Damianista’s note: I wrote this post after watching The Pilot. And I have now updated it with all the new information we have got in the last two weeks. Are things as black and white as they seem… or are they gray? You decide. I just want to applaud the show creators for making us think about such a sensitive topic, and think about it hard.
Billions is first and foremost a New York show. And there is nothing more natural than the darkest day of the city, September 11, still shadowing the lives and relationships of our characters even after 15 years. Obviously the darkest day in the history of the nation, September 11 is also a very dark day for financial services firms many of which had offices in the World Trade Center. I remember Cantor Fitzgerald losing two thirds of its workforce on 9/11.
One of the first things we learn about Axe in Billions is he is a 9/11 survivor. He is, in fact, the only partner that survived the terrorist attacks because he was out of office on meetings while most of his colleagues and friends died. And seeing that Axe Capital is now located in Westport, Connecticut, we also learn Axe Capital is among the financial houses that chose to move from Wall Street to neighboring Connecticut or New Jersey after the destruction of downtown NYC on 9/11.
We then find Axe in a conference room at Axe Capital with the widows and kids of those friends that died on 9/11. Axe has been giving college scholarships to these kids for years. He has been keeping it private that there has never been a press release or an interview with him about it. It is, in fact, a reason for him to leave an interview.
A comment made by Axe’s late partner Rake’s widow June changes the mood in the room. She says “It’s just wrong that you are the one standing there… ” Does she try to make a point that Rake was the bright guy and Axe was his sidekick and just got lucky and inherited the company when Rake died? At this point I am dying to learn more about the history of the company and, in particular, Axe & Rake partnership.
We also learn Axe’s wife Lara lost her beloved brother Dean in September 11 attacks. He was one of the first responder fire fighters that was never able to leave the towers that day.
I was thinking Axe and Lara were together before Bobby became “Axe” but it turns out they met later. Lara, as she openly threatens June about “bringing her beef public” (which again makes me think there is something going on about THAT Axe and Rake history) talks a bit about her blue collar roots adding in a bit of information that she never set foot on a yacht other than the Staten Island Ferry until she started dating Axe. This means Axe was already rich when he started dating Lara. We learn in Episode 9 Where the F*** is Donnie that they met in an aid tent after 9/11. Lara was just out of nursing school at the time. Lara’s brother Dean’s name now lives through their firstborn.
The relationship between Axe and his in-house performance coach Wendy Rhoades also has a clear 9/11 connection. As Axe is asking for advice regarding his potentially impulsive purchase which he believes he wants to make for “dick-measuring purposes” Wendy tells him this is progress. Because when she met him 15 years ago he was not realizing the motivation for his purchases until months after he made the purchase… which brings them to talk about the times they met.
Axe says: “I guess… considering when we started, I was staggering around crying along with half of us still breathing…” So they start working together after 9/11… which means Wendy meets Axe when he is at his most vulnerable. At his most fragile. Struggling to keep calm and vowing to keep the company alive. And she has been by his side since. This is a bond very hard to break. And even though he knows Wendy’s husband is chasing him, Axe wants to trust her. We have seen this friendship put to some serious test over the season and we will see who passes and who fails.
September 11 is also THE reason why Chuck is extremely cautious in moving on Axe. Axe’s generosity to FDNY and NYPD has made him “a folk hero” in the city.” Chuck knows it is politically almost infeasible to go after THAT Bobby Axelrod. That is why he is looking for an opening that would taint the reputation Axe has as the “man of the people”… which he first finds in the beach mansion!
