“It’s Oedipus all the way down, folks.”
by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | April 15, 2018
Hell of a Ride
Chuck Rhoades Jr. and Charles Rhoades Sr. are at war. They have been since the last season of “Billions,” when son betrayed father as part of a plot by Chuck to ruin his nemesis, Bobby Axelrod. But the most powerful weapon wielded in the conflict so far hasn’t been a legal threat or a stock swindle. It’s the kiss that Charles plants square on Chuck’s mouth, hands locked on his son’s head to prevent him from pulling away.
That kiss is the climax of “Hell of a Ride,” this week’s aptly titled episode from the writer Randall Green and the director John Dahl. In a series that has made a study of the physicality of the rich and powerful, the scene is a graduate-level course.
On one level, and like so many of these characters’ other words and actions, it is very likely a reference to a work of macho pop culture: the kiss of betrayal that Michael Corleone plants on his disloyal brother Fredo in “The Godfather Part II.” (Bobby quoted the first “Godfather” film earlier in the episode when he instructed his philanthropy guru, Sean Ayles (Jack Gilpin), to “use all your powers and all your skills” in support of his latest stealthy venture.) But like the best such moments on “Billions,” the context transforms the reference into something new and unique, and in this case uniquely disturbing.
The father-son dynamic creates a power imbalance absent in the brother-to-brother version, adding an overtone of Oedipal anxiety and parental abuse. That ugliness is compounded in turn by the creepy sexualization of the two men’s relationship in this episode, from Charles’s bawdy stories of his collegiate sexual exploits to the revelation that Chuck lost his virginity at age fourteen to a prostitute hand-selected by his father based on firsthand knowledge of her skills. Charles’s presence also looms large over Chuck and Wendy’s heart-to-heart regarding her one-night stand with the space entrepreneur Craig Heidecker during their separation — an act of infidelity Charles had taken it upon himself to uncover and parade before his son.
And the kiss itself is just the latest aftershock from Chuck’s deliberate demolition of his father’s investment in the Ice Juice public offering last season. Indeed, it is a direct reaction to Chuck’s having used the political clout of his éminence grise Black Jack Foley to threaten Charles’s lucrative land holdings surrounding an upstate casino project and thereby force his father to keep quiet about Chuck’s role in sabotaging the stock, now the subject of investigation by the upstanding attorney Bryan Connerty. “We both love this man,” Connerty tells Charles at one point, “you as his father, me as a sort of son.” It’s Oedipus all the way down, folks.
The fantastically fraught kiss wouldn’t be half as effective without the skillful acting of Paul Giamatti and Jeffrey DeMunn. DeMunn has never had a better showcase on “Billions” than he has in this episode, from the nude scene in which he drops trou to intimidate Connerty during a locker-room conversation (eat your heart out, Sophocles) to his complex performance of pride, gratitude, love and secret rage bubbling as Chuck makes a surprise appearance to present him with an award at his 50th reunion at Yale.
Giamatti, meanwhile, brings out Chuck’s core of kindness and decency — they’re in there somewhere! — when he helps Wendy through the shock of both losing her lover to a deadly rocket crash and discovering that Chuck has known about Heidecker all along. It is during that conversation that Chuck reveals the true story of his first time — and not just his first time having sex. “It was the first time my father ever said he was proud of me,” Chuck says. Charles repeats this rare word of praise just before the kiss; when he pulls away, the trauma radiates from Giamatti’s eyes so strongly you can almost hear it hum.
While I could easily spend an entire review unpacking this one scene, that would do a disservice to the rest of the episode, which moves from strength to strength. Aside from the power struggle between the Rhoadeses, there’s a crisis of conscience for Taylor Mason.
As Axe Capital’s chief investment officer, Taylor bets against Heidecker’s space venture despite deeply admiring the guy and supporting his long-term goal of space colonization. Taylor’s move winds up making Axe Cap a fortune when his rocket explodes, killing both him and his company’s stock value. “You lost a hero and were rewarded for it,” Wendy says during Taylor’s therapy session after the disaster, paraphrasing Taylor’s characteristically wordy and precise description of the issue with her own trademark blunt incisiveness.
How should Taylor resolve this inner conflict? According to Wendy, it’s quite simple, and she sums it up in a sentence that could well be this show’s mantra: “Mind the truth that makes you money.” Taylor, who as a gender-nonbinary person surely has no shortage of experience in resolving conflict to get to the truth beneath, goes out and buys the same obscenely expensive Patek Philippe watch that Heidecker wore — a memento mori in gold, its purchase made affordable by the money the man’s death generated.
Bobby and Wags, meanwhile, are also wrestling with matters of life and death, albeit in very different ways. Bobby spends the episode fighting his ouster from the board of a charity with the beautifully vapid moniker World-Aid, concerned with his potential loss of prestige. But, being Bobby Axelrod, he figures out a way to weaponize his own status as persona non grata and convert his reputational loss into financial gain. Bobby senses the potential in the plans of Oscar Langstraat (the laconic comedian Mike Birbiglia), a “venture philanthropist” (shudder) who wants World-Aid to buy the solar energy company behind the air-conditioning tents the charity is providing to climate-ravaged regions of Africa. The charity’s good name will drive the stock through the roof, which will enrich the charity in turn.
Read the rest of the original article at New York Times