by Sarene Leeds | Vulture | August 12, 2023
It’s been roughly one year and four months since the season-six finale of Billions — a finale I dubbed “The Biggest Losers.” And if the seventh season premiere is any indication, my sentiments toward most of the Billions characters haven’t changed much. In many respects, with this being the final season of the Showtime financial-crime drama, it’s unavoidable that we want to know which one of these megalomaniacs will “win.” Will it be patrician “man of the people” Charles Rhoades, Jr., whose quest to put corrupt finance bros behind bars increasingly belies his own power-hungry objectives? Will it be boy-next-door billionaire Mike Prince, whose presidential bid echoes that of another frightening dark horse candidate? Will it be Billions’ prodigal son Bobby “Axe” Axelrod — newly returned to the series after evading federal charges in the season-five finale? Or will it be Dr. Wendy Rhoades, Axe’s onetime confidante and apparently the only person in the Billions universe capable of noticing Prince’s budding demagoguery?
If there’s any justice in this world — this writer then stops to laugh at herself after typing out such a ridiculous thought — Billions will conclude with every single character facing irrevocable ruin. But Succession already kind of did that, proving in its own series finale that it was never about “who won?” and “who lost?” Billions, however, that other series about billionaires, has long demonstrated that its narrative too was never about the wins and losses, but how the game is played.
As with most season premieres, much of “Tower of London” is monopolized by the positioning of players. This necessity is forgiven within the episode’s first few seconds, as we’re treated to a doozy of a cold open: A livid Mike Prince bursting into Mike Prince Capital, looking for Wendy, and throwing what looks like a printer (was it a CPU? I couldn’t tell) into the glass window of the performance coach’s office — WITH WENDY INSIDE.
Because while some angry tyrants just throw ketchup bottles, others throw machinery.
Strangely enough, it’s not Prince’s violence that’s the most disturbing. It’s the fact that this Midwestern nice guy uses the word “fuck” three times in less than a minute. (Prince eschews profanity as part of his wholesome image.)
The bottom line is Wendy did something to seriously screw with Prince’s presidential bid, and now Prince is out for her blood. Chances are, figuring out what exactly Wendy did here will be a season-long arc as we cut to “Five Months Earlier.”
Prince summons Wendy to the empty MPC offices for what initially appears to be an intense therapy session. But he ends up dropping two bombshells: (1) He’s running for president in 2024, not 2028. (2) His despotic platform sounds like the second coming of Donald Trump.
Prince dangles unprecedented access and power should Wendy agree to join his inner circle — all she needs to do is expose his blind spots. It does not take long for Prince to drop the upright citizen veil and start talking about how his “ruthlessness” will fix our “broken” country. But unlike a certain thrice-indicted former president, Prince models himself after a certain fictional drug lord: He plans to have a sign on his desk in the Oval Office that says “I am the buck” (in response to Harry Truman’s famous “The buck stops here” sign). I don’t know why Wendy is suddenly all “Yikes!” to Prince’s authoritarian propensities after she had a full season to suss them out, but whatever. Now it’s time for some secret egg foo young with Wags.
But first, more updates: When we last saw Chuck Rhoades, he had been stripped of his role as New York State Attorney General and had agreed to a questionable deal with his deputy (now-acting NYAG), Daevisha “Dave” Mahar: In exchange for his supervised release from prison, he would covertly work with Dave to bring down Prince. But there’s one thing Chuck hates more than not being in control — it’s being in the dark. It turns out Dave isn’t keeping him abreast of her plans, and poor Chuck is “chafing” over being a pariah and having to wear an ankle monitor — you know, things that would throw the public off the scent of him being in cahoots with Dave.
Speaking of chafing, that’s an appropriate term to describe how Taylor Mason is feeling toward Mike Prince as well. Taylor, who runs the environmentally focused Taylor Mason Carbon (a specialized initiative under the Michael Prince Capital umbrella) receives an empty promotion along with Prince’s protégé Philip Charyn. They’re going to jointly run MPC while Prince concentrates on his presidential campaign, with just one huge sacrifice: The sunsetting of Taylor Mason Carbon.
The next few scenes were apparently written by Snoopy, as they all take place during a literal “dark and stormy night.” There’s Chuck and Dave’s unsettling midnight meeting inside the Rhoades family crypt, where Chuck whines for the umpteenth time about a deal he agreed to. We also have Wendy and Wags meeting up for the aforementioned egg foo young at Midge and Lenny’s favorite Chinatown eatery, Wo Hop (they might be at the same table!). Wendy wants Wags’ help in contacting Axe because only now has she decided that Prince is “dangerous.” Anyone who has read my Billions recaps knows that I adore these two together. Mainly because Wags is rarely serious, but when he is, he’s usually listening to Wendy with genuine concern.
