Forgive me while I catch my breath. After watching the season 3 finale of Billions, I feel like I ran a 5K and beat my record — I’m sweaty and exhilarated. If this finale doesn’t have you heaving over the side of your armchair (or, at the very least, grinning your inner 5-year-old’s smile) then maybe you weren’t watching properly. Do yourself a favor, rewind, and watch again.
With “Elmsley Count,” Billions proved the latter half of season 3 was leading towards something spectacular — and integral to the future of the show. In the middle of the season, Bobby Axelrod (Damien Lewis) and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) solved a problem that would have resulted in mutual destruction, and landed on a plateau of agreement. From that moment of pacification on, Bobby and Chuck’s storylines barely intersected. Each was on an individual journey: Chuck was trying to trap a wise-cracking, cowboy hat-wearing Attorney General (Clancy Brown), and Bobby was trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Axe Capital. Turns out those battles are just getting started.
First, let’s look at the Axe side of things (because, sue me, it’s my favorite side of things). When Chuck, Wags (David Costabile), and Wendy (Maggie Siff) stroll out of their cars to a fundraising event at Citi Field, they think they’re an inch away from raising the capital necessary to restore Axe Cap’s once legendary reputation. The money is so close that Wags can smell it.
But you know who’s not close, in terms of either topographical or emotional geography? Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon). Taylor is late to Citi Field because they had been in a meeting with Grigor Andolov (John Malkovich), the shady Russian criminal who had invested billions with Axe Capital, in the Brooklyn-based offices of Taylor Mason Capital. Everyone knows Andolov’s money has strings attached (potentially violent, bloody strings), but both Axe and Taylor are willing to take the risk (for reasons I still don’t really understand). Andolov’s meeting with Taylor takes on a far different tone than the testosterone-soaked games of one-upmanship he’d played with Axe. Essentially, Andolov wants to see what Taylor is made of, and what Taylor is made of is imperviousness and fearlessness. They explain why they’re leaving Axe: “The same reason you leave a house that’s leaking carbon monoxide. It’s the only way to survive.” The meeting goes well, but the money’s not guaranteed.
After that steely showdown with Andolov, Taylor puts on a flashier show to potential Axe Capital investors at Citi Field.Taylor and Axe rehearsed an entire song-and-dance routine to assure investors their money is in good hands — Taylor’s hands. “Taylor is the single most effective manager of money I’ve ever come across. They are the future of axe capital,” Axe says, boosting the reputation of the person about to betray him. In retrospect, it’s obvious that Taylor orchestrated this speech so investors would follow them into their new venture. That’s why Taylor’s whole speech (and the name of the episode) had been about magicians and sleights of hands. Axe thought he was playing poker; Taylor was performing sleight of hand.
They raise $5 billion, more than enough to build their way back to glory. That evening, Axe, starry-eyed by his astounding success, peacocks onstage with a rock band and celebrates with his company. He’s oblivious to the fact that Taylor has taken Mafee (Dan Soder) for a quick “conversation” in the back room. He’s unaware that Taylor has been recruiting his employees for months – just like he’s unaware how miserable and unappreciated they’d been at Axe Capital. Still, Axe looks so unabashedly happy, washed in victory — so classic Axe — that I can’t help but resent Taylor’s treachery.
Then next morning, something’s amiss in the pristine white corporate palace that is Axe Capital. Taylor’s late (and Taylor’s never late). Mafee’s gone. Then, the news breaks in Bobby’s office, which from here on out will function as a war room: Taylor Mason Capital opened using $3.5 billion of the funds Axe Capital had raised the day before. Only $500 million stayed on at Axe Capital ($2 billion got out of the mess entirely). At least they still have Ben Kim (Daniel K. Isaac), who didn’t defect to Mason Capital despite Taylor’s tempting offer. Here, we see the extent of Taylor’s maneuverings: They had purposefully suggested Ben not get a monetary raise so Ben would feel unappreciated at Axe Capital.
Axe is betrayed, hurt, confused. He’s faced with a decision: How do I wrangle Taylor all the way down to Hades? Wendy, at first, suggests doing nothing and letting Taylor spiral on their own. Andolov, in a bare New York townhouse, offers a more final solution. Without stating it explicitly, Andolov assures Axe he could dispose of Taylor. We haven’t seen this eccentric, erratic terrifying side to Andolov yet. Eccentric: He wants to put healing crystals in each window. Erratic: He slaps Axe’s right-hand man in the face. Terrifying: He’s proposing assassination. Also, he’s rude — I know we are mad at Taylor, but Andolov needs to get their pronouns right! He calls Taylor “she” (interestingly, Wags calls Taylor “that bitch,” too. When he loses respect for Taylor, he also loses respect for their preferred pronouns).
