Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

This time it’s personal on a simmering Billions

David Costabile, Damian Lewis/Showtime
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“Sic Transit Imperium,” Wags helpfully tells those of us frustrated with Google Translate’s inadequacies, is a Latin phrase meaning “So passes the empire.” It’s the motto on a token that secures Axe’s spot on a post-apocalyptic ark that will ensure the survival of only the wealthiest of our species. It’s a birthday gift for the man who has everything, the kind that can only be purchased by someone with fuck-you money to burn. Axe sees it as a scam immediately (I mean, really, what’s he going to do if the world ends and it turns out there’s no ark? Sue?), but from Wags’ perspective, this is the exact right present to give. It’s expensive and it’s something Axe would have never gotten for himself, because it never would have occurred to him that such a thing even existed. (For his part, Wags thinks he belongs out with the marauders when the end times come, but clearly he’d be a hood ornament for Lord Humongous in no time.)


The words on the token stick in Axe’s craw, however. They refer to civilization as a whole, but Axe is thinking only of his own empire, which has taken hit after hit this season. The notion that it could ever fall is repugnant to him, but he continues to put it in jeopardy through his own actions. He complains about ”optics,” but it’s his own blind spots that lead him to overlook the obvious downside of, say, throwing a lavish birthday party for himself at the same time his arch-nemesis is trashing him for bleeding Sandicot dry. Dispensing with his ”firewall” Steph Reed is another example of that shortsightedness, not only because she’s now an all-too-willing cooperator with the State’s Attorney’s office, but because now Axe has no angel on his shoulder, only devils. (When Wags is the voice of reason, as with the Klaxon deal Dollar Bill proposes, you know you’re in trouble.)

More than ever he needs Wendy’s counsel, but their arrangement still stands. Her return to Axe Capital always felt like a contrivance, but now even she is starting to see it that way, especially after Axe tests her loyalty by sending Deb into a session with an agenda of his devising. When Wendy advises her to ignore her conscience, it immediately rings false because it directly contradicts her work with Taylor last week and Danzig before that. There’s a reason for that, though: she’s onto Deb and by extension Axe. (That Axe would think he had any chance of pulling this over on Wendy is another sign that he’s grown too impulsive in his actions.) Understandably, Wendy is in no mood to attend Axe’s party, but she ends up going thanks to some prodding from an unlikely source.


The accidental phone conversation between Lara and Chuck is a highlight not only of the episode but the season so far, in that it develops in such an unforced yet surprising way. Lara has called to urge Wendy to attend the party in hopes of reassuring her of her importance to Axe Capital (at this point believing it was Axe who set the new guidelines on her resumed employment). When she gets Chuck on the line, we might expect her to either hang up immediately or explode on him for all the trouble he’s caused her family. Instead they have an awkward but not unpleasant exchange; in fact, the awkwardness is acknowledged and played off with humor and as much grace as the situation will allow. On a show where almost every exchange can feel like a transaction, this is a humanizing moment that’s easy to identify with; a sort of “time out” in the midst of battle.


The battle goes on, however, as Chuck is only marginally better at impulse control than Axe. He’s done trying to distract himself with other targets, and Axe is now firmly in his sights again now that Sandicot is out in the open. The town represents a juicy upstate win for someone who needs votes in that area, but Foley and Chuck Sr. are able to convince him to put on the brakes, seeing how easily it could bounce back on him if their involvement were revealed. At the very least, Chuck is better at surrounding himself with advisers who tamp down his worst impulses, while Axe is cutting himself off from those who would rein him in. Even Lara is alienated by episode’s end after finding out it was Wendy who set the new parameters of her employment, not Axe. Instead, he’s more concerned with shaping Taylor in his own image, encouraging them to take a private jet to their sister’s wedding (with the FBI watching, presumably as a result of Steph Reed alerting Kate to Taylor’s protege status).

Impulse control only goes so far, however, and in Chuck’s case, that’s as far as finding out Axe has been buying up all the Churchill first editions. It’s a spiteful, petty act, completely personal, with no particular upside other than the momentary satisfaction it provided, and Chuck can’t abide it…which is what may cause him to make another blunder. It’s not entirely clear what his next step is (to me, anyway), but it would appear to involve the “Ice Juice” proposal Chuck brings to Senior on Ira’s behalf.


“Sic Transit Imperium” is an odd one. It doesn’t move the story forward all that much, but it’s more satisfying than many episodes that do. It digs a little deeper into the characters, and it simmers rather than boiling over. For a show that favors the latter approach more often than not, it makes for a refreshing change of pace.

Stray observations

  • If anyone missed Ayles, the stuffed shirt from the building Axe wanted renamed for him, he’s come out of the woodwork looking for a job. And he gets it. The same goes for Victor, fired by Axe for very little reason back in season one, but now back in the fold thanks to his Klaxon tip (and Axe’s paranoia that he might be turned against him).
  • Foley is not about to let Chuck forget the pecking order. “Order the garbage plate,” he says at their diner meeting. “Eat the shit out of it.”
  • I’m not sure what kind of Pepperidge Farm accent Strathairn is trying to pull off, but it’s distracting.
  • The pop culture fluency of all these characters never fails to be jarring, whether they’re referring to Springsteen deep cuts or the Cyberdyne Systems model number of the Terminator. This is the way people in a TV writing room talk, and while it might be fine to have one character who’s a walking Trivial Pursuit game (Wags, probably), it reeks of self-impressed cleverness to have them all so readily able to summon the right reference for every occasion.

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