Billions ep. 8 : Boasts and Rails

His eyes see the dark truth within us all, a truth that wasn’t even dark until he looked at it – Bobby Axelrod described by an employee he’s surveilled

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While Axe feigns a hunt for a mole by going all Captain Queeg  on his subordinates, the DA’s subordinate Kate Sacker has found the real juice. The elusive Chapter 10, which Lara had forced into redaction a couple episodes ago, is now seeing the light of day.


Axe’s big secret? Minutes after the first plane hit on 9/11, he was on a phone shorting aviation, hotels and shipping. Pretty darn awful, if you ask me.

Not-so-recused Chuck wants the incendiary tidbit leaked to the press. And he wants Bryan to give Axe a mole to take him off the scent of the real mole, Donnie Caan. (Or so they think. We learn later in this episode that Donnie is in fact a faux mole placed by Axe.) At dinner with Kate’s parents, morally conflicted Bryan hears a message from Kate’s father that gives him temporary pause:

Principal doesn’t go away all at once, it’s a creeping erosion.

Over at Axe Capital the meditation room is being revamped into a panic room. And Axe continues his hunt for the mole is a series of quite comical Q & As that read like New Yorker cartoons. He asks Wendy to sit in to “create an atmosphere for truth”. When she figures out she’s actually been roped into being his human lie detector, she’ll have none of it. Why Axe includes her on something he knows is a farce remains to be seen. Maybe he’s testing her again, testing the extent to which his farce gets to the ears of her husband, who Axe must already know has ears in that room anyway via Donnie? Like a crazy maze this show!



Bryan, listening in via Donnie, doesn’t see the comedy of the situation. And after another failure at getting something tangible, he has rethought his anxiety over the “creeping erosion” of principal.

The 9/11 revelation has reached Dimonda who reaches out to Axe for comment, confirmation, to rub it in, or to give his new pal a heads up. Whatever the case, the story has dropped.


Where is the pain, where is the regret, where is the shame, where is the panic? All emotions we know Damian can pull off excruciatingly well and so SO beautifully. Alas, no such angst here: Bobby’s face is a blank. Under a thick cloak of defensiveness, it also has a bit of an expression of “So what?” So, yeah, I guess Damian’s face isn’t so blank after all. It’s an enigma, an unsolvable combination of a lot of things. I think there is pain there too, but the kind you hide really well because you’ve lived a long time having to hide it really well. Say what? An actor playing a deeply buried and long hidden emotion? Seems sort of an otherworldly skill, no? Seems like magic. There you have it. (And this blog’s raison d’etre)

Bookworm planted a bug back channel that maybe Bobby can’t show his pain because he’s rich and any display of sincerity by the rich is immediately read as insincere and subject to ridicule. And that makes a heck of a lot of sense. The ship of public opinion has already launched. We saw Bobby in spin control with The Punch last episode, spinning the narrative like he was a man in public office. This is worse, and it cannot be spun. So why even try? Why expend the energy to manage the humiliation, when he knows the humiliation is inevitable. This is big, and Bobby is going to sit it out. He is going to defend his position the only way he can: only one plane had hit, everyone thought it was a freak accident, no one expected the other plane, no one expected that anyone would do something like that on purpose as an act of war, no one expected the buildings to fall (not even the men who perpetrated the crime, we learned later), and for 2753 people to lose their lives. Only one plane had hit, and Bobby’s mind immediately went to the industries most likely to be affected by this “accident”: aviation, hotels and shipping. He saw an opportunity. (BTW and FWIW, this reveal is far worse than what I had imagined would be Bobby’s big 9/11 secret. We’ll get to all of the alternative narratives in our heads in future posts, so stay tuned!)

Now, there is the question of how his mind saw the investment opportunity before he felt the need to pick up the phone and call his office in the south tower to check on his peeps. I remember my very first reaction after peeling my eyes from the TV was to call my family to make sure no one, immediate family or extended, was in Manhattan that day or flying or anywhere close to any of it. And to share with loved ones the feeling of “What the hell just happened?” That was all of our very first reaction, right?  But not Bobby’s. We don’t know anything about his family. We know he wasn’t married then. For all we know, the only family he had was his work family in that south tower. And instead of calling to check on them, he made quite a different call.

When the spin team comes to the rescue, Axe calmly shuts them down. He says “It’s true, I never lied about it.” He claims he was making money that he knew would be of use to survivors. (FWIW, I have to call bullshit on that)


Alas, whatever, what’s done is done. The story has dropped. Kids get pulled out of school. Axe adds security. Bobby and Lara batten down for the storm. “Of course I knew” Lara tells her sister. “He’s my husband” she may as well have added. Midst this big reveal, Axe is still doing his job as he fires Pouch who has been framed by the FBI as the mole…faux times deux.


