Billions Season 2 Episode 3 Recap: "Optimal Play"

Photo: Courtesy of Showtime.
“Every time you walk away from doing what makes you feel great — even though it also makes you feel sad — something inside of you dies,” unstable performance coach Dr. Gus tells Taylor during their meeting.
Part of me thinks this feeling is pretty singular to Taylor as a character: a young prodigy who’s empathetic to a fault. But it also got me thinking about women who don’t reach their potential because they’re worried that being competitive makes them seem too aggressive, too masculine, too mean. And I thought about people who constantly feel underestimated by their employers, friends, significant others. It can be a terrible feeling, but on this show it is also, often, a weapon. So let’s examine who is actually being played in this episode, who has been underestimated for too long, and who the real winners are.
Kate knows she’s not going to get the head of criminal prosecution job, but she also realizes that whoever gets it could make her their deputy. So it’s time to think about the long game. She has a great scene with her dad and another one with Oliver Dake. Both men can really see how determined she is, how wonderful she is. But they’re both still selling her short in some way: Dake by not realizing the game she needs to play to get ahead, her dad (who does give some great advice) by not saying that, maybe, just maybe she should go for the big promotion.
She was the one with the big idea to go after Spartan-Ives, she finds the flight attendant who made an advantageous trade because of something she overheard, and she has the idea that they can trick her into wearing a wire. Kate’s the best. But even after all that, Bryan is still made point person over her. Thank goodness Kate called Chuck on his BS, when he tried to give some half-assed reason why it was Bryan who got to take charge. It’s not because of Byran’s experience; it’s because the flight attendant is into him, and that means he can manipulate her.
Still, even the flight attendant in this episode proves she’s more than just someone who makes bad choices and can be easily manipulated. She proves herself to be resourceful when she films Lawrence Boyd sleeping with his coworker’s wife. Then, when it’s all over, she tells Bryan that she looked up her trade and realized what she did wasn’t actually illegal, but that she still wanted to help. I guess, in the end, he still kind of played her — but I liked this final little spark from her regardless. Also, how is what she did not illegal? You mean I could just legally be listening in on conversations on Wall Street every afternoon and be a millionaire by now? (JK, Feds, I would never do this. I still don’t understand stocks.)
Then there’s Lara, who’s consistently underutilized on this show, but always coming up with a plan. Wags tells her he’s able to party all night and work the next day because he’s got a guy who will give him an IV drip in the morning. So she thinks, Hey, that’d make a good business if I went directly to the office! I have mixed feelings about how exciting this will be, because it’s still so connected to Axe’s world. And I’m just gonna say it: Lara is no fun. Her scene with Wendy this week where she just attacks Wendy about her separation and brags about her great marriage is lazy. Lara’s a titan, and she’s forced to do all this boring legwork, like getting Axe to explain to the audience why he’s helping Boyd. One of Lara’s main values on this show is her closeness to Axe (he tells her that she and the kids are the only people who aren’t cannon fodder to him), but I’m hoping that, as viewers, we’re underestimating her and she’s going to turn on Axe this season. I mean, it probably won't happen, but here’s to always hoping that strong female characters will rise above their dick-swinging counterparts.
Back to Taylor: The show has instantly made the relationship between Taylor and Axe just so insanely compelling and watchable. They both see each other in such unique ways, and it’s refreshing that Axe doesn’t have to do all his bullshit preening with Taylor. Axe wants Taylor to compete in the Alpha Cup — which LOL at how obvious that name is — so that he can beat Todd Krakow. Taylor makes it very clear they don’t want to compete, and then the show spends the episode trying to pinpoint why.
It’s never really presented clearly enough for me. Axe says he thinks it’s because Taylor hates having two things they love — “wanting to be good” and “winning” — in direct conflict. But then Taylor also mentions that they didn’t leave the online poker tournament in college; they got kicked out, and it made them hate the people who did it. That felt like a left turn when we were really getting somewhere with what Axe was saying. Taylor says they want to be the person in the movie who, right before winning the race, raises their hands and lets the other people pass. To which Axe appropriately replies:
So Krakow is doing his usual “alpha dog” with a “Scrappy Doo” personality thing. He gets Wendy to be his performance coach for the event, so she gets to do her best Casino Royale impression. Honestly, I just spend every week being like please don’t let Wendy and Axe have sex. But she does send him this email with the last sentence “this message doesn’t require a reply.” Stone cold! I love it!
