Season 4, Episode 5: ‘A Proper Sendoff’
This week on “Billions,” revenge is the order of the day. All right, fine: Every week on “Billions,” revenge is the order of the day.
But this episode is special even so. Written by Michael Russell Gunn and directed with gangster-movie brio by Matthew McLoota, the episode has Axe and Chuck conduct some of their most brutally total takedowns of their enemies yet. What, you thought dispatching Grigor Andolov and outfoxing Jack Foley and Jock Jeffcoat was going to keep these two happy? Don’t you remember that happiness is nothing more than a moment before you need more happiness?
Longtime “Billions” watchers will remember that Bobby Axelrod made his fortune on 9/11, which he was lucky enough to have survived while many of his colleagues perished. Since then, he has funded the college tuition of the children of those who died in hopes of a sort of karmic offset. Now those children are adults, and many are successful in their own right.
In this episode, we discover that one of their number, John Rice (Seth Gabel), has become a promising hedge-fund whiz himself … which is why Bobby is both baffled and insulted when the kid cashes him out of his firm. Wendy, who’s tickled to discover her employer has actual emotions, says that he is feeling like a father who has been rejected by his child, a dynamic she suggests is also at work in his relationship with Taylor Mason (whom he has instructed Chuck to put behind bars as quickly as possible). She tells Axe that a father figure, rather than a financial backer, was what John wanted all along.
So Bobby does the most dad thing imaginable and takes John fishing, in a sequence of scenes with a very “Tony Soprano takes an underboss he suspects of treason for a one-way cruise on the ‘Stugotz’” vibe. It’s fun enough until the boat stalls in the middle of nowhere, and the local towing crew is too busy to bring them back to shore.
As time passes and beer flows, John gets comfortable, drunk and angry enough to tell Axe he wanted him out not because of some father-son thing, but because, like his actual father before him, he thinks Bobby is scum.
Things end a bit better for John than they do for certain Soprano family associates, but only slightly. Turns out the boat wasn’t stalled at all — Bobby had disabled it precisely so he could wheedle the truth out of this ingrate. And while they were incommunicado at sea, Axe had an interview published in which he bad-mouthed Rice’s hedge fund, damaging it irrevocably, while Wags led a crack team of Axe Cap’s most ruthless traders in systematically destroying whatever remained. (The central-casting sailor voice of the towing company? It was the hilariously awful lickspittle Ari Spyros, played by Stephen Kunken, reading from a script.) Vengeance, thy name is Axe.
Chuck’s problem, meanwhile, is far more urgent than punishing some punk kid. The governor has been pressured by Rhoades’s enemy Jock Jeffcoat into curtailing the investigative power of the attorney general’s office he now occupies. Stymied, Chuck gets some advice from his indefatigable dad, who spends the episode either making shady deals to erect a waterfront high-rise or picking up Viagra from the pharmacy. (I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there.) During the latter outing, he advises his son not just to strike back, but to do it so definitively that his enemies will be too terrified to even think about crossing him again.
But if Charles was expecting a surgical strike, what he got instead was a carpet bombing. Stepping to the lectern at the memorial service for Jack Foley, Chuck announces that he intends to honor the departed kingmaker’s good-government legacy by cleaning up Albany — starting right then and there. Suddenly the doors open, and an entire squad of lawmen begin pulling politicians from the pews.
Outwardly, the genius of the move is its theatricality. But behind the scenes it’s driven by the painstaking politicking that girds all of Chuck’s big successes. First, he approaches a powerful assemblyman with evidence of his wrongdoing, securing his support in exchange for immunity. Then he brings this information to the governor. Chuck can either use the Assembly to have his powers restored, he tells him … or he can turn on the Assembly, handing the governor a major victory over corruption — that’s if the governor restores Chuck’s powers himself.
It’s an offer the gobsmacked governor can’t refuse. Combine it with the spectacularly public show of force and … well, as a wise man once said, theatricality and deception are powerful agents to the uninitiated.
All of this is well and good if you’re in the market for advice on how to crush your enemies. Most of us, however, could use some tips on issues that hit a bit closer to home. That’s where Wendy comes in. Surprisingly (to me anyway) she hasn’t simply kicked Chuck to the curb for outing them as sadomasochists. But staying in her marriage and getting on with her life are two very different things. It’s the latter she’s struggling with, hiding in her office with the lights out to avoid her colleagues’ knowing glances.
Until, that is, she goes on the internet and begins facing the scandal head-on. It’s exactly as bad as she expected: lewd jokes, crude photoshops, lots of speculation as to the exact sounds Chuck makes when she’s giving him the business. “Like a stuck pig,” she explains to Axe, who emphatically does not want to know.
Her reaction? Nothing, pretty much!
“The thing is, as I read it, it stopped mattering,” she tells Bobby. “It stopped really being about me. It stopped having anything to do with me, because I don’t know these people, and they don’t know me.” It’s like the Bene Gesserit litany against fear; call it the Wendy Rhoades litany against trolls. This isn’t to minimize misogynist internet harassment, mind you. It’s just to say that given the means to sufficiently insulate oneself from critics, which a multimillionaire like Wendy Rhoades definitely has, they have only the power you give them.
But this is “Billions,” folks: If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been playing attention. During the course of Wendy’s research, she discovered that while many of Axe Cap’s enemies were hooting and hollering over her plight, Taylor Mason, who spent the episode wooing the keepers of the New York Fire Department pension fund, was not among them. Bobby’s public enemy No. 1 shut down the mockery whenever it popped up and even reached out to Wendy to express support.
What do she and Bobby make of this display of empathy? In a word, from Axe: “Lame!” Wendy didn’t take Taylor’s call before. But now that she knows there’s a weakness here that can be exploited? It’s time to reach out and crush someone.
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