Bobby escapes the eyes at the office to be alone with his laptop in the meditation/panic room, possibly due to some feeling of being overwhelmed. Still, he’s not obsessing over things, wringing his hands trying to wash away the blood. He’s working, clicking away, seemingly not at all emotionally tied to what is happening behind the door. Wendy slips in to that room but only to affirm the mantra already in his head: not a big deal, you did what you had to do. I like to think I saw a hint of Bobby calling bullshit on her letting him off the hook so easily, but, that one brief look may have just been wishful thinking.


So here we have morality vs. legality again. Nothing illegal about shorting aviation a couple minutes after a plane hits a tower. While the rest of us stared slack jawed at our screens, Axe had the wherewithal to pick up a phone. But not to check in his coworkers in the other tower though. When told this way, he seems like a sociopath, no? Some sort of savant…biologically insensitive to others’ pain, incapable of empathy. Always attuned to the numbers and the pictures eidetically memorized in his head. If there is some sort of sociopathic pathology behind all of this Wendy would know, right? But she seems to think it’s no big deal either. Or that’s the face she puts on for Bobby. We learn that she’s known the story for a long time too. “As we’ve talked about it before, you have nothing to be ashamed of, in a relativistic sense.”

If Bobby is a sociopath, he may be the very first one I’m interesting in knowing better. We’ve seen lots of antisocial anti-heros lately. And one aspect of their appeal is that they play with our sense of what is forgivable. But Billions stands out from the rest with this particular antisocial antihero. Our hero’s bad behavior isn’t framed as a vicarious thrill as it was in Mad Men and Sopranos. It’s not framed as something we’d all like to be able to get away with if we weren’t stuck in the confines of a real world with real consequences. Instead of giving us a happy escape and a taste of what it must feel like to be an utter asshole and get away with it, this show makes us happily explore the real life themes of guilt and forgiveness, loyalty and fidelity. And running through it all is the quiet secrets that married people keep for and from each other.

Maybe Bruno at the pizza place is the only family Axe cares about? It is endearing to see Bruno’s silent acceptance of the news bring Bobby some sort of relief. With Bruno’s acceptance, you’re forced to remember that all tragedy has some element of opportunity birthed from the ashes. One of the sick truths of relativism, I guess? There were people who got rich during the Great Depression and there are people (brilliantly portrayed in the Big Short) who managed to get rich off of the real estate crash of 2008. There are people who got rich off of the wars that followed 9/11, so who are we to fault one man who got rich on that very day, in those first few minutes? I’m writing this to try to convince myself, because it’s a tough one to swallow. It’ll take time. But, let’s be real here, if the role of Halliburton executive is ever in Damian’s future, watch for the unstoppable uptick in the global approval rating for slash and burn war games. Resistance is futile. We, dear fans, are doomed.


While the philosophical implications of everything that’s going on, the ethics and relativism, is enough to make a head spin and wish to go back in time to those small philosophy classes in college where the discussion would get so heady that you’d lose track of time, the emotional landscape within these people, a landscape that drama commonly explores ad nauseum, remains largely unexplored in Billions. Even Wendy’s mojo-uplifting of her patients’ emotional turmoil is divorced from emotion. The problems within Axe Capital are all existential. What am I? Why am I here? Not so much: How do I feel about who I am and doing what I do and about the feelings of those affected by me doing what I do? We’re so accustomed to exploring character motivations through their emotions that we don’t quite know what to make of characters that function along strict (yet still gray!) philosophical lines. We’re more used to shows where the writers play around with psychology. But these writers seem to have preferred philosophy to psychology. And philosophy was the much tougher course!

Yeah, we can say that all who knew Axe’s secret had the last 15 years to make peace with it, but, wouldn’t that affirmation be more believable if we were at least given a hint of a time when they were NOT at peace with it? Something I vaguely remember from the one philosophy class I took as an undergrad is the human tendency and mistake of believing in something only if the opposite of that something is manifest and true. The fallacy of believing there is no good without evil, there is no happiness without pain. It’s really easy to believe these things because we all intrinsically want to assign some sort of balance to the universe. But such scales of justice don’t necessarily exist, do they. Good may be a quality purely independent of evil, and vice versa. Not sure I was able to ever wrap my head around this idea (I think I got a C in that one philosophy class!) But I do find myself going back to it when thinking about this show. Is the world of Billions a world of pure neutrality? Is all action happening along an axis of nothing more lofty than money and power? Bryan, as the only idealist/romantic in the mix was compromised in this episode into framing an innocent man. So, is Bryan done dreaming too? Has he been effectively neutered into a functional agent of delivering a specific outcome (the bad guys behind bars) by whatever means necessary?

