able to step into that house when Axe skipped dinner with Savion and his mom not once but twice. It is not about Yonkers, it is about his childhood with an abusive father. And we find out about young Bobby’s heartbreaking life as Wendy understands he needs her when he calls her and comes to find him in his childhood room.
Think about it: A boy understanding the evening will turn bad from the way his dad’s car gets into the driveway and the keys jangling in the lock. A boy trying to distract his dad with a fight he had or a kid’s ass he kicked – probably the only things this kind of dad would see as an accomplishment – so he does not beat his mother… And knowing all along that it will eventually happen… A boy sitting in his room feeling totally powerless and promising himself he will grow up to be someone over whom nobody will have this kind of power. My heart goes out to this boy who was able to pull himself out of this deep shit and I completely understand that he does not want anyone to live in this toxic house where he used to go out just to breathe! These words do not mean that I will tolerate Axe when he does a bad thing next – and I know he will – but I understand that the boy from Yonkers did not have any other option but being a monster to survive. And I really hope revisiting his childhood makes Axe think hard about how absent he has been in his own boys’ life.
As Neil Young’s “Old Man” closes the episode, Axe takes the advice he has given to Savion and does not let his dad chip off a piece from his life – The Lexus! We see the destroyed Lexus being dumped in front of Mr. Axelrod’s house where the old man comes out and looks at the junk in surprise. I do not know if he knows it is his own son who did it to him, but I know that he totally deserves it.