Posts Tagged ‘new york observer’
Bobby Axelrod has come undone. For my money, this week’s episode of Billions (“With or Without You”) gives us a more convincing glimpse of the damage he can do in crisis mode than when he destroyed his own office building to look for nonexistent bugs last season. Bobby spends the episode in near-constant motion, driving and walking and pacing and flailing around in the search for Lara. A lot of shows waste time on their characters’ perambulations as a misguided matter of course; Billions shrewdly instrumentalizes them, giving the show the pacing of a thriller and making Bobby’s physical movement a metaphor for his racing and restless mind in his wife’s absence. And by making his first trip of many a visit to Wendy Rhoades in which he uses his sinister private investigator Hall to strong-arm her off the street and into his car (!!!), the show demonstrates just how far he’s willing to go.
Actor Damian Lewis is no stranger to playing characters who are so tightly wound and terrified they could snap at any moment thanks to his show-defining stint on Homeland. Here, he does his best work since that show’s darkest moments, slowly but surely revealing himself to be an abusive, controlling, contemptuous creep in a series of increasingly unhinged voicemails to Lara. He starts out upset, but not necessarily unreasonable; he may spend a bit too much time trying to shame Lara into regretting her snap decision to bolt rather than talk it out and to take the kids in the bargain—and a bit too little time actually apologizing for his role in prompting that decision—but he at least seems like someone she could have a conversation with were she calm enough herself. He shifts into remember-when mode (proving Tony Soprano right once and for all), comparing his feelings for her when they first met to “the thunderbolt” that hit Michael Corleone when he first laid eyes on his mild Sicilian dream girl Apollonia in The Godfather, then fast-forwarding to a trip they took to Paris where they couldn’t even bear to get out of bed long enough to stop “With or Without You” from playing on repeat.
But both of these fond memories are inverted with gut-punching force later on: “Apollonia got blown up by a fucking car bomb,” Lara points out to Bobby with appropriate venom when he repeats the comparison upon her return, while the iconic, romantic U2 hit plays as he surreptitiously deletes all the angry messages he left her while her phone was off over the course of the day. Good thing, too: By the end of it all he was screaming into the phone about how he was gonna teach her a lesson, how he could “operate you by remote control with a flick of my fucking finger,” how he shouldn’t have passed up the countless opportunities he had to fuck other women if this was all the thanks he got. Watching all this play out, you can see what Chuck Rhoades likely sees every time he looks at the guy: an entitled menace, with limitless resources to back it up.
The Americans is a great show for faces. Most great TV dramas are, of course—to name two currently running examples, if you can think of Better Call Saul without mentally counting the crags in every Jonathan Banks closeup or talk about The Leftovers without describing the way Carrie Coon choreographs her eyes and lips and brow in a complex dance of grief, just go ahead and delete those shows from your watchlist. But those shows’ warm and expressionistic lighting transforms those faces into works of art. The Americans is all about the gray-white light of a suburban afternoon or the harsh fluorescents of official spaces. Faces here look raw, inseparable from the physical reality of the human beings beneath them. When Paige Jennings tears up in “The Committee on Human Rights,” this week’s episode, because she’s dumping her boyfriend, it’s an action she doesn’t really know how to do, over reasons she doesn’t really know how to explain to herself much less to him. In those moments, her baffled but resolute face is recognizable to anyone who’s shared that terrible into-the-void pain. When Matthew Beeman stares at her, eyes growing dull with confusion and shock as he offers to do basically whatever she wants to keep the relationship going, you recognize that too. When Stan Beeman’s face lights up because his friend’s life has been spared and his boss has unexpectedly gone to bat for him, you really do see a guy who just got good news at work. Does this make sense? There’s something unadorned about The Americans’ faces, is what I’m getting at. They’re not staged for us. They feel more like something we’re peering through a window to see.
