I cannot believe this is the last episode of Billions Season 5 that we will see for a while! Since they had to stop shooting mid-March due to Covid-19 crisis – which gets its first mention in this episode – Episode 7 is the mid-season finale that leaves us with more questions than answers. I just hope they can resume shooting as soon as possible when it is safe to do so, and given what we have seen so far, the rest of the season is sure to be a crazy ride! Hope you stay with us between the two halves of Season 5 because we still have a lot to say about what we have seen in the first seven episodes!
The Limitless Sh*t, written by Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Emily Hornsby and directed by the one and only David Costabile, addresses a billion dollar question: Is anyone incorruptible?
The anticipated dinner party is on at Chez Axelrod. Chef Ryan who has been to Japan to learn Japanese cooking, is serving home-made sushi and sashimi as well as other small Japanese bites to the guests including not only Wendy and Tanner but also Maria Sharapova (Axe’s date!) as well as Wags and his new girlfriend Jill – at 24 she is young enough to be Wags’ daughter – with whom he is planning to have a baby!
We find out that Tanner is on a 16/8 intermittent fasting – which I believe Brian Koppelman has also been doing for some time and I am currently trying a 14/10 version – whereas Wags introduces himself as an intermittent eater 😀 Joke aside, the ancient Greeks were great believers in fasting: Plato fasted for greater physical and mental efficiency, and Aristotle, his student, followed suit.
Axe, who is paying utmost attention to Wendy as she cannot keep her hands off Tanner, offers to take the different diets into consideration for the viewing party he is planning for the new series of paintings Tanner is creating for him! Tanner is taken aback by the idea and seems to prefer Axe serving him “fucking grilled” at the party rather than making him attend it. And it seems he and Wendy talked about this before – Wendy shares that Tanner cannot stand the “bullshit interpretations” of his paintings. While Axe calls Tanner “the mythical incorruptible artist” and knows that this is exactly what Wendy likes about Tanner, we all know Axe believes everyone is corruptible – if you pay the right price.
The morning brings Krakow’s rubber-stamping of Axe’s bank which the team on the trading floor perceives as their own funeral. Once Axe has the bank up and running, they will need to deregister as a hedge fund. Axe Capital will be a family office to separate commercial from banking and the fees investors pay to cover the salaries will not be there anymore.
So is there a way to stop Axe from going this route that will inevitably Midsommar – a movie where a seemingly idyllic retreat turns into a violent competition at the hands of a pagan cult – some of the Axe Capital employees? When they ask the boss about their future, Axe tells them stop asking others about their future and make their own – which is so similar to the advice Ben Kim’s mother has been giving him, so much so that he can smell his mom’s ggori gomtang in it! 😀
And while it is obvious neither the kind words by Ben Kim nor the not so kind words by Dollar Bill will stop the bank venture, what if they could give Axe a huge trade victory – especially today after a series of weak morning trades?
So here comes Vigilantrix… which, according to Victor, is the Limitless Sh*t that gives one full mental clarity and acuity. Having read about the successful trials earlier and now seeing that Vigilantrix has not only turned Victor into a Derren Brown kind of mindreader but also improved his vocabulary, Axe is sold on the drug.
And lo and behold, the boss is frantically working away on his Bloomberg followed by a visit to the trading floor: Victor gives everyone, who wants to be energetic as a 17 year old, focused like a 30 year old and wise as a 100 year old, a pill – notice that Dollar Bill is the first in line! – while the boss himself is asking for scalps to hang on his wall!
They are going to corner the rare mineral market and Axe wants his people to get longer than Hunts Brothers in 1980 aka Silver Thursday. Tuk figures out that the drug has not had an FDA approval yet and side effects vary from diarrhea to psychotic delusions but he gets a condescending remark from Bill, who swallows the pill without water, that side effects occur only in rare cases. Well, maybe not that rare!
Huge thanks go to Gingersnap for sharing with me that The Limitless Sh*t is actually coming from the movie Limitless where Bradley Cooper plays a struggling writer who fully utilizes his brain after being introduced to a drug. But the Vigilantrix storyline reminds me of Mad Men Season 6 Episode 8 The Crash: In the Mad Men episode, as the agency is working on the Chevrolet ad, Jim Cutler brings in a doctor who will give them a shot of an energy serum that is supposed to provide uninterrupted creative focus and energy for a few days. Don, Ken and Stan get the shot, and while their brainstorm meetings turn into weird sessions where Stan has a lot of “ideas”, Don gets hilariously philosophical about advertising, and Ken becomes a tap dancer!
