It can be an awful lot of fun watching the characters on “Billions” always maneuvering their way towards screwing the other over, on a fairly daily basis. But the tough balance there, with which it has struggled often, is that while the show must make the games its key players play as interesting and entertaining as possible, we can’t forget what truly terrible people they are, either.
It’s something shows like “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos” did awfully well, but can be a death sentence for others. “Billions” gives itself the epic mandate to provide both a glimpse into, and a burning indictment of, the vicious world of corporate America — possibly the highest possible aspiration, at this time, making the balance imperative beyond simply storytelling prowess.
“Billions” is hesitant to really openly discuss the ethics of its characters and their decisions, because that makes it the story; there is no neutral ground here. And too, it interrupts the power fantasy to actually show the effects Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) have — not on the people around them, but the everyday person just trying to get by, unaware of how much control men like Bobby and Chuck have over them. At least, until it’s too late.
Which is what makes the fascinating, flawed “Victory Lap” (April 2) such an interesting hour, as it deals directly with last week’s fallout. Specifically, Chuck Sr.’s (Jeffrey DeMunn) sabotage of Bobby’s Sandicot investment, using his behind-the-scenes connections to make sure the gaming license was moved out of town once Bobby had invested around $500 million. Now, Bobby must find a way to prevent that insurmountable loss from taking place — and after working with his entire team to come up with a legal solution, the only option left is one even Bobby recognizes might as well be considered a dark spell.
Indeed, it looks like the only option Bobby has is “austerity,” which means he will call upon the entire town of Sandicot to find a way to pay Axe Capital back for its investment, basically, by seizing as many of the assets (including property, artwork, land, bank accounts, and more) that he requires until the debt is settled. To put it simply, this would completely and utterly gut the town and everyone living in it. Thousands of innocent peoples’ lives would be ruined, by a deal that they never really had a say in to begin with. All because a gaming license had been moved, and Bobby can’t stand having a $500 million loss.
He either has to deal with the bad PR of gutting Sandicot, but still getting all of his money back, or the bad PR of losing $500 million and not making that money back… at all. It’s obvious what the best business decision is, but the possibility of ruining an entire town’s worth of peoples’ lives is a sin that weighs on some of the corporate moneymakers working in Axe Capital, and even Axe himself. For the first time in maybe the entire history of “Billions” we get to see Axe legitimately indecisive about what to do, and he goes to consult as many people as he can — Boyd, Hall, Taylor, Danzig, and more.
Meanwhile, as Axe mulls over the ramifications of his actions, Chuck continues to enjoy his victory lap, so to say, using his kids for PR purposes, trying to reconcile once again with Wendy (who’s looking to have relationships with other people at the same time), and even spending more time with his father than he has in years. All of this is for a purpose, of course, since he’s considering running for office, and after going through the gauntlet that he just conquered, now might be the best time for him to do it.
Every little storyline in “Victory Lap,” in some form or another, feeds back into the ethical question sitting at the heart of the episode. Can Chuck really solely blame Bryan (Toby Leonard Moore) for bringing the investigation down onto him, when he knows he was acting inappropriately with his title? Is it really right for him to boast his strong relationship with his kids, as part of a burgeoning political campaign? And can Axe really put an end to an entire town, just to keep himself from losing $500 million, which he would eventually be able to make back in future quarters?
With “Billions” the answer to most of those questions, it seems, is yes. Because after spending an entire episode keeping himself on edge about the Sandicot deal, Axe turns finally to his wife, Lara (Malin Akerman), for her opinion. She’s understandably delighted to know that he’s interested to hear her view, before going on to remind Bobby who he truly is, deep down. She lays out both sides of the Sandicot situation, and then circles back to where they both came from — poor, unlucky, and miserable, in a town not unlike Sandicot.
“Did anyone help us?” Lara asks, when her mother was covering the blinds so the bill collectors wouldn’t know they were home? The answer is no.
Throwing his own words back at him, Lara asks him why it’s their responsibility to take this loss when the people of Sandicot would probably just be better off if he did gut the town. After they get their money back, she even proposes that they bring $30 million back into the town, on charter schools and non-profits, effectively giving the kids there better lives than she and Axe ever had.
The effect is instantaneous, with Axe sauntering out of his house, calling his company to let them know to begin seizing every asset that Sandicot has to offer and speeding away with AC/DC blasting on his radio.
It was a long time coming, but Axe is back to being just as cutthroat as he was when “Billions” first began, and Damian Lewis’ smug smile only further cements what a sickening, if inevitable, turn of events those final moments of “Victory Lap” truly were.
After all, even despite all of the loyalty they supposedly have to each other and the monologues they spout off about great men and women throughout history, let it not be forgot, that these are some truly terrible people at the forefront of “Billions,” no matter where they came from, or what they dress like.
“Billions” airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.