Axe, Chuck, and the Illusion of Control
by Kyle Fowle | Entertainment Weekly | June 3, 2018
Do you know why Billions is such a great show? There’s a ton of reasons, but one of them is the show’s ability to swing between ridiculous and tense in a matter of moments. This is a show that has unbelievable control over its tone. Its over-the-top moments hardly ever feel too over-the-top, and when they do there’s usually some sort of character motivation behind it. That kind of control allows the show to don many masks, to be funny and scathing and frightening all at the same time.
That kind of control is evident as “Kompenso” kicks off with Salt Bae. No, you didn’t read that wrong. As the episode gets underway, Kate and Chuck are dining at Salt Bae’s restaurant in New York. Or rather, Chuck is dining, and Kate is lustily eyeing Salt Bae, imagining a different kind of meal for the night. Chuck and Kate trade witty remarks before Karl shows up and delivers some bad news: He still hasn’t found anyone within Jock’s radius that can corroborate the Jeffcoats’ shady deal with Texas South Cable. Essentially, the whistleblower Cutler isn’t enough to build a case on because of his propensity to lie. He’s hardly a credible witness, which means the search is on for another one.
Still in the restaurant, Chuck spots Ira having dinner. He wanders over and attempts to make nice, and sees that his old friend is married now. Things aren’t all rosy for Ira, though, as he’s losing a lot of money in his new wife’s business venture. Tyga (I’m assuming she spells her name like the rapper, because how else would you spell it?) has ventured into the world of yoga, attempting to build an empire, but all Ira is doing is bleeding money. That’s information Chuck can use, and suddenly a scene that started with Salt Bae is integral to the entire arc of the episode.
More important to the episode is the fact that it’s Comp Day, the day businesses hand out performance reviews and raises to their employees. As you can imagine, it’s a day Axe isn’t fond of. That’s especially true these days, as he’s playing with his own money since Chuck’s investigation. Still, Axe gets one moment every year to enjoy, as he crashes a lunch featuring his old employer and pays for his expensive meal. It’s a big ol’ middle finger to the man who didn’t think he’d make anything of himself.
After that, though, Axe has to get down to business, and he squares off with Taylor first. They think they deserve a salary of $50 million, based on the year’s revenue and the fact that they ran the company and kept it alive in Axe’s absence. Axe has never gone above $20 million, however, and immediately refuses. There’s no compromise to be made, so Axe says they’ll finish their conversation later. It’s a wonderfully tense scene; you can feel the rivalry brewing between them, as Taylor feels undervalued and Axe doesn’t like how Taylor is trying to grab more power. Plus, it sets up the episode’s incredible cliffhanger, which may pit Axe against Taylor once and for all.
As Axe runs through the various raises for his employees, each one making him more angry and frustrated with the direction of Axe Capital, Chuck works to help out his friend Ira. Well, it looks like he’s helping Ira, but there has to be something Chuck wants in return. Chuck goes to Pete Decker, the businessman he took down in the past who now owns a chain of gyms called Sci-Fit. He offers him a scrubbed criminal record in exchange for some work looking into a money trail. That money trails leads Chuck to the truth about Tyga, which is that she has no yoga business at all, and is instead bleeding Ira dry and hooking up with a guy named Anthony.
Ira had his suspicions, but the news is still devastating. Chuck goes even further than just breaking the news, bringing Tyga to his father’s apartment for a secret meeting where, after he blackmails Anthony into staying out or Ira’s life, he does the same to Tyga. He forces her to sign a postnup agreement and tells her to break it off with Ira, and Chuck Sr. makes a particularly absurd, misogynistic appearance, because of course he does. By the end of the episode, we don’t know if she’s ready to leave her husband, but Ira still thanks Chuck and says that sometimes the worst thing happening to you can be just what you need. It’s a throwaway musing for Ira, but it’s an inspiration for Chuck, who suddenly comes up with a new strategy for going after Jock Jeffcoat.
The Ira subplot of this episode has its strengths, but it mostly feels like a table-setting story for something down the line. In other words, the entire subplot serves to act as a spark for Chuck’s investigation into Jock Jeffcoat and his brother, which means that very little of the story feels meaningful. It’s still filled with the usual sparkling Billionsdialogue, but it’s also rather underwhelming until that final moment when Chuck makes a move.
That move is bringing in the state attorney general of New York, Mr. Epstein. Chuck and Kate present him with Cutler’s confessions. Epstein says it isn’t nearly enough to build a case on, but that’s exactly what Chuck and Kate are expecting. So Chuck lays out his new plan: He’s going to use the investigation into Cutler to bait Jock Jeffcoat into committing obstruction of justice. If Epstein goes about his work as usual, Jock will catch on eventually and likely do something to keep his name out of it all. That’s when Chuck would spring into action, and Epstein would set himself up nicely for the job as attorney general.
That’s a play for down the road, though. In the now, Taylor and Axe are making their own plays, and they might be at odds. Wendy tries to talk some sense into Axe, saying he needs to see the benefit of valuing Taylor in ways that don’t amount to giving them more money. Yes, Taylor wants $50 million, but more than anything they want “forward momentum.” It’s a line everybody keeps returning to. Wendy uses it with Axe, and then she uses it to convince Lara to talk some sense into her ex-husband.
Lara succeeds, offering up a logical take and acting as Axe’s guide on Comp Day like she has in the past. For a moment there’s a connection there, as they return to their old rapport. They kiss, but Lara stops short when Axe asks her to stay. She refuses to “get sloppy” with him. Romance or not, Axe knows she’s right about Taylor, so he goes back to the office with a new offer.
After going full Signor Roberto on Ari Spyros — Wags makes the comparison while shouting, “The rent will stay the same!” — giving a stack of French porno magazines to Wags as part of his raise, and an explosive meeting with Orrin, he sits down with Taylor and offers them a record $25 million, as well as the promise of being on the raise team, which means they’ll be in control of a lot more money. Axe uses that term “forward momentum,” and it looks like Taylor is on board, getting exactly what they wanted.
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