Where does Billions go from that remarkable final scene? Can Axe (Damian Lewis) and Chuck (Paul Giamatti) really join forces? Is it Chaxe4eva now? If so, is this the same show? One thing we know: if it’s Chaxe vs. brooding Bryan (Toby Leonard Moore) and devout Dake (Christopher Denham), we’re betting big on the rich guys.
Wendy’s (Maggie Siff) plea of “trust me” was among the most powerful moments in this show’s history. We’ve seen firsthand just how conniving and selfish these two formidable foes can be when facing each other, both figuratively and literally, as they were in that last moment. But the idea that they both trust Wendy is completely believable. When she instructs them, the two most intimidating men in New York, to sit, they listen. The power dynamic works for us, the viewer, because of everything we’ve seen that came before. Wendy is their rock. Their shared rock, whether they like it or not.
So how did we get here?
Chuck is on his last legs. With Ira (Ben Shenkman) against him, his father bowing out, and his team purposefully kept in the dark, the US Attorney finds himself handing over $50,000 in a brown paper bag to an ex-convict named Ronald. He’s guaranteeing visas for Ronald’s family in exchange for him planting the Ice Juice toxicant-tainted slide in Axe’s medicine cabinet. We’re reminded several times throughout this episode that the slide has an 18-hour shelf life when not refrigerated. Somehow we see this coming into play when the next episode begins.
Then Chuck has lunch with Black Jack Foley (David Straithairn) at The Spotted Pig, and indulges in one of his trademark gastrophile remarks about pig’s ears before ripping them apart. Knowing that the pigs were once “alive and alert” has no bearing on how much he’ll enjoy eating their ears. Something akin to how he feels about Axe? Potentially. Foley wants to timeline Chuck’s run for governor, and Chuck assures him that once the Axe case is squared away, he’ll be “unencumbered.” His marriage is “solid.” Still, Foley needs to meet with Wendy before making Chuck a “man of the people.”
Over at Axe Cap, Axe has two security guards acting as bouncers blocking entry to his office. Spyros (Stephen Kunken) is obviously “not on the list.” Not so obviously, neither is Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon). Wendy isn’t even allowed in at first, and looks worried when Axe says entry requires signing attorney-client privilege with Bach (Glenn Fleshler).
Inside, Axe, Wags (David Costabile), the new Halls, and Bach are talking courtroom strategy. Bach wants to file a motion to dismiss, and Axe ultimately acquiesces. As they leave the offices, we can’t help noticing that Axe is wearing a goddamn gorgeous suit. Our admiration for it is slightly tainted by Spyros’ admiration of it, but still. Axe is on his way to the dismissal hearing and has never looked better.
In court, it’s clear from the get-go that Bryan is lacking confidence, Axe is filled to the brim with determination, and Judge DeGiulio (Rob Morrow) isn’t buying anything anyone is selling. Bryan stammers. His witnesses have been tampered with. He doesn’t even really know who he’s looking for. Axe pipes up, and DeGiulio responds, “Mr. Axelrod, do I look like I need your help?” He decides to split the baby, giving Bryan one more week to produce real evidence, or he’ll dismiss the case.
Bach is thrilled. He tells Axe they just need to wait it out and then their lives will go back to normal. “It’s pretty to think so,” Axe says, quoting Hemingway’s impotent Jake in The Sun Also Rises. He can’t stop thinking about that evidence slide, and he’s right — just not about the man who has it.
Once Chuck finds out about the one-week evidence deadline, he asks his ex-convict friend to fast-track the plant. Roland doubles his price. Where is Chuck getting $200k from in cash, by the way? Not that it matters in the end. Roland meets Chuck in an alley, and tells him the deal is off. He says Axe’s penthouse is basically wrapped in barb wire. Impenetrable. So Chuck goes ahead and makes ostensibly the riskiest and biggest mistake of his life: He approaches Spyros to make a deal. While he doesn’t mention the slide or any specific tactics, he puts his neck out. And it’s quickly cracked, just like those baby ortolans we hear about later.
