The Doctor Is In
by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | May 12, 2019
Season 4, Episode 9: ‘American Champion’
I can, and will, write quite a few words about “Billions” this week. For what really matters, however, five words are all it takes.
Dr. Gus is back, baby!
Yes, the preposterously macho performance coach played by Marc Kudisch during Season 2 has returned. It’s easy to forget now, but for a time, the good Doctor — the profane replacement for the then-departed Wendy Rhoades at Axe Cap — ranked right alongside Asia Kate Dillon’s Taylor Mason as the series’s breakout character.
But after his unceremonious firing from the company, he all but disappeared. Meanwhile, Taylor rose to become the fourth spoke on the Chuck-Bobby-Wendy protagonist wheel.
And now? Look who Bryan Connerty turns to after a chance meeting in order to reclaim his edge against both his bullying boss, Jock Jeffcoat, and his mentor turned white whale, Chuck Rhoades!
Do I sound excited? Good! Dr. Gus is a filthy force of nature, and Kudisch plays the ridiculousness straight. At one point Gus sits quietly at a table by himself, working on a bonsai tree. He judiciously prunes it a bit. His final cut made, he pulls a “hey, not bad!” face. It shows his can-do attitude is no performance. He’s Dr. Gus whether there’s a patient in front of him or not.
That’s the kind of fire Bryan needs rekindled inside himself, and “Billions” has a tight enough grasp on its massive trove of supporting characters to know that Gus is the guy to strike the match. Indeed, it’s a big week for smaller roles across the board, whether they’re regular cast members or recurring cameos.
Axe’s goal this week is to help his girlfriend, Rebecca, take over the beleaguered Saler’s department store chain. To do so, they must fend off a rival bid for control by the team of Taylor and the all-American billionaire Sandy Benzinger (Richard Thomas).
Meanwhile, Bobby is faced with an internal revolt over access to an elite internal Axe Cap fund called Flagship. The rebellion is led by the indomitable Bonnie, who learned of its existence courtesy of a psy-op by Taylor’s lieutenant Mafee.
Chuck faces a similar two-front challenge. Jeffcoat and Connerty are strangling his father’s construction project, while Taylor’s complaint to the medical board threatens his wife’s license to practice.
To gain leverage in a way that directly targets Jock’s oft-stated aversion to the stench of the city, Chuck reroutes a freight train containing New York sewage to a track outside Jeffcoat’s pristine West Texas estate and has it stopped dead in its tracks. If Jeffcoat and Connerty call off the dogs on Charles Sr. and Wendy, Chuck says that the train and its nauseating odor will move on.
But when the quid pro quo offered by Jeffcoat and Connerty includes a demand to shut down the pilot mobile voting program, Chuck says no.
Is it idealism that leads Chuck to this decision, which his wife and father will not understand if they find out? Or is it merely a desire to stick it to Jeffcoat? It’s not clear even Chuck knows the answer.
As always, the plot (here devised by the writer Adam R. Perlman and put into action by the director Naomi Geraghty) is crisp, clever and layered like a cake. But recapping it gives short shrift to the Dr. Guses of the “Billions” world. This show gains so much of its character from its characters. It deploys them with the same precision and inventiveness that Bobby Axelrod applies to his trades.
Take Benzinger, whom we last saw happily crushing Bobby’s hopes of buying an N.F.L. team. He returns here in hopes of purchasing the Chrysler Building and keeping it out of foreign hands, thereby burnishing the patriotic-billionaire image at the heart of his coming ghostwritten memoir, “American Champion.” He is also successfully, if briefly, wooed by Taylor Mason to help keep Saler’s, another American institution, out of Rebecca’s and Bobby’s sketchy little hands.
But when Bobby outbids Benzinger for the Chrysler Building, the American Champion is forced to the negotiating table. And then a very strange thing happens.
Bobby sells the building back to Benzinger at cost. He convinces Sandy to side with Rebecca instead of Taylor. He then resigns from Saler’s board so as not to cause any friction that would screw up her dream of saving the chain. But Rebecca insists that Bobby stay on the board because she values his insight and support that much. If this means losing Benzinger, and thus the retail chain itself, so be it.
This “Gift of the Magi” display of genuine care and affection blows Benzinger away. He tells the two lovebirds that he’s now all in with both of them.
None of this would work without Richard Thomas’s soft-spoken gravitas as Benzinger. Beneath his placid, cornfed looks, there’s a sense that his still waters run both deep and dark. That’s exactly what’s called for to make him both a convincing enemy and a valuable ally.
And how did Taylor first get through Benzinger’s door, even if their deal was ultimately a bust? Lauren Turner (Jade Eshete), Mason Cap’s glamorous Wags equivalent, whose job is to show clients a good time. In Benzinger’s case, this means simply picking the Times Square Kellogg’s store as a nostalgic meeting spot for the man’s son and adviser.
But the younger Benzinger isn’t the only person deeply impressed by the choice. Taylor yields to the sizzling sexual chemistry and has a romantic late-night make-out session in the street with Lauren — an employee, need we remind ourselves. The rest of the liaison is yadda, yadda, yadda’d by editing, but both Taylor and Lauren are determined to keep it a secret from Mason Cap’s other top dog, Sarah, whose own feelings for Taylor are hard to miss.
The episode also features the return of Dr. Ari Gilbert (Seth Barrish), whose dirty deals with Axe made him a fall guy as the Chuck-and-Bobby war wound down. His jailhouse meeting with Rhoades, designed to draw Connerty’s attention, is rife with self-consciously over-the-top “Silence of the Lambs” references, right down to Gilbert’s Lecter-like pose when Chuck arrives.
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