by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | May 27, 2018
“Billions” has always been an odd-couple show.
From its pilot episode to its Twitter hashtag emoji, it’s centered on the contrast between the lean, mean local boy made good Bobby Axelrod and the gruff, tough Yale-educated bulldog Chuck Rhoades. Played by Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti respectively, they’re the proverbial study in contrasts.
But in Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat, I think Chuck has met an even better (mis)match. The man presides over the Justice Department like a Confederate caudillo, reviving Giuliani/Reagan-era drug war polices on a whim because he didn’t like the look of the neighborhoods his car drove through on the way from the airport, using an obscene epithet favored by our current commander-in-chief to describe them. And as portrayed by Clancy Brown, a charming but physically imposing actor best known for genre work, he looks as if he could squash Chuck like a bug. When this guy invites himself over to Chuck’s place for dinner, Giamatti invests the garrulous fake courtesy of his reply (“Great! O.K.! Very good!”) with just a hint of panic.
And no wonder. Chuck and his team, attorneys Kate Sacker and Karl Allard (Condola Rashad and Allan Havey, either of whom are idiosyncratic enough actors to hold down this kind of plot on their own), have uncovered a secret fortune amassed by Jeffcoat and his televangelist brother, and they plan to expose it. This case has everything: nepotism, money laundering, telecom deregulation, “There Will Be Blood”–style land swindling, a crooked evangelical megachurch, under-vetted federal appointees and political corruption that goes all the way up to the racist AG. (It also involves a mole or wiretap in the Southern District, since the moneyman whom Chuck targets receives a tip that nearly enables him to escape the Feds; I’m a lot more worried about this than Chuck himself appears to be.)
Success here would make taking down Bobby Axelrod look like issuing a parking violation. But since the entire political playing field has been tilted by the never-named president and his cronies, it’s hard to imagine the game going Chuck’s way.
While Rhoades takes a run right at his new nemesis, things play out very differently for his old rival Bobby Axelrod and the powerful new presence filling the Chuck-sized void in his life. Grigor Andolov, the gangsterish Russian oil magnate played by John Malkovich, spurs the action in this episode by getting out of bed with Bobby Axelrod, rather than burrowing deeper in. Without warning, Andolov pulls the lion’s share of his investment from Axe Cap, forcing Bobby to scramble to make up the shortfall. He does throw in a free tennis lesson from real-life athlete Maria Sharapova (a surprise guest in the vein of last week’s cameo by the NBA superstar Kevin Durant) to take the edge off, but still.
It would do the show’s writers — in this case, the series co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, joined by Matthew Fennell — a disservice to describe these financial machinations as merely a MacGuffin; too much effort is put into nailing the almost esoteric intricacy and jargon of these multi-hundred-million dollar transactions. But in the same way that the Maltese Falcon or the “Pulp Fiction” briefcase are meaningful mostly through what people do in their name, Bobby’s predicament — moronically described as “Defcon 6” by his unctuous, hilarious compliance officer Ari Spyros (Stephen Kunken) — enables an entire cast of characters and guest stars to shine.
Foremost among these is Frotty Anisman, a shifty and slovenly specialist in moving the liquid assets of unsavory dictators. Played with ever-escalating repulsiveness by David Krumholtz, he is, as Wags puts it, a “mirepoix of dandruff, psoriasis and irritable bowel syndrome” (“I don’t have IBS, technically,” Anisman helpfully clarifies). Frotty earned his nickname from the practice of frottage, nonconsensual rubbing against other people’s clothed bodies for sexual gratification; Bonnie, the recent Axe Cap hire played by a scene-stealing Sarah Stiles, explains that this is only acceptable behavior when performed by glamorous movie stars, which Anisman certainly is not.
Yet this creep quite nearly gets a small ownership stake in Axe Cap itself before Bobby pulls the plug on the deal. He’s inspired to do so in part by Bruno (the “Sopranos” veteran Arthur J. Nascarella, returning for the first time this season), the pizzeria owner Axe once counted on as a confidant before causing an estrangement by screwing over the man’s nephew in a business deal. Explaining why he never took money from the mafia, Bruno says looking like a hero in the eyes of his family alone was worth the cost. Axe sure could use some of that: The moment he walks in the door for his son’s birthday party, late as usual, his ex-wife Lara (Malin Akerman, her performance taut as a bowstring) mocks him for his absentee parenthood right to his face.
But what really enables Bobby to turn down Frotty’s dirty money is plenty dirty in and of itself. Axe’s C.I.O., Taylor Mason, is still in the first flush of new love with Silicon Valley whiz Oscar Langstraat (Mike Birbiglia), and gushes about being invited to dinner to meet his latest can’t-miss app inventor. Pulling an Andolov of his own, Axe yanks all the company money from Taylor’s supposedly hands-off account and steals the app out from under Oscar. Taylor accuses Axe of taking advantage of their romantic relationship; “You did,” he replies, arguing that this was the only reason Taylor brought up the dinner meeting in the first place.
The accusation scores a direct hit on Mason’s usually closely-guarded heart. Asia Kate Dillon’s performance is so shellshocked and stricken after that moment that it’s hard to watch, particularly when Taylor wordlessly turns for comfort to a stunned Wendy Rhoades, despite her recent breach of trust.
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