Fake It Till You Make It
by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | June 7, 2020
Season 5, Episode 6: ‘The Nordic Model’
Bobby has already made it, of course. But if there’s money or status involved, he just can’t help himself. And he’s not the only one.
Fakes, forgeries, phonies, fugazis — they’re all very much on the brain of this week’s crackerjack episode of ‘Billions.’ For some characters, faking it is all they know how to do.
Take Spyros, Axe Cap’s pompous compliance officer. (Compliance? Please!) He becomes a target of mockery for wearing a fake pin for the high-IQ group Mensa, fronting as if he had taken and passed the membership test. A thoroughly annoyed Bobby Axelrod rips the pin off his lapel and chucks it; Spyros spends much of the ensuing scene on his knees, quietly searching for it in the background.
But recovering the bogus pin is just a stopgap measure. Now determined to prove his detractors wrong, Spyros sets out to take the test and earn his membership the hard way. What he doesn’t realize is that his co-workers, dreading the man’s inevitable outbursts of pique and pettiness should he come up short, have hacked the exam and are entering (mostly) correct answers when he inevitably gets them wrong. (Shout-out to Mafee, the project’s mastermind, who aces every question in seconds.)
Spyros’s victory lap when he finds out he’s earned his way into the group is so insufferable I was convinced someone would reveal the ruse, but for now the secret is safe. He has no idea his triumph is as phony as … well, everything else about him.
His boss, Bobby, has fakes on the brain as well. With the help of his underling Danny Margolis (Daniel Cosgrove) and his dirty-deeds specialist Victor Mateo (Louis Cancelmi), Bobby has been storing replicas of his art collection in a free-port tax haven, reporting them as the genuine article while secretly keeping the real paintings in his residences. But a law-enforcement raid sends Axe and his merry men scrambling, especially when his nemesis Chuck Rhoades gets wind of the scheme: He remembers having seen a Van Gogh in the apartment where his ex, Wendy, has been living on Bobby’s dime, and he is convinced he was in the presence of the master’s authentic handiwork.
It takes some doing, but Chuck finally gets his warrant and an art authenticator to go with it, ready to raid the apartment and pin Bobby to the wall alongside his paintings. But when the team arrives, it discovers the place has been turned into a private museum, literally overnight, thanks to a daring helicopter raid by the aforementioned merry men. “I would say you were wasting my taxes,” Bobby says of Chuck’s attempted raid, “if I didn’t have such giant [expletive] deductions.” That’s our Axe. He’s not content just to win, he has to let you know the margin of victory.
Chuck’s plan has a bumpy road from the beginning. Early on, he finds himself outmaneuvered by the Manhattan district attorney, Mary Ann Gramm (Roma Maffia), who bigfoots him out of the art case on jurisdictional grounds. Chuck needs to come at her hard in order to get her to back off, and with the help of his sociologist girlfriend, Cat, he finds a way: threatening to throw the book at sex workers, whose profession Gramm has been hoping to decriminalize. (That’s “The Nordic Model” of the episode’s title.)
Momentarily, at least, Cat is aghast when she hears Chuck’s idea. Fighting for the rights of sex workers has been a part of her life’s work. Surely this is just an empty threat, right?
“Of course it’s a threat,” Chuck says, before adding “which I have to mean, because otherwise it’s not a very good threat.” The fake has to be indistinguishable from the real thing, in other words. And with that mind-set in place, Chuck successfully wrests the case back from Gramm. And while he may not nail Axe the way he hoped, Cat rewards him for not making good on his threat, real or otherwise, by purchasing them the services of a sex worker. The kid-in-a-candy-store look on Chuck’s face indicates he’s pretty happy with this silver lining.
Taylor Mason has to fake it too, not once but twice. Landing the business of a promising methane-capture technology firm requires Taylor to think like two completely different men: Bobby, whose cutthroat attitude can be effective but corrosive, and Oscar Langstraat, Taylor’s laid-back ex-boyfriend and chief rival in the bid. (Asia Kate Dillon’s impression of Mike Birbiglia’s Oscar is spot on.) These acts of interpersonal forgery work like a charm, though you have to wonder if Taylor Mason Carbon’s do-gooder mission will be undermined by all the shifty behavior undertaken to get there.
The one person who seems truly unhappy with having to fake it is the artist Nico Tanner. A private sketch of his new girlfriend, Wendy, catches Axe’s eye. Recognizing the rarity and value of such a piece, the hedge-fund king effectively orders the painter, who is deeply embarrassed by his representational work, to create a portrait of maybe the single least portrait-worthy character on this show: the treasury secretary and fellow art enthusiast (and tax cheat) Todd Krakow (Danny Strong). Bobby’s gift induces Krakow to help expedite his banking plans. For Tanner, it’s more evidence that working on commission, even for the ungodly sum Bobby is paying him, isn’t worth the price.
Of course, there are some things you can’t fake. Neither Chuck, nor Wendy, nor any of Charles Rhoades Sr.’s illegitimate children are a blood-type match for Charles père, who needs a kidney transplant to survive. A high-spirited, heist-infused episode like this one can obscure it somewhat, but “Billions” at its best always digs down to what its brilliant characters can’t fake their way through.
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