Axe Capital on Drugs, a Scandal and a Firing
by Paul Vigna | Wall Street Journal | June 14, 2020
A few weeks ago, we questioned whether Showtime’s “Billions” was lionizing Wall Street or satirizing it. We’ve come to a decision.
It’s satire. No other answer makes sense.
In the midseason finale (directed by David Costabile; written by Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Emily Hornsby), Bobby Axelrod gets his entire firm hooked on a purported productivity drug, which almost has Axe Capital staring down the barrel of a $3 billion loss, while Mason Carbon deals with a far less dramatic scandal, and Chuck Rhoades tricks the Treasury secretary into firing himself.
There isn’t much Wall Street stuff in this episode that needs deconstructing. It’s all about how the stories are presented.
Victor (Louis Cancelmi) gets samples of a new drug, Vigilantrix, which apparently turbocharges the brain. Suddenly, he’s playing six-dimensional chess and outthinking even Axe himself.
This drug is almost exactly like NZT-48, an experimental drug in the movie “Limitless,” which was based on Alan Glynn’s novel, “The Dark Fields.” It puts your brain on overdrive, allowing it to process insane amounts of data.
Axe gets the office hooked on Vigilantrix and they concoct a wild trading scheme: cornering the market in rare metals, controlling the technologies that need them, the mines that yield them, and, well, something involving asteroid mining. At this point, they’re all on drugs so none of it actually makes sense, something only a not-drugged Taylor Mason realizes.
Contrast the drug-spun corner-the-market story to the other Axe-related plot: the tin scandal. Really, a scandal involving tin. A solar-panel company in which Mason Carbon and Mike Prince both invested discovers that its tin supply isn’t coming from a safe, ethical Australian mine, but from the Congo. For the solar company, it’s an embarrassing lapse that could hurt the business.
Now, there is a dramatic story to be told about conflict minerals, but it’s in the Congo, not New York. Through the lens of Wall Street profit and losses, this is a boring story.
It probably wasn’t intentional, but putting these stories side by side shows how hard it is to tell stories about Wall Street. You need outrageous schemes, or drugs, or ideally both, to make it dramatic. Most of the time, Wall Street is people sitting in rooms, staring at screens. The episode, seen this way, satirizes both Wall Street and the genre that tries to make it interesting for an audience.
Was this the intention when they lifted a theme from another movie? We’re not sure, but let’s hope they were going for meta, and not just being lazy.
Elsewhere, Axe’s staff finally realizes something: Turning Axe Capital into a bank means that their jobs almost certainly will go away. Ding ding! For weeks, we’ve been saying that hedge funds and banks don’t mix. If you’re going to have one, you’re not going to have the other. They should’ve been reading our recaps.
What convinced us, though, that “Billions” has morphed into satire wasn’t the loopy Vigilantrix story, but Chuck Rhoades’s attempt to destroy Todd Krakow, the Treasury secretary, which culminates in a wild sendup of what in the real world are boring meetings of central bankers.
Chuck tasks his Yale Law School interns to find some crumb of dirt on Krakow (possibly just to block Axe from getting his bank, though it isn’t specified, and several students rebel against the ethically dubious assignment). When they can’t find anything, Chuck and Kate Sacker come up with a scam—trick Krakow into thinking he’s being investigated, so he quits. Which he does, at a meeting of the New York Fed’s economic advisory panel (a real group that meets twice a year, though it’s usually professors and not cabinet members).
A better setting would have been a meeting of the president’s “working group on financial markets,” which also is real, and includes the Treasury secretary, the Fed chief, the SEC and the CFTC. Wall Street calls this panel the “plunge protection team,” because it keeps the market from crashing. Whether that’s actually true, it certainly jibes with the nihilist ethos of “Billions.”
Mr. Costabile as the director here (he usually plays Wags) levers this scene up for as much comedic juice as it’ll yield. Krakow sits in an ornate, dark, paneled room at the New York Fed’s downtown headquarters, hearing Chuck’s words in his head, thinking the meeting is being secretly taped. He panics as the fat cats around him discuss interest rates while laughing, backslapping and gorging on the world’s wealth. It is the epitome of a group orchestrating the market for its own profit. Krakow stands up and denounces them all. Somehow, that gets him fired.
“I’m done,” he says to the media, “back to doing what I do best, making the ka-ching machine go ka-ching.”
Satire, right? What else could it be?
When Krakow berates his fellow fat cats, he makes a reference to coronavirus. It makes us wonder how much of the real world the show will incorporate into its final five episodes, whenever it returns. This was the final episode before the show went on hiatus.
The market crash during the pandemic could devastate Axe Capital…
Read the rest of the original article at Wall Street Journal