So, Billions is finally here! It’s absolutely fascinating to finally meet the characters that we have speculated about for months. Now we will get to hang with them for 12 weeks and hopefully for years to come and I know we will not get enough of them!
Since it was the writing that impressed me the most in the pilot episode, I chose to write about it in our collective blog about our first impressions with Billions! Now I am happy to turn my utmost attention to the characters and their intriguing relationships for a proper episode recap!
We first meet Chuck Rhoades the US attorney for the Southern District of New York, occupying arguably the most powerful law enforcement position in the nation thanks to the “white collar” crimes his office investigates. US attorneys may not be making as much money as big name lawyers in private law firms or the hedge-fund guys; however, as Kate rightly iterates to a new colleague: “Guys who sit in Chuck’s chair become mayor… governor.” Chuck Rhoades has a perfect record of 81 – 0 in the insider trading cases he has taken on so far. And now Ari Spyros from the SEC brings him a potentially HUGE one linked to the Big Kahuna of all: Bobby “Axe” Axelrod.
Chuck is hesitant. Spyros believes he is so because his wife working at Axe Capital is a conflict of interest for the US attorney. In fact, Chuck is dying to chase Axe but he has reservations that do not seem to be about his wife. First, he does not trust Spyros. The US attorney’s office needs big enough evidence to bring criminal charges against a hedge-fund guy which can still be appealed while the SEC may easily make them pay some big fees. As Axe’s “fixer” Hall later says “fees are a fact of life” and many financial firms pay a ton of fees every year. Lady Trader tells me big financial firms have fee funds! So… SEC wins in either scenario but Chuck does not and he wants to keep his PERFECT scorecard!
He tells his Assistant US Attorney Bryan Connerty that his office has that perfect scorecard just because he knows when it’s TIME to move on to his prey. Bobby Axelrod is a “folk hero” in NYC thanks to his generosity to NYPD and FDNY after 9/11 which Chuck finds insincere but it is what it is and he needs an opening to go after him… which Kate gives him in a couple of days: Bobby Axelrod, the man of the people, is eyeing a beach mansion with a tag of 83 million dollars… And we find out the US attorney knows about this mansion thanks to his dad having another one close by…
Oh, yeah, Chuck Rhoades is as blue blood as one gets in NYC. In fact, 1010 Fifth Avenue, the address I speculated about in our Billions locations tour as a possible Axe pied-a-terre, turns out to be the apartment building Chuck’s parents live in! Certainly a NICEY NICE New York address on the Museum Mile with previous apartment sales averaging around $7,000,000!
Spyros is determined to put Chuck on Axe’s tail. He sends a journalist to Chuck’s celebratory press conference on the drug dealers his office recently took down to ask an unrelated question about the “specific conflict of interest” in his own home and successfully lets Chuck kick off a PLAN triggering a textbook signaling game that I have talked in great detail in the post about our first impressions of Billions pilot: “If he’s innocent, he passes… he’s a disciplined player and he knows that’s the disciplined move… But a guilty man, he buys that house just to show me he’s got nothing to hide.” Smart.
Is Bobby Axelrod a disciplined player? This is the billion dollar question.
We first meet Bobby in an old pizza joint with his wife Lara. He’s been a regular since his school days and feels very much at home there. But he is not in today just for the pizza. He is there to save the joint from closing. Good kid Bobby. Just a second later, we meet a completely different Bobby… In fact, we NOW meet Axe! He’s talking to Danzig, a Portfolio Manager (PM) and his rookie analyst Ben. The two are psyched to buy a stock that they believe will have a serious jump when a merge between two companies occurs in coming weeks. Axe wants more information and when Danzig tells him who will probably be the CEO after the merge, Axe immediately tells him to short! Moreover, he tells Danzig to stop buttering his ass, his cholesterol is high enough, and to get smarter and Ben to figure it out soon or he’ll be gone. Whoa. Who knew this Yonkers kid who went to Hofstra would figure out the game this well? Well, Bruno, the owner of the pizza joint, didn’t 😀 And Bobby says: “This makes two of us.” Bobby’s affection with Bruno and his arrogance with Danzig and Ben attest to the fact that Bobby Axelrod is a man of two worlds. Different worlds. Different attitudes. Different relationships.
