Last episode ended with both Chuck and Axe riding high, but ”The Oath” finds the pendulum swinging in Chuck’s favor. That won’t last—the cliffhanger-ish ending all but promises Axe has something up his sleeve to knock his nemesis down a peg or two—but there’s no question that the fourth hour of season two is not Axe’s finest. If only he’d taken Mark Cuban’s advice.
In a season that has introduced barely-disguised fictional counterparts for Martin Shkreli and (in tonight’s episode) Elon Musk, Billions goes with the real deal in Cuban’s case. He proves surprisingly adept at playing himself counseling Axe about his NFL bid. “Stop fucking with the US Attorney“ sure sounds like the smart play, but that‘s the one move Axe refuses to make. Instead, he tries to change his reputation and win hearts and minds another way, meeting with philanthropist Sanford Besinger (Richard Thomas) to discuss the possibility of taking the Giving Oath. The appeal of giving away a large chunk of his fortune appears to be entirely lost on Axe, despite Besinger‘s insistence that giving it away feels better than holding onto it, because it “puts you back in charge of yourself.“ Axe would prefer to take credit for being charitable without actually having to do it, so he arranges for details of the meeting to be leaked to the press.
Chuck doesn’t start the hour in a great position, as his key witness reports that Boyd’s Spartan Ives ceased its illegal Treasury bid-rigging as soon as the US Attorney’s office opened its investigation. Chuck switches tactics, setting up a meeting with Boyd to cultivate a “help me help you” dynamic. Boyd agrees to give up a few mid-level executives with the understanding that this will make the investigation disappear. Almost immediately, Chuck’s informant reports that “the faucet is back on.” Whether Chuck had planned for this outcome all along or it took a push from the senior Rhoades to stay aggressive is questionable, but it doesn’t look like Chuck is willing to let Boyd skate now.
One valid criticism of the first season was that the two leads’ wives (and Lara in particular) were too often treated as accessories to the show’s main conflict without enough agency of their own. That started to change when Wendy made her split from both Chuck and Axe in the season finale, and “The Oath” finds both pursuing their own interests with little to no involvement from their respective spouses. For Wendy, that means consulting with Musk surrogate Craig Heidecker (James Wolk, forever Mad Men’s Bob Benson to me), who asks her to stress-test a potential candidate for a manned mission to Mars. Potential astronaut Elena Gabriel is cut from the same cloth as Taylor in some ways; when she tells Wendy, “That’s funny. I like jokes,” she comes off as perfectly suited to a long space voyage. Wendy doesn’t see it that way, though, telling Heidecker that Elena is a “leaver” who never faced real adversity. Crushing dreams doesn’t bring Wendy much joy, however, and she politely declines the opportunity to continue “sorting people into boxes.”
Luxury rehydration therapy (which is a real thing) is a strange way for Lara to get back in touch with her working class roots, but when a rival company threatens to cut into her market share, it’s back to the old neighborhood for a dive bar meeting with a couple of rough-looking characters from her past. We’ve seen her flex these muscles before, but in season one her efforts were in service of quashing the tell-all memoir implicating her husband’s 9/11 profiteering. Here it’s her own profits at stake, and when a prostitute is planted on the rival company’s staff, she reaps the benefits. (This subplot also serves as a timely reminder that pretty much everyone on this show is terrible, in case that slipped your mind.)
Bringing Chuck and Axe face-to-face is a move Billions tries to hold in reserve, although the writers are showing less restraint in that area as time goes on. ”The Oath” closes out with the two men meeting in a conference room for Axe’s deposition, as Chuck heeds his lawyer’s warning to keep his mouth shut for all of three seconds. For his part, Axe chooses a Megadeth t-shirt to establish his “don’t give a fuck” attitude toward the occasion, but when Schirmer outfoxes him by asking if he’s suing for mental or emotional damages, Axe loses his cool and storms out of the room. Good news does not await him during the break: realizing Axe was only using him for publicity, Besinger has made some calls and sabotaged his NFL bid. Upon returning to the conference room, Axe places the blame squarely on Chuck, but the rest of their showdown will have to wait another week. After all, why shoot off all the fireworks at once?
- Billions characters have been lifting their tough-guy talk from popular culture since the beginning, but it became an epidemic in this episode, from “Hans Gruber’s emergency exit” to ”attack ships on fire” to ”this is our fucking corner, Stringer” to an Anton Chigurh reference. (That’s Die Hard, Blade Runner, The Wire, and No Country For Old Men respectively.) This sort of thing is fine in small doses, but it becomes an annoying tic with overuse.
- Other happenings in the US Attorney’s office: Kate has learned that her father isn’t the saint everyone thinks he is, as he’s got millions in offshore accounts as a (legal) tax-avoidance strategy. As for Connerty, it looks like he’s made his decision to stand by Chuck despite Dake’s threats.
- Billions may be less cartoonish in general now than in its first season, but we still have Wags to contend with. His midlife crisis storyline is being played for comic relief with an edge of desperation, but the whole ass-tattoo bit feels like a tired sitcom retread.
- “Give it to Bill to read to the world.” “Gates or Clinton?” “Either. Both.”