Billions Season 2 Premiere Recap: Pity Poor, Poor Chuck

Photo: Courtesy of Showtime.
TV’s most underrated drama — it's a workplace comedy that turns into an American tragedy — returns to Sky Atlantic tonight and oh boy, is it firing on all cylinders. When thinking about how to frame this recap I kept returning to the sheer hubris of that “three days earlier” card at the beginning of the show. Axe has called his lawyer, Orrin Bach, to a high drama meeting at an emptied racetrack at night. The bright lights illuminating their discussion of the clear line between “winners” and “losers.” Then we get that card. And my friends, how dare they! Because legit, I know this is a long recap but I could probably tell you the events that happened in those three days in two sentences (I will not though). Then it’s all just power plays! And yet, gosh darn it, I’m so glad this show is back. So let’s jump to three days earlier when the episode really begins. Our hedge fund guys are itching to get back into Axe Capital — remember Bobby shut it down to tear the place apart on a fake tip that Chuck might have bugged the building last season – which is now Axe Capital: stronger, smarter, and with better security. Hedge funds are facing an extinction-level event, Bobby tells his employees. “I am a survivor and I will do whatever it takes to avoid my fate,” he concludes. Oh the Greek tragedy of it all, because of course, if it’s your “fate” then there’s no escaping it. And then comedy, when Bobby demonstrates how in danger hedge funds are by having employees hold up black cards in front of their faces to represent the hedge funds that will be gone in 18 months. Mafee brags that he’s still there and Bobby barks back that Mafee shouldn’t be proud “… because this was a random fucking exercise!” That’s honestly, one of the best jokes I’ve heard on TV this year. Meanwhile Wendy Rhoades — our perfect heroine — is giving a lecture about performance. One guy in the audience brazenly interrupts her to say he’s never had any complaints and offers to take her in his office and show her. If this fool in his zip-up hoodie thinks he can step to Wendy he has another thing coming and she instantly eviscerates him, saying that she can tell he’s lying and his problem is how hard he takes the complaints. Then she pulls out a bottle of Viagra as a prop. How perfect that in a room full of posturing men Wendy just knew she was going to need some prop Viagra. Maggie Siff continues to kill it in this role, the perfect mix of composure, insight, and intensity, she makes even the most ridiculous lines powerful. Todd Krakow (played wonderfully skeevy by Danny Strong) introduces Wendy at the lecture and later tries to offer her a job, very obviously trying to play her, but she’s fine where she’s at, for now. And then we get to poor, poor Chuck, who is having everything thrown against him this episode. First it’s Oliver Drake, from the Office of Professional Responsibility. Look, it’s obvious that this show is heightened to operatic extremes and that nothing on Billions is black or white when it comes to morality. But, technically, isn’t this guy in the right? If Chuck represents justice, then this guy is supposed to make sure he never wavers from lawfully pursuing that. But, I fear the only person who’s going to be portrayed as more of a loser than Chuck on this show is good ol’ Oliver who calls himself an octopus, but is just a straight-up weasel. He’s also looks like the bad guy in The Matrix. What Chuck did last season, reading his wife’s notes from therapy, was a violation. But this guy just seems like he gets off on stirring up drama, not, you know, making sure our freaking U.S. Attorney behaves lawfully. Chuck instantly tries to display dominance by showing Oliver to an office with his name on it — he was tipped off Oliver was coming — but again, Chuck did do something wrong so he’s still really up against the ropes (or another sports metaphor).
Pictured: Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod and David Costabile and Mike Wagner.
