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Billions Season 5 Episode 11 Victory Smoke: New York Times Review

Up In Smoke

by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | September 26, 2021

Season 5, Episode 11: ‘Victory Smoke’

Axe closes in on the big investment bucks he needs for his new bank. But don’t light those victory cigars just yet.

Watching “Billions” may be a breeze, but watching “Billions” to recap it is not. Constant pausing and rewinding is required to catch the countless twists and turns of every scheme; I would estimate that an hourlong episode takes me an hour and a half — at a minimum — to finish.

Nice work if you can get it, but it makes covering even famously dense shows like “The Wire” or “Game of Thrones” feel like recapping “Blue’s Clues.”

And this second-to-last episode of the show’s fifth season is even more complicated than the average. The conspiracy to take down Bobby Axelrod by involving him in a shady cannabis-funded banking deal, hatched by his enemies Chuck Rhoades, Mike Prince, Kate Sacker and Taylor Mason, is as dizzying a display of double- and triple-crossing as the show has ever served up.

For Chuck — still stinging from the lucrative but emotionally painful financial resolution of his divorce from Wendy — it means pressuring his father, Charles, to but the kibosh on Axe Bank, for which he serves as a trustee, knowing full well the old man will do the opposite and thus ensnare himself in the trap.

For Taylor, it means setting up a pot-centric business meeting with the disgraced former banker Lawrence Boyd (a returning Eric Bogosian), then secretly ordering the Mase Cap employee Rian to narc on the meeting to Wendy Rhoades. Taylor, who had advised Axe against getting involved in the cannabis trade — in order to persuade him to do the exact opposite — knows that Wendy will send the intel up the food chain to Bobby, costing Mase Cap its independence but digging Axe deeper into the hole his enemies have placed him in.

For Prince, it means hiring his daughters, Gail and Liz (Gracie Lawrence and Molly Brown), to make his final pitch to the chief executive of Fine Young Cannabis, Dawn Winslow (Janeane Garofalo), knowing that the pitch is a ruse.

For Kate, it means tipping off the Manhattan district attorney, Mary Ann Gramm, to price fixing by her father, Franklin (Harry Lennix), behind Chuck’s back. It’s a relatively small-time bust that serves the dual purpose of keeping him and his television networks out of the weed business — major national advertising deals being a key component of Axe’s pitch to Winslow — and of tricking Axe into believing that Chuck is playing hardball to keep him from sealing the cannabis deal. Of course, the opposite is true.

But for all the clandestine maneuvering, for all the back-stabbing of family members and sneaking around behind the bosses’ backs, the fundamental nature of the plot is simplicity itself. Chuck, Prince, Taylor and their cohorts nailed Bobby simply by luring him into business with the one legal cannabis company they knew, for a fact, was also selling the illegal stuff on the black market. If he winds up getting pinched in the season finale, it’s because he made a deal with a common criminal. Had he done his own due diligence instead of relying on Prince’s bogus intel, he would have dodged the bullet; instead, in his rush to close the deal, he takes it point-blank in the noggin.

In fact, Bobby and company walked into the trap so blithely that I was convinced, for a moment, that another twist was coming. On the contrary, when asked by Wags what he wanted his assembled minions to do, Axe froze, then simply said, “I have no [expletive] idea.”

Hearing those words come out of that mouth is like hearing a bomb explode. Bobby Axelrod, business genius, caught completely flat-footed? Bobby Axelrod, expert schemer, totally outfoxed? Bobby Axelrod, four-dimensional chess master, at a loss as to his next play? After five seasons of this show, nothing could be more shocking.

Axe’s utter failure has a physical manifestation: the victory cigars he sent to the office for his merry men to smoke once the cannabis deal is done. Ben, Tuk, Mafee, Dollar Bill, Spyros, Wags, Victor, Bach, Hall (Terry Kinney, another welcome returning guest star) … they all light up their Red Auerbach specials with gusto after spending much of the episode anticipating the pleasure, and nearly jumping the gun once or twice.

Then Wags receives the bad news that Winslow has been arrested, and orders all the cigars extinguished.

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