A Certain Redheaded Maniac Returns
by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | August 11, 2023
Season 7, Episode 1: ‘Tower of London’
Bobby Axelrod, the hard-charging, take-no-prisoners billionaire who served as the antagonist-cum-co-protagonist for the first five seasons of “Billions,” returns at the end of the show’s seventh and final season premiere. Like a demon out of an esoteric’s grimoire, Axe (Damian Lewis) has been summoned by three of his closest associates — Wendy (Maggie Siff), Wags (David Costabile) and Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) — to rise from legally mandated oblivion in order to defeat a devil far worse than the devil we know.
That devil is Mike Prince (Corey Stoll), who served as the stand-in during the show’s sixth season for the role once played by Axelrod. A breed apart from his predecessor, he spent the bulk of Season 6 as something of a do-gooder … to an extent.
Prince created a universal basic income program known as Mike Money — but the program was paid for by untaxed cryptocurrency, which believe it or not was once viewed as the wave of the financial future. He tried to bring the Olympics to New York City — though as any resident of a host city can tell you, that’s stretching the definition of “do-gooding” quite a bit, given the tax incentives and indigent sweeps typically preceding the Games.
Most important of all, though? Mike Prince is running for President of the United States of America, sooner rather than later. (Perhaps because this is now the show’s final season, his timeline has been accelerated from 2028 to, gulp, 2024.) As he tells Wendy in the episode’s quietly chilling opening scene, he is doing so because he believes only he has the gimlet eye and the force of will required to save the dying nation from itself. If the people scream for mercy as he rescues them? Let them scream, he says. He knows best.
In a maneuver that places Wendy at the center of the action in a way she hasn’t been in years, the premiere casts her as the Christopher Walken character in “The Dead Zone” — the person who sees most clearly that Prince is literally a Hitler-quoting clear and present danger to the republic and the world at large. Even as she strings him along, promising to performance-coach him all the way into the White House, she has decided to work toward his downfall.
She’s hardly alone in that. In order to clear the decks for his coming campaign, Prince has stepped back from the day-to-day operations of Prince Capital. He’s got not one but two major-domos, Wags and Scooter (Daniel Breaker), to serve as his eyes, ears and voice. He has the absurdly intimidating and unflappable Kate (Dola Rashad) to serve as his legal mind. And as far as he’s concerned, he has his successors, the young(ish) brainiacs Taylor and Philip (Toney Goins) to run the place in his stead, ensuring that the money keeps rolling in.
But Taylor and Philip don’t see this as a promotion. They see it as the deliberate dismantling of Taylor Mason Carbon, the independent in-house shop they had dedicated to E.S.G. (environmental, social, and governance) investments. You know, the kind of do-gooding Mike Prince was once interested in?
For Prince, though, having a separate carve-out within his empire indicates that the empire itself doesn’t care about these issues, and he cannot allow himself to be seen as someone who doesn’t care. By sunsetting Taylor and Philip’s shingle and putting them, his smartest people, in charge of the whole operation, Prince hopes he can kill two birds with one stone.
But all the while, Wendy — terrified of Prince’s dark potential after a chilling tête-à-tête in which the depths of his egomania are revealed — is mounting a counteroffensive. Though Axe’s best bud, Wags, and his merciless lawyer Orrin Bach (Glenn Fleshler) plead ignorance as to Bobby’s whereabouts, Wags nevertheless gets a message to his old master. Axe then relays his willingness to entertain their request for help via a trade pattern only an old associate like Taylor’s pal Mafee (Dan Soder) can spot. (With the help of the best legal weed New York money can buy, naturally.)
So, in a meeting before the bright lights of the Tower of London, Wendy and Wags and Taylor — and we in the audience — are reunited with the redheaded stepchild of the series. Never one to let a 1970s New Hollywood Cinema movie reference go unstated, Bobby Axelrod compares the crew here assembled to Luke, Leia, and Chewbacca, leaving himself as both the Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon. Let the war against the emperor commence!
But there’s a second front opening up in the war on Prince. Though he’s both down and disgraced, to the point where his adolescent children no longer want to be seen eating with him in public, Chuck Rhoades is by no means out. At the end of last season, he accepted exile from the legal community and extensive legal troubles of his own as the cost of helping his colleague, Attorney General Dave Mahar of New York (Sakina Jaffrey), take Prince down.
But c’mon, this is Chuck we’re talking about here. You think he’s going to sit idly by as his reputation is dragged through the mud to the point where his own kids are embarrassed by him? With the help of the obnoxious journalist Lucien Porter (Matthew Lawler), he becomes the beneficiary of a P.R. campaign in the press that paints him to be a Robin Hood figure — the lone man willing to stand up to the billionaire class with deeds rather than mere words, and who paid for it by losing his government jobs not once but twice.