Spyros, dripping in sweat while mid-jog, says he’s a golden eagle now and doesn’t have any need to rejoin the righteous back at the US Attorney's office. He loves being part of a winning team. Chuck whips out the old date rape evidence he has on Spyros, but it doesn’t work. “Say it loud enough, they might even make me President,” retorts Spyros. And then Spyros makes the riskiest and biggest mistake of his, well, not his life, considering he’s a date rapist. Just a big mistake. He heads into Axe’s office and tells him something Axe mostly already knows: Wendy bought into the Ice Juice short right before it bombed, and she did it from the office of the Southern District of New York. He thinks he’s given Axe a tremendous gift, and Bach kind of agrees, but Axe maintains that Wendy is “off limits.” The problem is, Spyros already went “full Le Carré” and told Connerty all about it. In a park. In the middle of the night. While wearing a trenchcoat. Axe goes full Mailer. “The only reason you’re not flying is because these windows don’t open.”
Next, Axe gets the full slo-mo treatment while walking to Wendy’s office to tell her the bad news: the federal government has proof that she shorted the Ice Juice stock right before the poisonous news broke, making her look incredibly guilty — just as guilty as Axe already looks, and just as guilty as Chuck looks, knowing what Bryan knows. Axe and Wendy really share an intimacy in this scene. Axe knows she pulled the short to protect her family. She knows he pulled the short to hurt her family. He lends her his burner phone. They don’t blame each other. And they don’t lie to each other. It’s kind of a perfect relationship.
Axe tells Bach that Wendy is their “Oscar Goldman,” as in the dependable director of operations from Cyborg and The Bionic Woman. “I wouldn’t have Axe Cap without her.” Can we get some kind of prequel to Billions so we can learn more about this trio before the show?
He meets Lara (Malin Akerman) on the street and she’s holding shopping bags, which seems like an unnecessarily cruel caricature. He says he may need to go to jail after taking a plea. Lara, ever the tough girl, draws her line in the sand. If Axe goes to jail, she’ll take his redheaded sons to California so they’ll suffer as little shame as possible. Then she throws the dagger (because it’s true): they barely see him now anyway. We get the distinct sense that the Billions writers have no intention of salvaging this relationship.
Wags and Axe drown their sorrows by throwing napkins over their heads and eating ortolans prepared by Wylie Dufresne. “One is bliss. Two is gluttony,” says Dufresne. “How about three?” says Wags. Wags and Axe share a nice moment outside on the balcony, recalling the night they made their first $10 billion. Instead of indulging in hookers, blow, and nightclubs, they went night fishing off City Island. This is the Axe we thought we knew. The kind of guy who thinks coming home to his wife and family with six freshly caught sea bass in the trunk is a better high than snorting lines off ladies’ hip bones. Where art thou, Axe?
Wendy and Chuck drown their own sorrows by sharing a deli sandwich during a mutual bout of insomnia. He says there’s only one avenue left: Bryan. But the best Bryan can offer is an on-the-record sit-down with the three of them at Casa Rhoades that night. Bryan is not there to play. Bryan literally says he has a moral compass and Chuck doesn’t. Cool. “Had it ever come to pass, I think we would have been damn good at being governor,” Chuck tells Wendy, which is borderline sweet.
Which brings us to our final showdown in Axe’s penthouse. Wendy, Chuck, and Axe are all pretty equally screwed. “If one of us goes to prison, we all do,” says Wendy.
“How do I know I can trust him?” Axe and Chuck both say.
“Trust me,” Wendy clarifies.
With this in mind, Chuck begins to execute Plan B: he’ll plant the dirty slide in Axe’s house himself. And he almost does it. But we suspect he decided to take his wife’s instructions seriously.
He winds up whipping out the ace up his sleeve for all to see: “You want transparency? How fucking clear is this.” Wendy smiles. Axe sits up straight as a rod. End fantastic scene.
Yes, we also want to highlight the lovely fact that Oscar (Mike Birbiglia) sent Taylor delphiniums, along with a note that referred to them as “the Golden Mean,” an irrational number that math geeks apparently love. Oscar winds up showing up to Taylor’s office with candy (coding provisions), saying that back in the day, he just wished someone were around to play Dragon Quest with. We all collectively swoon.
It’s worth mentioning that this wonderful mid-season episode, which combined ruthless face-offs between two men filled to the brim with machismo and pride and the incredibly touching beginning of a real relationship between two nerds, was the rare Billions episode written by a woman: staff writer Alice O’Neill. Proof that having representation in the writers’ rooms, no matter how traditionally “male” the subject matter, pays off.