Wendy makes her case to Wags, and in this monologue, she positions herself as the social-justice warrior Chuck pretends to be — and the one Taylor wishes they could be if they weren’t so consumed with the almighty dollar. This doesn’t mean I predict Wendy will end up the “good guy” this season — she’s caused enough damage that I could never give her such a compliment. But we do need a surrogate for all of the disheartened Americans who watched their countrymen initially dismiss Donald Trump (just as Wags is doing with Prince) as a real threat to democracy.
Wags insists he can’t get in touch with Axe, though that doesn’t stop him from asking Wendy for more proof that a President Prince would be on par with a President Trump. Psychiatrist Wendy immediately diagnoses Mike Prince as a narcissist with a “textbook God complex.” She then asks Wags a question that we’ve all, sadly, had to answer before, as in, Do you REALLY want THIS GUY in charge of the nuclear codes? She warns Wags that Prince will never be stymied by moral boundaries like “bureaucracy” and “red tape.” (To be fair, when has anyone on this show?) But, yeah, in case you weren’t sure, this storyline is Billions’ commentary on the Donald Trump presidency and its aftermath. Wendy believes Prince must be stopped before he’s elected, or else, as she quotes Prince directly, “the country will scream.”
Axel-Wan Kenobi is her only hope.
But getting ahold of a billionaire wanted for various federal financial crimes isn’t as easy as sliding into his DMs. Fortunately, Wendy knows Axe better than anyone — except for his trading style, that’s Mafee’s territory. Between Wags (who totally could get a message to his former boss), Mafee (who has a lot of time on his hands now that his shop with Dollar Bill imploded … more on that in Loose Change), and Taylor (who isn’t quite ready to join this scheme, yet), Wendy is slowly accumulating her allies.
I say “slowly” because although Taylor initially demurred joining Wendy and Wags, a blatant Hitler reference helped sway their decision. Once Taylor realizes that Prince isn’t budging on his decision to kill Taylor Mason Carbon — and that he has no qualms about casually quoting the future fascist dictator’s 1929 “hammer and anvil” speech — they join the Rebel Alliance at lightspeed.
Another person accumulating new allies is Chuck. Tired of waiting for Dave to loop him into her plan — and tired of being canceled — he masterminds a glowing feature article that calls him “The Robin Hood of New York.” An article that snowballs into Chuck’s anointment as a “public hero” alongside Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and AOC. Because one thing Chuck has always known? It’s really hard to prosecute someone so beloved by the people.
By the end of the episode, “marches are being planned” in Chuck’s honor, which of course leads to the dropping of all charges — and a new Billions rivalry between Chuck Rhoades and Dave Mahar. Shame though: I’ve been on Team Dave from the start. But it’s tremendously disappointing that (a.) she’s only realizing now that Chuck set this whole scheme up and (b.) she never assumed Chuck would try to usurp her power. It’s a rookie mistake when you don’t know that “making his only friend into an enemy” is part of Chuck Rhoades’ daily to-do list. While I had wanted to see how Dave’s subterfuge would play out, Chuck can’t be working in the shadows from a narrative standpoint, so here we are.
After an episode-long tease, Wendy’s long-awaited overseas reunion with Billions’ fugitive billionaire takes place in the final few minutes. Okay, maybe it’s not in broad daylight, but Axe walking around a major tourist attraction like the Tower of London is a significant about-face for a guy who, last we saw him, was hiding out in Switzerland. It turns out we have Vladimir Putin to thank for that. Axe rehabilitated his image by reinventing himself as an international arms dealer who pretty much funded Ukraine’s military. “Bought me a great deal of goodwill all across the continent,” he boasts to Wendy.
Wendy doesn’t waste time repeating her Princess Leia-like plea. Axe, unsurprisingly, is going to need a bit more convincing, especially considering, like me, he’s baffled as to why Wendy is still hanging around MPC in the first place.
Hey, look who’s also strolling along the Thames? It’s Wags and Taylor! Or, as Axe dubs them, along with Wendy, “Luke, Leia, and Chewy.” In more good news for the Rebel Alliance, Axe now declares himself “Han and the Millennium Falcon” (so much for Obi-Wan Kenobi) before the foursome walks off together.
This alliance has way too many warm and fuzzy vibes for me to trust it. Welcome back, Billions!
• Boo, Damian Lewis isn’t back to top billing alongside Paul Giamatti. Corey Stoll retains that privilege. Instead, he’s given the respectable “and Damian Lewis” credit.
• Mike Prince may have already sealed his fate when he said he wanted Wendy to be the “Dave Grohl to his Kurt Cobain.” Considering Dave Grohl is both the far more talented musician and, you know, still alive, that’s a boneheaded analogy, even for a Gen-Xer like Prince.
• Who could’ve predicted that Mafee’s boutique firm with “Dollar Bill” Stearn would be shuttered due to “culture problems”? (Um, me?) But there’s a silver lining: Dollar Bill, trading his navy Axe Cap fleece for a grey MPC one, is BACK, baby!
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