Billions has been the C-plus student of premium cable dramas for most of its debut season, too dull to be engaging but too well-crafted to disregard. And just under the wire, here comes “The Conversation.” The season finale is so far above anything else Billions has done, the temptation is to ask “Where did this episode come from?” But the answer is simple and unsatisfying. “The Conversation” is the culmination of everything that preceded it, an elegant patchwork of tiny plot points and character details littered across the season. It is the whole that somehow equals more than the sum of its parts. Even threads I distinctly remember being annoyed with, like Tara’s double-agent routine or Bryan’s friendship with Orrin, suddenly feel like they might have been worth my investment.
It’s no small feat to write a season finale that mostly acquits a wobbly season, especially when it’s the first season of a show. Billions creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien managed to do it, and “The Conversation” is a truly thrilling hour of television that I wouldn’t have expected from this show. They chose a fine time to show what Billions looks like when it’s firing on all cylinders. Prior to this episode, Billions was the type of show that people will me ask about three years from now and talk about how good it is, and I’ll have to say “Oh yeah, I gave that a season but it wasn’t my thing.” By being surprisingly great, “The Conversation” complicates that decision for me. I’m still not sure if Billions is my thing, but I’m much more likely to tune into the season two premiere to continue trying to figure it out.
I could have been completely sold on Billions season two based on the first 80% of the episode. First of all, Michael Cuesta just directs the hell out of this thing, beginning with the beauty shot of a Manhattan corridor where Bobby waits to give Wendy a thanks-for-everything Maserati. Go ahead and give Cuesta an executive producer credit and bring him in for the key episodes from here on out. He made the world look great, even in shots like those of Bobby and Wendy driving with the camera mounted inside the car. Those shots didn’t look like anything else in the season, but felt totally appropriate and didn’t come off showy or distracting.
The last thing the episode needed was an overly busy camera, since the plotting is busy enough. Armed with the information he stole from Wendy’s laptop, Chuck decides to go after Bobby for making Danzig’s weapons charge go away while maintaining as much distance from the case as possible. When Bobby gets word from his union contact about the case about to land on his head, he naturally assumes Wendy ratted him out following their psychotherapy all-nighter. Bobby tells Lara the situation so she can make arrangements for the family to flee to Switzerland, and he assures her he’ll play it cool with Wendy. But when Bobby sees Wendy’s face, all beaming and oblivious because she just got a new car and is about to discuss a seven-figure bonus, he loses it. He confronts her and threatens to expose her sexual proclivities, as well as photos from their nude dip in “The Deal.” Wendy immediately figures out Chuck’s involvement and confronts him directly.
Wendy and Chuck’s confrontation is easily the best scene Billions has ever done. It’s a long, brutal, breathtaking duet between Paul Giamatti and Maggie Siff, both of whom turn in Emmy-caliber work. Chuck’s behavior is frequently indefensible, so it couldn’t have been easy to give him a rationale that sounds somewhat reasonable to the audience, not just to him. But Koppelman and Levien pull it off, and they even allow Chuck to set Wendy back on her heels. Wendy has nowhere to hide when he reminds her that no matter what scummy things he does, while she’s at Axe Capital strictly upholding her ethical standards, he’s still one of the good guys, and she’s still one of the bad guys. She can’t drive around in the Maserati while pretending to maintain a clinical distance from what’s going on around her every single day. She’s become part of the fabric of Axe Capital, and given what Axe Capital really stands for, she has to decide if she can abide that.
Wendy insisted she wouldn’t be Bobby and Chuck’s shuttlecock even while she took on that role in increasingly literal ways. But Wendy is the most appealing character on this show by miles, and I didn’t want her to be indefinitely stuck between Chuck’s rock and Bobby’s hard place. It’s so deeply satisfying to watch as Wendy uses a recording of her conversation with Chuck to win Bobby over, then strong arms him out of $5 million and turns her performance bonus into an exit package. Bobby and Wendy’s relationship has been borderline abusive for so long, it would have been depressing to see Wendy crawl back to Axe Capital after Bobby’s vile threats to expose her sex life and ruin her reputation. Obviously this relationship isn’t over, but it’s definitely in a much different place than it’s ever been.
If any of those confrontations had been the conversation referred to in the title, and the episode had ended in a completely different way, I might have been all in. But the final confrontation between Bobby and Chuck was actually my least favorite part of the episode. The idea of it makes sense, and the scene looks incredible. Bobby has been ahead of Chuck all season long, and it was nice to see Chuck finally even the score by convincing Bobby the office was bugged, tricking Bobby into literally tearing apart his life’s work and confronting him amid the rubble. It’s a beautiful looking, superbly acted sequence. But the conversation itself? It just doesn’t land. It’s so didactic and on-the-nose, it sounds more like the actors describing the characters in a joint interview rather than the characters actually talking to each other. And the ultimate takeaway is that they’re going to keep duking it out, because Bobby has unlimited resources and Chuck has unlimited rage.
It’s a troubling note to end on because that final scene encapsulates everything that’s been wrong about Billions, including the too-cute dialogue and the obsessive focus on a war you wish both sides could lose. As exciting as “The Conversation” is, it’s still just another version of Chuck thinking he’s found the silver bullet only for his pistol to jam. The episode leaves a couple of dangling threads to play with next season, including Wendy’s next act after leaving Axe Capital and Chuck, as well as Bobby’s job offer to Bryan. The latter would be intriguing if I cared more about Bryan’s relationship with Kate, because if he does succumb to Bobby’s advances, she’s going to feel some type of way about all the conversations they had about what drives them to do this work. But the final scene doesn’t remind the audience of any of that. It reminds the audience that Bobby hates Chuck, and Chuck hates Bobby, because that’s what this show is about. If that’s all Billions will ever be about, and if it will always take this long to build up to something satisfying, then this show probably isn’t for me. If that’s the case, “The Conversation” will make a very pleasant farewell.
- Not to belabor the point, but how amazing is that argument between Chuck and Wendy? I especially loved that she was so horrified that he visited the dominatrix without her permission. Even as they were discussing Chuck’s huge personal betrayal, that still stung in a different way. Totally fascinating stuff.
- I also liked Lara’s scenes, the look of sorrow in her face when asked if she wants new identities for the kids. The look returns when Bobby tells her to keep their escape stash in place, because who knows when they might need it again. Malin Akerman played the scenes really well.
- I like how much of the episode takes place in the city. Realism requires a lot of the action to take place upstate, but those provincial areas feel really abstract. This episode feels like Manhattan.
- Thanks for reading folks! It’s highly unlikely I’ll be back to cover next season, but it’s been real.