Step Up To The Mike
by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | May 10, 2020
Season 5, Episode 2: ‘The Chris Rock Test’
Welcome to the Mike Conference, named with characteristic humility by its founder, decabillionaire Mike Prince. It’s a place for fireside chats that double as vicious duels, for charitable acts that serve to ameliorate an exponentially larger number of uncharitable ones, and for the occasional late-night excursion to a strip club that doubles as a Wagner family reunion.
Yes, Wags discovers the hard way that his daughter (Wags has adult children?!) is a stripper, thus failing “The Chris Rock Test”that gives the episode its name. He gets over it, more or less. He wouldn’t be Wags if he didn’t.
But just as the Mike Conference was really about making deals, so too was Wags and Bobby Axelrod’s ayahuasca excursion from the season premiere a business trip (emphasis on trip). Bobby is aiming to move into the “psychoceuticals” sector, so he and Wags spend their off hours at the conference buttering up Simon Shenk (played by the “Ozark” and “Affair” veteran Darren Goldstein), who looks poised to become the next head of the F.D.A. Impressed with Bobby and Wags’s acquaintance with the shaman Bram Longriver (Henri Binje), he seems poised to greenlight the practice and thus line their pockets.
But Mike Prince gets there first. Just as the conference is wrapping up with one last dinner, he presents his guest of honor: Bram Longriver. “You stole my shaman,” Bobby tells Prince hilariously. (It reminded me of one of the best lines in the rock documentary “Dig!”, in which the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s lead singer, Anton Newcombe, angrily declares “You [expletive] broke my sitar, [expletive]!”)
Ever the one to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, however, Bobby comes up with a new plan while eyeing a gaggle of banking big shots. Turning Axe Cap into a bank would put his company in line for the “bailouts, bail-ins” and “easings” that keep these institutions afloat through economic downturns. Why put himself through the inevitable lows of life as a trader when he can simply become too big to fail?
Chuck’s operation this episode runs comparatively smoothly. His old pal Judge DeGiulio (a perpetually grinning Cheshire cat of a performance by Rob Morrow) wants his help getting confirmed as a circuit court judge, a process gummed up by his unfortunate role in the drafting of a “torture memo” condoning waterboarding. In one of the episode’s more memorable scenes, Chuck undergoes the procedure himself to see if it’s as bad as it’s cracked up to be. Spoiler alert: It is.
“It’s torture,” the S&M-enthusiast attorney general sputters miserably as he recovers. “And if even I don’t like it …”
But there are more moving pieces than meet the eye. Thanks to Axe’s meddling, Chuck is unceremoniously dumped from the cryptocurrency case he was working on in the premiere by the governor, who favors the Manhattan district attorney’s take-no-prisoners approach. This means that Chuck will need a new major stage on which to perform his acts of legal legerdemain — and what better place than before the Supreme Court?
It would be great, then, to have an ally in the solicitor general position, determining which cases go before “the Nine.” (I always hear shades of the nine Black Riders from “The Lord of the Rings” whenever I hear that phrase.) And wouldn’t it be great, then, if Judge DeGiulio became the acting solicitor, circumventing the senator and getting a plum position after all?
If you guessed that Chuck is the person who leaked the torture memo in the first place just to set all this in motion, congratulations: You’re as canny as his right-hand woman, Kate Sacker, who observes it all with a sort of cynical awe. (Can awe be cynical? On this show, yeah.)
Chuck’s game of hardball doesn’t stop there. He takes the fight directly to his soon-to-be-ex-wife Wendy, freezing her assets to prevent her from buying a new apartment; she winds up continuing to crash at one of Bobby’s spare apartments.
And this among the least of Wendy’s concerns. An angry investor from the Ontario Educators’ pension fund comes calling, demanding to know how their money is faring. With Axe out of town, it falls to Wendy to task Taylor Mason Capital’s Lauren (Jade Eshete) with keeping the investor happy — a decision that falls afoul of Mase Cap’s major-domo, Sarah (Samantha Mathis), who sees it as an erosion of her group’s autonomy. (Taylor, too, is out of pocket at the Mike Conference, trying and failing to achieve a rapprochement with ex-boyfriend Oscar Langstraat, played by Mike Birbiglia, who loses a game of speed chess before blowing Taylor off one last time.)
A plot summary of any given episode of this incredibly dense and kinetic show can eat up the bulk of any recap’s allotted word count. But to quote one of Bobby Axelrod’s favorite bands, Motörhead, that’s the way I like it, baby. The thrill of “Billions” comes from the feeling that you’re barely keeping up with these people — that, like Oscar Langstraat, you’re playing speed chess against the best in the business and that delaying checkmate as long as possible is its own kind of victory.
I don’t want to unravel Chuck and Axe and Taylor and Wendy’s moves before they make them; I want to be wowed when they do. On that count, “Billions” continues to win.
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