I admit that the Axe Cappers do not get as hyper-active as the Sterling Cooper crowd but they are completely high cornering the rare mineral market: Dollar Bill is not uncertain they will have control over cell phone production everywhere (minerals like cobalt, tungsten and rhodium are used in phones), Bonnie thinks Chile would be a good base since a pro-mining, pro-business party is likely to win the upcoming election (huh?) and Rian believes she has suddenly become bilingual! And as Axe is making them free up to $3 to $3.2B so this multi-sector big play is possible, we all know this can not end well – especially because the only two people who would never take the pill, namely Taylor and Wendy, are working to save Taylor Mason Carbon today.
Taylor and Wendy are in an emergency Zoom board meeting with the CEO of Shine-Lucence, a company that uses tin for the solar cells they make. However, the company has realized that the tin which they thought was coming, sourced safely and humanely, from Australia, it was actually coming from The Congo, a country where violent anti-government warlords control the mines and coerce people to work there. Shine-Lucence seems to be fucked and so does TMC’s positions with it. If this leaks out to the press, they will go down as fast as Bill McGlashan, the king of impact funds and Bono’s investment partner, who got busted in the recent College Admissions Scandal.
Lauren’s immediate recommendation is to get a rock star like Bono on their side – how about Mike Prince who is on the Shine-Lucence board? They can team up with him and sway the board in the direction they want. As good as it sounds, Taylor and Wendy hesitate since Taylor remembers Axe and Prince’s “Alien vs Predator” fireside chat at The Mike and Wendy remembers Axe’s reaction when he finds out that Prince would also be at the Vanity Fair photo shoot. Still, they agree with Lauren that sharing the news with Axe AFTER they have a win in this partnership could work, an d so they head off to Prince’s office before Axe Cap becomes a Vigilantrix mad house!
They receive a warm welcome and have a productive meeting. The first plan they come up with is a slow transition where they do slow down the order fulfillment as they resource the tin, but do it quietly so it does not leak to the press. But what if a board member talks to the press? Taylor and Wendy will now spend the day at Prince’s office, profile the board members and detect if there is someone who can leak the news.
At the State AG office, Chuck is determined to dethrone Krakow and thereby stop Axe’s bank from happening. He and Kate are assigning the new interns – Chuck’s best students from Yale Law School – at their law school clinic their first task: They will build a legal case against the Secretary of Treasury Todd Krakow.
Some students have ethical problems with the assignment. They are tasked with building a case where they need to find the crime – not the other way around, which is the standard process – only to hear the legend behind the Sicilian Ceramic Heads from Chuck: A Sicilian woman and an Arab trader fall in love. But the Arab trader has a family back in his native land and when, one day, he tells his lover that he has to go back to his family, the Sicilian woman cuts his head and turns it into it a pot for her herbs! So when you have split loyalties, when you fail to take a side, you may well end up being a Sicilian Ceramic Head in Palermo. Yikes!
While a few interns leave, the others get the message and stay. And Kate, who was in Princeton Katzenjammers with the Treasury Department’s Assistant Secretary is now tasked with finding out about Krakow’s schedule in the next few days. Oh, and yeah Kate can certainly carry a tune! Check Check out Condola Rashad’s first single “Give Up The Gold” from her album Space Daughter below.
While his interns are working to get Todd Krakow, Chuck meets Pete Decker of all people out of desperation. Chuck knows that Decker’s gym business is not limited to selling subscriptions but he also helps athletes who use performance-enhancing substances beat drug tests… and so Chuck now needs him: Senior cannot get on the kidney transplant wait list due to his health, and Chuck wonders if Decker knows a certain type of doctor to “correct” Senior’s numbers so that the old man can get on the waitlist.
It turns out Decker knows the best of the best who tune people up like a Stradivarius. The downside is that the doctor obviously does not accept Blue Cross Blue Shield and the first introductory meeting costs $5K in cash.
One can feel the desperation with which Chuck has made this move when Doctor Swerdlow appears (welcome to Billions, Rick Hoffman!) It is not clear if Swerdlow still has a medical license. He talks about some medication he brings in from Mexico City for glomerular filtration. He plans to use a turkey baster to deposit clean urine right up Senior’s penis before his next medical exam! And if Chuck cannot move Senior up on the waitlist, Swerdlow is willing to find a “donor” – a young immigrant who is desperate to sell an organ!
