“Funny and fast-paced though it is, Billions likes it quite dark indeed.”
by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | April 8, 2018
A Generation Too Late
“Is that what being a boss does to you?” When the stand-up guy Bryan Connerty asks this of his superior, Oliver Dake, contempt drips from every word. Dake, previously a stand-up guy himself (albeit a bit of a stiff), has just shut down an interview with Ira Schirmer, a lead witness in their case against Bobby Axelrod … because Schirmer is now offering testimony against his former friend, and their colleague, Chuck Rhoades, instead.
Ira’s cooperation has been bought and paid for by Axe, who sensed the man’s financial and emotional desperation the way a shark smells blood. Dake is refusing to listen because of the back-room deal he made with Rhoades to get this job in the first place. Bryan has no way of knowing any of this. He sees the situation for what it is: His boss is putting a personal agenda over the pursuit of justice — perhaps even conflating that agenda with justice.
Written by Wes Taylor and directed by Colin Bucksey with all the wit and verve that is now par for the “Billions” course, this week’s episode continues to treat unchecked ambition as a metastasizing cancer that consumes everything it touches, which now includes Dake. It includes Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat (golly, what a name) who ignores published evidence of prison abuse, forcing Chuck and Kate Sacher to prosecute a young man for killing the sadistic guard who had been physically and sexually torturing him. As Jeffcoat puts it, it’s more important to score political points with Breitbart readers than with the bleeding hearts who read The New York Times.
It also includes Sacher, who, to her own visible disgust, will concoct a race-baiting, Blue Lives Matter-style federal case against a young man who clearly acted to save his own life. And it even includes our aforementioned stand-up guy, Connerty, who picks a physical fight with a neighborhood gangster involved in the Axelrod case, then trusts in the Blue Wall of Silence to keep him clear of trouble so that he can use the guy’s subsequent arrest as leverage.
The closest ostensibly good guys get to actually doing the right thing comes when Rhoades and Sacher set up a “war room” in an unused storage closet, where she can get payback against Jeffcoat’s racist agenda by surreptitiously picking up all the white-collar cases he had forced them to drop. “We will not let this son of a bitch define justice for the S.D.N.Y.,” Rhoades proclaims, and why not? The Southern District of New York has its own sons of bitches for that job.
On the billionaire side of the “Billions” ledger, the behavior is, unsurprisingly, even worse. Bobby begins the episode by officially signing divorce papers with his now ex-wife Lara; the meeting is cordial, as is their private discussion of their finances and legal situation afterward. The thrust of that conversation, however, is completely infuriating. They treat the prospect of the court case leaving them with “only” $300 to $320 million as if they’d just been bankrupted.
Later, Axe approaches the disgraced investor Michael Panay (Hari Dhillon) to operate as a catspaw, making the trades that Bobby is barred from handling on his own. “Forty,” Panay says of the amount of money left to him after his downfall. “Guess I can live on that.” To be clear, he is talking about 40 million, not 40 thousand, dollars. In order to save himself from the ignominy of living off an amount of money most Americans won’t see in the course of their lifetimes, he effectively sells his soul to the redheaded devil.
It is a move that should further enrich him, Axe, the police pension fund they’re handling and Raul Gomez, the ex-cop who runs the fund. All it requires is becoming a highly paid wage slave to an even richer man. The heart bleeds, doesn’t it?
Running parallel to these threads of realpolitik and greed, Taylor and Wags’s story line this episode raises the intriguing idea that even masters of the financial universe like themselves could be brought low by the rise of the machines. Contrary to longstanding policy at Axe Capital, Taylor wants to bring in quantitative analysts, or “quants,” who create complex computer algorithms that tell them what and when to trade instead of relying on the human insights and personal touches of Dollar Bill, Mafee, Kim, Rudy and the rest of the hotshots working the Axe Cap terminals. (Well, Dollar Bill is a hotshot, anyway; the others are nervous wrecks, as we see when Mafee’s therapeutic session with Wendy Rhoades devolves, to his horror, into a slippery-slope monologue about whether or not he checks out her backside when she walks around the office.)
A variety of entertaining candidates for the gig traipse in and out of the office. The final candidate is a real Goldilocks: He’s older, wiser, calmer, kinder — a NASA data analyst with decades of experience who has become a quant because he sees the market as a way to learn what the whole world is thinking at any given moment. But as Taylor susses out, he is also working in cahoots with Wags to build a backdoor into his algorithm, allowing the firm’s fully human traders to hastily recreate its analysis and reap the rewards themselves.
Taylor winds up vowing to build Axe Cap a better quant of its own — perhaps the one time a boss actually acts on behalf of the underlings rather than against them. Like everything else on this end of the story, though, it’s all in favor of filthy lucre in the end.
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