Salt to Taste
by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | June 3, 2018
This week, on “Billions”: Salt Bae.
The viral-video sensation and steakhouse hearthrob Nusret Gokce makes an unexpected appearance to open the episode. Of all the real-life restaurateurs, athletes and hedge-fund aristocracy who’ve appeared on this show, none made me laugh harder at their sheer delightful audacity. Come to think of it, I don’t know if anything on TV has made me laugh harder than this.
The look of lust in the eyes of Condola Rashad’s normally unflappable attorney Kate Sacker, accompanied by the sensual strains of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” on the sound system, simply add additional seasoning to the scenario. Silly as it sounds, the scene is a textbook example of the attention to detail “Billions” pays to its Manhattan machinations. The show never settles for satisfying when spectacular will do.
For a more serious illustration of this technique, look at the layers with which the character of Taylor is constructed in this episode. After steering the ship to great success in Bobby’s absence, Axe Cap’s whiz kid is clamoring for a $50 million bonus, more than twice as high as any Axelrod has ever paid out. This sticks in the boss man’s craw, even more so because he feels that the company’s ongoing cap raise means the money is coming directly from his pocket; not only does he shortchange his lieutenant, he declares the cap raise off limits. Furious, Taylor storms out of the office, with Asia Kate Dillon’s precise movements and aquiline, buzz-cut silhouette giving off the vibe of a shark stymied in the hunt.
Taking note of the drama, the on-staff shrink Wendy Rhoades tails Taylor to the SeaGlass Carousel at the Battery Conservancy — a striking edifice of amusement in which giant fish twirl and glow through the glass, like something out of an undersea level in a video game. Wendy notes the similarity between Taylor’s choice of hideaway and the bathtubs where the financial genius once found isolated solace as a misunderstood gender-nonbinary kid; Taylor recalls lying against the porcelain, wishing for fins instead of legs.
Here, Wendy diagnoses Taylor’s true problem: It’s not just the lowball bonus that rankles, it’s the lack of “forward momentum.” Just like that, the mermaid imagery gives way to an unspoken analogy with sharks, animals that legendarily must keep swimming to survive. When Bobby finally relents — not just on Wendy’s advice, but also on that of his ex-wife Lara, his traditional voice of reason at comp time — he arrives at the forward-momentum idea all on his own.
But when he restores access to the cap raise and ponies up a $25 million bonus — not what Taylor wanted, but still Axe Cap’s biggest ever, as well as the first time Bobby has ever reconsidered his initial offer — it’s still not enough to satisfy his restless right hand, no matter how grateful Taylor appears to be. The shark quickly swims back to the obnoxious “quant” specialist who’s been building a foolproof trade algorithm in secret, then to a meeting with an underling for Russian billionaire Grigor Andolov, with a placard for “Taylor Mason Capital” displayed prominently in the background.
Forget mermaids or sharks: Taylor wants to be Poseidon, ruling over an independent kingdom with absolute authority.
Contrast Bobby’s sociopathic disgust for, you know, paying the people who’ve helped make him his fortune (he sees their “snapping mouths,” he says, and “I just wanna punch their teeth in”) with the actions of Chuck Rhoades. This is the U.S. Attorney’s most strictly likable episode to date, one in which he uses his considerable powers to help people rather than hurt his enemies. (Though if he can do that too, why not?)
In one story line, a chance meeting with Ira Schirmer — at Salt Bae’s restaurant, in case you thought the master of meme cuisine was only around for laughs — enables him to patch things up with his estranged best friend. But Chuck is disturbed to learn that Ira’s new wife Taiga (Comfort Clinton) is a grifter: In the guise of investing in a would-be yoga empire, she’s actually draining Ira’s coffers dry to on behalf of a boyfriend with whom she’s run this scam multiple times before.
With a little help from disgraced hedge-funder turned fitness entrepreneur Pete Decker (Scott Cohen, lately of “The Americans”) and his own employee Karl Allard (Allan Havey, as always a perfectly laid-back foil for Paul Giamatti’s measured bombast), Chuck uncovers the fraud, sends the boyfriend packing, gets all of Ira’s money back and persuades Taiga to sign a post-nup and run.
That’s when Charles Sr. steps in. In a rant that comes across like a profane, adulterous, extremely sexist version of Hannibal Buress’s “Get yourself together, man” hipster self-help monologue from “The Eric Andre Show,” Rhoades père instructs Taiga on the finer points of maintaining a marriage. (Sample quote: “Do not bring the clap home to your husband. It’s uncivil.”) Charles correctly deduces that what Ira wants isn’t a second divorce, but a continuing marriage, in which he’ll put up with his younger wife’s occasional deceptions in exchange for stability and … I dunno, whatever passes for love among the one percent.
(A brief aside: What a deep bench of actors this show has. Jeffrey DeMunn is as funny as Charles — the man is a walking Viagra side effect — as the returning Ben Shenkman is quietly pitiable as Ira. Stephen Kunken, meanwhile, grows more hilariously repulsive by the week as Ari Spyros, the self-proclaimed “Greek Freak”; “You cannot call yourself that,” pleads Mike “Wags” Wagner, the actor David Costabile investing his voice with what sounds like genuine pain. And when Wendy, the only employee other than Wags whom Axe genuinely respects, gets an unexpectedly gigantic sum of money for all her troubles in his service, Maggie Siff’s face and hands convey the joy of an adult discovering she’s been Freaky Friday’d into a kid on Christmas morning. For crying out loud, Corbin Bernsen pops up this week as Bobby’s old boss, whom Axe ritualistically humiliates for the error of firing him years ago, and it’s like the ninth coolest thing going on here.)
Meanwhile, Chuck’s mission to topple the Attorney General proceeds apace, though it doesn’t seem that way at first. When Allard and Kate Sacker report that the crooked cable-company chief in bed with the Jeffcoat brothers uses undocumented immigrant labor, Rhoades worries he’s too close to the AG to investigate further without tipping his hand. Meanwhile, his only other witness is an admitted liar and no basis for a successful case. Only when Ira tells Chuck that discovering his wife’s infidelity didn’t break him like he feared — “Sometimes,” he says, “the worst thing happening isn’t so bad” — does the light bulb go off.
Rhoades and Sacker approach New York State Attorney General Alvin Epstein (the Broadway great and prestige-TV utility player Brian Stokes Mitchell) with a proposition. They’ll deliberately let Jock Jeffcoat get wind of the investigation, which, being a man who “recognizes no legal or moral authority, no justice but his own,” he will move to stop … setting himself up for charges of obstruction rather than corruption. It’s catnip for the ambitious New York politico (imagine such a thing!), who heeds Sacker’s maxim, borrowed from the flamboyant pro wrestler Ric Flair: “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.”
In a way, Bobby Axelrod is a portrait of a person who beat the man, became the man, but is still constantly on the lookout for new people to beat. In addition to driving Taylor to mutiny — and perhaps to compensate for giving even an inch on the bonus issue — he picks a vicious, unnecessary fight with his loyal lawyer Orrin Bach (Glenn Fleshler, always an intriguingly off-kilter screen presence) over what amounts to a drop in his financial ocean.
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