Danny Mastrogiorgio, Noah Emmerich, Damian Lewis, Casey Seimaszko

Billions has drawn multiple parallels between Chuck and Bobby to show that this is not a story about a hero and a villain, but about an arm-wrestling match between two powerful men who have far more in common than they’d like to admit. “Short Squeeze” compares and contrasts its lead characters more powerfully than Billions has before, and in doing so, gives the show the silhouette of a dual character study rather than a Wall Street soap. Billions lacks narrative propulsion, and it isn’t always entirely clear what story is being told, even as the case against Bobby intensifies. But “Short Squeeze” successfully balances plot building and character development, and the result feels a lot like momentum for a show that hasn’t quite been able to find it.

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“Short Squeeze” boasts the best episodic story Billions has told so far. It’s a story that makes the securities world seem intriguing and sexy on its own as opposed to the prior episodes, which lean on blue dialogue like a crutch to compensate for wispy, wonky storytelling. “Squeeze” relies on what came before it—the CrossCo short position, the YumTime drama, Tara’s espionage—so it couldn’t have really come any sooner. But it’s a shame this couldn’t be Billions’ second episode, since it’s the one that feels most like a complete television show, even more than “Naming Rights.” “Squeeze” isn’t without its flaws, but it looks the most like the show I imagined when Showtime promoted Billions within an inch of its life.

“Squeeze” finds Bobby at play, having invited his salt-of-the-earth childhood buddies to hop on his private jet and head to a Metallica show in Quebec. Bobby’s so comfortable in his skin, you’d hardly think to look at him that there’s a crusading prosecutor trying to tear him down. He can’t even be bothered when Butch chases him down on the tarmac to advise him on the precarious position he’s in with the CrossCo short as YumTime, a company whose board Bobby sits on, considers terminating CrossCo’s contract. When the CrossCo stock starts inching up, Bobby quickly concludes that Ol’ Man Rhoades is trying to squeeze him by floating a rumor that CrossCo is being eyed as an acquisition. The volatile rise and fall of stock prices lends Billions real stakes, and even something akin to a ticking clock element. Bobby is more unnerved by the CXC rally than we’ve ever seen him, and his urgency is palpable as he gets to work trying to borrow enough shares to cover his position.

Meanwhile at the U.S. Attorney’s office, Chuck and Bryan get to work grilling Pete Decker about every aspect of Axe Capital and how Bobby runs it, hoping to uncover a tidbit sturdy enough to hang a prosecution on. Instead, Pete goes into full-blown mythmaker mode, describing Bobby’s godlike intelligence, drive, and vision. I’m not sure how much value is added with a montage that establishes, yet again, that Bobby is obscenely wealthy, highly powerful, and uncommonly intuitive. But while Pete doesn’t have much new information to offer about Bobby, the proffer leads to Kate discovering Tara’s treasonous behavior. As much as Chuck would love to go after the person who infiltrated his office, he first has to deal with his father’s shady CrossCo trading and put himself at the mercy of Spyros, who hasn’t forgotten a single one of Chuck’s disrespectful comments to him. Chuck’s story also utilizes the CrossCo stock as a ticking-clock, leading to the terrific scene where Chuck forces his father to wait until the stock dips below breakeven before selling it off. The script inspires confidence in Billions by braiding together threads that initially didn’t seem that important, but have paid off sooner than expected.

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All that said, the more Billions clicks into place, the more contrived it feels. It’s already a bit of a stretch that Chuck is going after Axe Capital, the company his wife works for, and the clearly dangerous conflict of interest doesn’t seem to bother Chuck, Bobby, or Wendy as much as it should. Now Ol’ Man Rhoades is getting into the mix, bent on vengeance after his mistress lost her YumTime board seat during Bobby’s aggressive coup d’etat. Giving Ol’ Man Rhoades a more active role is exactly the right play. The core of Billions is Chuck and Bobby’s feud, and the supporting characters are bound to become superfluous if they’re not directly involved with that conflict.

On the other hand, it feels entirely too convenient that for Chuck, all roads (or all Rhoades?) seem to lead straight to Bobby Axelrod. Chuck spends the episode fretting over how best to use Pete Decker to build a solid case against Bobby. But Chuck’s real problem is that so many people in his life are engaging directly with his foe, whether it’s Wendy with her massive Axe salary, Tara’s betrayal, or Ol’ Man Rhoades manipulating the CrossCo. stock in spite of the potential ramifications for his son if anyone finds out. Chuck and Bobby almost never interact directly, so their conflict will always play out as a proxy war, and that’s a very tricky story to tell. Until Chuck and Bobby’s battle erupts into more open hostility—if the case against Bobby makes it to court, for example—Billions will have to connect them by using the other characters in ways that occasionally strain credulity.

But “Squeeze” avoids that not-quite-right quality by drawing some interesting parallels between Chuck and Bobby. Chuck is struggling with the weirdly drawn battle lines in his fight against Bobby, but Bobby is equally susceptible to being betrayed and imperiled by the people he trusts most. The low-grade tension between Bobby and Freddy is obvious from the moment Freddy arrives last to the flight, then it intensifies during an inflight spades game when Freddy bristles about a childhood boxing match he lost to Bobby. After the show, Freddy comes to Bobby hat-in-hand, admitting he piggybacked off the CrossCo intel he overheard on the runway. Bobby, to his credit, doesn’t flip out the way he would had one of his brokers screwed up. He reacts like a disappointed friend, but agrees to cover Freddy’s position to prevent Freddy from losing everything. But while Freddy’s portfolio gets a happy ending, it comes at a price. Freddy wakes up to find Bobby and the others have left him behind, probably for good. Both Chuck and Bobby must grapple with the fact that being positions of immense power means accepting that the next personal betrayal is never far off.

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Some moments in “Squeeze” ring false, like Kate exposing Tara as the office mole after getting a hunch strong enough to warrant barging in on a colleague in a bathroom stall and yanking the phone out of her hand. The same can be said for Bobby’s revelation about Ol’ Man Rhoades. Even for the man who “sees the whole chess board” according to Decker, Bobby’s deduction skills border on the magical. That kind of corner-cutting is hard for Billions to avoid, but as the storytelling gets leaner and more focused, the flaws look less prominent.

Stray observations

  • Young Il Kim’s script does an admirable job of defining a short squeeze for laypeople without getting bogged down by excessive exposition.
  • I liked the Andrew Bird musical bookends, as well as the stuff with the rogue trader who gets really pissed at some grazing deer. But the psychology of it wasn’t as clear as I’d have liked, in part because Bobby’s decision to sell across the board seems like it was mostly influenced by the mysterious conversation with Constantine.
  • Clearly Tara would have been better off just coming clean with Chuck as soon as she was approached. That Chuck was more comfortable knowing Tara was being blackmailed rather than paid off says a lot about the character.
  • Bobby comes awfully close to bedding the opening act, but remains faithful to Lara.
  • The Wags Groaner Of The Week: “The guys on the prime broker desk have looser lips than my first wife after the second kid.” Oy.

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