This Is How The Axelrods Roll

In Billions episode 5, ‘The Good Life’, Bobby Axelrod has taken James Hetfield’s advice to ‘just play, man’. That means some x-rated action in the swimming pool, watching Inglourious Basterds, and go on a boat trip to the Galápagos Islands whenever you feel like it.

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Freedom
Everybody’s convinced it’s a midlife crisis of sorts. Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) lost it. He’s out of the game. Left Wall Street behind. Wants to travel the world, wherever his self designed yacht may take him. Clearly signs the man isn’t thinking clearly. Bobby thinks, knows, it’s got nothing to do with any form of mental breakdown. At the Metallica concert, he tasted freedom. Why work for something you won’t be able to enjoy because you’re working all the time? The 21st century dilemma.

Sell Sell Sell
The woman who flirted with him, before and after the Metallica show, told him you can’t go through life not having seen Citizen Kane. First thing he should do when he gets home, is watch it on the big screen. And so he does. In pieces, because he’s constantly interrupted. Wags (David Costabile) tries to get a read on him, while managing everybody back at the office. He’s told them to sell everything. Slowly, not to scare the market. Now they’ve done that, they’re getting bored. And when competitive people get bored, it won’t be long until Wags has got a full blown rebellion on his hands.

Feeling Good
Bobby’s not saying anything. Doesn’t explain, just tells his right hand man that ‘he’s out’. In a last attempt to keep him from making a mistake, Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) comes over. As his psychologist, he can say anything to her, right? There’s nothing much to say. Bobby’s feeling good. It’s as simple as that. Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) gets wind of it, through ambitious reporter Michael Dimonda (Sam Gilroy). Bobby’s jumping ship? Then Chuck’s got to act fast.

Meet the Team
Chuck and his team are working around the clock to find dirt on ‘Dollar’ Bill Stearn (Kelly AuCoin), one of the Axe Capital employees. It’s not easy to find something. That gives us time to see who these people actually are. We know Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) has found a friend with benefits in Terri McCue (Susan Misner), and Kate Sacher (Condola Rashad) is trying to work her way up the food chain, but that’s about it. The latter’s actually got quite a career in mind. Last stop: White House. She’s got money, too. Her own money. Because she offers Bryan to help him out, as a credit guarantee so he’s able to buy a new house, their relationship deepens a bit. Their scenes together don’t really go anywhere, but it’s nice to see a friendship unfold at the bar. O, and Dale Christo (Frank Harts) used to word ‘dude’. In Chuck’s face. That might come back to haunt him.

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Plunge
Then, out of nowhere, executives of Mundia-Tel are being indicted. Stocks immediately start to plunge. Axe Capital just sold all of its assets in the company. It seems like the whole ‘midlife crisis boat trip’ was another one of Bobby’s smoke screens. Somehow, he’d obtained insider information. Made everybody believe he was going all Galápagos on them. No way. As much as he loved the sense of freedom, he loves the game even more. He arrives back at work like a hero. The cheering doesn’t last long, though. The FBI barges in and takes ‘Dollar’ Bill Stearn in custody. Another win for Chuck. Another sheep taken out of Bobby’s herd.

The Call
Chuck isn’t just into S&M, he’s got a bit of a problem with it. Watching an S&M club from his car, trying to keep himself from going in. He can’t resist the call; that’s what an obsession or addiction’s usually made of. Luckily, he’s got a wife who understands. However, if anyone were to find out, he’s in big trouble. I’ve got a funny feeling that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

Bobby Axelrod, Master Of Puppets

Last week, Bobby Axelrod wore a Metallica shirt. This week, in ‘Short Squeeze’, we get the real thing. He takes three childhood friends to see James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo play live. His phone, however, hardly ever leaves his hand.

