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Billions accelerates through its story at warp speed in a game-changing episode

Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis
Photo: Jeff Neumann (Showtime)
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Billions has never been afraid to burn through plot at a faster than expected pace, but “Overton Window” takes that strategy to the limit. Up until now, Chuck’s quest to become the next Attorney General for the state of New York has been in the early, gearing-up stage. With his enlistment of Axe to his cause at the end of the last episode, the normal rhythms of television would dictate a slow build as their scheming played out over the course of the next half-dozen episodes or so, climaxing near the end of the season.

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Instead, Billions hits the warp drive button for an hour that takes us all the way to Chuck’s Election Day victory. It’s an exhilarating ride for the most part, but in its haste it whips right past some potentially interesting detours without a second glance. There’s a new status quo in place (in more ways than one) by the time “Overton Window” slams shut, as the show’s creators once again upend expectations. Whether that’s a good thing or not won’t be known until the rest of the season plays out.

It turns out that Axe’s assist to Chuck’s campaign primarily involves buses: sabotaging school bus engines so parents are forced to drive their kids and don’t have time to vote in the primary, and sending other potential voters on a junket to Atlantic City. The idea is that suppressing the vote total favors Chuck, but the candidate doesn’t see it that way. Jack Foley has him over a barrel, threatening to release the bombshell intel on Chuck’s sex life at 5:00 PM unless Chuck announces he’s dropping out of the race. As Chuck’s fixer Karl Allred (Allan Havey) discovers, Foley has nothing to lose, as his body is riddled with cancer.

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Asia Kate Dillon
Photo: Jeff Neumann (Showtime)

Does it make any sense that Foley would set his deadline for Chuck in the late afternoon of Primary Day? Not really, but it fits into the “one crazy day” structure that takes up most of the episode. While Chuck struggles with his decision, Axe has a disaster of his own in the making. As soon as the markets open, he’s ready to dump all of Axe Cap’s natural gas stock, having received a tip that a tanker full of the stuff is about to explode. At the crucial moment, however, Axe Cap is hit by a cyber-attack that shuts down all their systems. There’s a lot of trade desk jargon that flies right over my head, but the upshot is this: Axe and Wags have to work the phones, something the young guns who punch the keyboards for them have no clue how to do.

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The prime suspect all along is Grigor, which is confirmed when Russian tech is found on the scene. Taylor isn’t involved, but when Mafee gets wind of Axe Cap’s troubles, they capitalize on the situation by selling natural gas stocks much faster than Axe is able to do under the circumstances. Taylor is partially distracted by their father’s business plan (something about lattice fins?), which they decide to back. Whether that’s due to genuine excitement for the project or a desire to help their father is not discernible in Taylor’s usual poker face.

As Chuck’s deadline approaches, Wendy gets her say on the matter, which boils down to “You absolutely will not tell anyone about this and you will drop out of the race and find something else to do with your life.” Which would be a very reasonable argument to make with someone who isn’t Chuck Rhoades. Why go quietly when you can go down in flames? So instead of reading his prepared remarks, Chucks throws a hail Mary pass in the hopes of flinging the Overton window wide open. He confesses to it all: Masks, binds, ropes, fire, the whole bit. “I am a masochist.” He frames the confession as a need to unburden himself to the people, because he knows they can handle it.

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The first thing to say about Chuck’s confession is that it serves as the impetus for the greatest parade of reaction shots Billions has ever assembled. Everything from wry amusement to bafflement to outright disgust plays across the faces of virtually the entire cast, but I’ll give top honors to Toby Leonard Moore, who makes Connerty look like he’s choking on a chicken bone. The next thing is to question the plausibility of Chuck turning this potential embarrassment into a triumph, but in today’s political climate, who knows anything anymore? I could see his announcement being fodder for a solid 48 hours of Twitter jokes before being replaced by a shiny new outrage and forgotten.

The frustrating part of speeding through this part of the story is that we don’t get to see any fallout at all beyond the personal. Yes, Wendy is rightly hurt and righteously pissed off at Chuck for blowing up her life. But we don’t even get a glimpse of Chuck’s political opponents trying to use this revelation against him. Instead it’s abruptly a month later and Chuck is celebrating his victory in the general election. Maybe the writers have decided the story is best served by getting Chuck back into power as soon as possible, but as entertaining as this episode is, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it happened all too easily.

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Stray observations

  • What does Axe get in return for his efforts? Chuck arranges to have Grigor’s funds frozen and invites him to leave town within twelve hours or be named an unregistered foreign agent. It’s another abrupt turn of events, though it’s hard to imagine this is the last we’ll see of Grigor, especially now that Chuck has also made an enemy of him. (Then again, John Malkovich is a busy man, so who knows?)
  • Wendy is definitely not in the mood for more Churchill quotes.
  • “I’m going to be in business with my...child.” Give it to Douglas, he’s trying.
  • Somehow the episode even finds time for a subplot in which Rebecca Cantu gives up a zero-gravity flight to do a favor for Axe. She must really like him!
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About the author

Scott Von Doviak

My debut novel Charlesgate Confidential is now available from Hard Case Crime.