by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | May 5, 2019
Season 4, Episode 8: ‘Fight Night’
This week, “Billions” staged a charity boxing match between its fake-tough traders. I’m surprised that it took this long for the show to get in the ring.
The mano a mano match between Dollar Bill and Mafee on behalf of their overlords, Bobby Axelrod and Taylor Mason, provides the show with a perfect symbol. On the surface the fight is an act of philanthropy, a way to turn competition between rival firms into something productive. And surface is all it is.
The perfunctory noblesse oblige of the match’s charitable component disguises the venal truth. Two rich men who can barely muster the strength to swing at each other enact an absurd grudge match while their colleagues gamble obscene amounts of money. The winning bet, it turns out, is on both competitors losing. On “Billions,” there’s always a way to make money off someone else’s misfortune.
Meanwhile, the real competition takes place before the bout even starts. Wielding every carrot and stick he and Chuck could get their hands on, Bobby has induced the governor to reverse New York’s fracking ban. Having bet big on the energy sector, Axe Cap’s payoff will be huge.
But the windfall headed Taylor Mason’s way is even bigger. Through two combative appearances on CNBC’s “Halftime Report,” Mason goads Axe into spending substantial political and actual capital on reversing the ban. Bobby takes the bait, hoping to hurt both the pocketbook and the public reputation of his hated rival.
But by quietly buying up the rights to the water without which no fracking can actually take place — for a song, at that — Mason Cap has positioned itself to emerge from the fracas an even bigger winner. Bobby, meanwhile, is left to feel like a fool who fell for his former underling’s ruse, hook, line and sinker.
“I see that taking credit for my success in the midst of defeat is a kind of balm,” Taylor sneers when Bobby tries to save face by saying he made Mason’s win possible. “So you go on ahead.” That’s gotta sting. (Helping his billionaire girlfriend, Rebecca Cantu, gain control of the department-store chain she dreamed about as a small-town kid soothes it a little, I’m sure.)
Will Bobby learn anything from this? Certainly not morally. He’ll be more wary of tangling with Taylor head-on next time, the same way Taylor learned to be both more cautious and more vicious from the Axe-induced debacle that destroyed the Mason family last week. But the vendetta will continue, even redouble. It always does.
Some characters even wage that war on spec. Consider Sarah (Samantha Mathis), Mason Cap’s major-domo. Given explicit orders to leave Wendy Rhoades alone, regardless of the role she played in destroying George Mason’s dreams, Sarah goes over Taylor’s head and sics the medical board on Wendy for ethics violations.
Taylor learns of the maneuver directly from Wendy when they meet in the crowd at the boxing match. After a split second’s hesitation, Mason rolls with it, claiming responsibility even though it was Sarah who must have pulled the trigger. Sarah, whose admiration for Taylor appears to be more than professional, appreciates the retroactive blessing for the attack.
Wendy, of course, is guilty as sin. She knows it full well. Pep talks from both Bobby and Bonnie bounce right off her. As would-be clients refuse her services, Wendy admits she’s shaken to her core about this — more so, even, than by her husband’s humiliating public revelation of their sexual kinks.
That discrepancy is revealing in its own way. Sex, love and marriage are as important to Wendy as they are to anyone. But being stripped of her license to practice would be a direct hit on her deepest sense of self.
Being a doctor matters to Wendy. Despite her shenanigans in service of her boss’s and her husband’s respective (and collective) schemes, she’s still Dr. Wendy Rhoades. Losing that honorific would call her entire life’s work into question.
Kate Sacker is facing a similar internal struggle. Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat’s current bugbear is mobile voting. His reasons are unclear to the other characters, though suppressing the votes of marginalized people is a tried and true tactic for good ol’ boy politicians. Sacker has been a good soldier in Jeffcoat and Connerty’s war against Chuck. But her skin instinctively crawls in response.
For his part, Chuck combines political idealism with his desire to stick it to Jeffcoat and pushes for a mobile-voting pilot program among the Cayuga Nation people in upstate New York. This same group controls the casino that helped Charles Sr. rake in big real estate bucks … and father a secret daughter with one of the locals, as Chuck learns to his chagrin. With the usual carrot-stick two-step, Chuck works with the tribe to get the pilot program greenlit.
In response, Jeffcoat moves against Rhoades’s nominal ally, Commissioner Sansone. His threat to pull federal funding for the department’s crown-jewel antiterror efforts and various other programs is enough to convince the Commish to shut down Charles Sr.’s waterfront construction project.
Thrust and parry, jab and dodge, et cetera and ad nauseam. Directed by Colin Bucksey from a story by Lenore Zion and a script by Alice O’Neill, “Fight Night” is “Billions” at its most crisp, brisk and brutal.
The twists and turns and pop-culture quotes are sumptuous, and every actor seems to appreciate the theatrical vibe of the project — part Oscar Wilde, part Bernard Shaw — a little more each week.
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