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Deer Hunter
The fourth episode of Billions opens with Axe Capital employee Mick Danzig (Nathan Darrow, House of Cards), walking across his lawn in the middle of the night, drunk, carrying a gun. Not just any gun. A big automatic machine gun, if I had to guess. Those annoying deers, that just eat, shit, repeat, they have to go. So he fires away like that’s the thing you do in a situation like that. He misses. Underneath the scene, Andrew Bird’s nice mellow song ‘Oh No’ is playing. One of the lines that keeps repeating is: ‘Oh, arm in arm, we are the harmless sociopaths’. It’s not long before the police moves in, puts him down. Not long after that, Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) gets a call, who calls Hal (Terry Kinney), who’s got some sort of leverage with the police; Mick’s free to go. Bobby tells him to go to work like nothing happened.

The Trouble With Wendy
That’s it for Mick this week. Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) gets even less screen time. For some reason, she drives Chuck (Paul Giamatti) to work. She coincidentally spots Pete Decker (Scott Cohen) walking by, and asks her husband about him. She must know these kind of things are off limits in their marriage; that’s one of their rules, to avoid any conflict of interest and displaced loyalties. So why does she ask anyway? To include her in the episode? It sure seems like it. At the end of ‘Short Squeeze’, Chuck apologizes for pretending not to know what Decker was doing there, and Wendy apologizes for asking. To me, these two meaningless scenes prove my point. Wendy’s got the role of an outsider. She’s not pivotal to the story, so until she does become part of Chuck and Bobby’s cat and mouse game – and she will, at some point – it’s hard to find ways to include her in the episodes (other than putting her high heels on her husband in the bedroom).

Everything But The Girl
Bobby’s out with his longtime friends, one of which is Noah Emmerich (The Americans, White Collar, The Truman Show). And when I say out, I mean out. They’re on a private jet on their way to a Metallica concert. Wow. They’re still together? Apparently so. Most series would just incorporate some live footage, but it looks like they shot the band themselves and the characters were actually there. That’s very cool.
Inside the stadium, a girl (Kerry Bishé, Halt and Catch Fire, Scrubs, Public Morals) starts hitting on Bobby, before and after the show. He respectfully declines. He’s married, and it’s actually ‘a real thing’. A real gentleman he is. I couldn’t help wondering if it was all a setup. Putting him in bed with another woman, in order to blackmail him later. There’s no evidence of that, though (yet), but that’s what this series does. It makes you wonder and anticipate. That’s what good drama is all about.

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Glitch
Meanwhile, Chuck and Bryan (Toby Leonard Moore, Daredevil, The Pacific) are grilling Decker. The man doesn’t know much. He’s never been part of Bobby’s inner circle. He explains the day-to-day business of Bobby Axelrod, which is something other shows would’ve done right away. In the pilot. With a voiceover, if need be. Not Billions. Time to give detailed information about the inner workings of Axe Capital comes when it’s the appropriate time in the story. People say this series doesn’t know what it’s doing, but it knows exactly what it’s doing.

I’m sorry about that. It seems like we suffered a minor Marco Rubio Glitch right there.

Decker shares what he knows, but it’s even less than Chuck was hoping for. He does give up one name: Bill Stearn. A tiny lead to push the case forward. I thought it’d be a long term thing, but the mole inside Chuck’s office – Tara Mohr (Annapurna Sriram, South of Hell) – is discovered. Another great move by Kate Sacher (Condola Rashad). Tara confesses and Chuck makes a play, trying to flush out Mr. Blackmail, but Hal’s smart enough not to bite. Bobby’s feeling the heat, coming from all sides – Chuck’s father (Jeffrey DeMunn) is also actively going after him – and tells his right hand man Mike Wagner (David Costabile) to subtly ‘sell everything’. Everything? Everything. This way, everybody will think he’s out of the game. I’m sure he’ll remain master of puppets.

Billions: YumTime

Chuck and Bobby can hardly wait to either discredit or arrest one another, but patience is key. While Chuck’s going straight after Bobby by making a play against one of his business partners, to see if he flips, Bobby’s much more subtle. He’s circling the pond like a predator, first removing the people on the outskirts, like Chuck’s father (and his mistress).

