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When last we saw Chuck Rhoades and Bobby Axelrod, both were licking their wounds and plotting vengeance—but not against each other. After teaming up at the midway point, Chuck and Axe spent the rest of the third season in separate storylines, each pitted against a new threat paired with an old ally. In Chuck’s case, his spittle-flecked firing of Bryan Connerty comes back to haunt him when Connerty takes over Chuck’s job after Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat terminates his U.S. Attorney for the Southern District. For Axe, his lack of appreciation for Taylor Mason’s efforts has earned him a new rival in league with the dangerous Russian oligarch Grigor Andlov.

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The season three kicker set up the potential for a Chuck/Axe alliance to deal with their respective problems. As season four begins, they aren’t quite at that point yet (aside from one brief phone call, they don’t interact), but it’s clear that’s where this season is headed. In a way, this is a classic stalling tactic, postponing the inevitable final showdown (“postponing the inevitable” is practically the motto of Showtime drama), but it also promises to be great fun while it lasts. So who’s complaining?

“Chucky Rhoades’s Greatest Game” finds the title character laid low, working in private practice and struggling to obtain a gun permit for a client. Chuck’s reputation as a power broker hinges on his ability to do favors for Manhattan’s elite, and the “park anywhere” pass he’s acquired turns out not to be the trump card he’d imagined. (It’s a great Billions running gag throughout the episode, as the people Chuck seeks to impress are so far removed from earthly concerns, they see no value in something 99 percent of New Yorkers would kill for.)

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Chuck’s sole motivation at this point is revenge, but as Senior makes clear, he’s in no position to pursue it. Paul Giamatti and director Colin Bucksey have some fun with the visual presentation of Chuck-in-exile. Gone is the vest of the three-piece suit that kept him in fighting trim; instead the camera emphasizes Chuck’s white-shirted gut hanging out of his open jacket as he huffs around town trading favors.

Chuck’s day is the essence of Billions concentrated into a comic appetizer for the season to come. He makes his way from one eatery to another robbing Peter to pay Paul “and probably John, George, and Ringo too.” The commissioner who can supply the gun permit dismisses Chuck as a has-been, but Chuck acquires the intel he requires to get what he needs, even as he has to scrape and bow all across town, getting concert tickets from Donnie Deutsch in exchange for a ski resort “first tracks” season pass, which Wendy obtains from old friend Steven Birch (Jerry O’Connell) in exchange for a session. In the end, Chuck even finds a taker for that parking pass in exchange for a fake Dominican birth certificate, completing the circle. The commissioner’s little league pitcher can stay in the league, and Chuck’s client gets his gun permit.

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

Vengeance is also Axe’s primary motivator, which is nothing new. At the end of last season, Grigor Andolov offered to solve Axe’s Taylor Mason problem permanently. When Axe couldn’t bring himself to cross that line, Andolov took his money out of Axe Cap and went all in on Taylor. Now Axe is implementing a zero tolerance policy, firing one employee photographed at Taylor’s company picnic, and employing dirty tricks like bribing Taylor’s headhunter for intel, thus drawing Mick Danzig back into the fold before Taylor can hire him. (Does it even matter why Danzig left in the first place? Alliances are always conveniences of the moment on Billions.) Both Axe and Taylor have their sights set on a big fish, a sheikh from the fictional Arab state of Qadir.

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Axe’s quest turns into a rescue mission when Wags is essentially taken hostage at the Qadir embassy to ensure the sheikh gets a face-to-face meeting with the number one man. (So weird that Wags’s charms would be lost on anyone!) For Taylor, their meeting becomes a test of their new “whatever it takes” philosophy, in this case conforming to an expected gender role. The sheikh’s man Farhad and Wags both refer to Taylor as “Miss” or “Ms.” Mason, and I half-expected Taylor to show up at the embassy in a burqa. Instead, they are all dolled up in wig, dress, and makeup—a turn of events that could be seen as Taylor’s biggest sellout to date. (Or, more generously, you could admire Taylor’s restraint for having this particular weapon in their toolkit all this time and never relying on it until now.)

As the hour ends, Chuck is reminiscing about the Castellano hit in front of Sparks Steak House—a reminder that you can be boss one minute and in the gutter the next. Neither Chuck nor Axe is truly in the gutter at this point, but watching them claw their way back to the top, with or without each other’s help, should make for another satisfying season of Billions.

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Stray observations

  • Could Chuck’s greatest game come back and bite him before season’s end? Is this Chekhov’s gun permit, introduced in the first act and due to go off before the end? It’s Billions, where no piece of business is ever forgotten.
  • Subtle music cues this week, starting with the 20 Fingers classic “Short Dick Man,” so popular at weddings. Axe roars into work wearing a Motorhead t-shirt and accompanied by “Ace Of Spades” on the soundtrack, while Chuck is more of an Al Green man.
  • Following up on an earlier point, Wikipedia reminds me that Mick Danzig left Axe Cap “for ethical reasons after it bankrupted the city of Sandicot.” Oh, well. Bygones!

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