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Billions earns its first shocking cliffhanger

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Proper cliffhangers are a staple of the best television dramas, and up until this point, Billions hasn’t had one. That’s not for a total lack of trying, but plot points like Bobby’s last-minute rejection of the plea deal with Chuck or Chuck’s subsequent decision to pretend to recuse himself from the Axe Capital case don’t really qualify. If the definition of a cliffhanger is something that startles the audience into wanting to know what happens next, Billions hasn’t done anything yet to meet that definition. (Even the reveal that Donnie’s loyalties are torn between Bobby and Chuck didn’t totally land.) That changed with “Where The Fuck Is Donnie?” which ends with the eponymous character falling ill and coughing up blood all over Bryan just as he’s about to share the information that will help Chuck’s office solidify its case against Bobby. It was an abrupt, shocking moment in a show that hasn’t had many of them.

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I’m not entirely sure the moment will look all that shocking in hindsight. When Bryan sent the strike team into Donnie’s house to show him what an arrest in the dead of night looks like, there was a shot of Donnie sweeping a good two dozen pill bottles into the drawer of his nightstand. I don’t recall what Donnie’s illness is supposed to be, either because it hasn’t been explicitly revealed or because it’s a detail I missed. Either way, if the story here is that Donnie left New York to go on an impromptu spiritual journey and forgot to take his meds for a few days, then those final moments lose some of their impact. Of course, that’s assuming Donnie gets prompt medical treatment and lives to finish either helping Chuck and Bryan mount their case or Bobby and Wags send in their trojan horse. If Donnie dies, that is a huge game-changer because he becomes unable to be any help to anybody.

To suggest that the real tragedy of Donnie’s hypothetical death is a steeper climb for Chuck in his quest to convict Bobby would be an awful implication, since Billions can only work in the long term if I care about the case because I care about the people involved in it. But the point is that I’m left wondering what those final moments mean for the story, so kudos to the Billions team for taking my interest in the show from passive to active with a well-placed blood capsule. And to be fair, it isn’t only Donnie’s adverse health event that makes the episode feel like Billions is finally starting to pay off. It helps that it happens just as Chuck is scurrying to the office in part to avoid the awkward conversation in which Wendy confronts him about blatantly lying about having recused himself from the Axe Capital case.

“Donnie” also works because it finally shows Bobby’s hubris catching up to him, leaving actual bruises as opposed to the glancing blows Chuck has been able to land. After Dimonda’s story about Bobby’s sketchy post-9/11 trading activity, there’s a throng of protesters outside the building and a tense mood inside. Bobby’s most trusted and reliable traders raid the office in the middle of the night, absconding with their Rolodexes and important files. But it’s mostly business as usual around Axe Capital. Chase stops by Wendy’s office to awkwardly flirt with her, using her rejection of the job offer he found her as a pretext, but he’s mostly there because he’s got so many people angling to work there despite the reputational damage. Even the protesters finally acquiesce to Bobby’s charms, accepting limo rides home from Westport after their bus breaks down.

It’s Lara who suffers most as a result of the 9/11 trading story. The larger firefighter community, of which Lara’s late brother was a part, is pissed off that Bobby profited so handsomely from the attacks, and they take it out on Lara. The fire department uses the pretext of safety to raid the restaurant and kick out all the patrons, and Lara urges Bobby to try to make an emotional appeal to the firefighters to get them to back down. Bobby tries to do so, confessing to his morally repugnant moves and explaining that his concern was taking care of the families of the colleagues that were lost that day. It might have been callous, he explains, but it’s like Wendy said, it was a time of immense stress and crisis, and Bobby responded by doing the thing he knows how to do best.

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The firefighters are not placated by the explanation, and they next decide to attack Lara’s farm, prompting her to shut both of them down. I appreciate any attempt to pull Lara deeper into the show, and the tense conversation between Lara and Wendy is a great example of what can happen when Lara moves closer to the nucleus of the story. But it’s a slightly murky story given Lara’s past romantic involvement with Mikey, the apparent ring leader of the angry firefighters bent on vengeance. What are the attacks on Lara really about? Surely Bobby would suffer if none of the traders were in the building because the fire department pulled the same kind of bogus raid on Axe Capital that they did on Lara’s restaurant. It’s a circuitous path to getting back at Bobby, and I wish there wasn’t the implication that Mikey is leading the charge against Bobby and Lara out of romantic jealousy.

But in any case, I came out of “Donnie” more interested in Billions than I went into it, an experience I’m having more frequently as the show progresses.

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Stray observations

  • The dialogue is still really stilted most of the time. Why do the characters have to constantly refer to foreign food and culture to reinforce their sophistication? We get it, these are worldly people.
  • I remain uninterested in the Kate-Bryan-Terri love triangle, but at least Kate and Bryan are nearing their first actual date, so there’s progress even if it’s in a story I’m not invested in.
  • Wendy’s job seems incredibly laid back to pay so much.
  • How much money is Bobby supposed to have exactly? He bought the house, the boat, and had enough money to pay $100 million for the naming rights to the building and another $250 million (over a number of years) to donate to the firefighters’ association. I know the name of the show is Billions, but it would be nice to get some idea of exactly how much dough Bobby is supposed to be sitting on.
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