First, the good news: Billions pilot broke records with “The best performance ever for a Showtime original“!
Now, the great news. We got Episode 2, streamed right after the pilot episode last Sunday night. Hoping they keep up the tease, and while they do, my Wednesday posts will be all about “Next on Billions“. Spoilers at ever turn below! Beware! Go watch the second episode, “Naming Rights”, before reading any further! Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Fair warning: this is total stream of consciousness scene by scene drivel here. Damianista will give you a more exact and much tighter recap after the episode airs on January 24. This is for those of us who could not wait and now must read too. 🙂
Opening scene: Damian Lewis in his skivvies. I know you’d expect a fan blog to get all fangrly: squeeing and whatever emoji indicates hyperventilating. But, no, not this fan blog. Instead I’ll tell you about Bobby Axelrod’s face while he’s standing there in his black boxer briefs. A facial expression that, within the span of a minute, one can clearly hear saying: “Yeah, I do have help getting dressed. A woman, then a man. What of it, you filthy commoners?” Bobby’s face in this scene is equal parts arrogance and “how cool is this” at having help getting his trousers on.
And there we are with a little bit more of who Bobby is: equal parts in your face “I’ll kick your ass if you cross me” balanced in measure by “please don’t cross me because, then I’ll have to kick your ass, and I don’t want to kick your ass, because it’ll mess up my crease”.
It’s the end of the work day, and Bobby needs to go to the city, but he’s not going to be hopping on the train to Grand Central like the rest of the schmucks. A walk and talk with Wags over what the grand Hamptons house purchase may look like to investors who they both fear may pull out of the fund, punctuated by a “Fix it!” and a
Who’s more low-key than me?
as Bobby ascends a helicopter with his gorgeous blond wife waiting with a “Hey honey, how was your day?” kiss.
Must say I like the way Lara looks at Bobby. May be the Mary Jane talking in that one scene outside the museum, but I like to believe she really just adores her guy. She may have the appearance of a trophy wife, but the way she looks at him paints her nicely as a ride-or-die kind of chick, not one to bogart the pot, and willing to make the necessary calls and to push her way thru doors to clear a space for him to walk through. Maybe it’s self-interest. Of course, it is. But, hey, she may really love him too. We’ll just wait and see, now won’t we.
Cut to Chuck Rhodes scooping out some greasy lo mein at his desk followed by some goofy repartee over the origins of General Tsao’s chicken. Condola Rashad gets some great lines: “The only place you’ve been is Asia, can’t help yourself”, Kate says. Then Bryan tells him if he gets Axelrod, Chuck may get a dish named for him too, to which Chuck answers:
What? General Chuck’s? A burger with cheese cooked on the inside?
That’s the kind of funny you have to think about. Thankfully no laugh track here, but opportunities to yuck it up do, thankfully, keep coming.
Next, we see the dominos fall for Steven Birch, Bobby’s fellow scuba diver, played by Jerry O’Connell.
Then, the virtual horror story of psycho-babble books on Wendy’s shelf: Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, Disturbed Communication, When all Else Fails, Sell!, The Feminine Mystique. Wendy is telling one of the (only?) women portfolio managers that she doesn’t need a pep talk before the morning meeting, thereby giving her the pep talk she needs.
The women on this series like to layer their necklaces. Wendy wears delicate chains punctuated by pendants shaped like medical instruments. Lara, where the camera cuts to next, wears slightly heavier chains, with round pendants. We see Lara under a blue sky telling her farm help that her restaurateur Lou, wants perfect zucchini blossoms on special.
Axe in the office at the morning round table. No sitting down for this warrior. He circles the table like a…panther. I see it now, Wags is Silvio, always there to repeat whatever Tony/Bobby says, and put his own raunchy spin on it. Is this a real position at workplace round tables? The greek chorus, the yes man, the guy who’s gotta have the last word, even if the last word isn’t even his own? In the same way Wags is Silvio, Pouches is Paulie, the vaguely dense “aw, shucks” go-to guy, another yes-man. There’s an older guy in the mix who has trouble seeing the matrix. As Wags rails into him, Bobby lets it go, convincingly giving the non-matrix-seeing guy the benefit of the doubt.
Even as Bobby is circling around his employees, asking pointed questions, demanding concise answers (with Wags as the bulldog attacking anyone who doesn’t meet expectations). Bobby himself makes no attacks himself….either obvious or subtle. He simply wants his people to be on the ball. To make him money, and to make themselves money.
And them wanting his approval. He’s not the only animal in that room, even the one woman trader who needed to have a “sesh” before going into the morning meeting with all “those animals” is herself an animal. (not for nothing, but have New Yorkers started using a bunch of shortcut words since the last time I lived there: sib?, comp?, and now, rep, sesh?)
