A Mouthful of Helium
by Sarene Leeds | Vulture | September 8, 2023
If you’re feeling restless after five episodes, I assure you you’re not alone.
Unfortunately, “The Gulag Archipelago,” like most of the episodes in this final season of Billions, offered very little payoff. The only significant developments came in the form of Taylor officially joining Wendy and Wags in their fledgling Rebel Alliance/Fifth Column, Wags obtaining investment sign-off privileges — and Dave Mahar wresting the Mike Prince investigation from Chuck’s firm grip.
The Chuck story line was by far the most disappointing, as it just felt weak. Chuck Rhoades, the man who succeeded in shifting the Overton window regarding his BDSM proclivities, is now spending his time helping his deputy avoid, to quote Ira Schirmer directly, a “vanilla” sex scandal. SNOOZE.
Ira is mugged one night, and now Chuck’s BFF is petrified that the explicit videos he made with his wife will go public. Chuck then goes to work pulling every string he can possibly think of to retrieve Ira’s phone. He starts by fibbing to newly named NYPD commissioner/frenemy Raul Gomez that Ira’s phone held documents with “national security implications.” Gomez agrees to Chuck’s request for CCTV access, but once the mugger is caught, well, there’s no way the phone can be handed back over to its owner because it’s now evidence in a national security matter. Nice going, Chuck.
Now Chuck must attend the party celebrating Gomez’s new job and sweet-talk the hell out of the person holding Ira’s phone hostage. The trouble is, that person is New York Attorney General Dave Mahar. And Chuck isn’t one of her favorite people these days. First, he screwed her over when he got impatient with her plan to keep him involved with the Mike Prince investigation. Then, he boorishly rebuffed her when she visited his office earlier, sweet-potato pie in hand, asking to rejoin the Prince case.
Dave’s demands are simple: Make her First Chair, Special Assistant United States Attorney to any federal prosecution of Michael Prince, and she’ll hand over the phone. Brava, Dave! She knows how to play hardball, and we know the last thing Chuck wants is for someone else to oversee the conviction of Mike Prince. But as Dave acerbically reminds Chuck, “Sharing is caring.” And he cares too much about Ira to let him suffer public ruin.
I don’t know. Something feels off about how easily Chuck let Dave take over the Prince investigation. It’s not just because Ira is his friend. Maybe he needs Ira to stick around should he need an even bigger sacrifice down the line? Who knows.
There was also a half-baked subplot in “The Gulag Archipelago” that briefly caught us up with Chuck and Kate Sacker’s former colleague, Bryan Connerty. The onetime lawyer, who went to prison at the end of season four (courtesy of a seasonlong ruse masterminded by Chuck), is now a free man and working as a hibachi chef in Queens. Kate visits Connerty at his new gig because she’s afraid he — and his safecracker brother — will be liabilities for her. Kate apparently played a big role in getting him out sooner, but she still worked with Chuck to wrongfully imprison him, so Connerty could be a problem for her political career.
Connerty promises Kate he won’t blab, but he advises her to befriend him as well. That way, they both win: She has an ally, and he has someone to help him get his law license back. Ah, there ain’t nothing better than transactional friendships, am I right?
What I don’t understand, though, is why does Kate keep putting off her own congressional run? Does she really think getting Mike Prince into the White House will be the leg up she needs? I do not like what’s become of this character at all, someone who once proudly referred to herself as a “political animal.” Billions has never spent enough time on Kate Sacker, and it shows.
As for the Michael Prince Capital story line and its burgeoning Fifth Column, I’m still waiting for anything resembling intrigue. In this episode, we got Taylor staging their own independent scheme that does hurt Prince in the portfolio, but only in the short term. If anything, the best thing that came out of Taylor’s ruse was Wags’s newfound approval privileges. And then, just to wrap things up nicely, Taylor agrees to join Wendy and Wags in their in-house sabotage. It’s not exactly captivating stuff, but Asia Kate Dillon talking with a mouthful of helium is amusing enough.
The big MPC conflict this week is Taylor and Philip are chafing under their powerless roles: Any new investments above $500 million require Prince’s sign-off. While Prince is off courting Killer Mike for a presidential endorsement — achieved by a promise to personally invest in Black-owned banks — Taylor is busy spearheading a huge investment that requires a $600 million-plus buy-in. Ultimately, the MPC crew misses their chance for the buy-in because Prince and Scooter surrendered their phones while meeting with the rapper-activist.
This apparently was all a setup by Taylor. Earlier in the episode, they revealed they weren’t ready to join forces with Wendy and Wags because Wendy barely had a plan in place (true). But that didn’t mean Taylor wasn’t willing to try something on their own — and their plan did work in some ways.
By the time Prince and Scooter got their phones back, it was too late: The buy-in window is shut tight, and MPC lost out on a $1.4 billion deal because Prince was unwilling to trust the people he put in charge. Even though Prince totally knows this colossal bungling was on him, he, douche that he is, refuses to take the blame, insisting that Taylor, Philip, and the team would’ve found a way to make the investment happen anyway. Eww. But, hey, at least now Wags has sign-off power!
Later that night, Wendy meets with Wags and Taylor at the MPC offices, where Taylor reveals they engineered the firm’s latest investment loss. Wendy refrains from giving Taylor a dressing-down like the one she gave Wags last week, but it’s obvious that these solo shenanigans aren’t wise in the long term.
The news that Wags has sign-off privileges provides Wendy with the reassurance that they have the tools they need to start putting a solid plan in place. And now that Taylor is officially onboard for a from-the-inside takedown, it is definitely time to “send this motherfucker to Siberia,” bringing the episode-long references to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book The Gulag Archipelago full circle.
That and, as I said earlier, you have to admit that all Billions line readings are a lot funnier when said with a mouthful of helium, which was the case here.
Yeah, it’s great that these three have finally realized they need to work together, but I’m still sitting squarely in the middle of my couch. It’s going to take a lot more deception and twists from Billions to bring me to the edge of my seat.
• I like the facial hair on Toby Leonard Moore!
• I am not sure I like the idea of a Wendy–Bradford Luke romance.
• Millennials Taylor and Philip pretending they’ve never seen The Hunt for Red October by citing Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery cancelations was adorable.
• Best line reading of the episode: Asia Kate Dillon’s calm and measured “Don’t call him that,” when Ari Spyros makes a “President Prince” reference.
• Speaking of Spyros, he belongs in the ninth circle of hell just for butchering Van Halen.
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