Posts Tagged ‘billions’
We open with Johnny Cash on the soundtrack, as Mike “Wags” Wagner, the most Billions character on Billions, pours his heart out to his liege lord Bobby Axelrod and getting screamed at in response. No, wait—a “48 HOURS EARLIER” chyron reveals that we’re opening, with Johnny Cash on the soundtrack, in South Korea, where some poor schmoe involved in the manufacture of some obviously faulty smartphone takes a header out his hotel window, cutting off the music and setting off a soft “thud” and the sounds of screeching cars and screaming pedestrians below. We cut to Mafee, one of Axe Captial’s mid-rung hedgebros, running headlong into Bobby’s office only to find him absent. We cut to where Bobby is: at a racetrack with his kid and Frenchy from Goodfellas, where he’s tring to get a line on the locale of an upstate New York casino that’s in the works until word about the smartphone debacle reaches him. And from there, it really is off to the races.
“Currency,” the fifth episode of Billions’ shockingly good second season, is as ruthlessly efficient a storytelling machine as its predecessors. There’s not a plot beat that doesn’t reveal character, and there’s not a character revelation that doesn’t advance the plot. Guest stars—from the aforementioned Mike “Frenchy” Starr, to Dennis Boutsikaris, Danny Strong, and Jerry O’Connell as recurring rival hedge fund gurus turned potential allies, to Ritchie Coster of True Detective Season Two doing a sort of Mayor Chessani redux as a gambling-industry hotshot, to Mad Men villain Allan “Lou Avery” Havey as the boss of Christopher Denham’s superlative rat-squad investigator Oliver Dake—shine. Leading players get some of their strongest moments, from Bobby ripping up Lara’s ambitions out of pique to Chuck admitting to Wendy that he’s always felt like she was out of his league—a confession she was utterly flummoxed to hear, which illustrates how strained their relationship really was. Jokes hit hard as well: cf. Bobby asking his hapless underling Mafee, who has a major tipoff but is afraid to divulge it, “Are you transmitting the details to me telepathically?”; Chuck asking his more competent subordinate Kate if she’s ever gone hunting and her replying “No—I’m black”; Chuck asking Go enthusiast Bryan Connerty if he takes a vow of celibacy to adhere to the game’s ancient roots and Bryan responding “No, that’s just the end result”; brash psychotherapist Dr. Gus barking at his boss Bobby to “Let me into that kitchen!”
All of this is in service to some of the tightest plotting on television.
Billions is so good right now. I reviewed last night’s super-taut episode for the New York Observer. Pay special attention to the structural sharp left turn it makes near the end of the episode — that’s damn strong writing.
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.
Billions Season Two does a lot of things very well, but it may do new characters best of all. Sure, the old faves are better than ever (just by way of a for instance, I’m still laughing at how David Costabile’s Wags responds to someone telling him “Well, have fun” with a mischievous “How could I not?). But when you’ve got newcomers like gender-nonbinary genius Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) and madman therapist Dr. Gus (Mark Kudisch) on the roster, you’d be insane not to put them head to head.
So you go into Taylor and Dr. Gus’s therapy(?) session expecting fireworks, and you get them—up to a point. Taylor deadpans that they’ve had over 900 hours of therapy; Dr. Gus claps his hands in their face and barks “One: This isn’t therapy. Two: I’ve had more fuckin’ therapy than you have.” He culminates with the closest thing to an actual insight he’s given anyone yet, dubious though it may be: “Three: Every time you step away from doing something that makes you feel great, even if it makes you feel sad, something inside of you dies. When you feel emotionally messy, take yourself someplace where the boundaries are clean.” This is exactly advanced-level variation of “if it feels good, do it” this dude would dole out, and in Taylor’s case it might even be helpful.
But while the old Billions would have emptied both barrels into a faceoff between these two very different but (I stress this) very awesome characters as recently as the Axe vs. Rhoades mano a mano that gave the Season One finale “The Conversation” its title (well, that and its flagrant swipes from Francis Ford Coppola’s espionage masterpiece), there’s a new Billions now. This one cuts the scene short after a couple of minutes, content to give us a taste of the pairing without making us choke on it. The restraint is delicious.
I reviewed tonight’s marvelous episode of Billions for the New York Observer. It’s just insane how much fun this show has become. It took me days to write this review, simply because I’ve yet to crack the code of how to write about a version of Billions that’s just a total blast.
