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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Axe can’t stop, won’t stop in a wobbly Billions

Illustration for article titled Axe can’t stop, won’t stop in a wobbly Billions
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“The Good Life” is Billions’ most conflicting episode yet. It watches pleasantly enough, and for an episode mostly about Bobby putting the firm in a holding pattern, it has a surprising amount of momentum and a sense of purpose. There’s good follow-through on the seemingly inessential plot threads the first four episodes introduced. And it might be the strongest episode so far on a scene-by-scene basis. The relationships feel deeper and more natural. The smug, showy dialogue is pared way, way back—even Wags is tolerable this week, despite several references to body sushi at the strip club. But for all there is to like about “The Good Life,” it still doesn’t quite hit its mark because the central story is ultimately hollow.

The episode follows Bobby as he pretends to get out of the game, only to roar back to life and find his passion for the stock market renewed. That sounds like an interesting story on paper, and it works alright on screen too, except that the script goes so far overboard in trying to dupe the audience into believing that Bobby might be pulling out for real. Based on Bobby’s conversation with Constantine, which gets a few seconds of the “previously on” segment, it seemed more likely than not that Bobby was playing some type of long game. But the episode begins with Bobby trying to live the simple life, riding his bike to fetch some fresh eggs to make French toast for his family. He tells them to prepare to set sail on their state-of-the-art boat, and Lara is slightly taken aback by his abbreviated timeframe, but quickly gets on board. By the looks of it, Bobby is all in. At the moment the news breaks that Mundia-Tel stock is tanking due to accounting irregularities and executive indictments, Bobby is on the water, taking delivery of the eponymous super yacht.

Bobby abruptly returns to the bullpen, where Wags is ready to welcome him and marvel once again at his genius. By creating the illusion that he was having some sort of midlife crisis, Bobby enabled Axe Capital to bail out of a sector on the verge of a meltdown without spooking the market and tipping off competing funds. The reveal should be a fun, satisfying moment, but it feels neither fun nor satisfying, and it doesn’t feel earned. The sleight-of-hand trick backfires for a few reasons. One is that the conversation between Bobby and Constantine wasn’t especially illuminating with so little prior information about Mundia-Tel or its larger significance. “Short Squeeze” is short on details about who Constantine is and why his intel is so important so the reveal at the end of “The Good Life” lands harder, but instead, the reveal feels out of left field.

There’s also the matter of how many scenes “The Good Life” devotes to tricking the audience into thinking Bobby is following through on his threat to bail out. Bobby’s plan to fool the market makes sense, but how he goes about it doesn’t. If he wants to take delivery of the boat, sure. If he wants to run out for some fresh eggs and trade his high-end cycle for a quaint bicycle with a flowered basket on the front, he should go for it. Even Bobby’s refusal to bring in Wendy or Wags into his decision makes sense and tracks with what we’ve seen from the character before. For example, there was the raid drill that turned out to be an awkward introduction to Axe Capital’s new SEC compliance team. If all that wasn’t enough to make clear that Bobby’s ways are not like our own, Pete Decker explained in great detail to Chuck how far above mere mortals Bobby really is. But telling the family to prepare for a trip to the Galapagos Islands is about fooling the market? And is it really necessary to break the news to the police union guy? All this is part of the ruse?

Bobby’s cloak-and-dagger is all for the audience’s benefit. It’s like the fake SEC drill, except that the audience is the target. Wendy was furious about not being in the loop, but the audience is supposed to delight in the twist even though the only thing it yields is another situation in which Bobby is revealed as the all-seeing, all-knowing god of the stock market. All Bobby does is win, which doesn’t make for a great story considering how many times he’s won already and how many people he’s already steamrolled or manipulated to achieve those wins. What’s more, Chuck just seems out of his league and outmatched on pretty much every front. Billions has to feel like a really great chess game, but right now it feels like a game of checkers, one in which Bobby is using his kings to push Chuck’s pieces to the center of the board. At least the team behind Billions understands that Bobby needs to have his setbacks too, which is why Bobby and Wags’ celebration is cut short by the arrest of Bill Stearn. “The Good Life” makes quite a to-do about Stearns’ arrest, but much like Bobby’s Mundia-Tel move, it doesn’t feel as important as it’s apparently supposed to.

Part of the disconnect comes from the fact that, in another one of the episode’s many juke moves, “The Good Life” suggests Chuck might sacrifice Wendy in order to get the Axe Capital investigation back on track. Bryan finally calls out Chuck on the obviously untenable conflict of interest at play, and the gadfly reporter who’s been calling Chuck out since the pilot runs with a story about how Chuck is handling Axe Capital with kid gloves because Wendy works there. Were Chuck to actually find some loophole that would allow him to put pressure on Wendy, and if he dared to do so, that might not make a ton of sense from a legal standpoint, but at least it would justify the purpose of Wendy’s split allegiance. Instead, Wendy is free to hang out at the Axelrod estate and second-act musical matinees. The episode suggests a gut punch is coming, then delivers a light jab.


Stearns’ arrest feels so limp because the entire episode is spent building up to it. Chuck and the Southern District crew decamp to Iowa to figure out how Axe Capital found out the results of a Pepsum Pharmaceuticals trial on an enzyme treatment for cattle feed. Not only are they able to place Stearns in Iowa, the poor farmer tells the story of how Stearns cozied up to him by claiming to have been born of farm folk, then helped his family financially in exchange for information about the trial. Maybe the point is that no one would have expected Chuck’s office to move so quickly to arrest Stearns, because in real life, these investigations move at a glacial pace. But the core problem with Billions remains that it’s impossible to tell where in the story you are, which makes it difficult to tell how important any of these developments are. In a 12-episode season with this premise, it’s not inconceivable that Axe actually would disappear for a while before having a change of heart. That would at least change the show’s dynamic, which currently has Bobby and Chuck take turns decimating people who may or may not deserve it. This is just business as usual.

Stray observations

  • To be fair, Bobby does claim in his conversation with Wags that his chat with James Hetfield had him briefly considering pulling out for real, but I don’t buy that at all.
  • Chuck and Wendy’s sex life is growing on me. I still think Chuck’s interest in dom-sub play is a too-obvious foible for the character, but I do appreciate how the show incorporates it into their marriage in a non-judgmental way.
  • I quite liked the scene between Bryan and Kate at the bar. I don’t buy the will-they-won’t-they vibe the show is trying to sell, but Condola Rashad’s performance is really working for me.
  • Speaking of which, their exchange about Bryan’s body odor was kind of adorable.
  • This one was directed by Neil LaBute, who can’t resist the panoramic crops-and-sky shot everyone does when filming farmland scenes.
  • I felt sorry for that poor projectionist who was thwarted again and again in his efforts to show Bobby Citizen Kane.