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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Billions gets a boost from its deep bench of players

Illustration for article titled iBillions/i gets a boost from its deep bench of players
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Sometimes it’s hard to believe Billions hasn’t already been on for 10 years, given the tangled web of backstory it has already amassed. For the first few minutes of every episode I’m in a mild panic as I struggle to keep up with the opening info dump of vaguely remembered names and events, but it’s to the show’s credit that all more or less becomes clear as the episodes progress, even at their usual breakneck pace. No character, no matter how minor, is ever truly forgotten, and unlike on Game Of Thrones, they aren’t constantly being beheaded or disemboweled. Not literally, anyway.

All of which brings us to Dr. Gilbert, a pivotal player in “Flaw In the Death Star” who I never would have thought about again had he not returned. He was Donnie Caan’s oncologist back in season one, when he could have extended his patient’s life with an experimental treatment had Axe (fearing Donnie would live long enough to testify against him) not discouraged going that route for “quality of life” reasons. Gilbert resurfaced in “Golden Frog Time” to play a role in the Ice Juice ploy in exchange for a hefty donation to his foundation. I don’t recall if we previously saw the scene in which Axe asks him to dispose of the slide containing the toxin or if this is a retroactive decision by the writers to create a piece a physical evidence in the case, but in any event, Axe is now worried that the slide containing his fingerprints still exists.


Via an odd creative choice that briefly makes Billions resemble a CW superhero show, we see different variations on the fate of the slide play out as if Axe is a meta-mastermind rewinding the events and envisioning every possible scenario. He dispatches his ninjas to check the doc’s work and home refrigerators, and holds several impromptu and intimidating meetings with him in an effort to get a read, but it’s just not happening. Only after he learns that the doctor doesn’t care about money, and that the bribe really did go to his foundation for a good purpose, does Axe have the ammunition he needs. When Gilbert demands a payment of $200 million because he wants to “live a little,” Axe knows he’s already made a deal.

A more memorable character from the past also resurfaces this week, although it’s less surprising that Billions would want to bring back Eric Bogosian’s delightfully stonefaced deadpan as often as possible. Boyd has been out of prison since Chuck needed his help on the Ice Juice scheme, but there are still restrictions on his travel and his beloved boat has been seized by the government. Enter Chuck, who needs Boyd to give up some names in order to retroactively justify his release. If you’re wealthy, there’s always a deal to be made, something the ever-idealistic Connerty still fails to grasp. He figures that Boyd will jump at the chance of getting some vengeance against Chuck for putting him away in the first place, but Boyd couldn’t be less interested. He just wants to sail away.

Steven Kunken, Kelly AuCoin
Steven Kunken, Kelly AuCoin
Photo: Jeff Neumann (Showtime)

The roster of recurring characters is so long at this point that part of the fun comes from mixing and matching them to see what kind of sparks fly. Dollar Bill and Spyros are natural adversaries, and it was inevitable that they’d clash sooner than later. Bill is the ultimate alpha dog, unscrupulous and exclusively money-driven, a textbook toxic male; Spyros is pretentious and effete, more concerned with the trappings of high society than the actual accumulation of wealth. It’s his job to put the brakes on someone like Bill, who bribes a lab tech to blow the whistle on an unethical drug trial so he can short the company’s stock. Their sniping gets so disruptive they get called to the principal’s office, or at least that’s how their scene with Wendy plays. For once she’s at a complete loss, but Axe insists that Bill make a public apology (grudgingly read from note cards), while reminding Spyros that the good life he’s come to enjoy is all courtesy of Axe Capital, which must remain free to push the envelope of the law as far as it can go. Bill has the last laugh in the most brutish way possible, smashing into Spyros’ beloved new ride over and over.


But when it comes to unlikely pairings, I can’t imagine Billions ever topping the romance that unfolds over the course of this episode. Yes, fans, Taylor has a sex life! And not only that, they appear to be quite smitten with tech nerd Oscar Langstraat. After bonding over what they both view as the unfairly maligned “flaw in the Death Star” scene from Star Wars, they cement their attraction by competing in some high-level geekery before heading back to his place. (Who had Mike Birbiglia/Asia Kate Dillion sex scene in the season three pool? Nobody?) Sure, it makes perfect sense in retrospect, but it still comes as a delightful surprise to see it play out. Even when the major sluggers are riding the pine, as Chuck and Axe are for the most part this week, Billions has enough talented utility players to run up the score.

Stray observations

  • Netrunner is a real collectible card game from Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering. Whether Oscar and Taylor were playing it correctly or well, I leave to any experts in the comments.
  • Stephen Kunken, who plays Spyros, delivers some of the funniest “what the fucks” I’ve ever heard during the car-smashing scene. Kudos.
  • Sacker has definitely picked a side, doctoring the old legal pads to back up Chuck’s release of Boyd. I’m enjoying the presence of shady Allan Havey as well.
  • Oh, that slide still exists and Chuck now has it taped inside his fridge. But for how long?

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

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