The meeting disperses “Let’s bring some meat back to camp,” Bobby orders. “Or some nuts,” Wags chimes in. “Hunt or gather,” all-inclusive Bobby summarizes.
Enter the Feds on a SEC compliance raid. The Feds question everyone on particulars of suspicious trades, and get in return the same single golden answer. “Event driven strategy” when push comes to shove always turns into “anonymous tip”. One has to envy the guy who gets this great line:
That…was a prom night promise…Just the tip.
Bobby puts everyone out of their misery and announces that the raid was just a drill. He tells everyone there’s a new compliance board at Axe Capital and they’ll be evaluating every move not just for monetary “up-side” but for its “ethical grounding.”
Of course, the first loser to raise his hand gets all of Bobby’s wrath. “You think this is a joke Victor?” The dufus proceeds to get fired. Just like that. And here we get a glimpse at ruthless Bobby. Ice cold, clear-eyed, “You’re done…leave your key cards.” Even though the schmuck deserved it for making fun of the compliance guy’s take-home pay. Sir Damian, with the perfect New York-ese, again:
Did I sign off on that trade? No I did not.
Wags deems his boss,
A god on the streets by lunchtime.
Done and done.
When Bobby fires that Victor, you sense it’s an impulsive decision, based solely on Victor’s bad attitude towards being conned into believing the compliance hit was real. Bobby senses disrespect, he reacts.
Wendy stomps into Bobby’s office and he knows what she’s going to say: “Why didn’t you tell me about the raid?” Okay, she has insight into Victor’s psychology, but I can’t fathom how she has any more information than anyone else. A transparent new money kid like Victor needs no med school degree to figure out. Anyway, I like her, so I’ll buy it. Bobby agrees with Wendy: firing Victor was a spur of the minute mistake, and he implores Wendy to fix it.
We see: A man who has surrounded himself by fixers this Bobby Axelrod.
Chuck catches on that the Birch insider trading thing was leaked to the media and he can’t stand that he didn’t get there first. Chuck suspects the journalist has some source that may be beneficial to the US attorney’s office. So why not pull up to the poor guy’s home address and ask? Chuck sees the reporter as someone with an ear to some informative ground, and, a bit too little too late, wants to play too. The reporter has the great honor of telling the US attorney “You can’t tell me the rules” and shuts the door in Chuck’s face for dodging all his calls when Chuck may have had the chance to get in good with him. Pretty darn cool. The reporter guy is my hero in all of this, so far, I think.
More of Chuck as the schmuck: he’s getting donuts for the kids, sees a guy he prosecuted, makes a half-assed attempt to pay it forward by giving the cashier some cash for the guys’s donuts. Once the guy finds out who his generous benefactor at the donut truck is, he throws that powdered sugar right at Chuck’s back. This scene was meant to show: 1) Chuck is a schmuck with maybe a teensy bit of a guilty conscious for racking up easy prosecution wins by putting away petty criminals, 2) Chuck is ashamed of the shameful parts of his job in front of his kids, and 3) Chuck is cheap; he thinks $20 will buy him redemption.
Bobby schools Pouches/Paulie on a short play. Let’ s note the books on Bobby’s shelf: American artist Robert Smithson, Nuetra, an American architect. Bobby Axelrod likes design. Bronx boy has an appreciation for aesthetics, yo.
Wendy’s fixing Axe’s knee-jerk firing of poor wounded Victor. Does Victor’s house look familiar? Chaz Palminteri tweeted when these guys were filming at his humble upstate NY abode. What, this guy Victor is maybe 32, living in Chaz Palminteri’s house, and we’re supposed to feel sorry for him? More likely, the point of the scene is Wendy. BTW, just so you know going forward, the point of every scene with Wendy in it is…Wendy. Stunningly strong character they built here…mostly due to all the unknowns…not to mention, Maggie Siff doesn’t blink delivering any of what they’ve given her. Wendy is doing her job, shushing Victor on the specifics because she knows whatever nefarious dealings her employer engages in must remain privileged information. She brings up Schott’s Miscellany…a Farmer’s Almanac…for non-farm stuff. (can I just say nerd me loves looking stuff like this up, so thanks, Billions writers)
Chuck and Wendy walking home to their Brookyln brownstone, him carrying the groceries, confessing to what happened with the donuts. Wendy delivering another “you’re a super hero” class of convincingly appeasing line:
Being 100% good at your job, and 100% good, if you figure that one out, let’s quit and write that book.
Chuck in conference with a goof-balling FBI couple talking about Birch’s misdealings with Arcadian Railroad. The compromised mole lingers at the doorway. She exits and starts texting her blackmailer with the info.
Bryan is preening in front of the board detailing Birch’s wrongdoings. Chuck’s focus shifts to the back ground to a board about Bobby Axelrod. He’s apparently put two and two together and come up with Butch and Sundance. No one rooted for the posse Bryan reminds Chuck. But the US Attorney stands firm: “That’s not who we are anymore,” he delusionally believes. Birch is the riderless horse sent as a decoy. On that score Chuck is right, of course.