Let’s quickly run through our other characters beside the main three. Lara — my dear, underused Malin Ackerman — saves a girl’s life at her children’s school with an EpiPen. Then she gets the nurse fired for not realizing that’s what the girl needed and calls up her cousin to help out. Wags spends the episode trying to get on Raya — which is a dating app for influencers — on company time. Stephanie, Axe’s chief of staff who I think will become one of my favourite characters this season – who am I kidding? They’re all my favourite – vouches for him on the app so he’ll get back to work. I don’t really know where to put this but I just feel like I should say: this show has the perfect opportunity to be about the weak men who run the world eventually being defeated by the powerful women who have to put up with them. But, we’ll see. Anyway, in other storylines my favourite goofball Mafee gets schooled by his intern Taylor who shows him how to save 10 million dollars. I can’t get over how endearing this scene is with Mafee having no idea how to woo Taylor to stay on after the internship and being so genuinely distraught when he thinks he messed up Taylor’s food order. When I say that this episode was mostly a bunch of chess moves, less plot, you better believe there was an elaborate chess metaphor. Our three favourite lawyers — Bryan Connerty, Kate Sacher, and Lonnie Watley — wonder who will be Head of Criminal Prosecution at the retirement party for the guy who currently holds the position. Chuck makes it clear that they should probably remain loyal to him or face the unknown with his replacement. But not before he tells a crazy long story about playing chess in Washington Square Park. It was a good game until he saw his opponent cheat. But rather than call him out he folds, but threatens, in a whisper, the guy saying he could make his life hard so that guy better not cheat again. He says he wants his lawyers to act with purpose and control “to create a more just environment.” Obviously on its face it makes sense that even though they’re in retreat mode now, they should be making moves to keep prosecuting the bad guys. But what’s funny about this story is that he still, technically lost the game, right? And also, it shows that the only people who Chuck can intimidate are guys who are already pretty vulnerable (men who make money playing chess in the park) to begin with. Still Chuck’s position is becoming more and more vulnerable too. Oliver finds out about the $5 million bonus Axe gave Wendy last season, a transaction that took place right before Chuck dropped his case against Axe Capital. But, Oliver comes to the wrong conclusion: he thinks it was a bribe. If he actually dug deeper here, he could’ve found out Chuck’s real mistake. And then at the end of the episode I’m pretty sure Oliver makes another wrong conclusion. He confronts Bryan in perhaps his only kind of menacing moment — I would like to believe that the arc of storytelling bends towards justice but again, this guy is the worst — and says he knows Bryan placed the phone call to tip him off to misconduct. Bryan looks nervous and that ends the episode. Except… we know that’s not true, right? Didn’t Axe say earlier that he was responsible for it? IDK, we’ll find out soon. This episode is all about punching Chuck while he’s down so let’s now get to Axe’s aggressive racetrack plans. He knows he can’t sue Chuck alone, so he has his lawyer contact everyone who’s ever been wronged by Chuck for a united attack. So later when Chuck helps a man who pretty brutally falls off his bike, he gets served with 127 lawsuits. Dear readers, I would pay all of my billions of dollars (pennies… lol not even) to see a person get served in real life. But not in a sad way. Like, a banker. Anyway, on top of that Oliver has told the Attorney General about the 5 million dollars. Chuck gets a call from her asking to meet Thursday. He assumes this is his invitation to the guillotine, the end of the line. But… is it? In the finale last season Chuck said he was dangerous because he had nothing to lose and he’s only gotten knocked down even more. At the beginning of the episode Chuck’s karate teacher tells him what will probably become the thesis for this season (or instantly disproven in the next episode). If he can master the moves he “can generate offence out of defence even off [his] back.” So maybe this is exactly where Chuck needs to be. Because the person who’s actually acting near defeat, in every move, this episode is Bobby. He’s being more careful in the office, watching his back, talking about extinction-level events that are fated to happen. He’s unhealthily obsessed with destroying Rhoades, he’s having Wendy followed. When Axe went to talk to Wendy this episode I thought about her name. Wendy originated as a name with Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up. Wendy and Peter were friends but he also wanted her to be his mother-surrogate. Sure, Axe is definitely grown up, but his masculinity is so so fragile, that Wendy and her intelligence, her insight, are of course exactly what he needs and exactly what he’s not getting. So of course he’s going to extremes, not thinking clearly. I mean, he had a racer run a lap for dramatic effect, while revealing his arch plan to take down Chuck. He’s making some big moves but perhaps, in trying to control everything and destroy Chuck so entirely, he’s missing something. And with that I leave you. Thanks for not making me explain what a “zero cost collar” is.

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