Season 4, Episode 2: ‘Arousal Template’
Zugzwang is a delightful word for a dispiriting concept. In chess, zugzwang occurs when it’s your move, but your opponent has cannily set you up to dig yourself deeper into defeat. It’s a useful concept for anyone who needs to outmaneuver an enemy without staging a frontal assault. And as Taylor Mason’s ruthless new right-hand woman, Sara Hammon (Samantha Mathis), realizes in this week’s episode of “Billions,” zugzwang is the name of the game for every player on the board right now.
Thank Grigor Andolov for that. As he has threatened many times, and proved last week by orchestrating the abduction of Wags, that menacing Russian will stop at nothing to protect his investment in Taylor’s company. This means that Bobby’s best play is to cut off his former protégé’s supply of cash by cutting sweetheart deals with banks that are in a bad way. They’ll owe him a favor and take their business elsewhere, with minimal exposure on his end.
For Axe, there is an ancillary bonus. Scoping out a bank that has made a bad investment in robots that can barely walk without tripping, he makes the acquaintance of Rebecca Cantu (Nina Arianda), a fellow billionaire who made her fortune by recognizing the best products to sell on a home shopping network and thus sees right through the robot manufacturer’s song and dance. It’s a match made in heaven’s V.I.P. lounge.
The two go into business by splitting her share of an industrial cleaning company, then have sex to celebrate. They get in a shouting match when Rebecca realizes Axe was responsible for an immigration sting that sunk the company’s competition, making him money she could have had for herself. They make up when he agrees to give half of her shares back, plus the profits on them, in exchange for her promise not to float Taylor any money herself.
“You hungry?” he asks, smiling. “I could eat,” she replies, smiling back. Seconds earlier they’d been talking about the 4,200 industrial-cleaning workers suddenly looking for jobs. For those people it’s a crisis. For these billionaires it’s foreplay.
But it’s tough to out-zugzwang a genius like Taylor. When the banks close their coffers, along comes Grigor, literally singing, “Here I come to save the day!” (If you’ve ever wanted to hear John Malkovich sing the “Mighty Mouse” theme song with a Russian accent, this is the show for you.) He presents Mason with a pair of gangster acquaintances named the Kozlov Brothers. Their blood money could keep the company afloat, yes. But they’re even more dangerous than Grigor, and since Grigor controls them anyway, he would have a bigger share of the company than all the other investors combined.
So Taylor uses Axe to do the dirty work. Calling one of the banks that rejected Taylor Mason Capital for a loan — the same bank Bobby bailed out on the bad robot deal — Mason implies that the Kozlovs have bought in when in fact the deal has not yet been done. This gets back to Axe, who instructs the bank to pull all its cash from the Kozlovs, leaving them with no money to loan even if Taylor wanted them to.
Taylor then turns to Grigor, saying that the bad news is that the Kozlovs have no money. But the good news is, well, the Kozlovs have no money, and Grigor can eat up their empire wholesale … so long as he uses his clout to open the banks back up to Mason Cap.
It’s a near-identical play to the one Chuck makes when his new ally, Police Commissioner Sansone, asks him to look into shady doings in the police pension fund — particularly those involving its administrator, Raul Gomez (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), an old rival from their academy days. Chuck quickly learns that Raul is Bobby’s guy, and that Bobby is running the pension fund behind the scenes, using a surrogate hedge-funder named Michael Panay (Hari Dhillon) as a cat’s paw.
So Chuck advises Sansone to go after Panay rather than Gomez, then to cozy up to Panay’s successor — drumroll, please — Bobby Axelrod, who has been cleared of wrongdoing and can get back into business with the cops. All Chuck asks for in return is Sansone’s endorsement of his candidacy for New York State Attorney General, which he delivers at the San Gennaro festival in Little Italy.
Another scheme, another fall guy, another way for top dogs like Chuck, Bobby and Taylor to manipulate frenemies into doing their bidding.
Strong B-plots complement the main action, presenting other characters with their own moral dilemmas. Taylor’s trusted underling Mafee (Dan Soder), the genial man-child who quit Axe Cap last season when he realized he’d been manipulated by Axe and Wendy, refuses to extend a similar lifeline to his buddy Rudy (Chris Carfizzi), whom Axe fired last week for fraternizing with the enemy — namely, Mafee. It’s cold, but Rudy isn’t a great trader. In Mafee’s view, taking him on would be more trouble than he’s worth.
Wendy is faced with an even more personal dilemma. During a frank after-hours conversation about sex at a party with her co-workers, she crows that her and Chuck’s bedroom policy is “Action whenever either of us [expletive] wants it.” But when she asks for warm, intimate, face-to-face sex, Chuck insists on breaking out the whips and chains — going so far as to beg after she tells him she’d rather not.
That’s precisely the kind of behavior she ridiculed as the province of “sexual panhandlers” at the party, as prompted by Bonnie (an excellent Sarah Stiles), the big-haired, bawdy trader who manspreads during her therapy sessions and insists that no woman wants a whiner. But as Wendy learns from their former dominatrix Troy (Clara Wong), submitting to sexual power is Chuck’s “arousal template,” and it’s unshakable.
Still, there’s a sense that the real power plays have yet to come. Insofar as this is only the second in a 12-episode season, that’s to be expected. But the various schemes and shenanigans that Chuck, Bobby and Taylor have been running feel minor, even so. The characters scratch a few backs, grease a few palms, hamstring a few second-stringers, fiddle around the margins and avoid direct attacks — zugzwang instead of checkmate. On this show, it’s an odd sensation.
But checkmate remains the ultimate goal, even when they’re merely moving pawns around the board. Chuck wants to become attorney general, giving him the political clout he needs to fight back against his rivals Jock Jeffcoat and Bryan Connerty. Bobby wants to eliminate Grigor and destroy Taylor.
And both men are addicted to power, plain and simple — it’s their arousal template. The big questions, for both the characters and the show, are when will the payoffs come, and will they be worth the buy-in when they do?
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