Boy, not so much the metaphors, but the similes, certainly flying off the walls in this joint, no?
Next: Bobby grabbing a seat to join one of his investors at dinner with a guy Bobby refers to as a poacher. The guy is there to woo the investor away from Bobby’s fund. And Bobby asserts:
It’s a crush the other guy kind of business. It’s like Highlander, there can be only one.
The investor expresses concerns that Axe is not appearing all together above board and he wants his funds managed by someone attentive to results but also “optics.” The guy wooing him is stable, not as much of a Hamptons-house buying risk-taker, a part of the firmament. I bring this up, because I freakin love the NY accent Damian gives to the lines:
In the days to come I hope you see me as part of that firmament.
Not even sure if any of ya’ll non-New Yorkers can hear it, it’s super quiet and subtle. But it’s there, believe me.
Back in Chuck’s office, Birch takes a deal. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Jerry O’Connell. He fits the part of swarmy insider to a tee.
Bobby collapses on Wendy’s couch. He thanks her for taking care of Victor. “You know why I did it. For you.” she says. A big part of me hopes they don’t go romantic with the relationship, but, then again…the way they talk to each other now, it would be really extra sweet to see it go beyond this deep trusting time-worn friendship. Consider the ever-enticing tried and true formula of “will they, won’t they” successfully introduced, writers.
Okay, now we get to the best scene in the whole damn episode. And the one that tells us the most about Bobby, the most we’ve seen yet. The building that hosted the fundraiser had a name on it that chapped Bobby’s hide, remember? Bobby wants to change the name on the building. He confers with the head honcho of naming buildings to arrange a sit-down with the family whose name is currently on the building. He listens as the guy gives a spiel about “performative” spaces. The guys is used to talking to people who sign blank checks. He’s just going thru the motions, and Bobby knows it. Bobby’s got a lot of money but he’s not going to sign anyone a blank check. And he’s not just going thru the motions of anything. He wants to hold everyone around him accountable, his allies as well as his enemies.
Bobby again circling the prey. He sits still for no man, this guy. But how menacing can a guy in a vintage Metallica T-shirt really be? He looks positively boyish. And he’s there to call them out on their hypocrisy on their looking down on the likes of him…a caddie to a middle school boy who got him fired. He’s calling them out, demanding an owning up, just as he demands an owning up from his workers. He’s driving the people around him, the ones on his side as well as the ones not, to be their absolute best. He has no time for anyone who doesn’t at least make the effort. Nothing sinister, maniacal, sociopathic about it. At least not yet.
One of the grandson’s says “You mean we’re here for that ancient bullshit?” Damian delivery of “That’s right!” couldn’t have been more perfect. He gives them a check of the 25 million minus his hourly wage as a caddy ($16, times a million). And because they are spoiled trust fund babies who never did a lick of work (another NYC artifact based on truth), they take the 9 million and walk out with their tails behind their legs. And Bobby Axelrod’s name goes up on the building.
After the pilot and knowing what we already know about the show, it’s tempting to see a bit of the Tony Soprano in Bobby Axelrod. Minus the sociopathic murderous tendencies of course. And to see a bit of the Tony & Melfi relationship with Bobby and Wendy.
But this seems different in crucial and telling ways.
EW remarked on all the “That Guys” in this series. Those actors you’ve seen somewhere else, and until they break that elusive glass ceiling, are relegated to “Oh, there’s That Guy who was in…” They’re kind of like the Soprano posse, no real identity of their own, known only in relation to who they were in relation to Tony. But, again, Bobby’s no Tony. Damian is a MF-ing star, but, it’s not like this is Bobby Axelrod’s world and everyone else just lives in it. In Billions, you get a real feel for the ensemble cast. You get a feel for the “That Guys,” particularly the journalist guy, and Dollar Bill, who just ring very true in their look, their performance, the words that come out of their mouths.
Sure, for us, here, because we’re so ga-ga over him, Damian is always going to be the center of attraction. But Damian himself does not draw that kind of adoration to the characters he plays. He’s playing Bobby like he’s the boss, sure, but he also seems to be very much a member of a team. Reliant on his second-hand man (Wags), sharing his phone screen with his wife, collapsing on the couch of a friend, talking to his people personally and knowing their strengths and weaknesses.
Afterall Band of Brothers was full of a cast of “That Guys” too, and look how that turned out. 🙂
Back in the Sopranos days, there was all kinds of related merchandise that came up: a cookbook, etc. I remember there being a book about Tony’s leadership principles or techniques running a work meeting or some such thing. Would not be surprised if Bobby Axelrod got such a franchise to spring off from the techniques we see here. And we ain’t seen nothing yet.