Which brings me to my favorite face of all. Matthew Rhys is such a pleasure to watch in this thing. Counterintuitive, I know, given that his job requires him to look constantly miserable. (It’s what made his cameo as a sleazy hotshot novelist during the final season of Girls such a perverse thrill: Finally, we get to see him enjoy doing terrible things instead of moping about them!) But within that range of facial expressions that stretches from exhausted to nauseated he’s able to locate so many variations and nuances. Other actors are a 12/3/6/9 wall clock with an hour hand and a minute hand; he’s able to pinpoint fleeting emotional beats to the millisecond.
I reviewed this week’s episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. Writing this review helped me push past some internal obstacles to my work lately, and I think it shows.
“Witness” is the episode Better Call Saul viewers have long been waiting for, the one in which Gustavo “Gus” Fring finally makes his debut. Gus was—or is that will be?—the primary antagonist of Breaking Bad, the series to which BCS serves as a sequel. Watching Mike Ehrmantraut and his occasional partner of convenience Jimmy McGill work their way through their relatively petty crimes toward this apex predator’s stalking ground over the course of the past two seasons has been like hearing the longest, most morbid version of “The Aristocrats” ever told.
There was every risk that the introduction of such a massive figure, a mainstay in any list of the greatest villains the medium has ever produced, would throw this relatively quiet show’s careful balance of black comedy and quiet menace out of whack. But as it happens, we needn’t have worried at all. Gus doesn’t make the kind of grand entrance that would overwhelm the show’s dual-narrative structure, in which Jimmy’s love-hate relationship with his more successful but mentally ill brother Chuck slowly drags him into criminality on one half of the ledger while Mike’s natural talent for skullduggery and bloodletting push him deeper into the underworld on the other. Smartly, the show reunites the two characters for Gus’s introduction, sending Jimmy into his restaurant for a failed reconnaissance mission at Mike’s behest. By the time we realize who he is, the Chicken Man has been milling around in the background of the shot for several seconds, sweeping up like the conscientious manager of a fast-food place he pretends to be. As Jimmy sits and looks around for a sign of the man behind Mike’s pursuers, that very man slowly, slowly, slowly draws near to him, almost brushes up against him, and passes him by. His face is always either out of focus or out of frame entirely. The effect is like you’ve gone swimming in deep water, and you’re watching a friend float around obliviously as the silver-gray shape of a shark swims right past him.
Bobby Axelrod’s personal fortune would shame a Roman emperor’s. Shouldn’t his memento mori be equally upscaled? “Sic Transit Imperium,” this week’s episode of Billions, begins with his right-hand man Wags’s delivery of a birthday present: “The Arc,” a secure facility for billionaire survivalists and their families to hole up in the event of armageddon. The key comes in the shape of a fake Roman coin, “So goes the Empire” written on one side. L’état, c’est Axelrod—if he goes, the world goes with him.
But the episode ends with Bobby declining the gift. “I’LL NEVER ACCEPT THIS” reads the note that accompanies the coin-key he sends back to Wags in lieu of attending his own birthday party. The idea is that Bobby sees through it all. Sure, he’s obligated to do at least a little pro forma legacy-building and image-burnishing, as he does when he hires a “stuffed shirt” to direct his charitable efforts to the tune of $500K a year. But a lavish birthday party where his loyal subjects pay him homage and celebrate all they’ve built together? A luxury doomsday bunker so he can ride out the apocalypse in style? Avoiding a sure thing involving a soon to be scandal-plagued car company over paltry, mortal-human concerns like “it’s illegal” and “the tip comes from an ex-employee with an act to grind”? The hell you say! Attempts to ensure a smooth and safe future are a waste of his time and talent. As he says to Taylor in one of the episodes many surprisingly sincere exchanges, “The moral of the story is you get one life, so do it all.” Sic transit imperium can take a back seat to carpe diem.
I reviewed this week’s Billions for the New York Observer. I have no idea if people are watching this show this season or what, particularly in what is by now one of the most crowded fields for good tv in as long as I’ve been doing this—at some point or other during the season’s run it will have competed for attention with Big Little Lies, Girls, The Americans, Taboo, The Leftovers, Harlots, Better Call Saul, Feud, Veep, Legion, American Crime, American Gods, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fargo, a tonal and qualitative mixed bag to be sure but all of them serious efforts—but boy did it get good.