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Father-Son Privilege
Billions is all about inside information. Keeping that information inside, that’s the name of the game. Chuck Rhoades Sr (Jeffrey DeMunn, The Walking Dead, The X-Files: Fight the Future) has a dirty secret in the shape of a mistress. One whom Chuck Rhoades Jr (Paul Giamatti) knows everything about, apparently, father-son privilege and all that. The woman in question, Evelyn Benson (Kate Jennings Grant, Alpha House, Pan Am) is on the board of the candy company that produces ‘YumTime’. A snack Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) may or may not have fond memories of, who knows, this guy can lie through his teeth. Over the years, the quality has gone downhill, that’s for sure, so he makes his move and buys the company, to change back the recipe. As a bonus, he gets to throw out Evelyn. It’s to show Chuck he can get to the Rhoades family any time he wants.

Chapter 10
While Bobby’s out making the deal, his wife Lara (Malin Akerman, The Comeback, Trophy Wife) has some cleaning up to do. June Raichlein (Melissa Errico, The Knick) is about the publish her memoire, called ‘9-12: The Day After’. She is – or at least used to be – in Lara’s inner circle. In the book, however, there’s a whole chapter about the Axelrods, and the shady business deals Bobby made post-9/11. Lara’s gotten wind of it, and weighs her options, because this cannot reach the public. Let June go forward, and then hit her with a lawsuit. Or just buy the publishing agency and postpone the book indefinitely. Or, the preferred option, go the Lara way. As far as bad guys go, Bobby’s nothing compared to his wife. She unleashes the seven plagues upon June, until she gets the hint. She shows up at Lara’s house, a copy of her manuscript – the revised version – in her hands. Lara, in return, gives her a non-disclosure agreement to sign. This is how Mrs. Axelrod rolls.

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Too Good
So what does Chuck Jr do? Walk his dog, that’s all. Walk his dog and point out the obvious to his fellow dog walkers, who don’t clean up their dog shit. It’s a showcase of how strict Chuck is. Last week, he wanted to be more human, now he’s back blowing things out of proportion – and making people pick up dog shit with their bare hands. Chuck does not let things slide; ‘let it slide’, those are ‘three devious little words’, he says. Before you know it, everything will be covered in shit – as his theory goes. I think I know what’s going on here. On one side, we have Bobby, who’s a likeable Tony Stark-ish millionaire – excuse me, billionaire, of course – who cheats, manipulates and intimidates (or lets other people do those things for him). On the other, we have Chuck, who’s the good guy, but a little too good, if you know what I mean. His sense of righteousness is so strong, he feels he needs to hit people over their heads with it.

The Thread
Dog shit isn’t the only thing on Chuck’s mind. He’s finally caught a break, with a little help from Kate Sacher (Condola Rashad, Smash). Pete Decker (Scott Cohen, Gilmore Girls, Allegiance, Necessary Roughness), a business associate of Bobby’s, has been a bit sloppy, covering his tracks. Probably without them knowing, he’s put his own parents in harm’s way, and Chuck’s ready to bring them in and charge them with fraud. It leaves Decker no choice but to promise to come in, first thing Monday morning, and tell Chuck everything he knows? If they both play their cards right, this might be the thread Chuck’s looking for, to pull Bobby up onto the surface, to bury him.

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Bending The Rules
If it is, it’s time for Lara to go a step further and get her Frank Underwood on. If the pressure gets too high, there’s no telling what kind of drastic measures Mr. and Mrs. Axelrod are going to take. And what role will there be for Wendy (Maggie Siff)? Professional as she may have appeared up until now, she’s starting to bend the rules a little, too. Knowing one of her patients/clients – Mike Wagner (David Costabile) – will be going after another patient/client – Maria Saldana (Kate Arrington) -, she makes sure the latter leaves the company before it turns into a living hell for her. Is Billions a show where something like this goes unpunished, or will Wagner come after Wendy next? That’s the nice advantage a new series has; you don’t know yet how far the writers are going to tighten the screws on everybody.