Suddenly, Billions is one of the most delightful fucking things on TV. Hey, don’t ask me, I just work here! But after two episodes including tonight’s rip-roarin’ “Dead Cat Bounce,” the show’s second season has turned the first outing’s (very) occasional flashes of wit and heat into a strobe light designed to trigger the pleasure center of your brain into some kind of awesome epilepsy. The schemes and plots are dizzying but perfectly constructed, the main characters are holding their own, the supporting players bring down the house, and the whole thing feels like almost a brand new show. It’s too soon to tell if this will be as big a turnaround as series like Halt and Catch Fire and The Leftovers experienced, and that may be an apples-to-oranges comparison anyway—they’re far more serious dramas, for one thing, and for another they were already on the upswing by their first season finales, while Billions stumbled through that particular finish line. But I’m enjoying pretty much every second of screentime, and it’s one of the young year’s most pleasant televised surprises (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway notwithstanding).
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.
“What have I done wrong?” Bobby Axelrod asks Chuck Rhoades during their season-ending dick-measuring contest. “Really? Except make money. Succeed.” Anticipating the obvious response, he continues, “All these rules and regulations? Arbitrary. Chalked up by politicians for their own ends.” Perhaps he’s right. I mean, I didn’t think that a TV show could get away with stealing the climax of one of the greatest thrillers ever made simply by naming the episode in question after it. But that was before I saw “The Conversation,” the finale of Billions’ first season, which ends in exactly the same way Francis Ford Coppola’s classic story of espionage and paranoia did: with a guy tearing his place apart down to the baseboards and wiring, looking for a bug that isn’t there. Is there a rule that says it’s not cheating if you admit it? Alright, alright, maybe you can get away with calling this whole thing “homage,” but the brazenness of the episode title is just…well, it’s like Bobby Axelrod buying that gigantic mansion in the pilot, just daring Rhoades to take a run at him. All I know is that if chutzpah is a crime, Billions is guilty as charged.
I reviewed the season finale of Billions for the New York Observer. The show toughened up toward the end, but given the talent involved it’s hard to see it as anything but a disappointment.
The Axe is losing his edge. In the opening minutes of “Magical Thinking,” last night’s episode of Billions, Bobby Axelrod goes against the advice of every analyst in his employ and hangs on to a stock he thinks is a sure thing to explode—only for it to collapse completely, taking upwards of a billion of Axe Capital’s dollars with it. The opportunity to make a smart move and keep his company on the right track was right there, and he blew it. When you compare last week’s top-to-bottom success of an episode to this week’s far spottier installment, you can’t help but wonder if Billions just did the same. The scope, structural complexity, high emotional stakes, and game-changing character revelations it had suddenly proven itself capable of pulling off are gone, in favor of a meandering long dull night of the soul.
There are all kinds of reasons why last night’s episode of Billions was the show’s first unmitigated artistic success, so naturally I’m going to start with the most minor and incidental: It quoted The Big Lebowski. And not in the way it usually quotes the touchstones of guy-beloved cinema, either, with one of the series’ machismo-obsessed characters calling themselves Keyser Soze Motherfucker or whatever. This was an honest-to-god homage in which it seems that they called one of their supporting characters Donnie just so they could refer to the beauty of nature “he loved so well” at his funeral, just like Walter Sobchak did when bidding Steve Buscemi’s character Donnie adieu in the Coen Bros. comedy classic. Shit, they even named this Donnie’s husband Walter! Any knucklehead could have had Wags or Axe or any of these other goons shout “this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass” or whatever, but it took real planning and a considered affinity for the material to work in a reference to Donnie’s gallows-humor funeral scene in a gallows-humor funeral scene. I didn’t know Billions had it in ’em!
On this week’s episode of Billions, someone spraypaints “FUCK YOU PIG$” on Bobby Axelrod’s car, which is the least any right-thinking person could do. He and his wife Lara and his henchmen Wags and Hall and even his enemy Chuck Rhoades can quibble about the legality, but the fact of the matter is Axe had the sangfroid to make himself rich while nearly everyone he knew roasted alive and the world turned upside down on 9/11. What a horrible, upsetting, frightening incident it must have been for him to have this pointed out in graffiti on his luxury car! What quick thinking to call one of his many servants and instruct them to bring one of his other luxury cars to replace it before his beloved children could see!
If anything, “Where the Fuck Is Donnie?”, last night’s ep, underestimates how deeply, deeply satisfying it is to watch these smug rich bastards get their comeuppance. By all means, vandalize their car. Picket their office and throw shit at the people who pop out to shout insults back. Shut down their fancy-pants expensive-hobby restaurant and tear up their artisanal organic tax-dodge farm. We are under no obligation to believe, as the Axelrods seem to, that this is an existential crisis for them; their unimaginable wealth insulates them from actual consequences in a way that’s unimaginable to people whose yearly salaries are substantially less expensive than the weird cold-air bath machine Axe uses to psyche himself into stealing more millions. The very least they can do is suffer some inconvenience and humiliation, since economic justice remains a total pipedream.