Phew. Chuck definitely knows who he is, an infinitely incorruptible man, but even he draws the line somewhere!
When he finds out that the alternative “donor” Swerdlow offers is an HIV or a HepC patient who is willing to part with a kidney, Chuck gives up on working with Swerdlow, who tells him he will ultimately call him, and starts a blood drive in the office. Well, it is a blood drive on the facade but actually an effort to figure out if a colleague is a match for Senior!
Yet, Kate, who turns out to be a regular blood donor, notices that, unlike regular blood drives where they always draw 470ml, this nurse draws 600ml of blood here! How come?
Chuck, who realizes that his transparency agreement with Kate applies to everything he does in the office, spills the beans. And Kate’s response is the story of one James Davenport, an American clergyman who had a big following during the First Great Awakening but lost his spell when he threw his pants into the fire as an act of commitment to God! It seems the only thing that saves Chuck from being a Davenport is that nobody in the office is a match. And, yes, he needs to call Dr. Swerdlow.
Chuck pays the full amount plus $38K to be given to the little girl from El Salvador so she can keep all her organs and YEAH Swerdlow needs to cancel the deal for her spleen – I mean… I have known about the organ mafia but this is even more disgusting.
We will not know how the kidney story will unfold for some time. My hunch is that Senior will receive a kidney and survive and that the donor will be someone unexpected and that it will make us LAUGH. Some fans have been arguing that it could be Axe in return for Chuck letting him go… but there is a commitment problem there. Once Axe donates his kidney, how can he trust Chuck will never chase him again? I would not. My personal candidate for kidney donation is Bryan or Jackie Connerty in return for a “get out of the jail free” card for Bryan.
When it is clear that the law school students are not able to develop a serious argument against Krakow, Chuck decides to use the B3 Bomber Trick from Wag the Dog (written by David Mamet, an author that Billions creators Koppelman and Levien always cite as a big influence). Like Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) begins sending the press hints about a nonexistent B-3 bomber and a potentially bad situation in the Balkans in the movie, Chuck feeds Krakow hints about a nonexistent investigation into the highest levels of the government which leaves Krakow scared shitless!
And as he is sitting in a meeting with other cabinet members at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, hearing his colleagues constantly trade favors, Krakow does exactly what Chuck and Kate expect him to do – he stands up and condemns his cabinet colleagues:
“I’m not going down with that ship God damn it! You hear me? Because there is coronavirus on it. And that shit spreads.”
And there goes Axe’s bank down the toilet!
As Wendy detects a Shine-Lucence board member that they need to buy to keep silent, Prince, who looks at the situation from above and from the future, changes the plans out of blue. No slow transition. This company cannot have one more day with this conflict mineral. As soon as there is a leak, and there will be, the regulators will be all over the company and the stock prices will plummet. So what they should do instead is to go to the press immediately, halt the production, and resume it only when the new clean tin source is there. Prince knows that Mase Carb cannot carry a big loss at the moment and so he is ready to buy TMC positions in the company.
Both Taylor and Wendy are convinced that Prince has the supply chain guy in a box in his office or something since who would eat their entire loss to buy them out of the company??! Well, it seems Prince does! As Taylor and Wendy look for an ulterior motive behind Prince’s move, Prince proves that he does not have one by offering to sell them his shares if they want to, or that they can share the loss. And as he is impressed to see that Taylor is ready to play the long game along with him, I am impressed with Prince for the first time. Maybe only a monster like Bobby Axelrod makes the monster in Mike Prince come out… and otherwise he is not a monster. I am happy to give Prince a blank slate.
Axe is lucky to have Taylor back at the office in time to stop a disaster from happening! Taylor goes directly into Axe’s office once they hear from Rian about her “conversation” with businesses and scientists in Chile! Besides, Taylor knows that it is the socialists who are likely to win in Chilean elections. Axe does not want to listen to Taylor and blames them for not buying into his mineral play because it is not quant or impact…
…but Taylor’s explanation is straight from Economics 101: Minerals have high value due to their scarcity but when a company buys $3B worth of them, there is excessively abundant supply that their value will only go down. As Axe is convinced that Vigilantrix is not Limitless Sh*it but Scarface Sh*t, he makes everyone turn off their Bloombergs and Taylor takes over to save the day!