And Damian Lewis deftly takes Bobby into yet another world in a split second as we see Axe standing in front of a sink in the men’s room. He’s not the kid. He’s not the king. Just a man in pain. And it’s only a few seconds but Damian Lewis blows me away…
We find out about the “man at the sink” minutes later as Axe, with his brave face on, is giving out college tuition and board checks to kids of his friends who died on 9/11. Axe is the only surviving partner.
A widow’s unfortunate comment at the gathering that it is Axe but not Rake, her dead husband, standing there today allows us to get to know Axe’s wife Lara a little bit better. She may seem to be a trophy wife at the outset, but that is what she is NOT.
Lara openly threatens June not to bring her beef public or she may feel all alone… something she learnt growing up in Inwood. Tough. It seems Lara can do whatever it takes to protect her husband, her family and their reputation. She is not just a wife and a mother but also a very equal partner in business. My hunch is she relies on her guts to get there and make the problem disappear even before Axe himself sees it… But what if she faces a problem she knows is too big for her to handle?
Lara is not the only woman in Axe’s life that makes problems go away for him. He’s also been relying on his in-house performance coach Wendy Rhoades for the last 15 years to keep him grounded.
We see Wendy in her office with PM Danzig who is complaining about losing his mojo and asking “Ms. Mojo” for advise. Wendy corrects him “Dr. Mojo” and the writers of the show steal my heart one more time then and there! It’s amazing that this always happens to professional women. Believe me, I just today got an email from a student calling me “Ms.” and I corrected him: “Dr.” And, surprise, surprise, this almost always happens with male students! I really love it when people make this detailed observations about life and bring them to screen. It may do wonders. Clap. Clap. Clap.
The conversation between Axe and Wendy attests to the close bond between them. I know we, the fans, have been intrigued by the possibility of a romance between Axe and Wendy, but I just don’t get that vibe from their conversation. We learn Wendy is making second highest salary in her med school class — only second to the guy who invented the synthetic bladder whose company Axe is ready to short and make a few speeches to size it down if Wendy just makes sure to stick to him 😀 And she tells him not to make the impulsive purchase he is about to make! Axe should keep her around.
Even though he seems to be impulsive in his purchases, Axe is pretty cautious in his business deals. We see him talking to “Pouch” and “Dollar” about whether to short or long Superior Auto in a coded language. Dollar Bill’s “I am not uncertain” is already a phrase used in our household! 🙂 Besides, when Dan Margolis, a former employee, now at Century Capital, pays a sudden visit, Axe does not utter one word regarding business. We learn from his “fixer” Hall that Axe’s biggest fear in life is Windbreakers… And Hall is there to teach him how to avoid them… Axe now needs to be best friends with that journalist at Chuck’s press conference and feed him information that would throw a competitor, Steven Birch, under the bus, to save his own limousine from being egged…
…which brings me back to Chuck who is now kicking off his plan to make Axe buy the beach mansion and receive some bad press. And he gets a little help from his dad along the way… Chuck and his dad have this relationship that I have not been able to figure out yet. First we see Chuck Sr. coming to a leniency meeting trying to convince Chuck to give his friend Skip house arrest instead of jail time in return for a bigger fine (talking about 10 million bucks here!) and Chuck refuses. His dad tells him later he did it just because he knew his friend’s lawyer would spread the word and everyone would know Chuck as someone that would even treat his dad like that when it came to justice and people would fear him! And then the two of them conspire to have a Chuck Sr. friend make an offer on the beach mansion Axe is eyeing to push Axe further to buy the house… Is this the guy working for the public good? Seriously?
