Billions and Breaking Bad have something in common. No, it isn’t just the wonderful twinkle-eyed actor David Costabile, so heartbreakingly hapless as Gale in the latter and so delightfully sleazy as Wags in the former. In several of its season premieres, Breaking Bad began by showing Walter White in some terrible jam: recording a farewell to his family as sirens close in, owning a pool strewn with scorched debris, stowing a freshly purchased machine gun in the trunk of his car. The question these cold opens posed was simple: How the hell is he gonna get out of this one?
“Risk Management,” Billions’ second season premiere, doesn’t play the flash-forward time-shift games that Vince Gilligan’s methamphetamine magnum opus did, beyond a inserting a “THREE DAYS EARLIER” tag following our opening glimpses of hedge-fund kingpin Bobby Axelrod mostly for effect. But it lands its protagonist, U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, in a similarly inextricable predicament. By the end of the episode, he’s been slapped with 127 lawsuits simultaneously—all bankrolled by Bobby—while a government investigation has uncovered an apparent smoking gun in the form of Axelrod’s five-million-dollar payout to his wife Wendy the very day Rhoades dropped his own investigation into Axe Capital. Even as he meets with the federal judge with whom he quid-pro-quos to stay a step ahead of political turmoil, he gets the call from the Attorney General summoning him to Washington, where he’ll likely get the axe himself (no pun intended). As far as establishing stakes are concerned, Billions Season Two has come in hella high.
Fortunately, the quality of the episode has followed suit. Billions’ first season featured a stellar cast plucked from prestige-TV Valhalla that was simultaneously given both too much and too little to do: Schemes and storylines spidered out from the central Axe vs. Chuck conflict like crazy, but the byzantine plotting too often felt like padding and too rarely revealed reasons to care about any of the characters involved. This sucker, on the other hand? Drum-tight, high velocity, and fueled by each player’s most enjoyable attributes.
I reviewed the season premiere of Billions, which to my surprise I enjoyed quite a bit, for the New York Observer. As a side note, director Reed Morano’s work here should inspire confidence in Hulu’s upcoming adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which she’s directing from start to finish.