Will we see Bobby show his pain over what he’s done and what he continues to do? Or Lara genuinely and irrecoverably fed up with her husband’s intransigence? Or Wendy following her heart instead of her mind in her longing for meaning? Or Chuck divorcing himself from his toxic father and putting down the tools of haberdashery once and for all? Or will they, like a lot of us real folk trying to live the grown-up life, keep gallantly trudging the path of neutrality?  Who would have thunk that such watchable and engaging drama could come from such staunch and potent neutrality?

Was going to end it there, but I have to say: I flove that women are not objectified in this drama; they aren’t commodities to be traded or to fight wars over. They aren’t the main story but they aren’t relegated to the sidelines either. Gratuitous sex scenes are one way that women (and men) are objectified in drama. But how inured we are to seeing it that we miss it when we don’t? There’s no sex to speak of actually, and what sex there is not that easy to figure out. Sex that requires thought, ie not given to cheap thrills, never just for the fuck of it. My only wish is that we’d see some of the intimacy, some of the longing for communion, that we hear in Jason Isbell’s richly lyrical song behind the opening and closing credits: Jason Isbell on Austin City Limits “Cover Me Up”.

Listen to the lyrics and you can imagine this was what Wendy rescuing Bobby from the fire 15 years ago was all about. Yes, I’m a broken record, I know. Maybe.

And I have to ask: Doesn’t Chuck’s insecurity over Axe’s place in Wendy’s life beg exploration?

Lots of people love each other, but you and Axe, that’s something else. It’s weird and it’s deep and I fucking hate it.

Wendy pulls another “you’re a super hero” turnaround to Chuck’s angst. Whether she believes it herself or not, she tells Chuck that Axe’s life and choices are not sustainable and can never be. But we’re still left with the question: What do Bobby and Wendy have that is so deep, so impenetrable? Sure, it’s friendship. But why is there this element of no turning back for them? Wendy cannot just leave the company. Back in the Tepidarium when Bobby asks her “Why are you sticking around?” Wendy starts her answer with “I am interested in what that question means to you.” What did that even mean???


10 thoughts on “Billions ep. 8 : Boasts and Rails”

  1. Love this! I just LOVE how you, once again, open us a fresh window for us to see how Billions turns morality and legality on their heads. So TRUE! What Axe has done is not illegal. But is it moral? I just love it that the show does not shy away from asking such complicated questions on the very sensitive topic of 9/11. They are brave enough to bring it up and make us think and think hard about it.

    I have been thinking about the family aspect as well. I don’t think Axe’s parents are alive. We would see them somehow so far. Bruno seems to be a father figure. Who knows maybe he’s always been a father figure. I just feel like Axe grew up with a single mom – a waitress working very hard to make the ends meet and raise, probably, her only child. I just think if there was a father around, there would also be a sister or a brother. This is, of course, huge speculation on my part, but this is how I feel. As you say we know almost nothing about his family and again as you say his co-workers could be all he has on that day and he might genuinely have wanted to do something good for them there and then. It’s hard to swallow, and even he is not proud of what he did. But it seems to me that he just did what he knew: Trade.

    From the beginning, one thing I, and I think we all, have been trying to figure out (some critics also raised this in early reviews of the show) WHY Chuck hates Axe so much. Chuck has certain insecurity issues. His line about Axe running thru Serengeti where as he changing a shirt just being down on the subway reflects on how deeply he despises some of Axe’s qualities and feels insecure about it. They all know something about the relationship Axe and Wendy have that we don’t know. Maybe there was a fling. But, honestly, I don’t see it coming back. And I know I am in the minority seeing comments everywhere about Axe and Wendy but I don’t want to see it coming back. I just love feeling that the bond is deep. It’s intimate. The way Wendy drops into the new panic room as soon as she hears about “Axe and 9/11” tells me she knows a lot about his pain with which he has probably made some peace since — again probably thanks to Wendy. She knows it all since she put him altogether. That particular scene is telling me there was A LOT OF pain which Wendy has worked HARD on.

    1. Yes, all the talk on the show of Bobby and Wendy meeting each other before either of them met their spouses…the point has been reiterated several times…leads to the conclusion that they may have known each other in the biblical sense prior to meeting their spouses. Which lets them off the hook because they can still be connected without being unfaithful. Another case of morality vs. legality. HA!
      If this is the case, then how cool are these writers to show a couple who is no longer a couple still maintaining a deep connection after they’ve both gone separate ways. You don’t see such things in drama. Romance usually follows the formula of cat and mouse…capture/surrender…obstacle/break-up…surrender again…break-up again, on and on as long as the series lasts. Billions is different from the rest on so many levels, and it’s different in this way too. And what a sweet thing to imagine and live vicariously? All of our old lovers still in our lives….the bigger theme around the light-hearted bit with Mr. “Just the Tip”‘s refusal to delete his chesty ex-girlfriend’s number and her “you have to stop calling me”.
      Bobby never stopped calling Wendy. And she can never stop calling him.
      Okay, so they won’t be unfaithful. But the picture is just too beautiful for the show not to at least take us to some pretty flashbacks, right? One can hope and imagine.

