David Costabile, Damian Lewis
Photo: Jeff Neumann (Showtime)

A big part of what makes Billions fun is the tension between the show taking its characters seriously and treating them as satirical caricatures of the rich, powerful, and (usually) testosterone-poisoned. Sometimes this is a no-brainer, as with Wags. No one in their right mind is ever going to take him seriously, and he’s never going to “develop” in any meaningful way. The fact that he gets an entire B-plot about obtaining the last burial plot in Manhattan this week is Exhibit A for the defense. It’s pure absurdity and easy irony, as Wags wrangles to snag the churchyard spot from an equally amoral but less charming scumbag (an ambulance chaser played by The Wire’s Michael Kostroff). That Wags would think the path to eternal peaceful rest could be achieved by exposing a rival’s affair in the pages of a New York tabloid is, well, very Wags. He’s comic relief for any viewers who might find the satirical shadings of the other characters too subtle for their liking.

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It takes good acting to bring those shadings to life in a halfway believable way, and this week Paul Giamatti and Jeffrey DeMunn are up to the challenge. Chuck has been on the defensive so far this season, and “Hell Of A Ride” finds him continuing to do damage control over the Ice Juice fallout. Ira has already been bought and paid for, but the man who can really put the screws to Chuck is his father...who happens to be in the mood to really put the screws to Chuck. He appears about to do so in the opening scene as he and his lawyer meet with Dake and Connerty, but the show rewinds three days to show up exactly what brought him to this point. After Connerty receives a signed affidavit from Ira, Dake can no longer refuse him his chance at questioning Senior and even offering him immunity. But Dake also gives Chuck a heads-up that this is happening, knowing that he’ll do whatever he can to prevent his father from giving him up.

He tries the sentimental approach first, something no regular viewer of Billions would have recommended. When Chuck is introduced as the surprise presenter of his father’s service award at the Yale reunion, Senior manages a pained smile, but for the rest of the scene, DeMunn and Giamatti deliver the emotion of the moment as if it’s real—because on some level, deep down under the layers of cynicism and wounded ego, perhaps it is. The facade crumbles quickly once they’re alone, however, and Senior unloads on Chuck for showing his “weakest self” and believing it would work. At that point, Chuck does what he should have done in the first place: with the help of Jack Foley, he hits his father where it really hurts. The land he owns that’s meant to be home to a new casino is suddenly about to be designated a conservation area unless he tells Dake and Connerty to shove their immunity deal, which he does. Only then does the father’s pride in his son truly shine, sealed with a Godfather kiss and that box of trophies.

Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey DeMunn
Photo: Jeff Neumann (Showtime)

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Lest anyone worry that Billions will run out of varieties of the rich and fatuous to skewer, “Hell Of A Ride” introduces us to Mike Birbiglia as “venture philanthropist” Oscar Langstraat. (Yes, that’s a real thing, and there’s plenty of doublespeak about it on the internet that I couldn’t begin to grasp.) He’s a socially awkward Silicon Valley type, but to Axe he’s another means of keeping his hand in the game. Langstraat’s solar panels are about to be a strong investment, but Axe has to use Ayles to get it in front of Taylor and hope they bite on it. To seal the deal, Axe uses his now toxic status to rail against the panels to the members of the charity board he’s about to be tossed from, a crude but nonetheless effective form of reverse psychology. I’m not so sure that Langstraat, Taylor, and Axe meeting in public is such a great idea, unless Ethiopian restaurants are really that off-the-radar in New York.

Taylor comes off as an original character in this setting, but any science fiction fan will recognize the robot or alien reckoning with what it means to be human. It’s fitting, then, that their subplot this week (dovetailing with Wendy’s) involves space exploration, as last season’s Elon Musk stand-in Craig Heidecker is set to launch his private rocket. Taylor has shorted the company in anticipation of the launch being scrubbed, even though they are personally rooting for Heidecker. The launch goes off as scheduled, but the rocket explodes shortly thereafter, prompting cheers from Dollar Bill and shock from Wendy, watching on her phone at the reunion. This turn of events not only provides the opportunity for Senior to stick the knife into Chuck one more time (alerting Wendy to the fact that they’d both been aware of her affair all along), and for Wendy to give a conflicted Taylor the following wonderful advice: “Mind the truth that makes you money.” Words for virtually every Billions character to live by.

Stray observations

  • Dake reminds Connerty that Axe is “the bull’s-eye. And the green ring around it, too, whatever that’s called.” Per Connerty, that’s the single bull.
  • Kostroff has a real knack for sketching repellent slimeballs in a few broad strokes. “The plot is yours if you take immediate occupancy. Otherwise, be the fuck from my office.”
  • When Senior says “in the can,” he’s not talking about the bathroom.
  • Uncle Maurice took Chuck to a brothel on his 14th birthday, and Ginger took him around the world. I guess that explains a lot.
  • Axe speaks sportball. Langstraat speaks Middle Earth.

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