As he recovers, Axe gets the news from Wags that Krakow resigned from his government post and took down their bank with him. And it is hard not to think about Brody when Wags talks about Krakow detonating a suicide vest!
Axe now needs Victor’s Ivy League brain and Far Rockaway street smarts to find another way as well as Wendy who seems to be off for the night again… So Axe, who needs Wendy immediately, decides to move some of Wendy’s agenda forward… with the viewing party Mary Giuliani is organizing for guests like David Solomon, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, who recreationally records electronic dance music under his stage name DJ D-Sol, Marc Lasry, and former Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia. While I think Wendy believes (and hopes) that Tanner will not attend the viewing party, guess what, he is not only there but also paying utmost attention to a lady who is providing obviously bullshit interpretations!
Oh My God. This is what Axe has been trying to do – that is why he stayed until the wee hours to catch Wendy on the phone and that is why he is holding this viewing party now. He had to make sure that Wendy knows there is no incorruptible man and that the man she has fallen for is not who she thinks he is. Axe first tried Tanner with the Krakow painting in Episode 6 The Nordic Model – I was naive to think Tanner accepted the commission so Wendy would not feel bad that Axe saw the drawing Tanner made of her – but it was actually the greens Krakow used to sign that made Tanner accept the offer! Now that I am thinking about it, if he is paid well enough, Tanner may even go to Japan and learn to make Japanese style paintings for Axe! 😀
Now that she knows there may be no incorruptible man out there, could Wendy ultimately go back to Chuck? Tanner is not only corruptible, but he also seems to be in denial about it. Chuck, on the other hand, has always been true to himself and to Wendy about his own corruptibility.
Once they save Axe Capital from a suicidal multi-sector play, Axe thanks Taylor for their sanity and competence which, according to Wags, is not intoxicating but essential and, according to Axe, rarely leads to bar fights. We learn that Taylor has had one bar fight after seeing Y Tu Mama Tambien– a movie that I highly recommend – when their high school classmate Willard Broxton (reference to Diner, a Koppelman and Levien favorite) ripped into them.
Now that they have done more than their share for Axe Capital today, Taylor is comfortable telling Axe about the partnership TMC has got into with Prince and that Axe may see a loss for a few quarters but they will ultimately turn it around. Honestly, I was anxious that Axe would perceive this partnership as a betrayal exactly like he perceived Rebecca’s partnership with Taylor last season as one. Yet Axe sees this differently:
“Textbook fucking manipulation.”
Says the guy who took a pill and brought his own company to the brink of a disaster earlier today. Even though Taylor is talking about the long term upside of the partnership, Axe is not listening. According to him, Taylor did this not because they volunteered but Prince staged the game in a way and manipulated them into volunteering. He bets Prince pared his position in Shine-Lucence before the news broke out.
And so… Axe is now going to the mattresses!
If Vito Corleone had Genco, his childhood friend and first consigliere of the family, Axe has Wags who will now bring in Bach, Hall, and anyone else that could help them find out what Michael Thomas Aquinas Prince holds near and dear. Axe knows his mafia history well and he explains to Wags why they called it “go to the mattresses” – mentioned in Godfather 1 – when crime families went to war:
“Because you had to move out of your home and hole up some place where no one can find you with all your men. But you had to do it quick so you’d get a jump on the rival family before they get a jump on you. So you had places stashed around the city with the mattresses on the floor. That is where you make your stand until you nailed the boss of the rival family. And once you got him and all his soldiers fell into line, that’s when you go home to your comfy bed and your wife and kids.”
As Axe is playing the war drums for a war that he is kicking off just because he is paranoid that Prince has declared war on him, Metallica’s “Hardwired” is the perfect choice closing the mid-season finale.
We’re so fucked
Shit outta luck
Hardwired to self-destruct
Wendy has diagnosed Axe in Season 4 Episode 11 Lamster as a man who needs an enemy to exist:
“You need an enemy. Or you think you do. Like without that gravitational pull, you’ll go flying off into nothingness. No edge, no drive, no Axe.”
Based on experience, Wendy knows that the exact time Axe fucks up is when he narrows his whole gaze to retribution. So, yes, Axe may actually be hard-wired for self-destruction. And I find it very sad that even if he destroys what matters to Prince along with Prince himself, he has a comfy bed to go back to but not a family… since he lost that, too, during another stupid war.