Chuck seems to be genuinely pissed about Axe’s public image that he cannot stop himself from saying this out loudly at Axe’s face when they meet at Delivering Alpha conference (to Chuck’s credit as a response to Axe provoking him) : “You’re the only one running the big money they cheer for… You work that September 11 shit for what it’s worth… ” Chuck believes Axe has manipulated the public through his generosity to the city and its people after September 11. Having just seen the pilot, I naturally don’t know about Axe’s motivations, but what I would say is that this generosity is genuinely how he finds his answer to WHY — his way of giving thanks for his life being spared on that day. For the second chance he got in life. When we see Axe earlier in the men’s room taking a deep breath and washing his face before going into the room with families all of which lost a husband and a father on 9/11, his pain is genuine. He lives that day all over again, he is probably overwhelmed by the survivor’s guilt still alive deep inside him. And he did not just survive but has also thrived after 9/11. He probably met the two women that have kept him grounded since and helped him build an empire, too.
Damian Lewis is such a versatile actor that there is not an ounce of Brody in his Axe. He is a completely different man. Having said that the only moment I thought of Brody in The Pilot is this scene with Bobby at the sink just because it made me think of Brody in Q&A. In Pain. Broken. All alone. Axe standing at the sink is in pain. Broken. All alone. It’s just a few seconds but Damian blows me away perfectly capturing the survivor guilt Bobby feels deep deep inside somewhere.
Chuck’s harsh words during their conversation reminds me of an interview CBS Morning News had with Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti on Billions set which mysteriously disappeared both from CBS website and YouTube. So I rely on my notes! In the interview, Paul Giamatti talks about how impressed he is by the people in the US attorney’s office that he met in his preparation for the role. And upon Damian’s question about whether they dislike hedge-fund guys no matter what or just when they break the law, he says “only when they break the law.” Then he quickly adds Chuck Rhoades, on the other hand, seems to hate the hedge-fund guys no matter what. Well, sir, it shows!
9/11 pops up again in Episode 3 Yum Time in the form of a storm brewing that could further damage Axe’s “man of the people” image. June, the widow of Rake, Axe’s partner who died in 9/11 attacks, has a 70,000 word story to tell.
Her memoir is titled September 12: The Day After. Will we finally find out about Axe and Rake history? I lower my expectations about learning the story the moment Lara finds out about the manuscript. Lara has her ways to get June’s attention. No gym for June. No golf for June and her friends. No Stanford for June’s son (Axelrods made a big gift to the university and Axe holds a honorary doctorate). And, lo and behold, Chapter 10 will never see the day of light! Well, if I were June, I would take my memoir to Chuck who would personally see to its publication. But it’s too late. June signs a non-disclosure for Chapter 10 when she comes apologetically to Lara’s door and finds out Stanford President personally told Lara about the mistake they did with June’s son’s application that he’s very likely to be a freshman at Stanford next year. Congratulations. And, I really don’t wanna know about whether such manipulations is possible in academia when huge gifts are in the play. Anyhow… why does Lara press so much to keep Chapter 10 hidden from public eye? It should be HUGE!
It is finally Kate that lands Chapter 10 in Episode 8 Boasts and Rails! And it tells HOW Axe built his empire and thrived after 9/11 and partially accounts for why Axe was extremely overwhelmed in The Pilot just before he got into this room with the families of his late friends.
We know Axe survives 9/11 because he is out of the office. But where is he that morning? It turns out Axe is in his attorney’s office going over his severance package. WTF? Yes. His trades are over the line and may be illegal that the company is getting ready to kick him out. And, Axe, when the first plane hits the North Tower, goes ahead and shorts aviation stocks followed by hotels and shipping. WHOA. After the second plane hits the South Tower, everyone he works with is dead. And their deaths save his career. Axe takes the money he has made from these shorts — he makes 750 millions dollars in a single day — and the rest of what his dead partners had and, as the only surviving partner of Wachtel, Raichlein and Rice, renames the company as Axe Capital.
Now… what to make of Axe? What Axe does on 9/11 is, as Bryan and Terri also point out, is not illegal. It is not actionable. It just feels wrong. It is an action that is extremely difficult to justify and legitimate to question. Billions here once again turns legality and morality on their heads and gives us so much to think about: Is what Axe does on 9/11 really as black and white as it seems? Or is it gray?