So, I know a lot more about poker than stocks, and one mistake I’d never make is what Krakow does in this episode. He beats Axe after they’ve made a side wager, and then Axe offers to double-or-nothing the side wager on whether his people will last longer than Todd’s. Hey, Todd, if there’s an unknown person you’ve never seen before on whom you have no optics, that person is probably a fucking prodigy. But Todd just takes the bet, playing cool.
Honestly, I know I’m selling being a hedge fund manager short (but also who cares?) because it’s all about strategic maneuvering, but I have a hard time imagining any of these guys ever folding. I just imagine all these guys constantly raising and then going all in on hands where they have like, a pair of twos. So realistically, it’s probably not stupidity that makes Krakow take the bet — it's just inevitability. Because then later, he tells Wendy he had been watching Taylor all night. But nothing really comes of that.
Anyway, of course Krakow loses. Taylor is laser-focused. Before that, Krakow takes a break to discuss his strategy with Wendy; she tells him that obviously the real problem is that he’s too focused on Axe and his anger toward him. He just kind of ignores this. No offense to Wendy, but I guess a lot of being a therapist is telling people what everyone else can see but they don’t want to admit to themselves. Wendy realizes she also wanted Axe to see her there, and I bit off all my fingernails just begging them to not hook up this season.
Taylor may overcome the over-empathizing this episode (hilarious that this show praises a lack of empathy and is kinda right about it), but Taylor also shows Axe that they can see him for who he is. Taylor says that they realized he’d been watching Wendy the whole time, and that it wasn’t because Wendy was cheating or feeding Todd any information. Taylor knows there’s something under Axe’s skin, even if he has a good (well, not that good) poker face.
That thing crawling under Axe’s skin is still, somehow, Chuck. The episode ends with Axe buying Chuck’s beloved Churchill first editions (that Chuck was forced to sell)! Then he says, "You know what, also buy all the other first editions that exist." Who’s being played? Axe is really focused on someone who doesn’t appear to be thinking about him much, and who has bigger problems at the moment. So, I still maintain Chuck has the upper hand in this even if he is losing everything he loves. Which is maybe naïve to think but…this is chess, baby. Sacrifices have to be made.
Speaking of Chuck, he seems to get a smallish win this week. The flight attendant catches Boyd sleeping with a married woman whose husband seems to have some valuable information. Bryan and Chuck bring the guy, Tom McKinnon, in and show him the video of his wife, Shayleen, sleeping with Boyd. Then Chuck plays him like a fiddle.
Apologies to the faint of heart, but we have to discuss this ridiculous scene. So Chuck says something gross about Boyd’s “seed” and Tom replies “Jesus Christ!” I thought that was hilarious, because that’s basically how I’d reply to any of these guys’ speeches. Like “Jesus Christ! Take it down a notch.” But no, Tom gets it and is just shocked by it. Then Chuck, a professional lawyer, who wants to be governor (ha!), a family man, says this crazy line: “Force him to his knees and fuck his metaphorical throat until he swallows your seed.” What? Most of these guys’ metaphors are so funny, like they all wanted to be poets but decided that they’d make more money working in hedge funds, but this is so stupid. Anyway, that is the line that seals it for Tom that he should work to take Boyd down. Masculinity is so effing fragile.
I didn’t even really get to talk about Wendy and Chuck’s great and moving and honest therapy scene. And I’m still choosing to ignore all this NFL stuff (but I know I can’t forever), because that’s another whole can of worms (worms being toxic masculinity). But I do think if it happens again, we’ll have to explore more what it means that Bobby keeps going to all these empty stadiums. But for now, I made you all this GIF of Dr. Gus’ perfect line delivery of, “But they’re losers!?” Use it in your office whenever you are clawing to get ahead.
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