One family dynamic to note is Chuck is sort of stuck between his dad and his wife. While Chuck Sr. insists Wendy is giving Chuck a difficult time with her job at Axe Capital, Wendy tells Chuck to stop using the Chuck Sr. playbook. Unlike Wendy, I am looking forward to seeing more from the Chuck Sr. playbook 🙂
Chuck and Wendy have a fascinating relationship. They live in Park Slope, Brooklyn in a beautiful Brownstone (I told ya, didn’t I!) and I’m wondering who has paid for the house… Wendy has been working at Axe Capital for 15 years and is making 8 times the money Chuck is making…. But did Chuck Sr. chip in a little or not? 🙂 The couple has a little domestic tension on whose job is more important but then kiss and make up where Wendy tells Chuck he’s a superhero. Does she really believe that, I wonder? Or Wendy who does not like to be manipulated does manipulate her husband like this? Telling him things that he would love hearing? I believe she loves her, but I don’t buy it that she thinks he’s a superhero. Who is a superhero anyway? Wendy knows what these alpha males want, say it’s Axe or Chuck, and give it to them when needed… It’s beyond hilarious seeing both alphas use meditation apps without knowing the other one does it, too! 🙂 I LOVE this Wendy effect. As Maggie Siff rightly points out Wendy “can swim with the sharks.”
The Rhoades have a colorful love life as well! Chuck is as much an Alpha male as Axe in terms of being driven, competitive, ambitious and dominant… except in bed! He is certainly playing the submissive to Wendy’s dominant there 🙂 And I am dying to know if their love life will cause any problems for Chuck. If I were Axe, I would hire someone to follow Chuck day and night to find information to use against him… And what do you think happens when the US attorney’s colorful love life with his wife makes the headlines? I have no idea but I trust Chuck saying “what we do have consequences… intended… and unintended.” 😀 Hmmm… Maybe Kate should have given her “no tinder in office…” blurb to Chuck in the first place! 😀
Finally… the relationship that makes the show! Damian Lewis told us at the New Yorker Festival that Axe and Chuck do not get to see each other much; however, I believe one constantly feels the presence of the other. And the duo rocks the ONLY scene they are together in the episode.
I just LOVE it when Axe looks into Chuck’s eyes at the Delivering Alpha Conference as he delivers his message in the most arrogant way that if he allows a government office to tell him what he can or cannot buy he may well be closing the shop. But he’s NOT closing the shop. And when they meet outside the conference room, it is easy to see they know each other; who knows, they may even have socialized at an event or two at Axe Capital. And it is obvious they don’t like each other. Chuck obviously sees him as an opportunistic guy that’s riding the spoils of “working that 9/11 shit” and Axe sees Chuck as the rich guy’s kid that prosecutes… Ha! Lady Trader has taught me a Wall Street saying that is priceless which probably describes what Axe makes of Chuck: “Those who can trade, trade; those who cannot, prosecute.” 😀
Neither Chuck Sr playbook nor Chuck Jr himself provoking him at the conference does make Bobby buy the beach mansion. Elmo does. Poor Elmo, who is as free as Axe running on high wire and pissing on the furniture to claim his turf at the beginning of the episode is now back from the vet — “fixed.” Upon seeing poor Elmo, Axe impulsively decides to buy the house. He can never let anyone get him “fixed.”
So… Bobby gets the house and gets a call from Hall shortly after that it is likely they are opening a case file on him. “Fuck them” he says… As in “What’s the point of having Fuck You Money if you never say Fuck You?” 😀
We know Chuck is thinking a step ahead and now believes it is TIME to move on Axe… not so fast! Bobby may be thinking two steps ahead here and I just can’t stop smiling!
In closing, both Brian Koppelman and Andrew Ross Sorkin pointed out on Charlie Rose Show how precise a posture Damian brings to Axe. I don’t want to brag about this but my partner JaniaJania said it much earlier here. Damian does it every single time. And yeah the Axe swagger gets you. The precision of it is so much so that you can see both the kid and the king in it. Standing Ovation.
One episode in (two, in fact, for me, since I have just seen the second episode that Showtime released earlier today) and I am confident Bobby Axelrod is one of the BEST characters that Damian Lewis has brought to life and to us! I cannot wait for him to entice us, confuse us and keep us at the edge of our seats in the weeks (and hopefully, years) to come!