You can tell a significant episode of Billions is coming when the show’s austere title reveal is trimmed down to get back into the action as quickly as possible. There’s no creator credit, which is held back until the end along with the cast and crew credits that typically run atop the episode’s opening scenes. Not this time. “Quality Of Life” picks up just moments after Donnie has expelled a mouthful of blood onto Bryan’s sharp suit and tie. Donnie is rushed to the hospital, where he’s soon pronounced dead, and Axe Capital is left mourning the loss of a friend and colleague while the Southern District frets over the critical setback Donnie’s death represents. To Billions’ credit, the show doesn’t quickly zip through the aftermath of Donnie’s death, and “Quality Of Life” gives the moment the gravity it deserves.
At least, the episode gives Donnie’s death as much gravity as can be expected from a show that is never going to be about a character like Donnie in any real way. I anticipated that should Donnie give up the ghost, the show would examine the significance of Donnie’s life using the Axe Capital case as the lens. I didn’t expect Billions to go quite as far as it does in making Donnie’s life and death about his impact on the case, but that’s the corner the show has painted itself into. The writers have tried, somewhat, to broaden the Billions world so that it becomes a show around the Axe Capital case rather than a show about the Axe Capital case, but “Quality Of Life” shows how close the show still is to the starting line. Billions clearly requires the maintenance of a status quo, and the best episodes are the ones that make the show look like there’s more at stake than Chuck and Bobby’s massive egos.
What “Quality Of Life” demonstrates is that Billions may never build up its supporting characters such that their storylines can stand independently. It may always be about the specifics of Chuck’s case against Bobby, with the plot driven exclusively by each anti-climactic thrust and parry. This storytelling approach is unusual, given how long, brutal, and meticulous a prosecution like Chuck’s against Axe Capital truly is. There would literally be years of storytelling in a federal case of this magnitude if the show was paced accordingly, but Billions is plotted and paced as though prosecutors like Chuck play the short game in a case like this. Find one witness and flip them, Chuck’s logic goes, and Bobby’s whole empire crumbles. First the Southern District tried unsuccessfully to lean on Bill Stearn, then they flipped Donnie, only for him to die long before he’d be able to testify about the improper Kemlot trade.
To its credit, “Quality Of Life” does a fine job of laying out the specifics of what happened between Donnie and Bobby. Apparently, in addition to an eidetic memory and an uncanny ability to read people, Bobby is a human cancer-sniffing dog. In a flashback, one of many in this time-jumping episode, Bobby spots a sick, spaced-out Donnie after a meeting and intuits that whatever he’s suffering from is likely terminal. Indeed it is advanced pancreatic cancer, and Donnie doesn’t have long to live. He also hasn’t managed his wealth as closely as he should, and hasn’t banked enough money to leave his husband and kids comfortable after he dies. So Bobby cuts him a deal: Feed Chuck’s office information he’ll be unable to corroborate on the stand, and Bobby makes sure Donnie’s family has a $40 million nest egg. The twist is that Bobby hastens Donnie’s death when he had the chance to prolong it long enough for Donnie to play Santa one last time, but also long enough for him to testify for the Southern District.
The revelation that Bobby could have prolonged Donnie’s life and chose not to is interesting, but mostly because of how Damian Lewis plays Bobby’s inner-conflict. Bobby has done a lot of sleazy, dishonest things to maintain his perch, and he’s had his henchman Hall do even sleazier things. But apparently there’s a point at which even Bobby has pangs of guilt, and he’s not proud of himself for letting Donnie die. Still, Bobby accepts Donnie’s earlier-than-necessary death as the price of maintaining his grip on the battle with the Southern District. Ending with Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” as a note of triumph as Bobby walks off into the distance is an odd touch that highlights the narrow scope of this show as it goes into the final two episodes of the season. I should definitely care about more people on this show than I do.
It’s a shame that “Quality Of Life” reinforces the biggest flaws of the show, because its structure is rather elegant and it might be the most purely enjoyable episode of the season. The time-shifting structure, anchored by Donnie’s funeral, makes the episode feel more like a collection of scenes, and many of those scenes are pretty great. The fake argument between Bobby and Dollar Bill isn’t the most original thing in the world, but it’s fun all the same. Less fun, but just as effective, is the tense standoff between Wendy and Lara as Lara ramps up her shunning in the wake of the restaurant’s closure and the vandalism to the farm. Bobby’s revenge against the “quislings” was fun too, but much like the decision to essentially pull the plug on Donnie, it’s merely another demonstration of how far Bobby is willing to go to protect his business and lifestyle. Wendy insisted she wouldn’t be the shuttlecock Bobby and Chuck bat back and forth, but that’s a perfect description for literally every character except for the male leads.
- Chuck got some interesting scenes too with his takedown of Judge Wilcox, who’s running a kids-for-cash scam similar to the one that made news in Pennsylvania. The judges in that case are among the worst people to ever walk the earth, but it says a lot about Chuck that I could only focus on how unbearably smug he is.
- That could be because Chuck showed up at the funeral, which is so unbelievably tone-deaf. There’s no way to justify that choice on any level, it’s just a dick move.
- I hope we haven’t moved on from Chuck’s dishonesty with Wendy about recusing himself from the Axe Capital case. Seems like the new festering secret is Bobby’s collusion with Donnie, which Wendy is pretty close to figuring out.
- Poor Channing, Carly, and Hlasa, three characters who might as well be fused together.