Sins of the Father
by Sarene Leeds | Vulture | May 17, 2020
Before we even set eyes on any character in “Beg, Bribe, Bully,” the opening track, Cat Stevens’s classic “Father and Son,” has already laid out tonight’s theme. In Billions, however, nothing is ever as simple as a son carving out a separate path from his father. It’s more about examining the depth of harm passed from father to son, and how the father’s unwillingness to repair the damage stemming from their poor parenting choices ensures the next generation’s continuance of these destructive patterns.
Since the decades of toxicity between Chuck and Charles Senior is well-trodden Billions territory, the Rhoades family cedes the center stage this episode to the Axelrods. But don’t think for a moment these blue bloods are on the road to familial harmony. As part of his self-improvement regimen, Chuck has accepted a visiting professor position at his alma mater, Yale Law School. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a stain on the Rhoades name up in New Haven, given that a promised endowment from Senior has gone unpaid. When Chuck confronts his father about it, Senior lays the shame on thick: Turns out Chuck hasn’t been terribly welcoming toward Roxanne and Willow. A very strained family get-together at the Rhoades Brooklyn home — Chuck convinces Wendy to play along by promising to unfreeze her assets — sets things right from Senior’s perspective: “The check is in the mail, sonny.” But all it really does is prove once again that Senior is pulling all of the strings, even with the people who don’t want to be a part of the family anymore.
The main story of “Beg, Bribe, Bully,” written by consulting producer and author Ben Mezrich, focuses on Axe, but personally, I think the understated subplot involving Wags – the one that kicked off last week with the revelation that his daughter is now a stripper — will end up being the more poignant one. Despite being an absentee father, Wags, seeing the lengths Axe will go to keep his own son from being expelled from prep school, is now determined to fix his relationships with all of his children. But he’s learning very quickly that being a “paterfamilias” isn’t a role you can slip on and off when it’s convenient, as he discovers during this killer exchange:
Wags: “You ever try talking to a 14-year-old girl on FaceTime?
Axe: “Goddamn hope that was one of your kids.”
Eventually, Wags reconnects with his eldest son, George (Ian Colletti), whose telltale cross necklace hints at a careful-what-you-wish-for twist. Yep, George has found Jesus, and he can’t wait to share the Good News with dear old dad.
This is not to say that Axe’s story line isn’t a poignant one as well. While we only see the aftermath of Senior’s and Wags’s bad parenting, in Axe and Gordie’s case, we’re watching the long-term damage occur in real time: Gordie (Jack Gore), Axe’s younger son with ex-wife Lara, is busted at prep school for running his own crypto-mining scheme out of his dorm — one that was so badly rigged he knocked out the local power grid.
So even though Axe has his hands full trying to start his own bank, he heads to Gordie’s school to clean up his son’s mess. But not before throwing a deca-billionaire’s version of a temper tantrum over Mike Prince beating him to the purchase of a trio of paintings by a hot new artist: Axe lures the painter, Nico Tanner (Frank Grillo), into his clutches with a swanky studio and Anthony Mangieri pizza. In short, he buys Nico for himself.
Upon Axe’s arrival at Skinner Prep, Gordie’s future as an enrolled student has already been decided, and no amount of Godfather-reference-sparring between Axe and Headmaster Kessel (J.C. MacKenzie) is going to change that. I can’t argue with Kessel’s assessment that Gordie never had the chance to be a blank slate with a “modern-day robber baron” like Axe for a father. But would expulsion really change Gordie’s trajectory? His family’s net worth ensures a cushy landing anywhere. Still, it’s episodes like “Beg, Bribe, Bully” that make me mourn the loss of the Lara Axelrod character, because she at least tried to instill some values into her entitled children. Axe was always the one coming to the rescue whenever life’s hardships got in the kids’ way — like when he pulled them out of a screen-free camping trip. It’s those kinds of bailouts that put Dean and Gordie on the smug-jerk path.
Back in Gordie’s dorm, Axe and Wags get to work. First Axe reprimands Gordie, in the Axe-iest way possible: He’s not mad Gordie ran a shady scheme, he’s just disappointed his son didn’t think past the “Let’s get rich!” part. (Notice Axe is ready to hire Gordie’s much-smarter girlfriend; his own kid, not so much.) Now, because Daddy can’t ever accept a loss, he and Uncle Wags need to ruin a perfectly decent headmaster.
It doesn’t even take Hall (Terry Kinney) 12 hours to come through with an envelope full of dirt on Headmaster Kessel, so Axe has some time to let a tiny piece of humanity wriggle through his iron-clad exterior: He’s wondering if fixing Gordie’s problem will make things worse for his son. He calls Wendy for advice, and she reinforces the inevitable by running through several different scenarios, all of which establish two indisputable facts: (1) Gordie is responsible for his own future, and (2) Axe has already committed irrevocable harm as this kid’s father.
That leaves Axe with the overarching question: “Do I have the stomach to let him dangle?” Any fair-weather viewer of Billions knows that any failure of Gordie’s is a reflection on Axe. Which means, Axe is gonna Axe.
The next morning, Axe, Wags, and a smirking Gordie barge into Headmaster Kessel’s office, and threaten to expose the prep-school administrator for harboring unpaid illegal Syrian immigrants. And they’re charging a hefty sum to keep those incriminating photos under wraps: Not only must Gordie be reinstated and his record cleared — Axe must be allowed to speak at that morning’s assembly.
Oh, and speak he does, lecturing the gathered students with pilfered-from–Gordon Gekko advice. In essence, he encourages them to spit on the school’s code, and be “greedy” and “conquer,” earning the respect and pride of not just his son, but an auditorium full of his potential future employees.
Watching Axe throw his weight around at the assembly is an undeniably entertaining, on-brand Billions moment. But all I could see was the underlying tragedy. Axe’s speech was supposed to be about restoring Gordie’s reputation, and while I’m sure it did, that wasn’t the main goal. Axe used this as an opportunity not so much to help his son, but to puff himself up, because once he leaves the grounds of Skinner Prep, he’s still the guy who can’t become a bank — and who keeps being outwitted by Mike Prince. At least for this brief instance, he can be the bad-boy hero who inspires a generation of kids.
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