Billions: Naming Rights

In the second episode of Showtime’s newest hit show Billions, Chuck Rhoades is aspiring to be more ‘human’ at work – even though he likes to be treated like an animal in the bedroom – while Bobby Axelrod continues to throw his name and money around. 

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Main Title Rush Job
For some reason, when television pilots air, they usually don’t have a main title sequence yet. As if the network wants to see the ratings first, before spending money on cool graphics and a catchy tune. Since Showtime has already renewed Billions for a second season, I don’t know what went wrong here. The show did get something main title-ish, but it looks like a twenty-second rush job. It definitely doesn’t match the overall slick tone and the fancy world of money and power, and certainly doesn’t excite the viewer enough to keep watching. It’s the word ‘Billions’, white on black, a stock image of Manhattan from above, and a shared ‘created by’ credit, also white on black, showing the names of Brian Koppelman (Tilt, Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen), David Levien (also Tilt, Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen) and Andrew Ross Sorkin (journalist, writer of Too Big to Fail and no relation to Aaron Sorkin).

Small Timer
Like Chuck (Paul Giamatti) says in the pilot, he wants Bobby (Damian Lewis) to be stabbed a few times first (metaphorically speaking), before going after him. In other words, he’s waiting till somebody else goes full Revenant on him. Then it’s time to step in and put him away. That’s why Chuck’s got his sights set on small timer Steven Birch (Jerry O’Connell) for the moment. He could send him to jail for 11 years, if they go to trial, that is. However, Chuck’s conscience plays up. He’s willing to settle, and so is Steven. I can see another deal being made between Chuck and Steven in the future, to get more information about Bobby.

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Mole
Lurking around in the shadows at the US Attorney’s office, is Tara Mohr (Annapurna Sriram), who’s being blackmailed by shadow man Hall (Terry Kinney), Bobby’s go-to guy for things like these. She’s snorted cocaine off of another woman – a woman who set her up, because she taped the whole thing – and that’s something very much frowned upon, if not worse, by her bosses. So Bobby’s placed a mole, which could (and probably will) be very interesting. He and Chuck don’t meet in ‘Naming Rights’, though. The most intense scene in the pilot featured both key players, but I guess having them bump into each other too often would quickly diminish that intensity. As a side effect, episode 2 does feel a bit twofold. Two sides going about their businesses without much overlap.

Secret Sauce
While Chuck’s getting his grip on Steven, Bobby’s company Axe Capital is suddenly overrun by a dozen SEC agents. They’ve come to investigate and interrogate. Personnel is questioned about the ways they decided to invest, and it’s tough; you don’t lie to this Steve character (the great presence of Ezra Knight) if you care about your bones staying intact. Is it their brilliant computer program which accurately predicts the stock market? No. They all seem to have gotten ‘an anonymous tip’. Alarm bells go off, because it’s hard to run a company on tips alone; there must be insider trading going on here. Luckily for everybody, this was all orchestrated by Bobby. If the real SEC had shown up, they’d be in serious trouble. It’s a wakeup call, for everyone. It’s the end of the line for Victor (Louis Cancelmi, Boardwalk Empire – yes, Cancelmi), who got ‘flagged’ because of his over the line work ethics, and gets sacked. Wendy (Maggie Siff) manages to smooth things over, convince Victor not to tell the world about Axe Capital’s ‘secret sauce’, but Bobby’s clearly made himself another enemy, who could bite him in the ass down the line.

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Maggie Siff
Despite the absence of another Chuck/Bobby face off, and most of the technical mumbo-jumbo going over my head, I love the show. You don’t have to be spoon fed every single detail to enjoy drama. Especially Maggie Siff is a nice surprise. I never cared much for Tara Knowles – the character she played on Sons of Anarchy. The part of Wendy Rhoades fits her much better. She has a real Paget Brewster (Huff, Criminal Minds) quality to her, and that’s a big compliment in my book.

