What are the Chances Axe Can Actually Keep His Hand Out of the Cookie Jar?
by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | April 1, 2018
Live like a king. It’s a phrase that connotes wealth, luxury, excess, a life of unlimited possibility and security. How easy it is to let the sparkle of the crown jewels blind us to the dead enemies and discarded undesirables through which they were purchased. This week’s episode of “Billions” reminds us, as bluntly as the show ever has, that the games played by Bobby Axelrod and his billionaire boys club in order to remain comfortable on their thrones can have as steep a cost to bystanders as to any player in the game.
Take a close look at the title, “The Wrong Maria Gonzalez.” The right Maria Gonzalez is a maid in the home of Victor, a former analyst at Axe’s firm who led her to poisoning herself in order to tank the initial public offering of Ice Juice last season and thus get back in the good graces of his ex-employer. But to hear Maria tell it, she lived like a serf, bowing to the whims of her feudal lord and lady even before this act of industrial espionage landed her on an F.B.I. witness list. If she broke a glass, Victor’s wife broke her taillight, putting her at risk of getting pulled over and, eventually, deported.
Which is exactly what Victor and Axe conspire to do to her once they get wind of her possible participation in the Ice Juice case. (Victor knew she was involved the moment she showed up slightly late for work; his oligarch-sense must have tingled.) To the horror of our hero Bryan Connerty and his F.B.I. ex-flame Terri McCue (Susan Misner), they arrive at the local immigration detention center only to discover that a different woman by the same name is being held captive there. Thanks to a record-keeping mishap, the “right” Maria Gonzalez is already on her way back to Guatemala — helped along, they correctly deduce, by Axe and his minions, in this case a comically sinister duo Axe has hired as his new skulduggery specialists.
And if you thought that Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat would be sympathetic to the need to un-deport an “illegal immigrant” back to the United States so she can testify against an extremely wealthy white man, I’ve got a building on Fifth Avenue to sell you.
It’s a nasty bit of work, right down to Bobby’s repulsive smirk when he learns his plan was a success. Initially it appeared as if he had contacted his new security gurus to help him move money out of the country; the revelation that he was talking about a human being in such callous terms bordered on nauseating. The episode’s final shot shows Maria, still in her maid’s uniform, brushing off a child street vendor’s offers in the unfamiliar place she now must call home once again.
The whole story line is reminiscent of those unforgettably ugly moments on “The Sopranos” when the petty squabbles and turf wars of Tony’s crew spilled over to civilians, leaving an undertipped waiter convulsing in a parking lot with his skull bashed in or a lawn contractor with two broken arms working as an underboss’s slave. And yes, I went there with the “Sopranos” comparison — it’s that good at being that bad.
But there’s a larger critique at work here, since there’s no right Maria Gonzalez in this situation at all. Terri, Bryan and Bryan’s boss, Oliver Dake, aren’t happy their witness has been deported, but they’re not exactly falling all over themselves to change the country’s immigration policies in response. Many more Maria Gonzalezes are at risk of getting rounded up, interred and expelled by an administration led by a rich New Yorker who rode to power, in part, on a wave of xenophobia — and atop an ocean of business dealings that are currently under federal investigation.
Playing Attorney General Jeffcoat, the actor Clancy Brown really embraces the revanchist rhetoric. “She is three times illegal,” he says of the wrong Maria. “That makes her removable. And she was removed.” He sounds for all the world like the space-marine drill sergeant he played in Paul Verhoeven’s anti-fascist sci-fi satire, “Starship Troopers,” ranting about humanity’s extraterrestrial insectoid enemies. (I’m just waiting for Wags to quote the film’s immortal declaration, “We can ill afford another Klendathu.”)
Jeffcoat is hardly alone in his calculated callousness. Axe Capital faces a major crisis just before the first round of trades overseen by his handpicked successor, Taylor, in the form of a tsunami that hits Brazil and upends a half dozen major industries. In an effort to cut their losses and impress Axe, who’s holding $2 billion in reserve to hedge his bets against his replacement, Taylor spends the episode ordering a series of high-risk moves into various sectors that the disaster has rendered exploitable.
“Is no one worried about the people, you know, in Brazil?” asks Ben, one of the firm’s more sheepish analysts. “If it’s a moneymaker, we do it,” Taylor proclaims, offering a credo by way of a response. But don’t worry: The firm’s resident charity guru suggests that various donations can be made to help the victims as a sort of moral carbon-offset plan for robbing their devastated country blind. Great system, gang!
Even among the supposedly good guys, conscience-salving and favor-trading are endemic. Hardly a scene with Chuck Rhoades goes by in which he isn’t calling in a debt or incurring one himself, maneuvering so that a judge more favorable to the case against Axelrod will preside over his trial. In a strangely moving exchange that takes place in an empty hallway in the bowels of the courthouse, Chuck stops the libertarian judge Leonard Funt (played by the great character actor Harris Yulin), asking the judge to recuse himself from the case as payback for Chuck’s decision not to prosecute his son when he was caught dealing Adderall to his classmates in med school.
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