It’s weird to spend this much time concerned about Philip, in a way. Even though he’s long been the conscience of the couple—the show began with him trying to persuade Elizabeth to defect, remember?—he’s spent most of the past few seasons worried about others: his duped “wife” Martha, for example, and his daughter Paige most especially. But Paige has worries all her own. I’m still wrestling with that odd scene where she and her mother talk to a Mary Kay sales rep at the front door. Paige seems delighted, but Elizabeth is disgusted, and even if the Mary Kay lady is too seasoned a pro to acknowledge it, that disgust shows. “You weren’t very nice to her,” Paige tells her mom afterward, perplexed. “Well, we weren’t gonna buy anything,” Elizabeth says. “Being nice would just be a waste of her time.” Indictment of how capitalism commodifies time and human relationships and objectifies human beings? Yes, as Paige’s late-night readings of Marx would help her understand. Indictment of her own mother’s instrumentalization of other people based on whether or not they suit the needs of the moment? Also yes, as Elizabeth’s instruction to hide Capital among other books so as not to arouse suspicion from outside observers would help Paige understand in turn. There’s something awfully ugly about that scene, short and subdued and murder-free though it may be.
The slowness and silence of Mike’s side of the story is a stupendous choice for several reasons. First, it aims the spotlight directly at the facial expressions and body language of Jonathan Banks as Mike. As an actor, he doesn’t perform so much as he oven roasts, slowly and quietly allowing the characters skill, determination, ruthlessness, patience and weariness to flavor his every move. Second, it provides composer Dave Porter with a blank canvas on which to paint an engrossing post-rock musical accompaniment, miles away from the jaunty country-western kitsch of the soundtrack. Third, it gives director Vince Gilligan—working here with cinematographer Marshall Adams—the chance to let the visual dimension do much of the talking. Mike’s sections of the show are basically oceans of darkness, surrounding islands of warm yet sickly yellow glowing light in which Mike moves or sits like a castaway; that yellow color beams “CAUTION” at our brains like the lights from a roadside construction project on a rainy night. It’s a powerful contrast with the black and white of the flash-forward opening sequence, showing Jimmy’s eventual fate as Gene the Omaha Cinnabon manager; with the Office Space aesthetic of Jimmy’s 2002-era material; even with the dark wood paneling and bright “natural” daylight that characterize scenes starring Jimmy’s Luddite brother Chuck. It’s tough to think of a series with as distinct a visual aesthetic as Better Call Saul which is also willing to vary that aesthetic so much in a single episode.
Finally, Mike’s slow and steady story gives lie to the claim that Better Call Saul is becoming Breaking Bad Redux. Perhaps Breaking Bad’s magisterial final season (minus that regrettable punch-pulling finale, of course), which moved toward the destruction of Walter White with the grace and grandeur of the inevitable, makes the chaos of that show harder to remember. But from literally the first scene of the first episode of the first season, Walt’s story showed him careening from one calamity to another, creating new disasters to extricate himself from the old ones nearly every time. Mike’s story may involve Breaking Bad heavies like the Salamanca Family and, presumably, Gus “The Chicken Man” Fring; it may have more in common with that show’s violent stock in trade than the white-collar crimes of Jimmy McGill or the mental illness of his hotshot older brother Chuck; but in pacing and in tone it remains a very different proposition indeed.
I reviewed the season premiere of Better Call Saul for the New York Observer. Eff what you heard about the show getting too close to Breaking Bad; other than the characters and the overall skill involved they have very little in common.
