When you have power and money, what is it that truly makes you happy? If you’re a character on Billions, the top answer is probably making other people do what you want. That’s what Bobby Axelrod is used to doing from his perch at Axe Capital, directing his traders to fatten his wallet and chewing them out when they don’t. And that’s what Chuck Rhoades needs to do in order to ensure that Axe never returns to that perch.

As “The Wrong Maria Gonzalez” opens, Axe is isolated in his Manhattan sky pad and second-guessing his decision to give up his license to trade. Wendy tries to assure him that limits can be a good thing, but Axe has never been about limits. When he gets a news alert about an underground earthquake in Mozambique, it clearly means more to him than such an event would unless he smelled money to be made (or at least less money lost). We don’t find out exactly why until the tsunami hits Brazil—a black swan event that Axe could have predicted and reacted to, if only he’d been able to speak to his traders.

The firewall between Axe the man and Axe the company is played for laughs when the exiled boss shows up on the scene and is immediately pounced upon by Wags (to no effect) and Ari the compliance officer, who follows Axe around with his phone to make sure he doesn’t break the code of silence. All he can do is loom and fume, a state of affairs that stresses out Taylor (who admits to Wendy that they have cultivated a mystique of robotic unflappability to cover up for deficiencies in experience). Desperate to keep his hand in the game and hedge his bets in case Taylor’s investments don’t pan out, Axe is threatening to take $2 billion and distribute it to outside firms. The man doesn’t know how to step away and delegate, and his lack of control over the situation threatens to get him in even more legal hot water.

Christopher Denham, Toby Leonard Moore
Photo: Jeff Neumann (Showtime)

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That same loss of control is plaguing Chuck, especially since the judge chosen by lottery for the Axelrod prosecution is known to be a free-market libertarian. (“You just got Funted!” Axe’s mouthpiece gleefully exclaims.) Chuck needs a friendlier judge, which means calling in an old favor from Judge Funt (whose son’s sideline in Adderall sales was swept under the rug years earlier by Chuck). Wendy tells him to do what, deep down, he really wants to do anyway: “Impose your will on him.” Even the judge isn’t buying that this power play is making Chuck feel sick. (“I really think I am sorry.” That’s priceless.) Chuck can’t control the prosecution (not yet, anyway), but this move not only favors his preferred outcome, it puts Dake back in his debt. Win/win.

Unlike last season, however, when it felt like the cat-and-mouse game was decidedly tilted Chuck’s way, Axe manages to land a few blows, too. The title phrase is uttered by Connerty when he arrives at a detention cell to pick up a witness and finds another woman with the same name in her place. The Maria Gonzalez who poisoned her own Ice Juice before drinking it has been put on a plane back to Guatemala, and the new cowboy Attorney General has no interest in bringing a “three-times illegal” back just to slap down Axe Capital. The closing shot of the real Gonzalez deposited on a street corner by a bus and having nowhere to go provides a glimpse of the collateral damage Axe will never lose any sleep over. A working class woman of color participated in a scheme for his benefit, and now that it didn’t work out, she’s just dumped on the street and forgotten.

“The Wrong Maria Gonzalez” is far more streamlined than the crowded premiere, and the conflicts have been set in motion with no time wasted. Some familiar flaws are on display, however. In this episode more than ever, Wendy has become a floating Yoda with no real agency of her own. She simply appears whenever someone else has an inner conflict that needs to be explicated for the peanut gallery. This is not a character, this is a writer’s crutch. The cast is getting more ever more crowded, but at the very least it’s bad optics that the female lead is the one getting marginalized early on.

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Stray observations

  • Chuck is not a Charlie. His father was always Charles, and when it came time to bestow his given name on his son, he evidently opted for the bluntness of “Chuck” over the good-time guy implications of “Charlie.” A page from the Peppermint Patty playbook.
  • The episode is directed by Noah Emmerich, Stan Beeman of The Americans, who previously helmed last season’s “The Oath,” which also featured an appearance by Mark Cuban. Coincidence? You be the judge.
  • I was tempted to deduct a letter grade for the choice to both open and close the show with Counting Crows. Never go double Crows!
  • Wags is banned for life from Little League games. I require no further information about that.
  • Lara really loves treating her “friends” like shit, doesn’t she?
  • As if to stress the point that not all alphas are male on Billions, FBI Agent Terri MCue is unfazed by another potential witness “hanging brain,” while Connerty is visibly rattled.
  • The Attorney General quotes from The Departed. (“I have an immaculate record.”) Now he is truly a Billions character.

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