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On "Fight Night," Billions only lands a few punches

Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey DeMunn
Photo: Jeff Neumann (Showtime)
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The characters on Billions all consider themselves to be alphas, and most of them are probably right—within the narrow confines of the world they inhabit, anyway. If civilization were to collapse overnight, how many of them would even last a week? Their financial acumen, their deal-making skills, their boardroom ruthlessness—all of it would be worthless. They may live by the law of the jungle, but it’s a mighty pampered jungle.

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All of which brings us to this week’s main event, a boxing match between Mafee and Dollar Bill. Springing from their brief scrap last week, it’s a charity event as well as a grudge match between Axe Cap and Taylor Mason Capital. Both men are fighting not only to save face but for the honor of the companies they represent, and boy, are they not even remotely up for it. It’s not just that they have no grasp of the sweet science; their sedentary lifestyles have rendered them almost completely stamina-free. Both are put through rigorous training regimens, with Dollar Bill being woken in the middle of the night by Axe and Wags so they can introduce him to his trainer and escort him on a moonlight run.

It’s all for naught. Despite the glitzy trappings (including Rich Eisen as the announcer) and heavy betting on either side, the fight is a dud. Few punches are landed during the bout, though each combatant gets in at least one cheap shot. By the fourth round, both men are completely exhausted, and the audience and announcers shower them with contempt. It’s scored a draw, so neither company ends up with bragging rights (although one smart quant correctly bets that neither will win). As far as Billions storylines go, this one is squarely in the lightweight division, but it makes an amusing point about the limits of Wall Street machismo.

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Sarah Stiles, Kelly AuCoin
Photo: Jeff Neumann (Showtime)

Axe and Taylor are still warring on other fronts as well. When Taylor goes on CNBC’s Halftime Report to drag Axe as a dinosaur, they specifically mention his refinery positions, which are bound to be hurt by a ban on fracking. Axe calls in his new favorite secret weapon, Chuck Rhoades, to set up a meeting with the governor. (As a side note, how many of these favors do you think Axe will call in before Chuck finally decides enough is enough?) In exchange for the keynote slot at the next meeting of the Governors Association, Axe gets the fracking ban lifted. His facial expression is priceless as he breaks this news to Taylor and doesn’t get the reaction he wanted. They have foreseen all of this, and already have the water rights to the fracking land in hand. And the tables turn on and on. Note that nobody involved with this deal—not Axe, not Taylor, not Chuck, and certainly not the governor—ever expresses any ethical reservations about fracking’s potential for environmental destruction. It’s not even an issue with these people.

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Chuck doesn’t really care about voting rights either, except as a useful cudgel to swing at Jock Jeffcoat. The Attorney General is opposed to an experimental pilot program to test a blockchain-based system that would allow for mobile voting. If Jock is against it, Chuck knows he’s in favor of it, so he puts in a call to Senior to set up a meeting with the Tribal Council of the Iroquois Indians his father has partnered with on the casino. (For his part, Senior initial mistakes Chuck’s inquiry about “the tribe” as a reference to Jews, and quite deliberately makes repeated patronizing reference to the Iroquois as “my Indians,” much to Chuck’s increasing dismay.) In exchange for a bigger piece of the casino, the tribe agrees to push for the mobile voting pilot, prompting a response from Jock that’s equally as enlightened as Senior’s. (“I thought Sam Houston and the Texas Rangers took care of this 150 years ago.”)

“Fight Night” is very much a mid-season episode, in that we can see the wheels spinning a bit. The fight is an amusing distraction, but also serves to illuminate that, at this point, the major storylines are all about who gets the last punch in. Taylor emerges victorious over Axe this week, but there’s no reason to think he won’t land a counterpunch next week. Chuck gets a moment to gloat over a meaningless victory over Jock, but retaliation swiftly follows as the NYPD shuts down Senior’s construction site after Jock threatens to pull counter-terrorism funding. (You can feel Chuck’s blood boiling every time he sees Connerty’s smug face these days.) The character in most peril this week is Wendy, faced with the possibility of losing her medical license following her betrayal of Taylor’s confidence. (And, really, why shouldn’t she?)

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The unpredictable rhythms of a Billions season mean that the next bomb could drop at any moment. “Fight Night” reminds usthat it’s still a TV show, and some episodes are more filla than thrilla in Manila.

Stray observations

  • As part of his training program, Mafee gives up all his pot paraphernalia and “jazz cabbage.” Well, except for half a joint.
  • Evidently Wags’ fraternity nickname was “Algonquin ass-eater.” No further elaboration required.
  • Another small victory for Chuck: although his “hearty breakfast” ploy doesn’t come close to working on Wendy, she can’t stand the thought of the prospective buyers living in the house, so it’s off the market. Chuck’s bedroom privileges, however, remain on hold.
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About the author

Scott Von Doviak

My debut novel Charlesgate Confidential is now available from Hard Case Crime.