Before we really get into this, I want us to take a moment—you and me, just us two—to talk about David Costabile and Mike “Wags” Wagner.” I want you to think about the way his face crinkles with joy when he learns his boss Bobby Axelrod wants to take on Black Jack Foley, the most powerful man in New York. “Rough him up?” he says, beaming like a kid on Christmas morning. “I’m all for it!” I want you to consider how, when his underling Maffee razzes him for his pathological partying, he not only verbally menaces the guy but raises his leg and puts his foot on his desk while he does it, like a dog about to mark his territory. I want you to savor the way he turns to the brokerage goons who are courting Axe Cap’s business, insists on ditching their boring business dinner for something more…exciting, and fucking says “Fire walk with me” like a David Lynch demon. I want us, you and me, to treasure this man, this character, this performance. He is a delight undeserved, and yet here he is.
That’s more or less the way I feel about Billions in toto. How this show became one of the tightest, smartest, and most entertaining series on television this year is a mystery I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of, but I’m not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. As of “The Kingmaker,” this week’s episode, Billions is serving up a type of tight, aphoristic writing we haven’t seen since Mad Men. It’s not looking to tear your guts out the way Matt Weiner’s classic drama was, (though as we’ll see, it may occasionally do so anyway), but that’s fine. We could all use an unimpeachably written drama about the evil that capitalist men do right about now, don’t you think?
I reviewed this week’s Billions for the New York Observer. I’m just apeshit for this show this season. Never seen a turnaround like it before.
“I’d like to lay a little bet / That you don’t even know the meaning of regret / And if I’m even just a tiny bit correct / I doubt that you would ever think to pay your debt / I’m suspicious / Suspicious of you.”—Psychic TV, “Suspicious”
“Just because you’re paranoid don’t mean they’re not after you.”—Nirvana, “Territorial Pissings”
“It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”—Joseph Fouché, frequently misattributed to Talleyrand
“Lotus 1-2-3,” this week’s episode of The Americans, had me reaching for my mental quote book. (Not many physical ones contain Psychic TV.) It’s hard to narrow down which of the above phrases best encapsulates what went on here, so we’ll take them one by one.
We’ll start with the last, though it’s a quote I’ve always hated. No, actually, a mistake is not worse than a crime. A crime is bad enough in and of itself. This is the sort of blustery self-justifying bullshit that enables bad actors in political conflicts across the centuries to push morality to the side as, if not entirely irrelevant, then at least incidental to the allegedly more important practical considerations. You’ll recognize this mentality from the 2016 presidential debates, perhaps, when Donald Trump responded to a question from a Muslim member of the audience with his usual senile-dementia neofascism about evil Islamic fundamentalists, only for Hillary Clinton, the supposed avatar of American progressivism, to say that no, actually, we need to be good to Muslims…so that they’ll serve as our eyes and ears among the aforementioned evil Islamic fundamentalists. The idea that fomenting Islamophobia is itself evil, that it’s bad in and of itself, that it’s morally wrong and therefore curtailing it requires no practical justification, was nowhere to be found.
This week Philip Jennings shoots this whole way of thinking down with a sardonic facial expression and a flatly incredulous sentence. It turns out that their investigation into American attempts to destroy Soviet crops was completely off-base, and that the virulent strain of midges they’d discovered is being used to make wheat more resistant to pests. This means that the lab tech whose spine he snapped in Kansas for the crime of looking the other way had really done nothing wrong at all. “That guy in the lab,” Philip says to Elizabeth, as they sit wearing the clothes and wigs of fake people in a fake house. “That can’t happen ever again.” “We’ll be more careful,” Elizabeth reassures him. “ ‘More careful’?” he repeats, the look in his eyes and the tone of his voice making his concern and contempt clear. To Philip, who says he’s been having problems with the wetwork they’re required to do for a long time, “careful” doesn’t enter into it. The problem wasn’t that they were sloppy, it’s that they murdered an innocent man. It was worse than a mistake, it was a crime.
