by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | April 7, 2019
Season 4, Episode 4: ‘Overton Window’
When “Billions” is at its best, as it certainly was tonight, recapping is a dicey proposition. Focus on one element and you inevitably give short shrift to another equally entertaining aspect.
And more than any other show currently airing, “Billions” deploys a whole lot of very different ways to entertain you: a satire of extreme wealth and power as well as an alluring recreation of it; a financial and political thriller, tag-teamed with a comedy of manners; a parade of terrific character actors knocking around crisp, reference-heavy dialogue like a badminton shuttlecock; a sensitive and idiosyncratic depiction of a gender-nonbinary character, mixed with a humanizing and nonjudgmental depiction of sadomasochism within the context of a loving relationship.
This week’s episode was all that and more, and it forced a dramatic shift upon the entire series.
There’s no sense beating around the bush here. Faced with the certain exposure of his kinky sex life, Chuck Rhoades decides to risk sacrificing his wife’s reputation at the altar of his own ambition to become the attorney general, preemptively revealing that he is a sexual submissive to the world. On Election Day. And he wins.
It’s a blockbuster moment for the series — and, perhaps, a central one. Keep in mind that the pilot episode opened with Chuck, stripped down and tied up, the same way that “Game of Thrones” began with zombies and White Walkers attacking normal humans. In both cases, an expanding cast and a few seasons of byzantine political machinations helped detract attention from what was lurking there all along.
A big difference here, of course, is that Chuck Rhoades is no stoic, mute Night King. He’s Paul freakin’ Giamatti, and is there any actor more fun to listen to? His voice modulates with nearly every word of dialogue, as if he weren’t speaking each sentence so much as juggling it.
It’s a great fit for a character who is not only constantly thinking but also must do so demonstratively, whether to intimidate his enemies, reassure his allies or simply please his own vanity. Watching him tell a roomful of reporters what he must do “in order to achieve sexual gratification,” seeming to re-evaluate how far to take his confession several times per sentence, is a consummate pleasure.
The fallout is immediate: positive politically and disastrous personally. Chuck wins the election (I defy you to read the news for five minutes and then tell me this isn’t possible), and impresses the hell out of his increasingly close associate Bobby Axelrod, who promises his first wisecrack about Rhoades’s predilections will be his last. (“I doubt that,” Chuck deadpans.)
To Bobby, at least, Chuck remains a man of his word. Making good on his promise last episode to perform a service for Axe postelection, Chuck freezes the assets of the Russian plutocrat and staunch Axelrod adversary Grigor Andolov. Bobby tells Grigor he can have it unfrozen only if he returns to his home country, never to return.
Just in time, too: On a day when Bobby and company were prepared to make a killing by exploiting advance notice of a natural gas disaster, Andolov brute-force hacked Axe Cap’s entire internet and phone system. The awe with which the young, internet-native staff regard Bobby and Wags as they wheel and deal on burner cellphones, “Wolf of Wall Street”-style, and wind up doing nearly as well as they would have anyway is one of the night’s funniest moments. (Top honors go to Condola Rashad’s look of dumbfounded disbelief as Chuck’s former employee Kate Sacker when she learns what her old boss gets up to in bed.)
Still, the Russian had to go in order for Bobby, his American counterpart, to truly thrive, and it’s Chuck who does the deed — despite Andolov’s attempt to exploit Chuck’s sexual adventurousness by promising him overseas exploits so extreme he dare not even mention them aloud.
But someone has to lose to make all this winning possible, and that’s undoubtedly Wendy, whom Chuck humiliates on the grandest stage of them all. It’s not that she feels either of them should be ashamed of their sexual fetishes — “Billions” has always been resolute in maintaining that kink is not an indicator of personal or marital dysfunction, and for that it deserves enormous credit. On the contrary, Wendy knows that the consent Chuck gives her to hurt him is what makes their relationship work.
But she emphatically did not consent to having their sex lives dragged into the spotlight, risking her professional relationships and embarrassing their children. The next thing she knows, she’s watching him out her as a dominatrix on the 5 o’clock news.
As she’s done many times in the past, Maggie Siff underplays Wendy’s frustration and anger, which has the effect of making what comes through seem that much more intimidating and sincere. What Chuck has done to her is a grotesque violation, and his failure to act as if it were anything more than a spat that can be patched over is indicative of his deep moral shortcomings.
Yet even in this episode, there are moments of human connection to savor. Taylor Mason’s dad, Douglas, visits with a business proposal that his brainiac offspring is visibly thrilled to realize is worth backing. “I’m gonna be in business with my … child,” Douglas says, respecting Taylor’s nonbinary status to their mutual joy. On a less wholesome but still sincere(ish) note, Bobby and his billionaire girlfriend, Rebecca, stage a takeover of a struggling convenience-store chain the way the rest of us might approach going to the laundromat; his purchase of his-and-hers Mercedes for $132,000 a pop is a grimly funny reminder of just how far removed from the rest of us these people are.
Even Chuck has good within him. Take his final battle against the New York power broker Jack Foley, who’s the reason he has to out himself as a masochist. Foley knows the secret. He has passed it on to United States Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat, who hates Chuck even more than he does. And he tells Chuck he will not hesitate to expose him if that’s what it takes to keep that office clean.
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