There’s something to be said about how well-crafted the ensemble in “Billions” truly is, despite the fact that the series can be most simply boiled down to a rivalry between two men trying to prove who’s swinging the biggest bat. Every character’s being given their own screen time, each perspective is clearly defined and laid out, and their allegiances are always known, whether they’re constantly changing or not. For a series so obsessed with NFL and chess metaphors, the importance of that cannot be overstated.
After all, how are you supposed to truly watch and understand the moves each king and queen makes, if you don’t know what’s going on in the minds of their knights and rooks? And in “Optimal Play” (Mar. 5), the latest episode in a strong of entertaining stories, those pawns take center stage.
Last week, we got to see Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) make one last ditch attempt at saving his career, lighting the fuse on a legal war with Lawrence Boyd and his so called indestructible business. What Chuck doesn’t know yet is that Boyd didn’t waste any time enlisting the help of Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), in what looked to be a battle just as entertaining, and even more complex, than Season 1’s fight. The true accomplishment of “Optimal Play” then, while not offering much forward movement, gives us a satisfying and complete hour.
Directed by acclaimed documentarian Alex Gibney — whose “Going Clear” and “Mea Maxima Culpa” won three Emmys each, and whose “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” was nominated for a 2005 Academy Award — the episode focuses most on the annual charity poker game between all of the big hedge fund corporations.
Axe is participating for the fourth year in a row, looking to take down new rival Todd Krakow ( a perfectly cast Danny Strong), who is undefeated in the tournament — and, even Wags admits, an extraordinary poker player. But Axe has an ace up his sleeve not even Krakow knows about: Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon), the nonbinary genius who’s shaping up to be an even more intellectual strategist than Axe is. Showing the story’s commitment to this character, Taylor also happens to be extremely in tune with their inner self, knowing their limits, and what they do and don’t want to do — moreso than any of the men and women around them.
Focusing almost entirely around that big poker game set-piece, “Optimal Play” works because of the focus and attention it gives to the “pawns” in Chuck and Axe’s games. Everyone is being used by them in some form or another — and throughout the episode, they all become aware of it too.
Wendy (Maggie Siff) was brought to the poker game by Krakow not to actually coach or give him advice about his game, but because her presence will get in Axe’s head. Taylor was used so that Axe could make a point to both Krakow and Wendy. Rhoades even blatantly uses Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) to get close to the air stewardess they’re blackmailing, so they can make sure she delivers with her blackmail material on Boyd.
The climax of the episode may have been Chuck’s speech to one of Boyd’s coworkers, after showing him video proof of Boyd sleeping with his wife, but there’s no mistaking the fact that “Optimal Play” is all about the people working in Chuck and Axe’s peripheral vision. Gibney shoots the episode accordingly — often placing one of the supporting characters in the background, or right next to Chuck or Axe, so the viewer can always see them. This effect is used especially well in a scene where Chuck sells his signed Winston Churchill book set, with Axe’s spy listening in just a few feet away.
We don’t need to look much further than the cast list on IMDb to understand just how impressive an ensemble “Billions” has, but “Optimal Play” truly highlights the dynamics between its characters, and the strength of each of those connections.
Right now, the feud between Chuck, Axe, and Boyd is more like the Cold War than anything else, with each side making small gestures and moves on each other, without doing anything too substantial. “Optimal Play” doesn’t heat that up exactly, but provides a dense reading on the main players — and what exactly their roles may be in the impending war.
“Billions” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.