Everything’s Transactional On Billions. Even Family.
by Kyle McGovern | Newsweek | May 17, 2020
Showtime’s Billions takes place in a reality all its own. Technically that’s true of pretty much every work of fiction, but it feels especially so for the show created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin.
The whole series is a high-stakes pissing contest that’s dressed up like a prestige TV drama set in the world of New York finance. Really, though, Billions takes place in a different, even more heightened world—one where stock bros and members of the federal law enforcement are hyper-articulate and as fluent in sports and film references as they are in obscene insults.
Imagine a world where splashy cameos, extravagant dining and skullduggery are par for the course. Think of a place where people are constantly seduced by power, prone to operatic levels of pettiness and vulnerable to what the NBA’s Pat Riley has called “the Disease of More,” to throw in a Billions-esque shoutout. Picture a reality where Paul Giamatti is not only the Attorney General of New York, but also an out (and somewhat proud) member of the BDSM community. Consider the existence of a realm where John Malkovich is a Russian billionaire and speaks in the same thicker-than-whiteout-conditions accent that he had as Teddy KGB in the 1998 film Rounders—not a coincidence, since Koppelman and Levien wrote Rounders. Try to believe that Damian Lewis could somehow be from Yonkers. Once you’ve done all that, then you’ll have an idea of what goes on in the world of Billions.
And to celebrate the show’s compelling brand of absurdity, we’re keeping track of the most Billions-y things that happen on Billions this season. For highlights from the latest episode, brace yourselves and head below.
Axe’s Son Is Back and Of Course He’s Into Bitcoin Schemes
This episode is mostly one long reminder that many of the primary characters on Billions are parents. You wouldn’t have known it from watching the past couple of seasons—the various kids have been mentioned here and there, but they haven’t really been seen or heard from in recent years. And, you know what, that’s the right move! We watch Billions for many reasons, including to see Axe and Chuck destroy each other and themselves and everything they both hold dear. We don’t watch Billions to see *checks Wikipedia for Chuck’s son’s name* Kevin navigate the eighth grade or whatever.
But, the show’s got family on the brain this season, and especially in this episode. We open on Jack Gore’s young Gordie Axelrod, who’s away at prep school and trying to pull off a Bitcoin scheme because, well, what else would Axe’s son be doing with his extracurricular time? Problem is, the robber baron-to-be is a bit too ambitious for his own good. He wasn’t simply mining for Bitcoin—he was multi-mining, which Axe helpfully explains as, “Mining a selection of cryptocurrencies with the highest market prices and trading them back for Bitcoin.” All that activity proves to be too much for the school’s wiring, so Gordie causes a power outage not just for Skinner Preparatory Academy, but for the entire local grid.
The headmaster at Skinner calls Axe in to meet with him and says he’s considering expelling Gordie. “As much as I want to believe that each student that enters Skinner Prep comes in here a blank slate,” the headmaster says, “sir, I don’t know if your son ever really had that chance.” He’s right, but it’s not just the Axelrod name or upbringing that’s doomed the boy; Gordie’s a teen who’s getting a subplot in an episode of Billions. If this show’s giving him this much screen time, there was only ever one way that things could go for him.
Frank Grillo(!) Is Apparently a Brilliant Visual Artist(!)
Frank Grillo—the adonis you might know as Brock Rumlow, a.k.a. Crossbones, from the Captain America films—exists in the Billions universe as Nico Tanner, visual artist. Axe is a fan, and would love to purchase some of his newest collection, called “Implosion.” Just judging from the pieces we see, Nico Tanner’s work is reminiscent of Jackson Pollock’s—it’s busy and feels violent and, as far as Axe is concerned, “The guy’s wrestling with the big themes.”
Before Axe can claim his preferred painting, wouldn’t ya know it? Corey Stoll’s Michael (Thomas Aquinas) Prince has already swooped in and purchased the set. The escalating rivalry between Axe and Prince already feels like a parody of itself, and it’s amazing. We’re honestly surprised that Axe is even able to finish a slice of pizza without Prince magically appearing and snatching it for himself.
Speaking of pizza! Axe is so thrown by Tanner’s “Implosion” pieces being bought up that he’d love for Tanner to work on commission. Grillo can’t be bought, though, so his character resists. It’s just not how he works, he insists. Axe wears him down, though, by providing him with a gorgeous loft in which to paint and treating him to pizza from Manhattan’s Una Pizza Napoletana. Much respect to Tanner: Axe would’ve got us with the pizza alone.
Axe Goes Full Gordon Gekko in Front of a Room Full of Children
To try and save Gordie from expulsion, Axe and Wags do some digging into the headmaster’s background. At first, they don’t find anything they can use. (“I mean, who doesn’t have a single DUI on their record?” Wags asks, almost sounding insulted.) Eventually, though, they get the better of Skinner Prep’s headmaster by finding out that he’s been squirreling away hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide Syrian refugees with scholarships. They also discover that this “scholarship program” entails doing work around the headmaster’s house with no pay.
“Unpaid, illegal immigrants living in your house? It’s not a very good look,” Axe points out. So, to keep this arrangement and the related photos under wraps, the headmaster allows Gordie to remain at Skinner Prep. And as a make-good to Axe, the headmaster allows him to address the student body, so he can do his part to repair his son’s reputation.
That’s how we get Axe speaking before an auditorium of children like he’s Gordon Gekko, trying to convince them that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Microphone in hand, Axe tells the kids at Skinner Prep “the goddamn truth” about the world—that it’s “populated by people like me, who will tear you apart.” Gordie wasn’t kidding around or pulling a prank on schoolmates, Axe explains; the kid was trying to earn, “and if he broke the school’s code, it’s because the code is wrong.”
If any of them want to stand a chance in the real world, Axe says, they have to be hungry, greedy and merciless—like Gordie, and like him. That’s the way of capitalism—or “CAAAP-ITALISM,” as Axe says it. When Damian Lewis delivers that line reading, near the end of his pep talk, he might be achieving Axe’s Final Form.
Chuck Arranges a Playdate Worth Millions
Chuck takes a backseat this week, but he’s still working a few angles. He’s beginning a teaching post at Yale Law, and the school is happy to have him. Still, his contact there does mention that his father, Chuck Sr., once promised the Ivy to make an annual donation of $100,000. And, well, Chuck Sr.’s behind on some payments—really, all of them.
To get his dad to pony up, though, Chuck realizes that he needs to…
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