The final confrontation between Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) at the end of last week’s episode of “Billions” promised that the season’s first arc would be paying off in this second block of four hours — and “Currency” (March 19) keeps that pace going… Even if that’s not immediately apparent.

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Picking up some time after the events of the preceding hour, Axe begins things on the receiving end of even more bad news. Turns out (an opening montage tells us) a manufacturing company in which Axe has a major stake is about to take a nosedive, after a fatal flaw in the design of their new glass smartphone has put them in a major hole. This’ll negatively affect Axe Capital’s quarterly earnings in a noticeable way, something Axe is intent on keeping from happening.

After sending workers on a mission to fix the problem, Mafee (Dan Soder) puts Axe in touch with one of his old college buddies, who tells him that the naira, the Nigerian national currency, is about to be devalued. Thinking quickly, Axe decides to short enough naira to speed up that process — sending his quarterly earnings back into the black… But to pull it off, Axe must team up with a number of his biggest competitors, including Danny Strong’s Krakow and Jerry O’Connel’s Birch, who Axe sneakily screwed over last season.

While all of the competitors agree to enter the deal with Axe, it’s later revealed that Birch has uncovered Axe’s betrayal last season — he lost his company — and he’s only in this to trick Axe into losing even more money: He’s backing the naira, convincing a number of other competitors to jump on with him, hoping to keep it afloat at least long enough to hit Axe in his quarterly earnings. Without Birch, Axe must convince Lawrence Boyd (Eric Bogosian) to go on-air with him and publicly back Axe’s decision.

But what Axe doesn’t know is that while all of this is happening, Chuck is finally getting some traction on his case against Boyd: He sends his mole Tom McKinnon (Ross Partridge) to dinner with Boyd and their wife, wearing a wire. While it looks like McKinnon — who has proven fairly useless to this point — may screw the whole thing up by getting angry and drunk too quickly, he eventually manages to successfully lure Boyd into admitting on tape that he’s been rigging treasury bonds.

This is all Chuck needs to get an FBI warrant on Boyd — leading to the episode’s final six minutes: The most energized and energetic dramatic sequence “Billions” has given us all season.

billions currency 2 An FBI arrest and Nigerian currency lead to the best ‘Billions’ episode of the season so far

Unfortunately for Axe, he learns about Boyd’s impending arrest just moments before the pair are scheduled to go on air, presenting him with an unexpected dilemma. He can either tell Boyd about the warrant and give him enough time to escape — but result in Axe’s Nigerian bid failing once and for all — or he can keep it to himself, gain support for the Nigerian bid, but effectively guarantee Boyd’s arrest. Like every “Billions” character Axe, of course, acts selfishly — only telling Boyd he’s going to be arrested after their segment is filmed… Just before Chuck arrives with several FBI agents to cuff him.

Everything about the sequence comes together in a perfectly tense and entertaining fashion: Even the small barbs Chuck and Axe toss each other after Boyd’s been dragged away feel momentous, despite really only lasting for a few seconds and adding up to maybe two or three lines of dialogue. By the time we close, on Chuck hungrily chowing down on his dinner, it feels like a victory meal for the whole crew.

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There’s something primal about the enjoyment of watching the ego-driven Axe and Chuck come to blows, that’s true. But the best way to keep that drama feeling authentic and real, less contrived and stagey, is to ground them in a reality made up of interesting people with interesting motivations and internal lives. As we’d hoped, this “slower” second season has spent the right amount of time setting up the players of the new season — now that we are in the middle of the season, Axe and Chuck coming face to face means something different than it would have earlier (or later, not that anyone would expect that): The story’s created a framework for more logical, and therefore enjoyable, confrontations.

“Currency” feels like its own self-contained story in some ways: A unique framing device — Mike “Wags” Wagner (David Costabile) on a journey to “find himself,” returning to find the chaos in play at Axe Capital — and global-scale currency storyline moves all the pieces forward in a smoother way than in much of the season’s first act… And if we’re setting the stage now for the next three hours, we can only imagine the fever pitch we’ll be at by the time of that eventual, final explosion. Whatever it looks like.

“Billions” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.

Posted by:Alex Welch