Coincidentally or not, this was the first episode of Billions to feature dialogue I’ll remember after the closing credits roll. Hall to Axe when they uncover Pouch’s alleged treachery: “Don’t be surprised. On a long enough timeline, everyone you know will turn against you.” Chuck to Wendy, after she snaps at him for grousing about Axe: “Sometimes I wish I were your patient, because then maybe I would get a sympathetic ear every time I’m not my absolute best self 24 hours a day.” Chuck to Brian on framing an innocent man: “There are no innocent men. Not on Wall Street.” Alternately aphoristic and insightful, and occasionally both, a few more lines like these per episode would do wonders for Billions, which has been both smart (most of Chuck and Wendy’s discussions of their imperfect but happy partnership-of-equals marriage) and spectacularly stupid (that horrendous dogshit speech from early in the run) in dialogue-driven scenes.
Will it ever develop into a great show, though? I mean, who can say. There’s still something ersatz about it, perhaps because of how many cast members hail from other, better prestige-drama shows; Halt and Catch Fire and The Leftovers both grew enormously over time, but neither show had the supergroup cast that this one does, which makes its disappointments keener. But a few more episodes like this and the show will be too entertaining to be disappointed about.
Where are Chuck and Wendy Rhoades’ kids? They’re around after school, or so we’ve been told. Their paintings decorate the walls of the Rhoades’ kitchen. IMDB says they’ve been cast, which probably means we actually saw them for a scene or two already. But in an episode so focused on how the behavior and fortune of Bobby and Lara Axelrod affects their children, the on-screen absence of the Rhoades rugrats feels like a deliberate and pointed omission. For all that Chuck sees Bobby as a monster fucking the masses out of their just rewards, only one of those two men spends time with his family.
The question of “The Punch,” this week’s episode of Billions, is whether that difference actually makes a difference. Bobby begins the episode by tracking down and decking a neighbor who drove his children home from an arcade drunk, then spends the rest of the hour frantically trying to fend off both the legal ramifications and Lara’s attempts to stop spoiling them. Bobby wants them spoiled, wants them to enjoy the benefits of the carefree life he struggled to provide them, one neither he nor Lara experienced growing up. And while he’s embarrassed about his assault on the DUI dickhead, that’s outweighed by his love of being seen by his kids as a protector. Look no further than his midnight “rescue” of the boys from the tough-love outdoor camp Lara sent them to for proof of that. In that light, Axe’s ability to spend time with this children is hardly a blessing.
To be blunt, why would Wendy do something so stupid? On a show full of “the smartest guy in the room”s, she may very well bethe smartest guy in any of the rooms, Bobby’s savant-like mastery of the market notwithstanding. Surely she can see that the last place she should be with the multibillionaire her federal attorney husband is trying to put behind bars is in a pool while in the nude. The most reasonable supposition is that she did it because the show needed her to, to provide Axe with the ammo he’ll need to fight Chuck off as the season progresses. If we’re being generous, though, you could see this not as a plot-hammer goof, but as a deliberate indictment. In this line of thinking, Wendy’s so keen on proving herself perfectly neutral, impossible to intimidate, and a better student of Axe and Chuck’s psyches than Axe and Chuck themselves that she doesn’t even see how idiotic what she’s doing really is. That’s certainly the kind of trap Axe, who’s legendary for always thinking like a dozen steps ahead of anyone else, would set for her. I just wish it didn’t feel like such an out-of-character misstep for her to fall for it.
I reviewed last night’s Billions for the New York Observer. Like, I get what they’re up to, but I don’t think it’s working.
Billions appears to have gotten its first major problem, raunch for raunch’s sake, out of its system with this episode. The sex scene between Bobby and Lara is as hot as you’d expect a little afternoon delight in the pool involving Damian Lewis and Malin Akerman to be. Even a visit to a BDSM club by Chuck goes from a cheap fetish freak show to an illustration of his and Wendy’s very thought-through sexual dynamic when he not only calls her to confess that he’s there, but she also demands he stay on the line and walk her through what he sees, calling the shots the whole time. So that’s one distraction down.
