Ominously enough, this week’s Billions opens with a shot of lower Manhattan, with the Freedom Tower in clear focus. Given what we know (or think we know) about Bobby Axelrod and his connection to 9/11, does this establishing shot establish more than just the setting? Indeed.
Since this episode is essentially a collection of people snarling at each other, let’s run down tonight’s episode by detailing each of its many battles. After all, as we learn throughout the night, the theme of this installment is, basically, “don’t get pooped on.”
Round 1: Lara Axelrod vs. The 9/11 Widow
You remember June Raichlein, the woman from the pilot episode who lost her husband — Axelrod’s former colleague at their old firm, located in the Twin Towers — on 9/11? The one with a vendetta? Well now she’s hooking up with a book publisher, having hot sex as Flaubert and Tolstoy look on disapprovingly from the bookshelf. Also on the publisher’s shelf: a manuscript of June’s soon-to-be-published memoir, titled 9/12: The Day After. At approximately 70,000 words and 279 pages, it looks to be a sensational read. And the publisher she’s banging can’t wait to start selling it.
Neither can Lara Axelrod. Concerned about what this rogue defector from the Team Axe camp might reveal, Lara manages to get her hands on a manuscript. Chapter 10 turns out to be a big problem. Axe, we learn, did some not-so-savory things around the time of the disaster, things that apparently would reflect very poorly (and perhaps very illegally) on him. We aren’t given the details of whatever indiscretion might’ve occurred (there’s talk of him having made some unseemly investments at the time), but it’s enough to concern Lara.
So she takes the matter to their company lawyer to find out what legal options she has to prevent the book’s publication. There aren’t many good ones, she’s told, since defamation wouldn’t apply here. Whatever the book alleges looks to be the truth. But that’s okay because it occurs to Lara that she has something more effective than legal options — social recourse.
And so begin’s Lara’s campaign to ruin the 9/11 widow’s life even more than it already has been. She effectively gets June blackballed from the most important facets of her life. Barre class? Her name’s not in the system anymore. Tee time at the country club? Mysteriously canceled. Her son’s legacy admission to Stanford? Suddenly declined.
Yes, those may seem like petty luxuries that Americans should be able to live without. But in their world, not making the barre class is essentially subhuman behavior. June is ruined. And it doesn’t take her long to figure out who’s behind this streak of bad luck.
So June comes to Lara with her tail between her legs and a “revised” version of her manuscript. Chapter 10 has been heavily edited, she tells Lara. Lara responds kindly…by telling June that maybe her son will get into Stanford after all.
Later that night, Lara fills Axe in on her “good” deeds. He’s impressed. They’re a perfect team.
Winner: Lara Axelrod
Round 2: Bobby Axelrod vs. Hutch “YumTime” Bailey III
As you may recall from last week, Axe has made a surprisingly strong investment in YumTime, a Hostess-like company that produces pseudo-Twinkies and other such treats. Now we see a truckload of YumTime products arrive at Axelrod’s doorstep. “Whenever you can, put a company in your mouth,” he tells one of his employees — advice they don’t teach at Stanford. (That honorable California university is, for whatever reason, the college of choice on the very East Coast-centric Billions.)
So what does Axe plan to do with his notable 4.9 percent stake in the YumTime company? A lot of people want to know, none more than Hutch Bailey III. He’s the CEO of the company, just as his dad was before him, and his father’s father before him. It was that first Hutch who founded the company, in fact. So when he gets wind of Axelrod’s large investment, he can’t help but wonder if he’s got an activist investor on his hands.
He does. Bobby has a meeting with the non-Hutch YumTime board members to tell them his investment is not a vote of confidence. He wants his minority stake to translate into a meaningful seat at the table, or else he’ll go Starboard-Yahoo on them. More specifically, Axe proposes that the company gets rid of Hutch Bailey III altogether. He’s an unfit scion who inherited a family business he wasn’t qualified to run, Axe tells them. Plus, Hutch messed with all the recipes.
But there’s a very Billions-y twist behind all this: Chuck’s dad is having an affair Evelyn Benson, a woman on YumTime’s board of directors. Chuck Sr. theorizes that this is Bobby’s real play — to send a “f— you” message to the Rhoades clan.
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To ensure his plan’s success, Axelrod gets some valuable intel on the most consequential member of the YumTime board. His name is Jerry Purkheiser, and he’s a real folksy guy, it turns out. So Axe turns up his Common Man knob by taking the guy out to dinner at that outer-borough pizzeria he invested in way back in episode 1. Over slices, he lays out what he thinks he’s wrong with YumTime. “It’s classic, time immemorial,” Bobby tells Jerry. “Hutch I starts it, Hutch II grows it, Hutch III blows it. Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.”
By this point in the series, it’s become clear that there’s one thing that bothers Axe more than anything: the undeserved spoils that comes with privilege. It’s the same theme that played out in last week’s episode, when he got revenge on the blue-blooded Eads family. Bobby’s a middle-class kid who clawed his way to the top, and he resents the idle rich who inherit — and, often, squander — their seats at the table.
So Bobby shows up to the next board meeting to make his pitch. Predictably, Hutch III resists, labeling Axe a carpetbagger and a raider. But it’s too late: The board has already made up its mind, and they quickly vote to remove him from his perch.
But then after that, a strange second vote happens. The board, mostly white and nearly all male, all raise their hands in favor of a sudden movement to oust its lone female member, Evelyn. Yes, this was part of Bobby’s plan to get at Chuck Sr. all along. But it also has a whiff of misogyny. When Evelyn profanely protests the move, calling Jerry a “c—sucker,” he replies, “The same could be said of you, my dear,” which seems, well, unfairly inappropriate and mean-spirited. The scene ends with her leaving the room in a huff.