The biggest surprise may be that Axe does not come across as a man that is in panic or in pain or in guilt when Mike Dimonda publishes the story. Bookworm made a point earlier that Axe may not be able to publicly show his pain because such display by the rich could easily be read as insincere. I think this accounts for Axe’s reaction to the news, at least partially: When his fixers are ready to “fix” the news, he says no. It is true and he never lies about it. I believe Axe has made peace with what he did. It is probably Wendy who helped him reach this peace as she put the man together after 9/11. Axe did the trades before the world knew it was a terrorist attack and he thought the families of his dead friends would need that money. So he did what he knew….what he did the best: Trade. I wonder if the money he made on 9/11 is kept to be used only for the good of the city (we know Axe made generous donations to the NYPD and the FDNY) and his friends’ families and if that is one reason why he has “not issued one press release or given one interview.” Maybe he cannot even talk to his fixers about this. This guy seems to have gone through some serious breakdown after what happened and knowing how he will be trapped in it, maybe he just does not want to go there. He is not proud of it. It is what it is. But I just think this is his facade. I believe he still looks for a nod.
One comes from Wendy. The way she rushes to see him once the news story breaks tells me she knows how vulnerable Axe, in fact, can get about his past. She tells him he does not have to be ashamed of anything, at least, in a relativistic sense. Wendy, having seen him at his most vulnerable, does not want to see him crumble. And, it probably means the world to Axe when he gets another nod from Bruno who seems to have been a father figure for him (we do not have any information about Axe’s parents except for his mom was a waitress).
Repercussions are intense enough to give extremely serious damage to Axe’s “man of the people” image. It starts with Axelrods finding their Rolls Royce (Bentley) being graffitied with “Fuck You Pigs” as they leave a neighborhood joint. Protestors turn Axe Capital parking lot into Zuccotti Park chanting “Towers down, profits up!” Raul Gomez from the NYC Pension fund moves his money elsewhere. Lara’s siblings set up court in her restaurant telling her she is married to a criminal who should clean up his mess. Besides, they suggest her give Axe a divorce and she can still be rich in case she wants that “blood money.” The biggest blow though probably comes from the firefighters to whose foundation Axe has given millions of dollars over more than a decade. And the firefighters at the fire house that Lara’s late brother Dean worked are the only people Axe talks to about his 9/11 trades.
Axe makes his case — a very hard sell — to the crowd. When told he is talking like a politician, Axe gives them even more than Dimonda gives the public in his article: That he stepped on the gas after the second tower was hit. He did not do it for himself. He felt responsible for the families of his friends that perished in the attacks. He is being honest about it. He is not proud of it. It is what it is. But he, I feel, also does not want to come across as vulnerable. So he keeps the facade cool even though there is a split second that I feel the facade is crumbling when he says “Paul, talk to me.” And, Damian walks the perfect walk on this very thin line. Later, in an intimate moment, Axe tells Lara that he does not know how to deal with severe situations other than operating on autopilot. I believe autopilot in Axe’s world is equal to doing what is rational completely detached from all emotions which may hint to why he does what he does on 9/11. And I am not making this argument in any way to justify his actions. I am just trying to understand.
Axe’s “public image” is in deep shit that even the AG’s office that was hesitant about moving on to Axe because it is election year and they need Wall Street money is now more than happy to open the purse for Chuck to spend whatever he wants to get the job done. I believe it is as legitimate to question the way Adam DeGiulio saying “a big takedown will make all justice look good” as it is legitimate to question Axe’s 9/11 trades. The case Southern District of New York is working to bring against Axe does have nothing to do with Axe’s trades on 9/11. What they are trying to do is to use the now troubled public opinion about him against him so they could have an easy time bringing charges and prosecuting him. The Attorney General is ready to go on podium when the Southern District lands this case safely to “class things up.” Oh, yeah, it’s election year.