Which brings us to a second, even bigger problem, which is that with said distraction gone, we’re left to realize how little there was to distract from. Simply put, who are these people? Five episodes in and Bobby Axelrod is just not that interesting a guy. He’s barely crooked enough to qualify as a villain. His taste in everything is bland and bro-ish (I get that trying to watch Citizen Kane after his rock-singer friend suggested it because that’s the sort of thing people like him do but then not being able to finish it is supposed to say something about who this guy is, and it does: It says that he’s shallow and boring, all too well.) His primary demon seems to be loving his job making money hand over fist too much, which is like asking us to worry about a baker whose donuts are too goddamn delicious.
I reviewed this week’s episodes of Billions for the New York Observer. Tough to be interested in these characters.
Metallica on a TV show, yeah yeah yeah. There was only one supergroup that really mattered in this episode: Gale from Breaking Bad, on the phone with Brody from Homeland, with Stan from The Americans sitting a few feet away, as they fly to Quebec for an unexpected run-in with Donna from Halt and Catch Fire. Yes, the prestige-drama-actor bingo card that is Billions got fuller up than ever in this week’s installment. But you didn’t even really need to watch David Costabile be sleazy, Damian Lewis be shrewd, Noah Emmerich be squirrelly, or Kerry Bishé be sexy to enjoy yourself. Written by newcomer Young Il Kim and directed by veteran James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross!!!), “Short Squeeze” made Billions a tighter, smarter, better show than it has been so far.
It’s impossible to overstate how refreshing it is to see neither BDSM nor the decision not to participate in it portrayed as a sign of pathology or a relationship in crisis. The Rhoadeses engage in kink for reasons that help them in their real lives, in their marriage, and (one presumes) in just plain getting off; when it looks like one or more of those elements won’t work out, they call it off, no harm no foul. Turning down sex needn’t be a line in the sand, a declaration that one person is right and the other person is wrong, a flashing red light that the romance is dying—it can simply mean you’d prefer to do something else, no big deal. This is a vital side of sexual consent that’s rarely portrayed, as is healthy kink. Who’d have guessed it’d come from this show? Billions has nothing but itself to blame for making that so surprising. There’s a fine line between sleaze and good, clean, smart smut. I’m hoping starts crossing that line in the right direction more regularly.
Chronicling the lifestyles of the rich and bodyshameless has always been abyss-gazes-also shit, with the line between critique and exploitation blurring the moment the panties drop. Surrounding some outré sex shit with the trappings of big money, then stepping back and going “Wild, huh? Really makes you think” doesn’t make anyone think at all, not without a level of technical and tonal control of a Martin Scorsese—and Wolf of Wall Street even gave him a run for his money. (It worked, though, unless you’re the type to hold filmmakers responsible for the reactions of the biggest moral morons in the audience.) Right now we’re simply not far enough into the parallel narratives of Chuck Rhoades and Bobby Axelrod, not well versed enough in the rules that govern the show’s handling of sexuality and morality, not well-acquainted enough with any of the characters involved for this Strong Sexual Content shit to feel like anything but a corny, horny Showtime After Hours series.
It’s worth leaning hard on this, because the rest of the show still seems promising enough to handle constructive criticism. In this episode, the scenes in which Axe and his merry (mostly) men quote GoodFellas and trade R-rated insults so elaborate they must stay up late workshopping them is as sharp about the malignant side of masculinity as the sex stuff elsewhere is sloppy. “We have to be more pure than the Virgin Mary before her first period,” Axelrod’s right-hand man Wags warns his crew as the SEC closes in; “Fuck, Wags,” Axe chuckles, admiring the effort to come up with just the right grotesque thing to say. Elsewhere he cuts Wags off in the middle of a hurdling metaphor to ostentatiously spare a down-on-his-luck broker’s feelings. This is a game to them, and as long as they’re winning they’ll play by whatever rules they like.
As a rule, it is better to be pissed off than pissed on. Chuck Rhoades, however, doesn’t play by the rules. Pissed off? Plenty. Played Paul Giamattically by Paul Giamatti, the crusading attorney general at the heart of Showtime’s new show Billions spends the bulk of the high-finance drama’s pilot fuming about one damn thing or another. But during the opening scene, in which a a faceless woman extinguishes a cigarette on his bare chest and then urinates on the burn, he’s happy as a clam. There’s a time and a place for it, sure, but ol’ Chuck rejects your pissed on/pissed off binary. He’s bodyfulid-fluid. Cable drama, motherfuckers! It’s where anything can happen…and usually does!
I’m covering Billions for the New York Observer this season! First up is my review of the series premiere, which was better than that opening scene but still hamstrung by it.