      1. Wonderful thoughts about philosophy/psychology. It really rings true. I am glad you brought up Axe’s family because I was thinking myself that perhaps he doesn’t have any. At that time, being who he was, whoever that was, he wouldn’t have been thinking about future wife and kids. Maybe it never even occurred to him he might want that.

        You know where I stand on Axe/Wendy and their past. I will happily hope with you for some flashbacks.

        Another fantastic piece which resonates.

        1. Yes! And maybe Wendy helped him see that he could have a future like he has now. “I saved you when your world burned…I found meaning in that…I still do” ….opens up worlds and worlds of imagery and fodder from flashback, doesn’t it?

          There’s a piece in the song Cover Me Up that speaks volumes too….”Days when we raged, we flew off the page such damage was done / But I made it through, cause somebody knew I was meant for someone”. The song was written about the singer’s wife and the “someone” in the song, i think, may refer to God or some saving grace that told him to stop hurting himself (he was an alcoholic) b/c there is a woman who loves him and is waiting for him. For Axe, Wendy may have been that God/guru/saving grace….effectively piecing him together so he’d be whole enough to build the life he has with Lara.

          Let’s wait for the show to go there, but, I swear if the show doesn’t take Axe and Wendy to flashback land, let’s vow to collaborate on some fanfic that does, deal?

          1. I completely agree Wendy likely helped stop any self-loathing and encouraged him to look to the future.

            “I saved you when your world burned…I found meaning in that…I still do” That very quote from Wendy tells me that however he may have hidden/hides his feelings/pain from general public viewing, he doesn’t hide it from her. Also at some point in their relationship he obviously confessed the worst of himself to Lara.

            The score for this series has been absolutely fantastic in general.

            That is a deal…though I’d quite like both. There is too much intimacy when Bobby and Wendy are together for the writers not to give us some necessary flashbacks…pretty please.

          2. There’s absolutely too much intimacy — I don’t feel any sexuality there right now, even though they have GREAT chemistry, but I feel there was something in the past. I would probably prefer a convo between them — about the good old days 🙂 — rather than a flashback and once we have that I know you two will have more than enough material to write the best fan fiction ever! But maybe they will go to the flashback-land, too. Who knows?

            And I agree with Laura that Axe probably confessed ALL OF IT at some point to Wendy that she ran to find him once she knew there was news about him and 9/11 on TV. She saw him at his most vulnerable. And that, alone, is a huge bond between the two.

  2. Thanks for another great commentary. I didn’t catch that Axe traded as soon as he heard a plane hit a tower on 9/11. That’s surprising.

    I did think it was a small private plane when I first heard people talking about it in a Starbucks that beautiful September morning across from my office.

    The thing with Axe being from a blue collar background and going for big money and all the trappings and Chuck coming from money and working for low salary – I’ve known people like that. It’s harder to give up a high salary if you grew up without money. It’s easier to give it up if you grew up never wanting for anything and having the prestige of your status and the trappings. An early boyfriend I had was from money but he always wore the same clothes – very nondescript, a green army jacket. Then I saw his home and learned about his prominent family. He didn’t display his wealth.

    If Axe was raised by a hardworking single mother and they struggled as he grew up, then it reminds me of Lance Armstrong who was extremely driven to become “somebody” and have power and wealth and make his mother proud. He also was raised by a single mother and was an only child. I hope Axe didn’t veer off the rails as much as Armstrong.

    This show is so fast-paced and complicated we need a guide like this site to help us understand better. They sure have made the stakes high.

    You know how good Damian is at playing ambiguity? You know something is going on but he doesn’t telegraph what. I was wondering if going to boarding school at 8 years old he had to learn to hide his feelings to survive. Those places are very competitive and intense and he didn’t have mummy near to run to. He might have really perfected a way to not show exactly what he was thinking or feeling. I could see that being useful in these ambiguous roles like Axe and Brody. Luckily Damian also seems very happy and normal. Somehow he didn’t become neurotic and had good support from family and teachers. You have to adapt and be resourceful in those schools and find a way to fit in. Whatever it is – he is masterful at not revealing everything so you aren’t sure which way his character is going to go. Makes it more interesting.

    1. Exactly. Masterful is a perfect way to describe it. And he only seems to be getting better with every role. Such is the definition of mastery. 😀

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