Axe: Hopefully Building Up to Something Colossal
by Sarene Leeds | Vulture | September 15, 2023
I’m conflicted over “The Man in the Olive Drab T-Shirt.” In many ways, it’s Billions’ best episode of the season yet because it brought back everything the show has been lacking since Axe skipped the country. But it’s also one of the series’ worst episodes on account of how much was crammed into a single hour of television. By overstuffing “The Man in the Olive Drab T-Shirt,” most of the important plot points were diluted.
This is a shame because the episode included a rare Axe appearance, the return of John Malkovich’s terrifying Russian oligarch Grigor Andolov, a fun Paul “Triple H” Levesque cameo, Chuck revisiting his childhood demons, Mike Prince pulling a Ross Perot, and Andy Prince revealing she’s the malevolent force behind her husband’s ambition.
Oh, and remember what I said last week about Billions not spending enough time on Kate Sacker? I continue to be appalled by how major developments in her story line are shoehorned into already overflowing episodes like this one. In short, Wags plants seeds of doubt in Kate’s head about sacrificing her congressional ambitions for the sake of Prince’s presidential campaign (yay!). But after one dinner with her media-mogul father, who reminds her that connections are more powerful than political smarts (he’s right, dammit!), Kate decides to remain at MPC and eventually run as an independent on Prince’s ticket. She’s a political animal, all right.
When you cut through all the double-and-triple-crossing — and a batshit wrestling-inspired maneuver (a double turn) — however, here’s the biggest takeaway from this episode: Axe now owes Chuck a HUGE favor. A favor I’m assuming Chuck will call in toward the end of the season, resulting in the annihilation of Mike Prince. At least that’s what Billions wants us to think.
So let’s start there: Chuck and Axe meet up under the Northern Lights in Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland, apparently the only place in the world where a U.S. Attorney and an international fugitive can’t be tracked. Turns out Axe needs a favor from his longtime adversary. It’s revealed that Axe, his former rival Andolov, and four other unnamed oligarchs are responsible for providing arms for the Ukrainian defense forces, confirmed by a video of Volodymyr Zelenskyy (a.k.a. the man in the olive drab T-shirt) thanking them for their support. In an exposition-heavy dialogue between Malkovich and Damian Lewis — their superb acting is the only thing that makes this tedious scene bearable — Andolov makes it clear that he’s not letting bygones be bygones yet.
Andolov needs to reenter the United States on a personal matter: He feeds Axe a story about how his wife is divorcing him, and if he doesn’t personally show up to the proceedings, he’s out stacks. If Axe doesn’t get him safe passage, then our Yonkers billionaire can say dasvidaniya to his European-based freedom and his life, which is why he needs the help of Chuck and his all-powerful American governmental credentials.
On the Mike Prince side, the independent presidential candidate is whining over dinner with his brain trust (Wags, Scooter, Bradford Luke, Wendy) that his campaign has plateaued due to the primaries. So he decides to emulate another self-made billionaire, Ross Perot, and buy himself some infomercial space across numerous media platforms. Wendy, still trying to subtly maneuver destruction from within, recommends obtaining “honest feedback” from MPC employees. Prince is all in, viewing this feedback as “fuel for the speech.” Though in a conference later with her fellow Fifth Column members (Wags and Taylor), Wendy fears that Bradford’s involvement will result in feedback of the “jet fuel” variety.
Her concerns are valid, as Prince sat in on the first round of feedback sessions, so the MPC employees were far from forthcoming. Wendy is then given free rein to run the sessions, and her plan is pretty simple: “Slam Prince’s ego with a battering ram.”
Meanwhile, Chuck is still trying to figure out how he can legally bring Grigor Andolov into the country without destroying his own career when he learns there’s a familiar name enmeshed in the Andolov divorce: The always-entertaining Todd Krakow is ostensibly bankrolling Mrs. Andolov’s divorce suit so he can walk away with his own piece of her settlement. That, and he’s sleeping with Mrs. Andolov.
But the bigger question here is why Chuck is risking his career and reputation for two international criminals/sworn enemies in the first place? For the most basic of human reasons: because Axe “needed” him. There is no greater currency to Chuck Rhoades than a giant ego boost.
Chuck also gets sidetracked several times throughout this episode because control freak Senior is livid that his wife, Roxanne, is introducing a love of Jesus Christ to their young daughter, Willow. Senior threatens ultimatums and a divorce if Roxanne doesn’t ditch the religion, forcing Chuck to put his own international treachery on hold.