You can’t swing a gatefold Dark Side of the Moon album cover without hitting a TV music cue meant to BLOW YOUR MIND these days. What a joy it was, then, to stumble across a needle-drop on Billions meant to do nothing more and nothing less than make you crack up? The honor goes to “Sex and Candy,” the ‘90s alt-pop staple from Marcy Playground that turned lust into something that sounded sleepy and skeezy and, well, smelly. In that sense, it’s perfect for the sex scene it soundtracked: a poolside oral tryst between the Axelrods’ skeezebag personal chef and his tattooed lady friend. But did Billions start the song when it first cut to these two hardbodies getting it on? Hell no—those first “only ‘90s kids will remember” notes rang out, incongruously and ironically, over Chuck Rhoades and his son Kevin and their football, posing for the all-American photo shoot intended to launch his political career. The moment I recognized it I started literally lol’ing. Deflating Chuck’s pretensions to righteousness and segueing into the show’s filthiest romp so far this season (Wags’s tattooed ass notwithstanding)? Take fucking notes, Legion and Stranger Things—that’s how music direction is done.
And as far as the kind of “the part stands in for the whole” moments that we TV critics can’t get enough of, it’s almost too good to be true. Directed by John freaking Singleton and written by Alice O’Neill and series co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, “Victory Lap” is the episode in which this extraordinarily, improbably entertaining season of Billions rips off the capitalism scab to reveal the exploitation pus beneath.
I reviewed this week’s Billions, maybe the best of its very strong season so far, for the New York Observer. Okay, so Legion was still irritating me, but that aside this had one of the most gut-level upsetting story turns I’ve seen in a long while. Great stuff.
I’m concerned about Renee. You know, Renee—Stan Beeman’s beautiful blonde gym buddy and new girlfriend, played by ex-Walking Dead lead Laurie Holden? The woman whose magnetism ate up a ton of Stan’s screentime through his descriptions of her to his buddy Philip Jennings and his partner Agent Aderholt alone, even before she made her on-screen debut? The woman who, during a double date with Stan and the Jennings, provides the kind of highly detailed backstory that we’ve learned from experience with our Soviet spies in this very episode (“What’s the Matter with Kansas?”) is just the sort of bubbe-meise secret agents concoct for their false identities? The woman who elicits weirdly stiff smiles from Philip and Elizabeth, implying that they sense something is off, but without the show ever confirming that implication by having the Jennings say something like “Wow, that was weird, wasn’t it?” during the car ride home or whatever? Yeah, that Renee. The beautiful thing about all this is that it all works no matter what pans out. Maybe we’re right to be suspicious and this person is up to no good—KGB, CIA, or some other alphabet agency seeking to compromise one of the FBI’s best and brightest. Or maybe our years-long immersion into the lives and lies of Philip, Elizabeth, Stan, Oleg et al have us jumping at shadows. Either way, you couldn’t ask for a finer demonstration of The Americans’ power to generate paranoia.
Isn’t it nice to have a show that can legitimately outsmart you—not just bury some easter-egg clues in a storyline and wait for you to find them, but convincingly construct characters whose intellect, talent, and emotional acumen keep them several steps ahead of your own?
“Why are we looking at this for so long? Ohhh, that’s why.” The Americans loves to set us up like this, drawing out scenes and storylines for as long as it can before pulling the trigger on our understanding of what the show is doing and why the show is doing it. “The Midges,” this week’s episode, features what’s bound to be one of the most talked-about examples of the technique yet. As KGB agent and reluctant CIA asset Oleg Burov exits the Soviet supermarket he’s investigating for corruption, the camera follows him through the aisles for a while but eventually allows him to exit the store alone. While he leaves, it stays behind, watching the shoppers browse the sparse shelves. Most prominent in the frame is a woman in a headscarf, one of many in the store. But the shot lasts too long for her to be just another extra. Is she a spy sent by the US or the USSR to keep tabs on Oleg? Is she about to do something unusual or unpleasant, or is something unusual or unpleasant about to be done to her? Wait—is she…familiar looking? Her face turns toward the camera just as the scene’s focus on her becomes impossible to ignore. Behold: Martha, Philip’s wife and asset and victim, going about her new life in the country that took away her old one. “Is it hard, pretending to be other people?” Paige asks her parents elsewhere in the episode. Philip tells her yes, it is. Martha could no doubt do the same.
