by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | May 6, 2018
Not You, Mr. Dake
Before we formally open tonight’s recap, here’s a tip, from my critic’s notebook to you. When you get deep into a season of a prestige drama and you see the names of the showrunners pop up under an episode’s “written by” credit? Buckle up. Written by two of the series’s creators, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, and directed with dot-connecting confidence by Michael Morris, this is “Billions” at its best. Ever, I’d say.
The surprises start immediately. (They often do; there’s not a wasted moment on this show anymore.) Last week’s installment ended with a sort of cliffhanger conciliation: Chuck Rhoades, Bobby Axelrod and their shared confidant, Wendy Rhoades, coming together to figure out a way to keep all of them out of prison. Chuck had opened that meeting by proffering an incriminating slide that connected Bobby to the sabotage of the Ice Juice I.P.O. rather than by planting it in the billionaire’s apartment. Nevertheless, this week’s episode begins as Chuck confers with Dr. Ari Gilbert, the man who gave him the slide, talking as if the plan to hide it at Axe’s place is still in full effect.
Comparing himself and the doctor to World War II paratroopers, Chuck says they’ve reached the point of no return. Can the doctor’s conscience hold up, in Chuck’s words, to “framing someone, even if that person is, in fact, guilty”? “I can live with it,” Gilbert replies, comparing the scheme to performing triage in an emergency room after a disaster: “You save who you can, and force the fate of the rest out of your mind.”
“I hoped you’d see it that way,” Chuck replies.
What follows is … well, it’s a lot of things. But among those things is the systematic demolition of Dr. Gilbert’s life. This takes place according the exact same moral calculus he signed up for when he — and we — still thought he was merely re-articulating his willingness to frame Axe. “Billions” being “Billions,” that conversation bears all the signs of a red herring. But in this world of constantly shifting loyalties, it’s still impossible to know at this point who’s the hustler and who’s the mark.
The clues quickly mount, as the plot returns to where we left off, at the three-person conclave in Axe’s apartment. (Are we jumping back or jumping forward? The answer to that question will unlock much of what follows.) Bobby, Wendy and Chuck agree there that, in order to spare themselves, they will have to find a fall guy, and for the rest of the episode, all three of them use (ahem) all their powers and all their skills to make Dr. Gilbert into that guy. As the standout episode of Season 2, “Golden Frog Time,” attested, “Billions” is at its best when the schemes and counterschemes are at their densest, because its writers know how to use these complex battles to reveal the character of its combatants. And in this episode, nearly every major and minor player on the show gets some quality time in the crucible.
For Bobby, this means tracking down his former fixer, Hall (Terry Kinney), who has been in seaside seclusion up in lobster country since the sabotage scheme was exposed. Only Hall has the know-how to pinpoint and blackmail just the right employee at Wendy’s cellular provider in order to doctor the records of her incriminating call. Axe meanwhile has one of his guys fabricate evidence of a lucrative trade by Dr. Gilbert so as to further incriminate him. He also spearheads the effort to persuade Mafee (Dan Soder), the trader who set up Wendy’s illegal short, to take the fall for her — using information from Mafee’s friend Taylor Mason to determine how to make him lie without threatening his innate sense of honor and decency.
Both Soder and Maggie Siff do humane, careful work with material that could be icky or campy in other hands. Wendy’s relentless attractiveness, and the differential of desire between the two characters, yields the sexiest scene I’ve seen on TV all year, with no nudity and little more physical contact than a strategically deployed head on his shoulder. And yet you feel Wendy’s desperation, even as she feigns confidence. She has already been dressed down by Taylor in a powerful confrontation over her motives regarding Mafee, and she visibly carries the weight of Taylor’s accusations, even as she asks him if she can call him “Dudley.”
The final piece of the puzzle is Chuck. Rhoades constructs a veritable matryoshka doll of patsies, using every ounce of his legal and psychological acumen. The first is Dr. Gilbert, whom he convinces to cop a plea. The opening scene, we learn, was a flash-forward — a conversation initiated by Rhoades in order to distract Dr. Gilbert while the notorious slide was planted back in the doctor’s fridge. Combined with the phony trade record whipped up by Axe’s team, it makes for an airtight and totally fraudulent case. The doctor is toast.
And yet, Chuck’s speeches to Dr. Gilbert about guilt as a state of being, if not as a set of demonstrable facts, were more than just a ruse. They were the moral and philosophical polish to the dagger Chuck had been readying since the meeting at Axe’s apartment. Despite the obvious frame-up, Chuck convinces Dr. Gilbert to confess by hammering him over his choice to deny Donnie Caan the experimental cancer treatment that could have extended his life (and thus left Donnie alive to testify against Axe, his former boss). Dr. Gilbert may not be guilty of the specific crimes for which he’s charged, Chuck tells him, but he’s damn sure guilty. (Like the doctor he plays, the actor Seth Barrish is asked to shoulder a lot of weight versus his comparatively small role, and he deserves a lot of credit for making you care.)
The doctor’s downfall gives Chuck a “scalp” to show his boss, the creatively profane attorney general Jock Jeffcoat. Meanwhile, the phone-record manipulation takes Chuck’s protégé-turned-scourge Bryan Connerty down a notch, causing his case against Axe to blow up right in the middle of Judge DeGiulio’s courtroom. Bryan is transferred back under Chuck’s supervision in the Southern District. And that leaves Bryan’s now-former boss in the Eastern District, Chuck’s old enemy Oliver Dake, as the last fall guy standing, if not for long: Jeffcoat fires him to show that fighting crime unsuccessfully doesn’t pay.
Read the rest of the original article at New York Times