Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Paul Giamatti
Paul Giamatti
Photo: Jeff Neumann (Showtime)
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As the fifth season of Billions opens, our two leads both find themselves in midlife crisis mode. In Chuck’s case, this is partially brought on by being forced to watch his father enact his own late-life crisis by marrying the much-younger mother of his child in very public fashion. More pertinent to his troubles is another reluctant guest at the nuptials, his now-estranged wife Wendy, who is starting to wonder if there’s any way to extract herself from the world of the Rhoades men, particularly after noticing that Senior’s ex-wife is dutifully attending the wedding too.

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Bobby Axelrod, meanwhile, is dealing with a very relatable problem: he’s made it to the $10 billion mark, but it’s left him with the same emotional high as finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk. He and Wags go on a vision quest, lasting only long enough in the sweat lodge to throw up and have a mild epiphany about the Great Earth Mother before immediately reverting to grunting cavemen. What Axe doesn’t know until Wags springs it on him is that his milestone achievement is to be celebrated in a Vanity Fair cover shoot with the other “new decas.” This won’t bring Axe the peace of mind he seeks, but it will introduce a new focus for his bottomless need to be the top dog.

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Enter Corey Stoll, continuing his tour of prestige dramas following House Of Cards and The Deuce, as Mike Prince, another of the new decas at the photo shoot. Prince is a font of false modesty, crediting his team for helping him achieve such riches and downplaying the need for publicity, but when Axe lays eyes on the magazine cover, it is Prince alone staring back at him. As always with Billions, the final showdown between Axe and Chuck must be postponed until the series is ready to wrap, which means Axe needs a new temporary nemesis. Prince fits the bill.

Still, Chuck and Axe remain in each other’s orbits. It galls Chuck that Wendy and the kids are now living in Axe’s palatial “spare” apartment, but he’s still Wile E. Coyote on the hunt for the elusive Road Runner. With Sacker now on his side, he’s busted a bitcoin mining operation with ties to Axe, and (he thinks, at least) he’s got a mole inside Axe Cap now that Taylor and the rest of Mase Cap have been assimilated. Naturally, that’s not going smoothly; the Axe veterans resent the snotty quants on Taylor’s team and toilet pranks are the order of the day. Taylor is resentful about having to return and play by Axe’s rules, but equally frustrated at the prospect of being Chuck’s pawn. It doesn’t take Axe long to sniff out what Chuck’s up to, and he enlists Taylor as his double agent. Taylor wants to serve neither master, setting up a triple-cross that should be fun to watch develop over the course of the season.

David Costabile, Damian Lewis, Maggie Siff
David Costabile, Damian Lewis, Maggie Siff
Photo: Jeff Neumann (Showtime)

For now, a fragile truce stands. He can sweat it out with as many shamans as he wants, but for Axe, everything in life remains a transaction. In his mind, a gift of Churchill first editions should be enough to squash Chuck’s investigation into the crypto mines, never mind that it was Axe who made it impossible for Chuck to replace his original volumes in the first place. For his part, Chuck makes overtures toward changing his ways, making Sacker a partner in his machinations to ensure trust in this new phase (and help her advance her own political aspirations), and vowing to repair his domestic life. But of course he hasn’t changed; he ignores Wendy’s request to release a press release announcing their plans to divorce, assuming it will blow over. When she puts out her own release with Lauren Turner’s help, however, it’s clear that’s not going to be so easy.

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As always, the schemes and con jobs are a big part of the pleasure of Billions, but at heart the show remains a dark comedy about late capitalism and the toxic culture it engenders. That mode finds its expression in two set pieces late in the episode, first when Wendy tries to thaw the chill between the factions at Axe Capital with some good old-fashioned kayfabe featuring special guest star Becky Lynch. The idea that corporate culture can take some tips from the world of professional wrestling is too perfect, but perhaps no image sums up the Billions ethos more than the final sequence of Taylor letting loose in the rage room. This is how people with way too much money get their frustrations out: destroying a room full of perfectly good furniture and appliances. It’s enough to make you hope the series ends with a row of waiting guillotines.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to season five of Billions. Unfortunately, in these unsettled times, weekly coverage is being suspended for now. I’ll return for episode seven, the mid-season finale, after which Billions goes into limbo along with the rest of television production. Things may change by the time it returns, but there’s no way of knowing when that will happen.
  • The wit and wisdom of Wags: “I got a case of the grapes like they talk about in literature.” I guess I’ve been reading the wrong literature.
  • Chuck begins his toast to his father by noting that he’s been known to go against expectations in his speeches, a nod to his big bondage reveal last season. He manages to pivot from giving the “unvarnished” roast he’d really love to give the old man to a quasi-sincere tribute to the bride who defanged him. Supposedly.
  • Spiros: Still an idiot.
  • Wags met the Creator of Souls. No biggie.
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My debut novel Charlesgate Confidential is now available from Hard Case Crime.

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