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.
When Philip and Elizabeth Jennings take a trip to the local Bennigan’s for a family dinner, they don’t come alone. Yes, they bring their fake adopted son, secretly a Vietnamese spy, and the family of their target, a Soviet defector who claims to be working for the Department of Agriculture but seems to be part of a bioweapons program. But they, or more accurately the filmmakers behind their show The Americans, also bring a lingering shot of the bustling salad bar…accompanied by the sound of people coughing and sneezing. You can’t see the culprits, but they’re there, somewhere, and their bodies are coating the food with filth.
I reviewed this week’s paranoiac episode of The Americans for the New York Observer. By the way, I have a crazy theory about where it’s all headed: Paige kills Stan.
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.
The Americans likes to let it linger. Ever since the show hit its stride toward the end of its second season—before then it was a perfectly fine spy thriller with sexy leads and a killer soundtrack rather than the prolonged moral autopsy of patriotism it became—it has specialized in letting both storylines and individual scenes simmer, or perhaps fester, for longer than most would dare. On a macro level, the revelation of undercover KGB agent Philip Jennings’s true identity to his duped “wife” Martha and her reaction to it spooled out over the better part of two seasons. Last year, his real wife Elizabeth maintained a friendship with her charming South Korean immigrant target Young Hee for episode after episode before the series revealed her intentions. And on a micro level, the show has specialized in rubbing its viewers’ faces in the horrifying nature of the Jennings’ trade for minutes on end. Think of Philip shattering the bones in the nude corpse of his informant and lover so that he and her killer could stuff her body in a suitcase. Think of Elizabeth having a heart to heart with the kindly older woman who ran a repair shop she’d infiltrated, both of them knowing all the while that death was on the way. Think of the necklacing of the apartheid-era South African enemy agent they helped capture, of how he screamed and sizzled during his seemingly endless immolation.
“Amber Waves,” The Americans’ fifth season premiere, closes with another case in point.
I reviewed the season premiere of The Americans for the New York Observer, where I’ll be covering it all season. Let’s just say that contra some other takes you might have read, it doesn’t make me pine for the so-called simpler times of the Cold War.
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.
There is no artist behind Slender Man, not in the panoptic, memetic form in which Morgan and Anissa encountered him. Slender Man’s “author” is the internet and the army of artists and writers and filmmakers and game designers who inhabit it. Only the accident of history, in which the original posts can be tracked down, enables us to put names to the faceless being at all. A few decades ago Slender Man would just be Bloody Mary or the killer with a hook for a hand who disrupts teenagers necking in their cars. A few centuries ago and he’d be the vampire a town feared enough to dig up graves and behead the corpses inside, or the witch who lures wayward children to their doom. With no artist in play, it becomes clear how fallacious it is to pin the blame on artists for the actions of disturbed individuals who consumed their art at all.
This is not to say art never affects society or inspires terrible things. When Jared Kushner crows about targeting ads for his odious father-in-law Donald Trump’s presidential campaign to viewers of The Walking Dead because of their concerns about immigration, he’s recognizing the fascist ideology that underlies both the show and the current administration. But art with an ideological vector connects the reader or viewer to a cohesive worldview, which, right or wrong, helps explain society and prescribe remedies for its ills. Action and reaction are to be expected.
That’s different from a movie about a pair of abused kids who become mass murderers and media superstars, or music by a glam-influenced Satanist, or creepy internet posts about a demon with no face. These merely provide monsters who embody fears and desires, not a political program. Those monsters will always exist in one form or another, and disturbed kids like Morgan and Anissa will always find them and use them as the mold into which they pour their crumbling sanity or mounting bloodlust. In blaming the art or the artist, we commit the exact same error, looking for a boogeyman to help us explain the inexplicable. We’re finding our own Slender Man to serve.