Right after watching “Boasts And Rails,” I caught this week’s episode of The Circus, Showtime’s handsome docuseries about the presidential race. It featured a segment with Heidi Cruz, the wife of Ted Cruz, and the country’s potential First Lady. Heidi Cruz took a leave of absence from Goldman Sachs, where she works as managing director, to join her husband on the campaign trail. Considering the current tone of the electorate, which is partially fueled by anger at the outsize wealth, power, and influence wielded by the financial sector. Her ties to Goldman isn’t the most convenient thing for his political career, but Heidi has her career and Ted has his, and they let it ride until one of them had to sacrifice their personal ambition.

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Ted and Heidi’s relationship is reminiscent of Chuck’s relationship with Wendy, though Chuck and Wendy’s conflict of interest is deeper, more intense, and more personal. Billions usually seems like quasi-realism, like a show pretending to portray an insular world authentically while taking lots of creative liberties. That extends to the relationships, as Wendy insists she doesn’t want to be the shuttlecock between Chuck and Bobby, but refuses to take steps to actually rectify the potentially ruinous conflict of interest. Chuck is just as stubborn in his refusal to acknowledge that his wife or his father might intentionally or inadvertently demolish his case against Axe Capital. It strains credulity, but maybe they’re like Ted and Heidi. They’re both intent on doing their own things, as incompatible as those things are, and hoping for the best.

Billions is about people whose passion in life is achievement in whatever form that might take. The achievement could be symbolized by money, or freedom, or the influence to enact change in the world. But the only thing that fuels someone like Chuck, Bobby, or Wendy is the ambition to achieve, to constantly set new, loftier goals, achieve them, and set new ones. Chuck finally decides to explore the idea of working somewhere other than the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and he gets a $9 million job offer which is more like an endorsement deal than an actual job. He can represent huge clients and build on his sterling reputation in the legal community if he wants to, or he can take the occasional meeting and play golf instead. It’s the golf bit that probably influences Chuck to turn down the cushy, well-paying gig. Chuck can’t bear to stay on the sidelines, even after he’s publicly recused himself from the Axe Capital case at the risk of his career and his marriage.

It’s because Chuck has put so much on the line to prosecute Bobby that he’s so invested in getting the outcome he wants. In fact, in hindsight, the feigned recusal that looked so insane at the time might have been Chuck’s way of raising the stakes for his victory over Axe Capital. Meanwhile, Bobby is pouring as much into the cat and mouse game, turning Donnie Caan into a triple agent to lead Chuck and Bryan into some kind of trap. I’m not quite sure how long Donnie is supposed to have been under Bobby’s thumb, but my assumption is that Donnie has been in on the whole thing from the beginning. Bobby, the shrewd tactician he is, probably created the metadata that gave Bryan so much leverage to use against Donnie in the first place. But in order to make sure Chuck and Bryan valued their man on the inside, Bobby pretends to launch a mole hunt, and even fires The Pouch to create the appearance of instability. It’s fascinating how little Chuck and Bobby seem to understand the sunk cost fallacy.

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The Donnie reveal is an interesting direction for Billions, which is still doing its best to make an arm-wrestling match last for an entire season of television and beyond. It’s a bit of narrative trickery that works far better than such attempts have worked on this show so far. The feints in “The Good Life” were artificial because so many of the scenes only served to misdirect the audience and made little sense within the actual story. In “Boasts And Rails,” all of the trickery, whether it was Bobby and Donnie’s triple-cross or Wendy tricking Chuck into interviewing for jobs she knew he wouldn’t accept, feels earned. It effectively upends the audience’s expectations without feeling like a cheat. It’s precisely the kind of story Billions should be telling.

But thematically, Billions is getting a bit repetitive. By now, we’re well aware that Chuck and Bobby are equally relentless in the pursuit of their goals, and think little of inflicting collateral damage. In “Boasts And Rails,” Bryan slides down into the gutter too. After defending the morality of his tactics at dinner with Kate’s parents, Bryan is fabricating and forging an SEC paper trail to get The Pouch booted out of Axe Capital. Chuck’s admission that drinking himself to oblivion and convincing himself that the guy had it coming are his only coping strategies is illuminating. But it’s not illuminating enough, since it doesn’t really tell us anything we don’t already know about the character. If Billions isn’t going to be about more than the conflict between these two men, it has to add a lot of layers to that conflict. The show isn’t there yet, but it’s heading in the right direction.

Stray observations

  • Chuck’s favorite reason for why Bryan’s actions are justifiable? “Fuck The Pouch.”
  • Kate lands a copy of the redacted chapter from June’s book, which spells out how Bobby made hundreds of millions on short plays after the 9/11 attacks, which saved his career just as he was being drummed out of the firm. I’m hoping more comes of this, because it didn’t land nearly as hard as it should have.
  • Speaking of Kate, I still don’t quite get this Bryan, Terri, and Kate love triangle the show seems intent on.
  • I’m assuming Adriane Lenox had lines that got cut. Why hire such a talented actress to sit there silently?

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