Are you excited? You should be. Because tonight’s episode of Billions encapsulates why we watch Billions; why we’re devoted to this character-driven, wildly witty series.
Half of this show was a relatively light-hearted romp through the world of high finance. The other was an intense three-act play about marriage, ambition, and the collision between the two — especially when a meddling father-in-law with near three-dimensional eyebrows gets involved. Let’s start, briefly, with the fun part.
Bobby Has An Old-School Ball
The Billions writers threw us a bone to contrast with the intense Rhoades family drama. They gave us uninterrupted scenes of Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and Wags (David Costabile) on the phone, exhibiting their full personalities while trading. Wags flirts; Bobby intimidates. I loved every second.
After getting a tip that natural gas prices are going to plummet following an imminent explosion, Bobby realizes he needs to offload his stock fast. But Grigor (John Malkovitch) — who, like Bobby, never stops scheming when he says he will – releases a malware on the Axe Cap internet, shutting it off entirely. Wags and Bobby have to offload the stock on burner phones. File this under, “Stuff a quant could never do.” ‘
Another bright progression: Rebecca and Bobby’s relationship is chugging along splendidly. They go on fun rich people dates, like driving (then buying) sports cars worth $130k and planning zero gravity flights for $160k. Bobby trusts Rebecca so much that she sends him into business dealings as a Bobby-proxy. She can keep up with him. When he looks at her with adoration, it reminds us that he’s human.
All in all, Bobby’s riding high this season. He even decimates two of his major rivals, Grigor and Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon), by the episode’s end. Since Chuck and Bobby are buddies now, Chuck’s first action as Attorney General is kicking Grigor out of the country. Finally! Though this exile has huge repercussions: The billions of cash that he’d invested in Taylor’s fund are returning to him. That means Taylor will be out of investment money. Poor Taylor — they’ve spent this episode being nothing but a decent person.
But rewind. Attorney General, you say? How did he get here?
Chuck Rhoades, You Filthy Animal
Billions is here to knock out one social taboo one at a time. After two seasons, Taylor and their gender non-binary identity are old news to Wall Street – and to viewers. Next up? Chuck and Wendy’s habit of practicing BDSM, which we’ve known about since the show’s premiere, when Billions opens with a scene of Chuck and Wendy in bed. But this remains the throbbing secret at the heart of the Rhoades’ lives. And ever since Jack Foley and Chuck Sr. walked into their dominatrix’s home last season, that secret inevitably was going to go out.
At first, it seemed like Chuck’s election to New York Attorney General would be a shoo-in. Bobby rigged the election to ship in (paid) Rhoades supporters and make sure there was a traffic block that prevented other voters for his opponent. But Chuck faced a formidable opponent: Jack Foley, who, with only weeks to live, wanted to ensure ‘the boy” (aka Chuck) would never contaminate the AG office with his grubby hands. If Chuck didn’t drop out of the race, he’d leak Chuck’s secret.
One would hope that the masks, ropes, binds, and fire used within the safety of a happy, consensual relationship wouldn’t be newsworthy. But, as Wendy points out, the Overton Window — the range of ideas tolerated by the public — does not include BDSM. It’s still taboo enough to cost him the election.
In his speech during the final moments of this episode, Chuck tries to stretch the boundaries of the Overton Window by a few inches. “I know you can handle it. At the end of the day, you’ll get it because you want the truth,” Chuck says, after coming out as a submissive.
In addition to voting, he wants people to take the mask off — and reveal who they really are. Since we know Wendy, though, this “heroic” speech doesn’t come off as purely heroic. It comes off as selfish. Humiliation, on purpose (in line with his BDSM proclivities). It comes off as pure Chuck.
Chuck’s stunt echoes back to Alexander Hamilton’s decision to come clean about his affair before his opponents did (see: “The Reynolds Pamphlet” song in Hamilton). There’s bravery in seizing the story yourself. But there’s also the potential for immolating trust. In Hamilton, Eliza burns her letters and takes herself out of the narrative. That brings us to Wendy and her stricken face.
Clap between each syllable: What is Wendy going to do? What is Wendy going to do? In fact, this episode made me wonder: What is Wendy doing? When did she fall in love with Chuck “Sweaty” Rhoades? When did she decide that this man, with few scruples and many kinks, would be her man? When she watches Chuck say the word “unburdening” at the start of her speech, her head cocks as if she, too, is wondering: What am I going to do?
And what did Chuck sacrifice his marriage for, ultimately? Just the game of it. Chuck is a person who does not lose. As Bobby points out, they are people who are driven by the fight. The fight is what gets men like him up in the morning. So, congrats Chuck: You’re awake. But you’re probably alone.
Chuck doesn’t speak to Wendy with a shred of empathy — but Taylor does. As a real friend, Taylor offers Wendy the chance to speak. Wendy hangs up mercilessly, which makes me wonder how isolated she’ll be in her new future.
Because in this future, Chuck and Bobby are allies. Bobby calls himself an “insulated, protected man.” You know who protects him, right? The one man who had been trying to take him down for seasons: Chuck Rhoades. While Wendy is essential to Bobby, Chuck just displayed how disposable she is to him. Maybe there's a new rivalry in town: Wendy v Chuck.