Chuck May Have a New Redheaded Ace Up His Sleeve
by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | September 15, 2023
Season 7, Episode 6: ‘The Man in the Olive Drab T-Shirt’
“The irresistible force meets the immovable object.” This quote should be familiar to Chuck Rhoades. As this week’s episode of “Billions” goes to great lengths to point out, Chuck is fan of professional wrestling. He would no doubt recall the wrestling commentator Gorilla Monsoon excitedly describing the clash between Hulk Hogan and his friend turned nemesis Andre the Giant at WrestleMania III with these exact words. Indeed, Chuck’s erstwhile ally, the Russian oligarch Grigor Andolov (John Malkovich), references the match by name during this very episode.
But the sentiment should be a familiar one to Chuck as well. There he is at the beginning of this week’s episode, on a remote airstrip in Iceland, staring down his old nemesis, the fugitive billionaire Bobby Axelrod. Generally speaking, when the irresistible force meets the immovable object, a clash occurs. This time, however, the meeting is agreed upon in advance and pursued with a level of politeness, even honor, of which I doubted either man was capable.
At any rate, by the time the closing credits roll, neither one has tried to body slam the other, figuratively or otherwise.
That’s the best thing about Chuck and Bobby’s big reunion, actually: the lack of fireworks. Sure, their meeting is set against the spectacular, glowing green backdrop of the aurora borealis, but that’s as showy as the scene gets. This isn’t the Bride finally tracking down Bill, it’s two guys who dislike but respect each other, seeing if they can’t do a little “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” business. A fiery throw-down might have been satisfying on a lizard-brain level, but with few exceptions, these are not lizard-brained men.
At any rate, Bobby has found himself with a Grigor Andolov problem. Despite Axe’s role in having Andolov expelled from the United States, the two have found themselves on the same end of an arms deal with Ukraine. That Andolov is acting against his own government, one not known to tolerate dissent, much less outright treason, weighs heavily on his mind. But so does the divorce proceeding brought against him in New York court.
Unless Grigor can show up in person to contest the case, he tells Bobby, he’ll lose a fortune. And unless Bobby agrees to help him, Bobby will lose his life. So Axe swallows his pride and, using Wendy as a proxy, makes contact with Chuck, whom he knows has the legal know-how to allow a wanted man like Andolov back into the States. For his part, Chuck feels it’s a deal worth making if it puts Axe in his debt.
Unfortunately, what’s good for Axe and Andolov is bad for, well, pretty much everyone else: Solicitor General Adam DiGiulio, Attorney General Dave Mahar of New York, Gov. Bob Sweeney of New York (Matt Servitto) and even the slimy ex-treasury secretary Todd Krakow (Danny Strong), who is using his hedge fund to bankroll Andolov’s ex. And it turns out that that’s not all he’s doing with Andolov’s ex.
How best to placate all these political power players? How can Chuck make Andolov look like enough of a good guy to get through customs but enough of a bad guy to get a pop (that’s wrestling jargon for a positive reaction) from the Kremlin, which already suspects that he is playing for the other team
For advice, Chuck turns to Paul Levesque, also known as Hunter Hearst Helmsley, best known as Triple H, the professional wrestler turned chief content officer and head of creative for the W.W.E. Hunter, as Chuck calls him, is known to fans for having a great mind for the business. Who better to coach the group on how they can all come out looking like winners — the kind of outcome the new, relatively enlightened Chuck Rhoades prefers at any rate?
The answer turns out to be rather simple. Chuck gets Andolov into the country as an expert witness in a different case. He allows the menacing robber baron to threaten to throw Krakow off a rooftop unless he puts the kibosh on the divorce filing and stops shtupping Grigor’s ex-wife. Then Chuck makes a big show of arresting him, at which point Andolov makes an even bigger show of being the most comical pro-Russian “heel” (wrestling jargon for villain) since Nikolai Volkoff. The American politicians look good to their domestic audience, Andolov looks good to his, and the slimy Krakow survives to ooze another day. Everyone’s a winner!
