Paul Giamatti, Eric Bogosian (Photo: Showtime)

It’s not out of the ordinary for Showtime to hold back screeners of its season finales, but when word came down this week that the penultimate episode of Billions would not be released to critics before airtime, it was a pretty safe bet that we were in store for some sort of shocking event. This isn’t The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, so nobody gets whacked in “Golden Frog Time,” but this hour still delivers the kind of nerve-wracking suspense and sudden reversals of fate that those shows specialized in serving up toward the end of every season. Billions isn’t quite in the same class as its predecessors, and “Golden Frog Time” is ultimately too contrived and cartoonish to justify comparison with the best those series had to offer, but on its own terms, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Structured like a mini-Scorsese movie, the episode tracks the Ice Juice IPO and the effect its ups and downs have on the major players, scrolling back and forth in time to show us exactly how it all unfolds. For most of the hour, it appears that the tables have finally turned: Everything is going Axe’s way, while Chuck is the unwitting victim of his plot to destroy Ice Juice’s prospects before it even gets off the ground. And yet, it all looks too easy from Axe’s perspective. A seed was planted a couple of weeks ago, a small hint indicating that this was a setup on Chuck’s part all along. Admittedly, for most of tonight’s episode, I questioned whether I had misread that when it happened, but the final montage makes it all plain: Chuck is still on a roll, and Axe is merely enjoying a momentary respite before it all comes crashing down.

It’s ingenious, really. One of my major qualms about this second season is the way it’s heavily favored Chuck all the way. Nothing has gone wrong for him, so when it looks like everything is crashing down tonight, it feels like a delayed but nonetheless inevitable comeuppance has finally arrived. Axe’s plan is a little goofy, but workable: rope in a handful of civilians who owe him favors (or who owe favors to associates like Lara’s scuzzy bar friends) to down some bottles of Ice Juice dosed with a poison that won’t do any long-term harm to them, but will torpedo the stock on its first day on the market. It works beautifully: The stock soars to the point where Chuck Sr. invests all of Chuck’s blind trust into it. Wendy gets wind of it at work and tries to warn Chuck, whose overconfidence at this moment turns out to be part of his play. (It’s a pretty safe bet that he’ll come to regret not trusting her with his master plan at this point, but come on, something has to go wrong for him eventually.)

It’s not until the final five minutes or so, after the stock has tanked and all seems lost, that the clock rewinds again and we find out exactly what Chuck has been up to. He’s cut a deal with Boyd to spring him from his sentence in exchange for passing on the information about Senior’s involvement in Ice Juice to Axe. Pushing the limits of plausibility, albeit in entertaining fashion, he arranges for Dake to get promoted to U.S. attorney on the Eastern District on the condition that he put manpower on every Ice Juice location as well as all of Axe’s known associates in order to gather the evidence necessary to prove Axe sabotaged the IPO. Yes, this is all ridiculous, but in Billions terms, it’s satisfying nonetheless.

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Even with all of this going on, the heart of the episode is the struggle for Taylor’s soul. I have to assume this is Asia Kate Dillon’s Emmy submission, as their performance elevates what would otherwise be a rather schematic piece of character development. Taylor represents the Moneyball voice within Axe Capital, reliant on analytics to make decisions. Axe and Wags advise that they look beyond the stats when faced with cutting someone from the ranks. That Taylor is eventually won over by a “Rudy” figure with more heart than talent would feel a little too corny if Dillon weren’t able to sell it, but they pull it off without betraying the enigmatic, ambiguous quality that makes Taylor so fascinating. Bryan would agree, as he still has hopes that Taylor can be reached. Whether that plays out in the finale remains to be seen, but Billions has its work cut out for it if it’s going to top “Golden Frog Time.”

Stray observations

  • The Ice Juice storyline playing out at the same time Juicero is in the news is a fortuitous piece of timing.
  • Axe and Lara appear to have patched things up… but only to a point.
  • Dollar Bill gives Taylor $25,000 in cash for their help on the Klaxon play. Subtle guy.
  • Same deal next Sunday: no advance screener, so the review will post later than usual.

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