To call an episode of Billions a piece-moving episode feels odd because, honestly, what episode of Billions isn’t a piece-moving episode? Most installments of this show feel like part of a gradual build-up to a pay off that still feels incredibly far away. And yet “Magical Thinking” feels especially lackadaisical even for a show that never seems in a rush to get anywhere. Maybe it feels like a letdown coming on the heels of “Quality Of Life,” the most complete and fleshed out episode of Billions yet. It also might be that, as the penultimate episode of the first season, “Magical Thinking” doesn’t feel like the run-up to a finale. It was one thing not to have a handle on where Billions is headed three episodes in, but for the show to feel this aimless so late in the game is really odd.
Every time I think I’m starting to invest in Chuck and Bobby’s battle of wits, something happens to remind me that I’m still keeping Billions are arm’s length. I may never be that interested in the actual cat-and-mouse game between Axe Capital and the Southern District, and it’s much harder to plug into it when even the characters are beginning to disengage. I still don’t quite understand why Donnie’s death represents the end of the prosecution, but files are going back into boxes, and according to Terri and Dale, that’s a clear sign that the moment has passed. Bryan is the only person officially attached to the case who’s still energized about prosecuting it, yet he needs a pep talk from Kate to remind him why this work is important to begin with. Even DiGiulio, the man who stands to directly benefit from Chuck’s gambit to get Judge Wilcox off the bench, finds it hard to believe that Chuck is still so hung up on punishing Axe Capital.
But Chuck is still doggedly pursuing the case, and remains willing to sacrifice his marriage if doing so will give him a leg up in the case. First, Chuck lied to Wendy about recusing himself from the case when he hadn’t done so, and had no intention to do so. But Chuck can always find a way to top himself in sheer douchebaggery, and in “Magical Thinking” he hits his peak when he logs into Wendy’s computer while she’s out of the room, then emails Wendy’s notes from her all-night session with Bobby to his own account. Armed with new information about Bobby bribing the cops to get one of his traders out of trouble with the law—the incident in “Short Squeeze”—Chuck will presumably make up the ground the Southern District lost when Donnie succumbed to pancreatic cancer.
Because Chuck’s sputtering case against Axe Capital is so central to this narrative, the quiet few minutes in which Chuck invades Wendy’s privacy and jeopardizes her professional reputation by breaching confidentiality feel like the only truly significant moments in “Magical Thinking.” The rest of the episode, which finds Chuck in full hedonist mode, stumbling from one terrible decision to the next, is only of interested if you’re already deeply invested in the characters outside of this case. But the case is so much of the show, I don’t know when I was supposed to start caring about the rest of it. With Donnie, for example, it was hard to focus on his illness because by the time the audience is made aware of it, he’s already been turned into a pawn in Chuck and Bobby’s endless chess match. Maybe there are some Bryan and Kate ‘shippers who got a thrill out of “Magical Thinking,” or those interested in delving more into who Lara was before she met Bobby. Unless you fall into one of those categories, the episode doesn’t offer much to sink your teeth into.
The scenes between Bobby and Wendy work better than anything else in the episode. Bobby suddenly finds himself in need of Wendy’s unparalleled motivational psychology after he makes a bad call, resulting in the loss of nearly a half-billion dollars, and possibly far more than that. The problem with the Chuck and Bobby battle is that Chuck so often seems outgunned and outclassed by the smarter, more strategic Bobby. I can’t blame Bobby for forgetting he’s not a god, seeing as how I routinely forget he’s not a god because of the superhuman terms the show uses to describe him. So Wendy’s illuminating conversation with Bobby is as helpful for the audience as it is for the character. The case doesn’t feel terribly engaging when it seems so tilted in Bobby’s favor, and reminding the audience of his human fallibility definitely helps stoke some interest in the outcome.
I am more interested than ever before in the Bobby-Wendy-Chuck triangle, though the events of “Magical Thinking” serve to reinforce how ridiculous it is that this conflict of interest exists in the first place. Sexual tension frequently informs scenes between Bobby and Wendy, but here, it’s more present than ever. When Bobby needs Wendy, she’ll drop everything to be at his side, disregarding Chuck’s needs in the process, and Lara is just as anxious about the intimacy of Bobby and Wendy’s professional relationship. Chuck doesn’t talk about what’s in his head when he witnesses his wife and his nemesis having an overly chummy smoke break at Axe Capital, but he doesn’t seem to realize that Wendy isn’t the one having an affair with Bobby, he is. It’s Chuck who hoards secrets and sneaks around trying to find new ways to engage with Bobby. Maybe it turns out Billions is a story about forbidden love.
- I haven’t talked enough about how much I love Eskmo’s score. One of the best parts of the show.
- The cameraman tailing Chuck can’t be a good sign.
- I loved the scene with the dominatrix as yet another example of how the show portrays dom-sub relationships in a non-judgmental way.