The Axe Falls
by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | October 3, 2021
Season 5, Episode 12, Season Finale: ‘No Direction Home’
The walls close in on Bobby as Chuck sharpens his knives. Then an unlikely ally intervenes.
“So this is what it is to lose,” says Bobby Axelrod. “OK.”
He’s talking to Mike Prince, the man who helped engineer his downfall — a decisive one this time. How do we know it’s decisive? Because, I think, of that concluding “OK.” (Also, Damian Lewis, who plays Axe, just made public he is leaving the show.) Until this point, Axe has always scratched and clawed like a cornered animal to fight his way out of defeat, whether at the hands of his legal nemesis Chuck Rhoades or his business rivals, like Prince. This time, though? He admits he has been beaten, and makes his peace with it.
So why does it feel like a loss for Chuck, too?
At a glance, it looks as if Chuck got (almost) everything he wanted. He caught Bobby going into business with a shady cannabis company with an illegal sideline selling the black-market stuff, a deal Axe rushed into without doing his own due diligence. He has ended the era of Axe Cap/Axe Bank for good. He has busted up his mortal enemy’s romance with his ex-wife. He has harpooned his white whale at last.
Only the whale gets away.
What Chuck didn’t count on, as the jaws of the law began closing on Bobby, was that his own supposed teammate Mike Prince would help Axe escape. It was Prince who alerted Axe Cap to Bobby’s impending arrest, with a single goal in mind: seizing control of Axe’s empire. It was Chuck, he says, who wanted to see Bobby behind bars, a “Cheryl Tiegs fishnet fantasy” that Prince doesn’t share. All he wants is to see Axe gone.
Taking advantage of the brief window of time before Bobby or his lawyer, Orrin Bach, are officially notified about his indictment, Prince swoops in with an offer. He buys Bobby’s businesses — Axe Holding, the bank, the asset management arm, Taylor Mason Carbon, the whole enchilada — for the princely sum of $2 billion. It’s exactly the kind of liquid cash Axe will need to live life on the run once the rest of his assets are frozen by the government.
So Bobby steps into the helicopter meant to ferry him to the chosen place for his surrender — then simply steps out the other side and slips into a waiting car, which takes him to his escape flight. He winds up in Switzerland, where he is greeted with a new passport and a warm welcome. He accepts both with a smile. And why shouldn’t he? Even in exile, he’ll live a life of luxury unimaginable by any normal standard. “So this is what it is to lose”? I’d be OK with a loss like that, too.
Chuck and his allies, meanwhile, are left fuming — but they’re not the only ones. When Prince rolls into the Axe offices to take control, two of Bobby’s underlings, Dollar Bill and Mafee, walk right out. These two former rivals, who once staged a charity boxing match to give their enmity an outlet, agree to an alliance while they’re still in the elevator.
Other ex-Axe employees find themselves in a shaky position even when they stay behind. Prince says he needs Wendy and Taylor in order to effectively run the firm, but it’s impossible to imagine the two of them getting along anymore — not when Taylor, a crucial player in the conspiracy to take Axe down, figures out almost immediately that Wendy knew Bobby was planning to flee.
Then there’s Rian, the trader Taylor used to help move the anti-Axe plot along. Moved by something like pity for the young woman, Taylor warns her that what’s left of her ethics will be whittled away if she continues to work in the field, going so far as to encourage her to quit. But there’s Rian in the office when the conquering Prince appears; she’ll be a valuable asset to both Prince and Taylor, no doubt, but she is also shaping up to be one of Taylor’s biggest regrets.
And what about Axe’s right-hand man, his “Tom Hagen”? The last we see of Wags in this episode, he is dueling with Scooter, Prince’s Wags equivalent, to pull out an office chair on Prince’s behalf. Once a henchman, always a henchman, I guess. It’s true that Wags’s legal jeopardy over the banking deal disappeared once he revealed that he had never officially signed on as chief executive — at least not on any documents Chuck and company can find. But still, a second banana needs a top guy. Any port in a storm, you know?
If I have one complaint about Axe’s departure from what Dollar Bill refers to as “the field of battle,” it’s that the character’s long-delayed romance with Wendy never really materialized. No steamy assignations in exotic locales, no drama from growing pains as their relationship matures, no examination of how Wendy and Chuck navigate the new normal — hell, not even so much as a kiss goodbye!
“If we can’t finish it,” Bobby says as he and Wendy bid adieu, “we can’t start it.” Too bad for them, and too bad for us.
But this, of course, is subsumed by a greater loss: that of the steely presence of Damian Lewis. It is frankly amazing how well he and Paul Giamatti served as opposite poles on the show. Giamatti’s Rhoades is verbose and blustery, displaying a lawyer’s way with words and a to-the-manor-born respect for the rules, even when he himself breaks them. Lewis’s Axelrod, by contrast, had a clipped, clenched-jaw cadence in his speech; the precision of his voice, the shark-like cool and speed of his body language, every bit of it was in service to creating a character for whom “move fast and break things” was the byword.
Corey Stoll’s comparatively laid-back Mike Prince will be a major departure as Chuck’s next antagonist; it’s impossible to imagine Axe standing still for three minutes while Chuck cooks him an omelet. That’s a testament to Lewis’s work. The real cliffhanger for Season 6 is simply how “Billions” will fill its Axe-shaped void.
I don’t know about you, but when those workers chiseled the words “Axe Cap” from the office walls — a change not even the firm’s switch-over into Axe Bank occasioned — it really did feel like the changing of the guard.
In addition to all the storytelling and acting ramifications described above, am I the only one who thinks Bobby’s flight from the law speaks poorly to his parenting? Obviously his kids still have their mother, Lara, to look after them. (The actress Malin Akerman departed the show long ago, but her character is still out there.) But I find myself thinking of the sequence earlier this season when he bullied his son Gordie’s headmaster into calling off the kid’s expulsion, then delivered a fiery “greed is good” speech to the assembled student body. What kind of message does this send, I wonder?
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