The same cannot be said for the participants in the Mike Prince story line. Like a trio of plotters straight out of Shakespeare, Wendy, Wags and Taylor are constantly kibitzing in hopes of taking their dreaded boss down before he can win the White House. In this episode, they adopt a two-pronged strategy. While Wags whispers in the ear of Kate Sacker, Mike’s formidable legal counsel, so that she’ll drop him for her own congressional run, Wendy orchestrates a disastrous quasi-focus group with Prince Cap employees, all of whom kiss Prince’s posterior when he’s in the room. (They describe him as an egomaniac who loves the smell of his own flatulence when he’s not.)
The ploy is meant to shake the confidence of Prince, who loves himself and is convinced everyone else either feels the same way or simply needs to get to know him better. To learn that his biggest earners think he’s a narcissist with a God complex is a body blow to his self-esteem — potentially enough to persuade him to call off his presidential campaign.
But Wendy and company didn’t count on Mike’s wife, Andy, nor on Kate’s master-of-the-universe father, Frank (Harry Lennix). Andy tells Mike that people love him not because he is inherently lovable but rather because everyone loves a winner. That’s the air he needs to project during his upcoming televised speech, which he paid to have air in prime-time on every network. Frank tells Kate it’s always best to stick with a winner, even when the going gets tough, because association with a winner is what gets people to pick up the phone when you call.
So Kate rescinds her resignation. Prince gives his big speech and reaps a huge bounce in the polls. Both Prince and his campaign guru, Bradford, praise Wendy for pulling off the exact opposite of what she intended. And Chuck stares nervously at Prince on his computer screen, clearly wondering if the time has already come to call in that favor from Axe.
At this point in its run, “Billions” feels a bit like a spinning top starting to wobble — but I mean this as a compliment. There are only so many times the schemes of one of the show’s preposterously competent main characters can go right before they start to go disastrously wrong. Each meticulously plotted episode moves us incrementally closer to that tipping point.
- In a tertiary plot, Charles Rhoades Sr. asks Chuck to intervene in an acquaintance’s case of posthumous paternity (don’t ask). It turns out to be a cover for Charles’s feeling that he has lost of control over his legacy when he discovers his wife and daughter praying together — despite his insistence that their daughter be raised an atheist. As he does elsewhere with Triple H, Chuck consults an expert on control: Mistress Troy (Clara Wong), his former dominatrix. It is she who gives Chuck the idea to tell his dad to, in effect, stoop to conquer: Act acquiescent now, and he’ll wind up with a kid and wife who love him more, allowing him to exert more control in the longer term. Everyone’s a winner, again. Sort of.
- In addition to seeing the returns of Malkovich, Strong, Lennix and Servitto, this episode also welcomed back Rick Hoffman as the repugnant Dr. Swerlow, Charles’s … medical adviser, I guess? Wearing an Adidas tracksuit with “The Doc” monogrammed on it, Swerlow provides obscene expertise to anyone within a 20-foot radius — including Ira, whom he’s been providing with sublingual sexual performance-enhancing medication sub rosa for some time. Hence the videos from last week, I suspect.
- “When did I become Lex Luthor?” Mike asks Wendy plaintively. I dunno, Mike, probably when you decided to run for president as a bald billionaire, something the comic-book villain did over two decades ago. He won, too, if you can somehow imagine a United States of America willing to elect a wealthy megalomaniac as president. Try not to strain yourself.
- This week’s opening- and closing-credits needle drop: PJ Harvey’s brutally bitter alt-rock classic “Rid of Me.” It’s great to hear the song play while Paul Giamatti quietly emotes, though I maintain that hearing an unassuming friend absolutely tear through it at karaoke is the ideal way to experience it.
- Yes, that was President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine talking to Axe, but if you thought he might have better things to do than make a cameo on “Billions,” you would be correct. A Showtime spokesperson confirmed that the show edited existing footage of him into the episode.
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