Dan Soder, Asia Kate Dillon/Showtime
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Ten episodes in, the trajectories of season two remain steady. The other shoe has yet to drop. A couple of episodes back, I figured Chuck had peaked and Axe had hit rock bottom, but that isn’t the case at all. Cut off from his family and alienated from almost everyone else in his life, Axe finds himself with a shortage of friendly faces to turn to in his time of crisis. At the other extreme, Chuck is the master of his destiny, turning every potential misstep to his advantage. The question is: how long can this dynamic continue to reap dramatic benefits for Billions?

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“With Or Without You” isn’t a dull episode by any means, but it has a certain repetitive quality (and I’m not just referring to Axe’s endless series of voicemail messages). Maybe that’s appropriate for an episode named after a U2 song Axe and Lara listened to on repeat all through one magical night in Paris. The tune may remind Axe of better times with his wife, but thematically, it’s a better fit for the current state of affairs between Wendy and Axe Capital. That they can’t live with or without each other strains more credibility by the week, but Billions is still trying to push the idea. In one episode Wendy is telling Chuck of her doubts about her decision to return, and in the next she turns around and tells Lara the job means more to her than any buyout offer. Her utility to Axe Capital since coming back is equally questionable. We’ve seen her offering “trust your conscience” advice to two valued employees; one (Danzig) quit, while the other (Taylor) appears to be ignoring it entirely. We’re left to rely on the strength of the bond between Wendy and Axe to explain this continued association, but that feels more theoretical than real at this point.

For a minute, it looks like Taylor may be following through on Wendy’s advice. Bryan has pegged them as a potential inside source, given their left-leaning politics and previous involvement with Occupy Wall Street. He’s a little too late, though; Taylor has had a meteoric rise from intern to department head, with a corresponding exponential increase in purchasing power. They are now Axe’s most trusted and valued analyst, able to find justification for shorting Klaxon where others saw none. When Taylor holds off on signing the research, there’s momentary reason to believe they can be turned, but they only need a few minutes with Bryan to figure out he’s got nothing except his hope Taylor will do the right thing. Anyone can be seduced by money, especially the kind that gets you a $26,000 a month apartment, but we’ve seen little of Taylor’s life away from Axe Capital (aside from a brief glimpse of their friends on the private jet last week). If they still hang with the lefty activist crowd, how do those people feel about these rapid changes in Taylor’s life?

If failing to land Taylor is a setback, it’s just about the only one Chuck suffers this week. Even when it looks like trouble (a masked figure stealing the laptop belonging to Chuck’s dominatrix), it turns out to be Chuck planning three steps ahead (by arranging to have the laptop stolen). Chuck is wary from the start of his sessions with George Minchak (special guest star Mary-Louise Parker with a fanciful Southern accent), and when he gives up the story of being party to bullying in college, his reluctance suggests he’ll never part with the secrets of his sex life. It turns out that he was the bullied student who fought back, something Michak can spin in his favor, but it’s not until Chuck delivers her the laptop later in the episode that it becomes clear just how seriously he’s taking the vetting process. He’s leaving nothing to chance.

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That includes his chance to patch things up with Wendy, something he desires for both personal and professional reasons. His efforts extend to using an investigator to track down the chef from their favorite, but long-since shuttered, restaurant. (I would think Google would suffice for that task, but that wouldn’t be quite as effective a piece of misdirection.) By episode’s end, Wendy and Chuck are back in the bedroom together, leather collars and all.

Axe’s own reunion with his wife takes a much different path. The best advice he gets is to just be patient and wait for Lara to sort through things until she’s ready to return, but patience has never been Axe’s strong suit. He calls her repeatedly, leaving messages that escalate from apologetic and nostalgic to pleading to threatening. This isn’t played for laughs, as in the greatest message-leaving scene of all time, and it gets a little tedious over the course of the hour, but it’s not as if Axe really has anyone else willing to listen. Even his business partner in pizza, Bruno, gives him the brushoff, still sore over the Sandicot fallout. When Lara does return with the kids, the contrast with the Rhoades reunion is stark. Lara was always the exception to Axe’s rule of treating relationships like transactions, but this feels more like a settlement than a reconciliation.

I’m through predicting if and when the respective fortunes of Chuck and Axe will reverse; at this point, I’m curious to see just how long Billions can play out this string. Axe’s newfound intel on Chuck Sr.’s Ice Juice plans may look like a potential chink in Chuck’s armor, but we already have ample reason to believe this is a set-up destined to blow up in Axe’s face. How many Chuck Rhoades victories can we take before his winning streak wears out its welcome?

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Stray observations

  • Boyd has been reduced to mopping floors on a work-release program, his only solace a bottle of 20-year-old Scotch he can’t even drink for fear of a random piss-test. In the end he does so anyway at Axe’s urging, and in a nice piece of symmetry, Axe later gets drunk from his own identical bottle.
  • “Mr. Martinez” is a very convincing alias for Chuck.
  • “I’m no Ed Harris.” No, Bryan, you are not. He’s on that other premium cable outlet on Sunday nights.

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