by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | May 31, 2020
Season 5, Episode 5: ‘Contract’
“Old man, take a look at my life — I’m a lot like you.” This week’s episode of “Billions” uses Neil Young’s song “Old Man” to tie a bow around two of its story lines. In the first, Charles Rhoades Sr. has kidney failure, and his advanced age (and bad habits) makes him an unlikely candidate for a donor. It’s a predicament even his son Chuck’s legal wizardry may be unable to remedy.
In the second story line, Bobby Axelrod discovers that his abusive grifter father has re-entered his mother’s life. In a fit of explosive rage, he threatens to cut her off if he ever discovers she is in contact with him again — and then destroys the expensive car she had given to the man after first receiving it from Bobby. With his confidant Wendy Rhoades by his side, Axe watches as the compacted hunk of metal is deposited in front of his father’s house, a final anonymous act of vengeance.
As a music cue, Young’s plaintive ballad makes emotional sense, even if crosscutting between the two old men in question drives the point home a bit too hard. Young’s old-before-its-time voice erases any edge of condescension his youth might have brought to the material at the time he recorded it — he was 24, amazingly. It’s the sound of a young man trying to find common ground with one of his elders, and the song never reveals whether the effort is successful. Chuck and Bobby, two complicated men with difficult fathers, could surely relate.
But the chorus of the song introduces a second sentiment: “I need someone to love me the whole day through.” This, too, is a through line for the episode, as not one, not two, but three different romances begin to blossom.
Chuck and Wendy are involved in two of those romances. With their divorce underway, both are moving on with their lives — Wendy with Nic Tanner, Axe’s artist in residence, Chuck with Catherine Brant, the sociologist and sex expert he met while teaching at Yale this semester. “Being around you makes me feel a lot,” Tanner tells Wendy before whisking her away to a building slated for demolition; destruction, and the need to hang on to things of value, is his grand artistic obsession, he explains.
Chuck and Catherine’s dinner conversation is a bit less esoteric. When she spies a bruise on his face — he received it at the hands of his imprisoned protégé-turned-enemy Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), whom he visited as part of a daisy chain of favors he constructed to thwart Bobby’s new banking scheme — she asks him whether masochism is always prerequisite, or if good old-fashioned penetrative sex is ever an option. He affirms that it is; later on, he proves it.
Romance No. 3 is the oddest of all, not to mention the most nakedly sexual. In order to persuade the banking official Leah Calder (Wendie Malick) to block Axe’s banking initiative, Chuck and Kate Sacker conspire to steal her family’s heirloom engagement ring from her son’s ex-fiancée, who won’t return it. To pull off the heist, they turn to Jackie Connerty (Michael Raymond-James), Bryan’s safecracker brother. (Jackie agrees to it on the condition that Chuck visit Bryan in prison, hence the shiner.)
Jackie, quite the charmer, begins putting the moves on Kate almost immediately. Kate, seemingly to her own surprise as much as his, is into it, and she beds him after the heist goes through. The couple have chemistry, sure, but an ethical minefield of the sort Kate and Chuck have orchestrated here is difficult enough when fully clothed. Throw sex into the equation, and things are bound to get messy.
I wonder if that’s a dynamic at play in Wendy and Taylor Mason’s new joint venture, Taylor Mason Carbon. The plan is simple enough: Combine Axe Cap-style human intel with Mase Cap’s algorithmic approach to make investments that serve the public and the planet. But Taylor’s consigliere, Lauren (Jade Eshete), winds up more wary of the alliance than even the traders whose jobs are directly threatened. Lauren feels Taylor is giving too much power away to Wendy … and here’s where we note that Lauren and Taylor have been, at the very least, friends with benefits. Is that why Taylor is ignoring Lauren’s warnings? Or is that why Lauren is issuing them in the first place?
It’s worth questioning, at any rate — especially when you consider how rarely anyone on “Billions” does anything for just a single, stated reason. Take the big scheme concocted by Bobby’s merry men when they’re told their new bank isn’t needed because of a community bank in the area. The whole gang gets involved in exposing that bank’s racist, xenophobic and homophobic lending practices, leading to news reports and a bona fide run on the bank. None of these guys care that they’ve uncovered wrongdoing, of course. They’re just looking to set up shop in the wreckage.
A conflict between stated aims and ulterior motives is the heart of the episode, really. In the story line that gives the episode its title (“Contract”), Axe tries to convince Savion (Akili McDowell), the young Yonkers resident whom he befriended and then ghosted, not to go to the press with his story. (Savion lives in Bobby’s childhood home.) They have “contract,” Axe says, a shared and unbreakable code. Savion tells him where to stick it, but he never says a word to the reporter, either.
When Bobby drops by to thank him, Savion is in the process of moving out of his old house (which Bobby bought from his family) and into a new one (which Bobby bought for his family). Axe tells the kid they’re square, that he owes him nothing for the move, but he does give him one piece of advice: If his old man should ever come sniffing around, cut him off immediately.
In a moment like that, maybe Savion looks at Bobby and thinks, “Take a look at my life — I’m a lot like you.” The old man is in the eye of the beholder.
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