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Billions leans into the despicable behavior of characters we love to hate

Damian Lewis, Seth Gabel
Photo: Jeff Neumann (Showtime)
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If you’re a Billions fan (and if you’re reading this, I assume you are), it’s probably safe to say that likable characters aren’t high on your list of necessities for quality entertainment. What makes the show fun is inextricably bound with the bad behavior of Chuck, Axe, and most of the rest. It’s a fine line between characters you love to hate and ones you despise so much you’d like to see them removed from your television immediately, and “A Proper Sendoff” is designed to push against that line without quite crossing over it.

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Let’s start with Bobby Axelrod, who’s been on what passes for his best behavior of late. He’s newly in love, he’s now buddy-buddy with his old nemesis Chuck Rhoades, and he even spared the lives of thousands of chickens at great personal cost. It’s been a while since we’ve seen him do something truly off-putting, but “A Proper Sendoff” makes up for it on the balance sheet. We meet John Rice, the son of Axe’s former colleague and mentor. Axe paid for John’s business school after his father was gone, and made a hefty initial investment when John launched his own fund. Now John wants to pay Axe back with interest, which sounds like a good thing to a financial non-genius like me. Not to Axe, though. He’s not buying John’s explanation that he wants to keep the firm a manageable size, especially once Wags noses around and finds that no other initial investors are getting such payouts. Axe is taking it personally and he won’t let it go.

Determined to get at the truth behind the return of his investment, Axe invites John on a deep sea fishing trip, on the pretext that it’s the sort of thing he should have been doing all along if he really wanted to take on the surrogate father role. When the boat won’t start at the end of their day, it smells like an Axe ploy even if we’re not yet certain how far he’s willing to take it. John finally breaks and admits that he wants nothing to do with Axe, doesn’t want his name tarnishing his fund by association, and by the way, his father never respected Axe in the first place.

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For one vulnerable moment, we could almost feel sorry for Axe. Except that it didn’t matter what John had to say to him; while they’ve been at sea, the wheels have been turning back at Axe Cap. When John gets back to shore and checks his phone, he learns that he’s been ruined. Axe has stolen all his business and dragged his name through the mud. It’s a cruelly disproportionate response to John’s rejection, but it makes sense from Axe’s point of view once we realize this isn’t really about John after all. This is what Axe wants to do to Taylor but can’t do yet; John just has the misfortune of being the dry run for the revenge Axe truly desires.

David Costabile
Photo: Jeff Neumann (Showtime)
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Now that they’re so chummy, it’s almost as if Axe and Chuck are in competition to see which can out-slime the other. Double-date night doesn’t go so well, since Wendy still isn’t thrilled about being outed as Chuck’s dominatrix. Axe and Chuck both attempt to mansplain that it’s actually a good thing, but she isn’t buying. And it turns out that Chuck’s exposure of their private life may all be for naught: he has the title of New York’s Attorney General, but none of the power associated with the office. New Governor Bob Sweeney has wiped out all his authority on orders from Jock Jeffcoat, who is threatening to freeze federal funding otherwise.

Senior advises Chuck to get his juice back (while picking up his Viagra prescription, appropriately enough, in a drug store that used to be “Toots Shore’s place”) by making his enemies fear him. Chuck manages to reclaim his power while simultaneously delivering one last “fuck you” to Jack Foley—or as he puts it in the course of bestowing the episode with its title, giving Foley “a proper sendoff.” Crashing a funeral to have attending state senators arrested may not be quite as splashy as announcing you’re a masochist on live television, but give it to Chuck: he knows how to make an impression.

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While they’re both up to no good, it’s a little easier to root for Chuck at this point since his enemies (most notably Jeffcoat) are at least as distasteful as he is. It’s more troubling to think of Axe doing to Taylor what he did to John Rice (someone we didn’t know before and who, let’s face it, is more than a little smarmy). As evidenced by their call to Wendy last week, Taylor is one of the few characters capable of empathy, despite their Vulcan-like demeanor. Wendy figures that out at the end of this episode, setting up the possibility of a new alliance that could mean trouble for Axe. After this week, he’s got it coming.

Stray observations

  • So what would have happened if John Rice had said, “Sure, go ahead and tear up that check?” Axe’s operation to destroy Rice’s firm was already well under way at that point, right? Maybe Axe had a fake check with him in case of that eventuality, or else he would have ended up one of the only investors in a business he’d ruined. (In fact, I’m guessing he’d already cashed the real check, since it likely would have bounced afterward.)
  • Not everything is coming up Chuck this week, as the FBI is onto Senior’s expedited sanitation permitting for his planned Elysian Fields development, and has surveillance on that very spot when Chuck meets with his father.
  • Line of the night, from Chuck to Connerty: “I can’t imagine I’d be sending anything your way other than a hearty ‘How’s my ass taste?’”
  • Spyros update: Not entirely useless this week!
  • Who will we see first: Lara Axelrod or the Rhoades children? Those kids must have their pictures on a milk carton by now.
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About the author

Scott Von Doviak

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