Don’t get me wrong: This was a fantastic subplot…it just didn’t need to be in this episode with everything else going on. Senior’s unreasonable domination over the Rhoades Family 2.0 compels Chuck to revisit his own trauma to better understand his father and to maintain familial harmony. Chuck seeks counsel from his professional dome, Troy, but this time, not as a paying submissive. Ultimately, Troy advises manipulation: Convince Senior that he holds the most power when he doesn’t use it. Over breakfast, Chuck gives his father the most Chuck Rhoades–ian of speeches, recommending Senior provide Willow with “stability and self-worth,” which in turn will inspire Willow’s lifelong devotion to her father.
And it works! But leave it to Senior to still berate his middle-age son over his cutlery etiquette. (He’s got a point: The Rhoades home is certainly not a “Ruby Fucking Tuesday.”)
Back at MPC, Wendy’s second round of feedback sessions produces much better results as far as the Fifth Column is concerned. The feedback is conducted anonymously and paints a picture of Mike Prince as a narcissistic asshole who thinks he’s God’s gift. Even though Wendy did exactly what she was asked to do, Prince’s ego is certainly battered, with his reaction demonstrating an unsettling lack of self-awareness. “When did I become Lex Luthor?” Prince moans to Wendy. (This is hands down the funniest line of the season so far. Look in the mirror, pal!) Wendy takes advantage of Prince’s vulnerability by suggesting that quitting the presidential race would demonstrate his “grit and wisdom.” But there’s one member of Prince’s inner circle she never saw coming …
Prince’s wife, Andy, is brought in for an emergency tough-love session. She’s the one person who isn’t afraid to mince words with Mike Prince because, as we learn, she’s the real menace behind his fragile façade. Andy sets him straight: The world only loves him when he’s “a winner.” Jesus, that kind of pep talk will send anyone into permanent therapy. But, apparently, that’s what works on Mike Prince. When it comes time for his big, televised address, he’s more energized than ever, with Wendy’s attempt to scare him off having failed miserably. Right before Prince goes live, Wendy tells him she knew he would put himself back together, only for Andy to snidely remark that she put him back together — and that she knows Wendy was the one who tore him apart in the first place. It looks like Andy may be the most monumental challenge for the Fifth Column yet because Prince’s speech does gangbusters.
While Prince delivers his speech to the nation, Chuck, under direction from his “special adviser” Triple H, stages one of the most twisty, confusing plays in Billions history. I’m not even going to try to explain it because I know nothing about professional wrestling, and as I said at the outset, what matters here is the outcome: Axe is now deeply in Chuck’s debt.
Chuck coordinates a complex plan involving Governor Bob Sweeney, New York State attorney general Dave Mahar, and Solicitor General Adam DeGiulio. They will allow Andolov into the country to do his business in exchange for Andolov participating in a staged arrest that will have him deported back to Russia. This way, everyone gets what they want, and the U.S. doesn’t look like a patsy. By the way, that “business” of Andolov’s? Of course, it wasn’t to attend divorce proceedings — it was to scare the shit out of Todd Krakow (with, you know, death) so he would bow out of the Andolov marriage. Both physically and financially.
And let’s be honest, we all needed Danny Strong’s exposition so badly here because even I didn’t initially understand how Andolov’s arrest and deportation was going to benefit the oligarch: Andolov agreed to say he was trying to steal American military secrets, which would make him a hero in Russia, thus killing any “rumors” that he was secretly funding Ukraine.
The episode closes out with Chuck and Axe on the best terms I’ve seen since the season-three finale. They exchange phone pleasantries and acknowledge that “the old combatants’ code” has made them better at what they do. But Chuck, glaring at a freeze-frame of Mike Prince during his speech, is so not letting this debt go unpaid.
We still need to sit tight on that, though. With six more episodes, Damian Lewis is only set to appear in three. But given how weak the non-Axe episodes have been, I’m hoping these Axe teases are building up to something colossal in the second half of the season.
• Can Wendy, Wags, and Taylor please stop conducting Fifth Column meetings IN THE OFFICE DURING THE WORKDAY? MPC is an open-floor plan. There is no way their machinations will remain a secret for long.
• As insane as the entire double-turn sequence was, it was worth it just to watch John Malkovich don a USSR-era T-shirt and scream “Fuck America!” in his creepy Russian accent.
Read the rest of the original article at Vulture