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Billions’ dueling alpha males stare each other down at last

Illustration for article titled iBillions’ /idueling alpha males stare each other down at lasti/i
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“The Deal” is the riskiest episode of Billions yet because it shows just how easily its central conflict could be settled. There’s no problem in Billions that a signature and a couple billion dollars can’t fix. No lives are hanging in the balance, and the central relationships feel solid despite a concerted effort to make them appear to be in jeopardy. It’s just dollars and cents to people who have more money than they know what to do with. Though the episode ends with Bobby tearing up a nearly $2 billion penalty check, thereby reigniting the feud between him and Chuck, creeping up to the precipice of a plea deal serves as a reminder that the foundation of Billions is a conflict that can theoretically be resolved with the stroke of a pen and a trip to the bank.

The issue is not that Billions lacks stakes, but that its stakes are too abstract. It’s an interesting time for this show to appear, as Bernie Sanders makes his bid for the White House by crusading against corporate greed and massive wealth inequality. It’s a resonant message in the wake of the reckless Wall Street behavior that roiled the economy and lent Billions its of-the-moment subject matter. When Sanders talks about the unfairness of meting out draconian punishments for marijuana possession while the money men who gutted the economy essentially got off with a slap on the wrist, I totally agree with him. But the reason he has to keep beating that drum is that most people find it difficult to get as angry as they probably should be about financial crimes like those Bobby and his underlings commit on a daily basis. The stock market is as fragile as any other living organism, so it’s easy to understand on an intellectual level why Chuck’s work is important. But it’s hard to emotionally invest in insider trading, which is why Billions often feels hollow. I’d love to experience some of Chuck and Bryan’s righteous indignation, but try as I might, I can’t get there.


One of Billions’ failures is that it hasn’t done enough to make the abstract more concrete. The show hasn’t demonstrated the real world consequences of Bobby’s malfeasance or given the audience much of a reason to care about how he conducts his business. Chuck continues to repeat two ideas: that Bobby broke the law, and that Bobby made his billions by cheating. In other words, Chuck is a man of principle, and after building a successful career reeling in guppies, he’s finally ready to take down a whale. Meanwhile, Bobby is well-aware that the methodology he’s instituted at Axe Capital is totally illegal, but he also believes he’s earned his success by being smarter than his competitors and seeing the big picture when they can’t. I get why the writers are so reluctant to take sides between Bobby and Chuck, and I like that the show doesn’t nudge the audience towards one camp or the other. But the downside of this balanced, non-judgmental approach is that there isn’t a lot of gravity on either side of the conflict. I don’t feel emotionally connected to Chuck’s effort to knock Bobby off his perch, or Bobby’s effort to stay there.

If Billions continues to be essentially a dick-measuring contest between two powerful men, it has to upend expectations every opportunity it gets. “The Deal” is the show’s boldest shot at shaking up the status quo, but the effort falls short, and inadvertently amplifies the narrative emptiness. The episode picks up with Chuck and his team trying to break “Dollar” Bill Stearn, who they’ve got dead to rights on the Pepsum deal after tracking down the farmer he squeezed for information. Naturally, Bill remains defiant and refuses to flip, but he’s nowhere near as defiant as Bobby, who jumps on top of a table and rallies the troops with an intensity unlike anything Wendy has ever seen from him. Chuck is just as fired up, convinced he has Bobby in a vise grip, but both men are under extreme pressure. Chuck can’t broker too lenient a deal with Bobby, lest he be accused of going easy on Axe Capital because of Wendy, and he’s too blinded by anger and pride to make the obvious choice to recuse himself from the case. Bobby has to convince his investors not to jump ship and project an image of strength and stability during the most precarious moment in his company’s history.

Neither of them is crazy about the deal, if only because they would rather secure an unqualified victory against the other, but they eventually fold. Bobby and Chuck sit across from each other in the first scene Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti have shared since their brief encounter in the pilot, and as they talk smack about how their respective side is getting the better end of the deal, Billions becomes even more abstract. Because honestly, they’re both right about how mutually beneficial the agreement would be. Chuck would get to crow about the massive, unprecedented fine levied against Axe Capital, and Bobby would take his lumps while refusing to admit guilt and be back on top in under a year’s time. Instead, Chuck changes the terms of the deal on the fly to smack the smug expression off Bobby and Wags’ faces. Chuck says there will be no family fund, and no trading with Bobby’s personal fortune. Either Bobby agrees to get out of the game permanently, or there’s no deal, and he can risk the jail time instead.

Considering how much both men want to vanquish each other, the abandoned deal should be something of a victory for everyone. And it should feel satisfying for the audience, since a true face-off is what they really want, but it mostly feels like a missed opportunity and a return to a problematic status quo. I hoped the deal would actually go through, which would have made me wonder whether the show could possibly go in a good way. By having the deal fall through, it’s back to business as usual. The only thing that has changed is that now Bryan is the official face of the case against Axe Capital, and Chuck is pretending to recuse himself when he’ll still be deeply, secretly involved in the case. For Chuck, the arrangement sounds a whole lot like the scenario he’s been trying so hard to avoid, one in which his hard work and tenacity yields a win he can’t take credit for. But it’s par for the course in a show that has never done the best job of communicating why these characters want what they want.


Stray observations

  • I certainly hope Bobby and Wendy’s nude schvitz comes up again. If Chuck is pissed about Bobby bathing with his wife, that would at least make his motivations clearer.
  • I sort of enjoyed seeing Lara get a taste of her own medicine when she’s exposed to the same social stigma she wielded against June.

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