Axe’s Little Helper
by Sarene Leeds | Vulture | June 14, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic, which forced Billions to shut down seven episodes into its fifth season, may have been a blessing in disguise for the Showtime drama. The parallel national moment of reckoning regarding systemic racism makes it difficult right now to watch a series featuring predominantly ultra-wealthy white characters who consistently evade punishment for their illegal actions, while men and women continue to be murdered by police officers for the crime of being Black.
While I look forward to seeing the subsequent five episodes of the season, whenever that may be, I do think it’s for the best that the current season goes on this involuntary hiatus. Fans may have also noticed that most of the cast and crew have refrained from posting about the show on social media over the past couple of weeks, opting instead to use their platforms to amplify the Black Lives Matter movement.
That being said: Notwithstanding Todd Krakow’s magnificent career-suicide speech, in which Danny Strong drops a terrifyingly prescient mention of coronavirus, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect the rest of season five to magically take place in the 2020 as we know it. That would require a complete overhaul of the story lines, which, seven episodes in, is rather impractical.
Nevertheless, Billions is still great, and “The Limitless Sh*t,” written by Emily Hornsby and co-showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien, and directed by Uncle Wagsy himself, David Costabile, is an excellent send-off. The Vigilantrix subplot alone provided several much-needed doses of laughter: Victor Mateo (Louis Cancelmi), in possession of a non-FDA-approved “productivity booster,” a.k.a. “the Limitless shit,” tosses the pills out to the Axe Cap employees like they’re candy, and all of a sudden, we’re in a 21st-century version of this Mad Men episode. Numbers start leaping off Axe’s computer screen and into his airspace, and Damian Lewis gets to sport a blue eye color that I’m not sure actually exists in nature.
Alas, no one does a jig, but Rian comes pretty close to taking the Blitzed Kenny Cosgrove crown with her assertion that she’s now fluent in Spanish. After spending the day on the phone with Chilean scientists and diplomats, it turns out she was just spewing word salad — or, as an aggrieved Taylor puts it, “an elaborate lunch order.” Honorable mentions for this subplot also go to Daniel K. Isaac and Dhruv Maheshwari for Ben Kim’s and Tuk Lal’s “zesty” line readings.
Once everyone at Axe Cap has detoxed, we’re left in the midst of some juicy cliffhangers as we await the final act of season five. Axe is back to being hell-bent on obliterating Mike Prince; he needs a new objective now that Todd is out of a job and his bank charter is dead in the water. Chuck, having masterminded the Treasury secretary’s firing, has turned his attention to getting his father the life-saving medical treatment he needs through some seriously shady black-market channels. Axe’s unchecked jealousy toward Wendy is also running rampant by the end of “The Limitless Sh*t,” with the billionaire purposely driving a wedge between his most trusted confidante and his hired artist, Nico Tanner. Oh, and somebody better tell Wags’ new squeeze, Jill (Willa Fitzgerald), the same girl he was eyeing on his dating app, that he’s only after one thing. Her uterus.
It’s not just the Axe Cap bros who test their limits in this episode — the lengths of how far Chuck will go to save his father are examined as well. We know Chuck has no problems with underhanded tactics like giving his new crop of interns a highly unethical first assignment (dig up dirt on Todd Krakow), and then orchestrating the Treasury secretary’s very public self-destruction. But he draws the line when it comes to accepting a kidney donation from an adolescent refugee from El Salvador, or the equally gruesome alternative of a disease-riddled organ.
Chuck seeks assistance from Pete Decker (Scott Cohen), by blackmailing the former Axe Cap employee into hooking him up with a doctor who can get Senior on the donor list and also get a backup kidney. (Pete’s been helping athletes boost performance and beat drug tests.) Fortunately for Chuck, Pete knows a guy: a no-longer-licensed physician (Rick Hoffman) who now gets rich off the desperation of Central American immigrants. Unfortunately for Chuck, the choices presented are even too sleazy for him to accept.
When his mandatory office blood drive doesn’t produce a match, all Chuck has to show for himself is a stern warning from Kate. It didn’t take long for her to figure out the real purpose of the blood collection, and cautioned her boss against taking advantage of those loyal to him by comparing Chuck to a controversial Great Awakening preacher. Out of options, a hangdog Chuck reluctantly calls Pete, and pays full price for the seedy doc to get Senior healthy enough to put him onto the transplant list. But he has conditions: The $38,000 payment for the kidney goes to the young donor, and she keeps all her organs.
While Axe spent the episode high as a kite, recklessly trading and facing a potential $3 billion loss, the only cool head to prevail is a stone-cold sober Taylor. They prevent most of the loss by speaking in the only language Axe can understand, Aggro-Male Cinema: Vigilantix “isn’t the Limitless shit, it’s the Scarface shit.” But it’s when Taylor reveals what they’ve been up to during the rest of the episode, well, that’s when the “shit” really hits the fan. To prevent permanent damage to Taylor Mason Carbon’s reputation, Taylor and Wendy teamed up with Mike Prince to ease the long-term effects from an impact scandal. (What they thought was safely-sourced tin from Australia was in fact coming from warlord-controlled mines in the Congo.) In the short-term, it means Mase Carb will be carrying a loss for several quarters — and that is no good for Axe, because Taylor’s loss is his loss too.
Because this is Axe, it’s not so much the loss that makes him blow his gasket, it’s that it was caused by Mike Prince. Axe believes Mike played Taylor just to play him, realizing several steps too late that the last thing Mike was doing in that conciliatory call three episodes ago was laying down his sword.
Although the writers didn’t plan for Billions to have to go on hiatus after this episode, they could not have left us with a more quintessential Axe image to tide us over until the series’ return. Now hopped up on nothing but adrenaline and rage, Axe prepares to go to war with Mike Prince with Metallica’s “Hardwired” serving as his battle cry — and a slightly unnecessary speech explaining the Godfather term “go to the mattresses.” (I say “unnecessary” because I think Joe Fox did it better.)
The only thing that matters to Axe now is destroying “Michael Thomas Aquinas Prince” — yep, he’s going full four names here. But the song lyrics, featuring Axe’s buddy James Hetfield on vocals, might be foreshadowing a loss: “Hardwired to self-destruct.”
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