The resulting turnaround in the public imagination might well be Chuck’s masterstroke to date. Suddenly this old-money Yalie’s fever dreams of being championed by the socialist likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez don’t seem so far-fetched. Sure, it irks Dave, who all but tells him their nonaggression pact is off by episode’s end. But to Chuck’s mind, she didn’t tell him what her full plan was, so why should he return the favor?
All of a sudden “Billions” has a sense of urgency it hasn’t had since the really monomaniacal days of the Chuck/Axe conflict. Keep in mind that this episode begins with a five-months-later flash-forward in which an enraged, borderline psychotic Prince storms into his place of business, tracks down Wendy and shatters the glass walls of her office, demanding to know what it is that makes her so sure he shouldn’t be president. In that act, he answers his own question.
Considering the time of its creation — pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, pre-Bernie and A.O.C., pre-Covid — “Billions” has been fairly adept at keeping pace with the times. The one-two punch of Clancy Brown’s good-old-boy attorney general Jock Jeffcoat and Danny Strong’s sleazeball treasury secretary Todd Krakow demonstrated the series’s deftness at reflecting its surroundings. But it’s inarguable that the political and economic reality of America and the wider world has gotten weirder, faster, than even Hollywood’s brightest minds could conceive.
So kudos to the “Billions” team for drilling down on perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from the past seven years: The mega-rich are freaks, and belong no closer to the levers of power than a chimpanzee to the controls of a Ferris wheel. Aligning virtually all the characters we like against the embodiment of all the cultural trends we don’t — from naked oligarchy to progressive lip service — is unbelievably shrewd. That this season is airing as the working writers and actors who make “Billions” possible man the picket lines against Hollywood’s ruling class makes it all the more pointed and poignant.
Long one of the most purely entertaining shows on television, “Billions” has always preferred to let its message about the robber barons who rule our world play out amid the beats of a well-made financial thriller over the more direct and unmissable approach preferred by heavy-handed satires like “Succession” and “The White Lotus.” If what we’re seeing in this premiere holds true for the series’s remaining episodes, though, the show seems to have well and truly gotten religion at last. It will spend its final hours depicting our heroes, and many of our villains too, battling to prevent a dictatorial billionaire from becoming the leader of the free world.
With his clipped American accent, crisp body language and twinkling eyes that radiate both mirth and malevolence in equal measure, Lewis’s Bobby Axelrod is legit one of the great character creations of the Peak TV era. I’m so glad to have him back.
For that matter, Giamatti has always made Chuck’s contradictory blend of for-the-good-of-the-Republic earnestness and knife-in-the-back craftiness sing. And hey, let’s also give props to Siff’s investment of Wendy with hard-earned arrogance and Stoll’s portrayal of Prince as the kind of maniacally self-confident weirdo you only find in finance, tech, politics or an unholy amalgam of all three.
My fave real-world cameos in this episode: the billionaire Mark Cuban and the former Obama/Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri. I’ve never been quite sure what to make of the show’s visits by the actual rich and powerful, given how I feel about their equivalents within the series, but it’s undeniable that they’re part of that old “Billions” charm.
Another special shoutout must be reserved for Kelly AuCoin’s gleefully profane “Dollar Bill” Stearn. Though Taylor and Philip dislike Dollar Bill’s attitude (the feeling is mutual), they recognize that he’s the kind of earner they need to boost company profits, and thus keep Prince happy, while they secretly work to thwart their boss’s ambitions.
The funniest bit about Dollar Bill’s return? The only guy who’s happy to see him is Victor (Louis Cancelmi), the only trader with even fewer scruples than Dollar Bill himself.
“Billions” showrunners and music supervisors, hear my plea: It is not too late to score an epic scene with the appropriately named pre-“Dark Side of the Moon” Pink Floyd psych-rock juggernaut “Careful with That Axe, Eugene.” Granted, you might have to insert a character named Eugene to balance the “Axe” part, but I’ve come to trust in your ingenuity.
As a fan of professional wrestling, or as I like to call it, “The Sport of Kings,” I found it very funny to hear Cuban refer to himself as “a Terry Funk guy.” The Funker, if you’re not aware, is the god of hardcore wrestling, the subgenre that involves barbed wire, razor blades, and gallons of very real blood. No wonder this dude helped run the Shark Tank.
Male nerds of a certain vintage have long resigned themselves to the idea that there are two types of guys in the world: Luke Skywalkers (noble, incorruptible babyfaces) and Han Solos (roguish, unpredictable antiheroes). It’s revealing that even as he’s being called in to defeat the show’s Darth Vader equivalent, Axe refers to himself as Han rather than Luke.
While we’re on the subject, this means Taylor is Luke (the chosen one gifted with special mind powers), Wendy is Leia (the steely commander who’s also a pale brunette knockout), and Wags is Chewie (the sidekick defined by his specific brand of hirsuteness).
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