“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Four: “The Oath”

There’s this bit toward the end of Road House—the 1989 cult classic in which, and I promise I’m not kidding, Patrick Swayze and Sam Elliot play world-famous bouncers trying to defend a small town from Ben Gazzara, the ruthless owner of the local JC Penney—which requires the main character, Dalton, to go to the titular bar twice in quick succession. Director (again, I am in no way kidding) Rowdy Herrington sets up both scenes with prolonged shots of Swayze pulling up to the bar, parking his car in its dirt lot, getting out of the car, trotting up the stairs, and entering the establishment. Suffice it to say that this film is not some vérité experiment; it depicts the parking of a car twice in a row because it’s slovenly, not thoughtful. Don’t get me wrong, Road House is a marvelous time at the movies, but not because of what the Mystery Science Theater 3000 veterans at RiffTrax refer to as “ah yes, the famous Parking Scene.”

Friends, a whole of shows these days are stuck with Dalton in that goddamn parking lot. From infamous victims of Netflix Bloat like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage to prestige (or prestige-adjacent) projects like Taboo and The Path, just to name a few, too many series pad out their running times and flatten out their editing rhythms with meaningless transition shots. WATCH as Tom Hardy walks down an alley to look for someone who isn’t there? THRILL as Krysten Ritter and Mike Colter stroll through a semi-reasonably realistic version of New York! SWOON as Aaron Paul and Michelle Monaghan drive places while looking anxious! Again, we’re not talking about shows that artfully force us to confront the slow passage of time for some aesthetic or moral purpose, like The Americans—we’re just talking doughy, underbaked filmmaking.

Billions, I’m pleased to report, is not that kind of show. Not by a long shot. “The Oath,” its stellar second season’s fourth episode, is a strict machine, a marvel of efficiency, in which scenes are pared down to their bare essentials for both plot and character. The ep is helmed by Noah Emmerich, the great Stan Beeman on The Americans,—the latest in the season’s motley crew of distinctive directors, including The Handmaid’s Tale’s Reed Morano, indie-film team Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, and, remarkably, Going Clear documentarian Alex Gibney last week. Remarkably, every one of them takes the same “all killer, no filler” approach.

Which is nuts, considering all the crazy shit being flung at the wall; if you hadn’t watched a moment of this season and just heard it described, you’d assume the show was floundering. How else to explain this episode’s cameos by The Americans’ Richard Thomas as a billionaire philanthropist with a Deadwood-level flair for articulate obscenities, Mad Men’s James “Not great, Bob!” Wolk as an Elon Musk-esque aerospace entrepreneur, and actual literal Mark Cuban as himself?

Yet another crackerjack episode of Billions this week; I reviewed it for the New York Observer, and got some digs in on my least favorite trend in TV in the process.

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