Before deciding whether or not to kill Taylor (I can’t believe this is something he is actually thinking about), Bobby visits Taylor at the new office. He sees Mafee who, from now on, will always carry the waft of a betrayer. Bobby tries to verbally intimidate Taylor with speeches about it being cold at the top, and Taylor being young, etc. Taylor seems completely unperturbed by Bobby’s promises of absolute destruction — and by his obvious hurt. He trusted Taylor. Taylor was granted access to the inner sanctum, and then lit the inner sanctum on fire. Taylor is not a Wilbury.
Taylor and Wendy’s relationship is the next to disintegrate. Taylor, now in brazen superhuman mode, tries to recruit Wendy to their new company, and help fine-tune their employees (funny how employees are always spoken about as if they’re machines). Seeking to destabilize Wendy, Taylor also puts the onus on Axe Capital’s downfall on Wendy. Instead of stopping Axe succumbing to his worst self, Wendy let him be his worst self.
This conversation sets up the fundamental difference between Team Axe and Team Taylor. “What matters is relationships, trust, loyalty,” says Wendy (and that’s true — look at what she went through for Axe and Chuck). Taylor disagrees: “No. I’m pretty sure it’s only money. That’s what you and Axe taught me.” Come on, now: I don’t think Wendy taught Taylor that! Axe, maybe. Wendy's right, though: Taylor doesn't exceed in the art of relationships. The only moment of vulnerability comes when Taylor asks Oscar (Mike Birbiglia) out to dinner, and he turns them down. Accrue enough betrayals, and you'll lose all your friends.
After that, Wendy and Bobby are united in taking Taylor down. Axe decides assassination is not the answer — though as a result, Andolov pulls his money and invests with Taylor under the strange logic that unless Axe will “kill” for his money, his won’t protect it. It’s another blow, but it’s one Axe can handle. I’m so excited to see Wendy be a part of the manipulations, instead of witnessing the manipulations and gently coaching two men towards some semblance of sanity.
Chuck’s storyline is simpler, more plot-based. He and Alvin Epstein (Brian Stokes Mitchell) have developed a plan that will trap Jock Jeffcoat. They’ll file a lawsuit against his brother, Zeb; Jock will try to interfere by going to Chuck and asking to meet the witness, Ashley Cutler in person; they’ll catch Jock's interference on tape.
Chuck forgets, however, that Dake (Christopher Denham) and Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) are growling for revenge like hungry baby wolves. Jock Jeffcoat will feed them. Connerty finds out from Sacker that Chuck is actually going after Jock. Connerty sees an opening to take Chuck down by warning Jock of the impending attack. Chuck’s finished. After receiving a call from Epstein saying the plan succeeded, Chuck goes to his office thinking he won; instead, he’s bamboozled. In his office are Jock, Epstein, Sacker, Connerty, and Dake, and they’ve all sold him out.
Remember how Chuck fired Connerty? That humiliating, public, spit-filled showdown? It’s Chuck’s turn. Jock strips Chuck of any virtue. He calls him a man without character, without worth. Connerty, on the other hand, is a good guy. Chuck gets fired; the last thing he sees is the smug face of the interim Attorney General for the Southern District, Connerty. Ugh.
After all this, Bobby and Chuck are kings without crowns. They’re chess players without boards. But they do have a dinner table. They do have resilience. And they have Wendy, with whom they can discuss how to rebuild themselves. That night, Bobby goes to Wendy and Chuck’s brownstone. Chuck opens the door with wryness, like he can’t believe their relationship has ended up here. Neither can I. The three co-conspirators gather round ye old oversizing dining room table and start sketching out their respective plans. I understand, now, how Wendy was always able to balance her relationship with Chuck and Bobby. She’s just as manipulative as they are (if not more so).
Next season, expect more multi-dimensional chess. This time, though, the antagonists will be doubled, and the once great enemies will be allies. Thank you, Billions, for the time of my life this season! It’s the only show in which every episode is as good as a finale.