Let’s go back to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment in this episode of Billions, “Maximum Recreational Death.” Because in Kate Sacker’s (Condola Rashad) one subtle gesture exists an alternate reading to the entire show. What are the men of Billions when perceived through the eyes of the women in their lives, if not tragically misguided?
Rewind to the moment when Chuck (Paul Giamatti) and Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) meet on the airport tarmac. They’re battling over whether the Attorney General of New York’s office or the District Court for the Southern District of Manhattan should prosecute Abington (Geoffrey Owens), a banker from the Cayman Islands who has been helping Treasury Secretary Todd Krakow (Danny Strong) store money in offshore accounts.
Are Chuck and Connerty the cool, macho men they think they are — or are they just embarrassing themselves? As the two men peacock, Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad), a prosecutor one degree removed from their direct competition, literally averts her eyes. Her pupils travel down and to the right, the movement that signals “internal dialogue.” We know what she’s thinking: She’s just a bit mortified for Connerty and her former boss.
Which brings us to one reading of Billions: As the main (male) characters go after each other for the simple bloodsport of it, the women look on, semi-dumbfounded — because these elaborate schemes have tremendous ramifications on their lives.
The principled, capable women surrounding Chuck, Bobby, & co. are either shoved to the side (Sacker, who’s never on the show anymore), forced to play along with the game at the expense of their mental health and career (Wendy), or rendered resentful — Chuck’s employee (Tijuana Ricks) agrees to go along with Chuck’s pursuit of Jeffcoat because she disagrees with his conservative politics, not because she supports Chuck’s vendetta.
Seen through their lens, Chuck and Bobby’s strivings for power seem empty. Which is maybe why this episode of Billions was devoted to stripping the characters’ protective armor layers and showing their fragility.
On multiple occasions during this episode, the Billions power players find themselves on their knees, just about broken. Take Chuck, who is so desperate to be dominated that he pierces his nipple with a safety pin, much to Wendy’s horror, and then hires a dominatrix who gives him a black eye. Or Wags (David Constabile), who wants to be accepted by Wall Street high society so badly he walks into a prank while wearing a ballgown. Even Bobby is forced to be vulnerable: He admits to Lara (Malin Akerman) that he betrayed her loyalty first, and he takes Rebecca’s (Nina Arianda) shrewd business advice seriously after initially shutting her out.
Wags, Chuck, and Bobby bluster around with gigantic self-importance — and they risk massive ego falls. Is there an alternative way of conducting business? Yes, and no one embodies the Other Way more than Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon), who seems to want out of the rivalry game entirely. In fact, Taylor’s plot-line this episode was all about breaking the cycle of their relationship with their dad. But even that effort may be tragic.
Let’s be clear: Taylor’s father (Kevin Pollack) is not my friend. He rarely takes his child seriously, and only comes around to Taylor’s POV after a man-on-man session with Mafee (Dan Soder). But still, Taylor loves their dad. Taylor builds him a literal “second chance at glory” in the form of a very expensive lab, and scores them a Wall Street investment.
Taylor is more concerned with repairing their relationship with their dad than with getting revenge on Bobby. Taylor’s sole “revenge” against Bobby this episode arrives in a clause they had embedded in a contract a long time ago, which gave Axe Capital ownership over a company that is known to insider trade. Yes, it got Bobby in hot water and cost former Axe Cap trader/alien beauty Victor Mateo (Louis Cancelmi) his company – but it’s not something Taylor actively and currently set up.
Taylor would cease the rivalry entirely if their enemies would, too. At first, Wendy seems committing to stopping the cycle of revenge — at least on a personal level.
At the start of the episode, Wendy reaches out to Taylor so she can vent about Chuck to someone who will listen. Typically, characters on Billions don’t have time to talk about things like the state of their lives, dignity, their hearts — they have money on their minds. Here, it seems like Wendy wants out of this world of men.
But at the episode’s end, we learn that Wendy’s just been gathering information to use against Taylor all along. Wendy plans to exploit the vulnerabilities in Taylor’s relationship with their father to blow up their company. She is officially one of the guys.
What does being “a guy” take? Look at Connerty, who’s finally getting ahead in his war with Chuck – and is doing so by sacrificing his principles. Connerty realizes that Chuck is trying to pit him and Jeffcoat against one another by having them fight over the Krakow case (Jeffcoat doesn’t want to go after a Treasury Secretary; Connerty thinks Krakow is in the wrong and deserves prosecution). So instead of pursuing Krakow, as his morals would believe, Connerty gets dirt on Chuck and finally scores a wiretap permit.
In the ultimate irony, by going after Chuck, Connerty resembles him more and more.