At any rate, Chuck and his father have a little sit-down to discuss this, and the tension between them starts to boil. The elder Rhoades wants his son to take action against Bobby immediately while the younger wants to build his case slowly and carefully to make sure it’s bulletproof. He wants to run for governor someday, we learn — and governors don’t get elected for losing to bankers. But the real damage is the widening rift between Chuck and his father, which, of course, Bobby can now take credit for. Sly dog.
Winner: Bobby Axelrod
NEXT: Wendy hedges her bets
Round 3: Wendy Rhoades vs. Wags
Wags is in Wendy’s magical therapy room, opening up to her about his “ATM” fetish. No, not the bank-account kind of ATM, but the poop kind of ATM. Wags just really likes “a woman taking it into her mouth after a little raw-dogging,” he tells Wendy, which really makes you wonder what the hell this has to do with work.
But Wendy, with outlandish clarity, knows exactly how it relates to Wags’ professional situation. Wags (and therefore Axe Capital as a whole) is getting leveraged for a bigger salary by Maria, one of their star traders. She’s gotten an offer at a bigger, more traditional firm, and they’re offering her more money to boot. Wags, as a result, is forced to make a counteroffer to keep her — but he’s feeling real hurt about it. Where’s her loyalty, he wonders. He hates people with no loyalty.
So he tells Wendy that he’s got a plan to make Maria pay. She, in short, will get “ATMed” by the company by getting fed less valuable information than before. You know, like poop. As a result, her trades will be less profitable and, over the course of years, her value and net worth will fall dramatically. That’s payback, Axe Capital-style.
Wendy doesn’t feel good about this because of her own personal loyalty to Maria. And when Maria waltzes into Wendy’s office later to “boast” about her leverage play working, Wendy is forced to sit there and listen, unable to warn her plainly of the dangers ahead. So she takes another tack, via therapy, telling Maria to imagine how much better her life would be if she took the outside offer. As with everything Wendy touches, it works. Maria bounces, much to Wags’ chagrin and Wendy’s delight. In fact, Wendy’s so happy with the move, she makes one of her own. She secretly invests $250,000 of her own money with Maria’s next firm…almost as if it’s insurance against her position at Axe Capital, should she ever need it.
Winner: Wendy Rhoades
Round 4: Chuck Rhoades vs. Pete Decker
First off, Connerty and Terri from the FBI are apparently doing it now, and are cutely quoting lines from Glengary Glen Ross together. Just FYI.
On a related note, Chuck Rhoades’ plan to get to Bobby Axelrod via Pete Decker, a banker with insider trading links to Axelrod, gets interrupted when the Eastern District decides to take on Decker themselves. It wasn’t an accident, either — it’s clearly the work of SEC hack Ari Spyros, who’s eager to get the glory any way he can, even if he was to bypass the U.S. Attorney’s office.
Annoyed, Chuck tries to horse trade with the Eastern District to get the Decker case back. He offers them a glamorous terrorism case — “Statue of Liberty bombing attempt” — and closes the deal. The only problem is that he also has to take Spyros along with the case.
These scenes, by the way, include one of the show’s first and most effective moments of intentional humor — a little segment where Chuck keeps getting caught saying things on speakerphone. It’s a small gesture, comedy-wise, but an uncharacteristically charming one for Billions. These sorts of quirky, slice-of-life bits of humor (rather than boorish locker-room quips we’ve gotten up to now) are something the show’s been lacking for too long — and as someone who has seen future episodes, I’m happy to say the series does a much better job on that front from here on out.
Case in point: a scene soon after, where Rhoades, Connerty, and Spyros get Decker into a room to negotiate their terms. If Decker provides dirt on Axe, he’ll get to walk. It’s a tense scene full of macho showmanship — until it’s all undercut by a goofy-yet-revealing riff on the fact that Spyros’ cheap cologne has been stinking up the room the whole time. Everyone can smell it, and they let him know it, too. It’s funny stuff. I may have even laughed out loud.
But anywho, that’s all just a fun diversion. The main takeaway is that Decker is unwilling to play ball. It’s not until later in the episode when the bright, young, ambitious one-to-watch Kate presents Rhoades and Connerty with their way in: Decker’s parents. Decker has implicated their own money — in their names — in his financial wrongdoing, meaning they’d go down with him. Good job, Kate!
Equipped with that knowledge, Chuck follows through on this new tactic by accosting Decker at his son’s softball game. Of course, Decker’s own parents are in the stands. They’ll be in handcuffs before the seventh-inning stretch if Decker doesn’t cooperate. Needless to say, he does.
Winner: Chuck Rhoades
Round 5: Chuck Rhoades vs. The Dog Poop Man
Every morning, Chuck likes to take a stroll along the river on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. And every morning, his walk gets ruined by some jackass who, without fail, refuses to curb his dog’s poop. (Getting the theme of the episode yet?) But not this morning. Chuck finds the pajama’d man and his dog and gives him a verbal thrashing. “I am that guy,” Rhoades tells him. That guy who won’t let your dog poop all over the city. “Why don’t you just let it slide?” says Dog Poop Man, with a hint of annoyance in his voice.
That just makes Chuck even angrier. Bad idea. So Chuck stares Dog Poop Man right in the eyes with that Paul Giamatti intensity and tells the guy to pick up the dog’s poop with his hands. AND THE GUY DOES. This is Peak Giamatti, exactly the sort of scene you want to see him in week in and week out. Because this is Chuck Rhoades’ city, and nobody poops on Chuck in this town.
Winner: Chuck Rhoades