Toxic masculinity has been Billions’ blue chip stock since day one, regardless of the show’s occasional feints toward self-awareness on this front (such as the Guy Movie one-liners the characters are always hurling at each other). Even the women are usually willing participants in the dick-measuring contests that define workplace culture at both Axe Capital and the US Attorney’s office. For its second season, however, Billions has embedded a self-critique into Bobby Axelrod’s office in the gender non-binary person of Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon).
In both writing and performance, Taylor is presented as the Vulcan on the bridge of Axe’s Enterprise. They (Taylor’s preferred pronoun and the one I’ll use despite the risk of singular/plural confusion) don’t buy into the testosterone-poisoned culture at all, or even the more generalized high-pitched emotion of their co-workers. Taylor is analytical and precise, connecting dots that nobody else can even see. Taylor’s otherness might as well be alien to nearly everyone else in the office, but Axe is relaxed and accepting from the start, not necessarily because he’s the wokest billionaire, but because he knows an edge when he sees it.
Axe needs that edge for the Alpha Cup, a charity poker game as well as a contest to determine, in Wags’ words, “who’s the biggest swinging dick on the Street.” Axe has lost three times running to the weaselly Todd Krakow, and Taylor is his insurance that the streak will come to an end. That doesn’t sit well with his usual second, Dollar Bill, who is completely emasculated by Axe’s choice to replace him. “Everything I measure myself by has been called into question.” The hostility is even more overt coming from Krakow, who has brought along his own ace in the hole in the person of everyone’s favorite life coach, Wendy Rhodes. Krakow openly refers to Taylor as “it” and “that thing,” but Taylor sees right through him, recognizing a fellow outcast beneath the billionaire bluster.
The casting department deserves kudos for all of season two’s new additions. Dillon is the most fascinating, but Danny Strong is spot-on as the slimy Martin Shkreli analogue Krakow, and Eric Bogosian has accumulated the gravitas to embody Wall Street royalty as Lawrence Boyd. Boyd is something of a narrative stalling tactic; he’s a means for the Cold War between Chuck and Axe to continue playing out without them going at each other directly. Billions couldn’t exactly pull a Homeland and ditch Axe in favor of a new target for Chuck (how could Showtime do that to Damian Lewis twice?), but continuing the cat and mouse game on the same terms as last season would strain credibility to the breaking point as well as become repetitive in the extreme. The new dynamic allows their war to continue on a different front.
For Chuck, his investigation of Boyd is a means of keeping his power, knowing that a victory could net him the political capital needed to make another push at Axe. For his employees, the case could mean advancement or cause for betrayal. Kate seeks her father’s counsel and gets some strategic advice: since Chuck is likely to pick either Connerty (who continues to harbor doubts about his boss) or Lonnie to fill the vacant seat, she should be sure not to play favorites in order to land herself a deputy position with whoever gets the job. This week that means playing bad cop to Connerty’s good cop in flipping a flight attendant on Boyd’s private jet, which in turn nets them a cuckolded exec eager for vengeance against his boss. For Axe, however, Boyd is an advance scout, a test case to get Chuck to reveal his full bag of tricks.
As “Optimal Pay” ends, both Chuck and Axe are on the upswing. Chuck has his key witness in a case he took on without knowing if it would lead anywhere, and, despite losing one-on-one to Krakow, Axe emerges victorious in the Alpha Cup thanks to Taylor (who gets awkward fist-bumps from their co-workers for their efforts). In the world of Billions, however, only one thing is certain: such victories are always fleeting.
- Oh, hello there! I’m taking over the Billions beat as of this episode, but I assure you it is not a hostile takeover. I binged the entire series over the past few days, and mostly quite enjoyed it even if I did feel a bit like a head on a giant testicle by the end.
- Season one had a baseball reference in every episode, but this year Billions has moved onto football, which feels like a better metaphorical fit. Axe is pursuing an unnamed NFL franchise (we know it’s not the Giants, because Axe meets owner Steve Tisch in the Meadowlands to get his blessing), but the recent hits to his reputation mean his bid isn’t being welcomed with open arms.
- Even when they’re not directly in conflict, the petty tit for tat between Chuck and Axe continues. When Chuck is forced to sell his treasured Winston Churchill autographed first edition in order to pay for an apartment, Axe is only to happy to snap it up, along with every other such edition just so Chuck can never replace it.
- Chuck isn’t subtle when it comes to turning Boyd’s lieutenant, forcing him to imagine his boss “heaving his seed into your bride.”
- Another cameo: all-time World Series of Poker champ Phil Hellmuth tells the Alpha Cup players to shuffle up and deal.