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Billions spins its wheels in an unusually lackluster episode

Nina Arianda, Maggie Siff, David Costabile
Photo: Jeff Neumann (Showtime)
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We’re in the doldrums of this season of Billions, the point at which you can set your watch to the reversals of fortune. Those who were riding high last week will be brought low this week, and vice versa. “American Champion” is about as rote as this show gets, which means it still offers up its share of entertaining moments amid some stale and underwhelming storytelling. Any number of this week’s developments have the potential to catch fire before season’s end, but at the moment they’re mostly lukewarm.

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The most attention-grabbing story involves the poop train, but it’s also the least convincing thing Billions has done in a while, and that’s saying something. How is it that New York’s attorney general has the juice to stop the stinky choo-choo just outside Jock’s ranch, but the AG of the whole damn United States can’t get it moving again with the snap of his fingers? We see Chuck pop into Jock’s West Texas home for less than two minutes, just long enough for him to see how close the trains run past the fence. Chuck cuts deals with a number of mayors across the country, presumably diverting the shit-wagon from its usual course to New Mexico, although I may have failed to grasp the true import as this all happened very quickly. He somehow gets the train stopped at the exact location he needs it for a biohazard inspection, and it’s just going to sit there until he deigns to let it proceed? Even for a show that often revels in Road Runner cartoon plotting, this is all hard to swallow.

The real takeaway from the poop train saga is that Chuck could have cut a deal with Connerty that would have made Wendy’s problem with the medical board go away, and he chooses not to do it. Wendy certainly expects him to do it: she tells him she needs the killer inside him, although Chuck is quick to point out she’s always criticized that part of him. Still, this is what he can do to restore normalcy to their marriage—a “selfless act” that benefits only her. Chuck argues that the medical board isn’t under his jurisdiction, but we’ve already seen that jurisdiction isn’t a barrier when he really wants something. He can get this done easily, by capitulating to Jock on the mobile voting program. But he can’t bring himself to do it. Later, when he tells Wendy he failed and she’s on her own, she accept that he tried everything he could. She will find out he didn’t; it’s only a matter of time and who tells her so.

Jade Eshete
Photo: Mark Schafer (Showtime)

Much of the rest of the hour is concerned with Rebecca Cantu’s planned takeover of Saler’s, the show’s thinly disguised version of Sears. Her quest has been presented as equal parts nostalgia and empowerment: her memories of longingly perusing the Saler’s catalog as a child whose family couldn’t afford to get her anything she might want fuel her desire to own it all. Taylor Mason seeks to thwart her plan, mostly to see where Axe stands and how far he’s willing to go to protect Rebecca’s interests. Again the writers flip through the Rolodex of yesteryear’s characters and land on Sandy Belinger, played by Richard Thomas. When last we saw Belinger, he was burying Axe’s dreams of NFL ownership. Here Axe returns the favor by buying the Chrysler Building out from under Belinger, who had been planning to join forces with Taylor in order to gain control of the Saler’s board of directors.

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Since Taylor came out on top last week, it’s no surprise that Axe prevails, wooing Belinger to his side first by offering to sell the building to him at cost and then by demonstrating (or appearing to demonstrate) selflessness by offering to remove himself from the board. On Billions, it’s hard to take any motive other than greed, revenge, or lust for power at face value, but Belinger is impressed enough to give Axe another chance. I am not uncertain that someone is getting played here and a hidden scheme will be revealed, with Rebecca being my lead suspect at this point. Even if that’s not the case, Taylor appears poised to bounce back, armed with the intel that Axe is committed to Rebecca.

Taylor also conducts a “psyop” via Mafee, who proves to be the source of the discontent rippling through the offices of Axe Cap regarding the Flagship fund. Bonnie leads the charge, which takes a number of misguided turns, including the traders lifting their black-gloved fists outside Axe’s office. She does succeed in getting Dollar Bill’s attention, which is good news for anyone who may have shipping them following last week’s pre-fight clinch. It’s a rare episode of Billions where that’s what passes for a major development, but this is one of them.

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Stray observations

  • Billions is taking next Sunday off. I’m not sure why, but I heard a rumor some sort of dragon show is airing its series finale that night. Billions returns with a new episode on May 26th.
  • Taylor appears to be over Mike Birbiglia’s Oscar Langstraat, judging from the prolonged smooch they enjoy with new fixer Lauren Turner. Workplace boundaries, Taylor!
  • Another spin of the Wheel of Characters Past lands on Dr. Gilbert, now serving time for his role in the Ice Juice mess. Our first glimpse of Gilbert finds him looming in the middle of his cell like Hannibal Lecter, and that visual gag would be enough for most shows. Not Billions, however! Gilbert has to comment that he feels like Hannibal Lecter, because no pop culture reference can go unsaid.
  • Another doctor returns: Dr. Gus, who briefly replaced Wendy at Axe Cap, is Connerty’s new performance guru.
  • “It’s a fucking Slinky.” Senior’s grandfatherly charm needs a little work.
  • I wasn’t familiar with the term “night soil,” so thanks for that one, Senior.
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About the author

Scott Von Doviak

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