A Slick Cat And Mouse Game Of Insider Trading

Showtime’s newest drama Billions will be one of those shows people talk about in a few years time, saying they were there at the very beginning. They knew, as far back as January 2016, this series about Wall Street was going to be awesome. It’s considered important, in Geek Land, to discover something, stick with it, tell people to watch it and when it becomes a worldwide phenomenon, claim you knew it was brilliant before anybody else did.

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Catch Up
It happened with Breaking Bad, Homeland, House of Cards and most recently with Mr. Robot. Shows that kind of fly under the radar for a while, until suddenly newspapers and news programs start reporting on them. It’s like the world, over the course of just a couple of weeks time, opens its eyes. It’s actually a beautiful thing. Well, ‘world’, I can save you the embarrassment of having to catch up on another television drama next year, because you can join the geeks as of today. All you need to do is check out the pilot episode of Billions and you’re fully up to speed.

Grey Area
This is a show about two guys trying to bury each other. A ‘pissing contest’ is another description. It is not, however, a show about right and wrong, good guy versus bad guy. The story takes place in the biggest grey area of our time: Wall Street. Real estate. Insider trading. Sleaze campaigns. Press manipulation. Algorithms. And ‘fuck you money’. U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti, Straight Outta Compton, The Ides of March, Sideways, The Negotiator) puts criminals behind bars. No matter if they’re wearing pinstriped suits or three striped sneakers. He’s just and fair, whether it’s bankers or drug dealers. He does sound like one of the good guys, but nobody’s perfect. He can be quite rigid. Rancorous. Manipulative.

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The Axe
Chuck has got a banker – or ‘bankster’ – in his sights: very sharp, smooth, hedge fund strategist Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis, Homeland, Wolf Hall, Band of Brothers) and his company Axe Capital in particular. There’s something fishy going on with his investment behaviour, or should I say the behaviour of small companies Century Capital, Old Oaks Investment and Quaker Ridge, who are all, one way or another, linked to Axe Capital. It looks like Bobby might have insider information, which is illegal, but it’s hard to prove. Ari Spyros (Stephen Kunken, The Affair, Bridge of Spies) from SEC tries to persuade Chuck to build a case, but he knows better. The evidence is way too thin at this point.

Bobby’s Achilles’ Heel
Spyros has brought in the head of Century Capital, Dan Margolis (Daniel Cosgrove, Dirty Sexy Money, Days of Our Lives). The fact that Margolis comes by Bobby’s office is too much of a coincidence. He’s probably made a deal with the SEC, promised to help them flush Bobby out by proposing a shady deal, to see if he bites. Bobby’s too smart of a man to fall into his obvious trap. There is one thing, however, which could prove to be Bobby’s Achilles’ heel: Chuck’s wife Wendy (Maggie Siff, Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy), who works for Axe Capital as an in-house psychologist. She’s good. Very good. Bobby wants to keep her on, and even though Wendy and Chuck don’t discuss their jobs, it might be a risky thing to have one of the Rhoades walking around, who knows everything that goes on, having doctor-patient confidentiality and all that.

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Bedroom Activities
So are we going to address the sadomasochistic bedroom activities of the Rhoades family? Why not. The opening shot of the pilot doesn’t leave us much choice. Chuck likes to get tied up, have burning cigarettes being put out on his skin and his wife ease the pain by the healing powers of the golden shower. Like in Mr. Robot and House of Cards, the sexual games between couples don’t do much for the plot. It’s nothing more than a detail, really.

Sublime
Chuck and Bobby meet each other once in the pilot, and it’s like watching two wolves trying to decide who’s the alpha male. It’s probably because there’s only one scene in which they interact, but there’s definitely great chemistry between Giamatti and Lewis. Two great actors, playing off on each other, none of them backing down; the matter of who’s the bigger alpha is still undecided. One more thing: the look of the pilot is amazing. Production (Marcus Viscidi, Rendition), cinematography (Eric Steelberg, Lone Star, Up in the Air), direction (Neil Burger, Divergent, Limitless), it’s all sublime. As slick as its subject matter, in fact.