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Billions Season 7, Episode 2 Recap: The Hard Sell

Castle Axelrod: Knights of the Round Table

by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | August 18, 2023

Season 7, Episode 2: ‘Original Sin’

Who’s the most terrifying egomaniac in the series right now? It might not be Mike Prince.

A man’s home is his castle. It’s a comforting, if patriarchal and consumerist, cliché. In Bobby Axelrod’s case, it just happens to be true. His home is a castle. In this week’s episode of “Billions,” it serves as the reunion site for his Knights of the Round Table, on a mission to bring their Arthur back from Avalon and take up the sword once more.

The target of this trio of do-gooders — one of them a guy who may never have done good before in his life, mind you — is the would-be future leader of the free world, Mike Prince. Wendy, Taylor and Wags have all come to the conclusion that keeping Prince out of the Oval Office is even more important than, get this, making money. They all make this case to their old boss in turn, each employing a different strategy and skill set, each yielding the same result: He’ll pass.

In point of fact, he’s more interested in getting the band back together right there in Castle Axelrod, side by side with his chip-off-the-old-block son, Gordie (Jack Gore) — and far from the U.S. government, Prince, Chuck and everyone else who is out to get him.

Even after all three turn him down, so insistent are they that Prince must be stopped, he still doesn’t get the picture. His advice? If you can’t beat him, join him, at least until he’s in the White House and out of your hair. Like so many of the mega-rich, he can’t see the forest fire for the trees.

Although Prince is presented as the clear and present danger, it’s Chuck who frightened me more this week. Simply put, the man has gone beast mode. Despite signing an agreement to play along with Dave’s scheme and act like an indicted man, he engineers a public-relations campaign so successful she had no choice but to drop the charges, leaving her to rue their erstwhile alliance and making him an enemy. (I’d say “for life,” but no one stays enemies for life on this show.) Despite having helped put his one-time foe, the former attorney general Jock Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown), behind bars, he makes the man an offer so compelling (in the form of new cowboy boots) that the fire-breathing Jeffcoat records a mea culpa admitting he wrongfully fired Chuck from his job.

And despite having heard directly from the president — via their intermediary, Solicitor General Adam DeGiulio (Rob Morrow) — that there’s no chance he’ll get back his old U.S. attorney job, the exonerations plus the good P.R. make his reinstatement a no-brainer. Indeed, there’s an almost fiery swagger to Paul Giamatti’s performance as Chuck in this episode, a self-confidence extraordinary even by Chuck’s standards. What’s that everyone’s been saying about a man who believes he can do no wrong?

Indeed, Chuck reminds me of no one so much this week as Victor. Once described by Axe as “my stone and steely assassin,” he’s the most ethically dubious trader of the bunch, which is saying something; his mirthless, severe face gives him the air of a guy who could kill a man without raising his own pulse rate. Victor lands Mike the killer investment he’s been looking for — a purported miracle medical device — by blackmailing a doctor involved in its manufacturer’s research.

Who tipped off Prince to this problem in the making, prompting him to let this practitioner of the dark arts sort it all out? A hot shot political consultant named Bradford Luke (Babak Tafti), who spends much of the episode mentally sparring with Mike in order to feel out whether the billionaire is worth his time. Luke suggests that Prince’s route to the presidency runs along “the Eisenhower Path,” which means establishing unquestioned pre-eminence in his field. Mike needs to make a killing the likes of which the market has never seen, all according to strict moral guidelines. (This is the exact combination of goals a firm run by Philip and Taylor in tandem can deliver, by the way; that’s a smart bit of setup.) And if making an ethical fortune means allowing traders like Victor and Dollar Bill to behave unethically in the process, so be it.

Luke’s other concern is Prince’s wife, Andy (Piper Perabo). Their marriage is an uncommon one by most American standards, separated as they are by most of the continent in terms of living arrangements. They have a plan for that. But Bradford figures out quickly that their relationship isn’t merely long-distance, it’s also sexually open.

In a very funny bit of business, the consultant makes them both type a list of their sexual partners on their phones and turn them over to him for inspection and approval. I’m curious what he thought of the presence of the Prince Cap employee Rian (Eva Victor) on Mike’s list … and what Mike thought of the fact that it took Andy longer to type hers than it took him to type his.

Speaking of love — kind of, anyway — I do have one major source of frustration with this episode: the relationship between Bobby and Wendy, or rather the lack thereof. Twice now, “Billions” has introduced the idea of a romantic entanglement between the two, paying off years of tension, only to immediately dismiss the idea. It did so first during Axe’s departure, where they confess their feelings for each other but say goodbye without so much as a kiss; the writers do it again here, reuniting them but pre-empting the possibility of anything more than friendship by having them say they’re both different people than they were a couple of years ago.

I’m sorry, but from the moment they confessed their feelings, I simply haven’t bought that these two intelligent, attractive, passionate people who love each other, built an empire together and are accustomed to achieving everything they set out to do would ever look into each other’s eyes and say, “Thanks but no thanks.”

Loose change

  • This episode served as a reminder of just how deep the “Billions” bench goes: There’s Morrow and Brown as DeGiulio and Jeffcoat; Allan Havey as Chuck’s mild-mannered fixer Karl and Stephen Kunken (in full “Tunnel of Love”-era Bruce Springsteen attire) as the repulsive compliance officer Ari Spyros; and even Lily Gladstone, who already has Oscar buzz for her coming role in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” pops up every now at Rhoades family dinners.
  • It took a while, but Philip finally clicked for me this week. It’s in his withering delivery of “Skipped a step!” when he catches Victor going over his head. It’s in how he charges into a risky game of luck with Dollar Bill, knowing the only way he can win is to cheat, and knowing that cheating to win will, paradoxically, win Bill to his side. It’s in his willingness to bigfoot people about ethics one day, then encourage them to win at all costs (save getting caught) the next. The writing in this episode, by Emily Hornsby, shows that Philip really is a killer; the actor Toney Goins may not look the part, but I’m starting to suspect that’s deliberate.
  • It is so good to have Damian Lewis back. Watch him as he makes his pitch for Wags, Wendy and Taylor to stay: His body has the whiplash-quick movement, his eyes the terrible mirth, of a Steven Spielberg velociraptor. Our trio wouldn’t be recruiting Axe so much as unleashing him.
  • “You’re just like them,” Mike must tell the people, Bradford says. But Mike must also convey that he is “nothing like them,” that he is “their better, who will protect them and lead them while at least understanding them.” I take back what I said about both Chuck and Victor: The consultant is the scariest person on this show.
  • I know “Poker Face” used it first, but playing Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” as the three musketeers depart England defeated makes for one of my favorite needle drops in the history of the show. As gorgeously sad as it gets.

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