Chess and Ayahuasca
by Paul Vigna | Wall Street Journal | May 11, 2020
There is a scene in Sunday’s episode of “Billions” in which guests at an exclusive conference are playing chess against a grandmaster (a cameo from real-world grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura). Tables are set up with boards, each person maneuvering and machinating while Nakamura takes them all on at the same time. Pawn threatens knight! King takes rook! Knight threatens king! Checkmate!
This is how “Billions” wants you to see every one of its characters: locked in a chess match, the best against the best, all at the same time. They don’t always win, though, and in “The Chris Rock Test” (written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, directed by Lee Tamahori) one of the best loses.
As with last week’s recap, we are as interested in whether things would fly in the real world as they do on the show. So let’s dig in and test it out.
For Axe, the play revolves around ayahuasca, the psychedelic introduced last week, and his secret weapon, the shaman. Flanked by Wags and Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), Axe watches as arch-rich-guy-nemesis Mike Prince flies himself into the hoity Mike Conference in a seaplane, a dramatic entrance for the supposedly humble kid from the Midwest (the actual setting is the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, N.Y.) Prince himself is interested in the drug, and that makes Axe even more determined to win.
This is a classic “Billions” setup, as Axe explains the game he is putting in motion. Some pharma executive is at the conference. The Axe team has learned he’s going to join the FDA—in an unspecified role—putting him in a position to approve ayahuasca as a pharmaceutical. Wags takes the exec for drinks at a strip club and promises to buy his company stock, in exchange for, you know, something.
There is a lot here to unpack. There are real trials under way testing whether ayahuasca can be an effective antidepressant. A legal version could be a lucrative opportunity. So, they got that right.
But, ayahuasca’s active ingredient—the thing that makes you trip out—is a banned substance in the U.S. The Drug Enforcement Administration controls that list. Even if they did take ayahuasca’s active ingredient off the list, to get it approved as a pharmaceutical by the FDA, it would take some company running trials that showed clinically the drug was safe and effective; Taylor makes a brief reference along these lines, but it’s not a simple process.
And that’s assuming nobody in Congress decided to take a stand against it. So, the idea that one person, even in the FDA, could on his own get this done is unrealistic. Moreover, we strongly suspect that Wags talking about a stock transaction based on nonpublic news is a pretty straightforward case of insider trading, for both of them. Not that anybody at Axe Capital really cares about that.
The game peaks at a proverbial fireside chat (in front of an actual fire) between Axe and Prince.
The ostensible topic for debate is “the need for a new capitalism.” (Pawn threatens king!) Now, there is a quite substantial debate going on in the real world about this topic. The influential Business Roundtable literally redefined the purpose of a corporation to one that should look out for the interests of employees, customers and the community, not just shareholders. The World Economic Forum—or, as it’s informally called, Davos—made this the centerpiece of its 2020 conference. (More points on the realism front.)
The “Mike” conference is a version of real-world conferences like Davos. There’s a seamless mixture of high-minded rhetoric and the wink-wink knowledge that you’re sitting among society’s winners. While they talk about giving back, Mike has award-winning chefs making the guests dinner, famous yoga instructors giving private sessions, and of course a chance to go up against a chess grandmaster. (The show nails these conferences.)
During the debate (king threatens king!) Axe takes a, well, an ax to all this high-minded flower power. The Mike conference is just about absolving guilt for being on top of the social ladder, Axe says.. The attendees make money in their sleep (and other nocturnal activities). They’re there solely because their portfolios and resumes bought them access, not for some do-gooder cause.
“I don’t pretend I’m an ordinary guy just got lucky,” Axe sneers. “I am a monster. A carnivorous f— monster.” Watching Damian Lewis chew up and spit out that dialogue with gusto reminds us that the actors are the best thing about “Billions.”
Chuck, meanwhile, is running his own elaborate game. He leaked a memo to a Senator that tried to legally justify waterboarding written years ago by his purported friend Adam DeGiulio (Rob Morrow), who wants a seat on the Supreme Court. But the memo could keep him from ever getting there.
Most brutally, Chuck did it just to maneuver DeGiulio into a position—acting solicitor general—where he can still be useful to…Chuck! As Kate Sacker notes, that is a vicious thing to do to a friend. He won the match, but lost the game against his “dark passenger,” a reference to another Showtime series, “Dexter.”
As he explains, that was the old Chuck. The new Chuck is trying to improve himself, by using his evil tendencies in service of mankind.
Back at the conference, Axe keeps seeing this blissfully contented group of bankers, men with lifetime contracts and implicit government guarantees (think bailouts). He decides he wants that. (Stay tuned, we are going to have a lot more to say about this next week.)
Read the rest of the original article at Wall Street Journal