It Wasn’t a Bribe, It Was a Gratuity!
by Sarene Leeds | Vulture | September 22, 2023
I’ve always believed in the “less is more” adage, and even though it took half a season, Billions finally got that memo this week. After last week’s plotline-packed extravaganza, co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien gave their audience a much-needed breather with the stripped-down “DMV.” By simplifying the narrative, the result was Billions’ strongest season seven episode yet.
As Mike Prince continues to propel himself onto the political stage, we’re now looking at a potential alliance between Chuck and Wendy. But more importantly, we’re seeing more cracks in Prince’s inner circle — namely, with the billionaire’s protégé (and Scooter’s nephew), Philip Charyn.
“DMV” was also an unexpected treat because Jeffrey DeMunn got to double down on the hilariously vile Charles Rhoades, Sr. character, and we, the audience, benefitted immensely from his performance. Also, one could argue that it was Senior who served as the catalyst for Chuck and Wendy’s eventual alliance.
Papa Rhoades kicked things off with a bang in this episode by attempting to bribe a Department of Motor Vehicles employee after his grandson, Kevin, failed his driving test. Pretty ballsy of the guy considering Kevin nearly side-swiped a bus, but then again, elitists like Senior don’t care about, you know, commuters.
In an edit that deserves all the comedic timing awards, DMV employee Jimmy Barrett (sorry, Patrick Fischler) first smiles at Senior’s offer of $100, then we immediately cut to a shot of Senior and Kevin, surrounded by NYPD, being escorted inside. Senior shouting about how he “was social friends with Robert Moses” was the perfect touch.
Chuck and Wendy arrive at the DMV, where Senior remains adamant that the $100 wasn’t a bribe; it was a gratuity! Jimmy Barrett and the on-duty cops are not only ready to press charges, but they will ensure young Kevin Rhoades never holds a New York State driver’s license.
Time for Chuck to go to work: He requests they refer the case to the district attorney’s office and even offers the on-duty cop his own phone — where commissioner Raul Gomez is in his “Favorites” — to ask permission. But leave it to Senior (by the way, I need this to be the title of one of the many upcoming Billions spinoffs) to make things worse with his arrogance, so much so that Chuck and Wendy suggest Gramps might be demonstrating early signs of dementia. Which, of course, Senior vehemently denies. Once Commissioner Gomez grants Chuck’s request, Senior thanks his son for allowing him to sleep in his own bed — by berating him for showing courtesy and respect to gasp! a DMV employee and a police officer. Never change, sir.
Over at Michael Prince Capital, Philip has connected his former Stanford professor, Dr. Mark Ruloff (Timothy Busfield!), with his billionaire boss. Dr. Ruloff has created a self-repairing substance called “bio-inspired vascular concrete.” Naturally, Prince wants Ruloff, his company, and his tech because it will be great for his campaign. By owning this sustainable material, Prince can be a president who promises “a new foundation for America” by literally improving its infrastructure.
Except Dr. Ruloff isn’t selling, and he’s not budging on this decision. Neither is Prince. “Fins up,” he tells Philip, who’s now caught in an awkward position between his college mentor and his workplace mentor. Philip’s marching orders are simple: Get Dr. Ruloff to fall in line, or else Prince will get his tech no matter the cost.
As Chuck pulls every string in New York City to make his father’s latest antics disappear, he can appeal to two colleagues, Dave Mahar and Manhattan District Attorney Mary Ann Gramm, for mercy. Senior will pay a large fine and take a course, but there are worse things to befall a bored, rich, white guy. Try telling that to Senior, though, who’s still pushing the argument that Kevin should’ve passed his driver’s test “on principle.” The “principle” that he’s a blue-blooded Rhoades and therefore more deserving of life’s basic privileges than the “peons” of the world (Senior’s words, not mine). But that’s not the argument that works on Chuck. Oh, no, Senior absolutely knows when to pull out the big guns. The DMV kerfuffle happened because Chuck and Wendy weren’t there for their son, but Senior was. And he knows how to lay on the guilt thick. Chuck didn’t see the disappointment on Kevin’s face when he failed the driver’s test because he was an absentee father.
Okay, we all know that Chuck and Wendy are hardly parents of the year. But for Senior to present himself as the only one willing to “risk life and liberty on his [grandchildren’s] behalf” is, to use a word from Senior’s generation, a load of malarkey.
Philip tries to appease Dr. Ruloff, but he quickly learns that he can’t play both sides of this game anymore. Dr. Ruloff is in a sour mood because Philip’s “good guy” Prince has begun buying rival patents. This is a problem because — thank you, expository dialogue! — now Dr. Ruloff, just by doing his own work, could be seen as infringing upon Prince-owned patents. It’s called “patent sharking,” and suddenly, Philip’s face turns into an exploding head emoji as he realizes what “fins up” means. Philip, who has been slowly morphing into season four Taylor Mason, with his soul up for grabs, then receives a stern, albeit familiar warning from Dr. Ruloff: Get away from MPC while you still have a modicum of self-respect.
Taylor notices Philip’s inner turmoil and promptly sends him to Wendy to unload. While we don’t see the details of their session, it’s not necessary. All we need to know is that Philip’s cry for help is the incentive for Chuck and Wendy’s burgeoning alliance against Mike Prince.
During a family dinner at the Rhoades home in Brooklyn, Chuck announces that he’s closed the books on Senior’s attempted bribery. In true Chuck fashion, he’s arranged a promotion for DMV employee Jimmy Barrett and for a Department of Justice internship for Jimmy Barrett’s boss’ son. Senior gets off with a misdemeanor, and the Rhoades name remains untarnished. But not so fast, Kevin. Chuck and Wendy now want to know why their son asked Grandpa to take him to the DMV and not them. OH, COME ON, YOU TWO. I SOMETIMES FORGET YOU EVEN HAVE KIDS. Apparently, so do Chuck and Wendy. Turns out Kevin did ask them first, and, surprise! They were both too busy.
As Senior and Kevin leave Chuck and Wendy to wallow in their parenting mistakes, DeMunn ties up his superb “DMV” appearance with the most Senior of parting words: “My boy, there was a time when a Benjamin Franklin was the key to the city. My mistake was not counting for inflation.”
Wendy and Chuck don’t lick their wounds for long because Wendy wants Chuck’s help with Philip. Without directly asking, she insinuates that Chuck might benefit from speaking with Philip, who is at his most defenseless right now. By the next morning, Chuck is waiting outside Philip’s apartment building, offering a post-run beverage. Philip reveals his guilt over getting Dr. Ruloff mixed up with Prince and wants Chuck’s help in stopping the practice of patent sharking. Understandably, he’s not ready to go after Prince directly. But Chuck can’t help him in such a broad sense because patent sharking, as ruthless as it is, is “the way of the ocean.”
And Prince’s shark attacks just get more and more brazen. First, he buys the biotech firm that creates the indispensable enzyme for Ruloff’s process. Then, after Ruloff still refuses to sell (courtesy of an unnamed wealthy backer), Prince orders Kate Sacker to sue Ruloff on behalf of one of the other patents he owns. Prince is totally fine with undermining Ruloff with his endless supply of cash: Philip, who knows Ruloff best, assured his boss that it’s the professor’s stubborn nature that will ultimately be his downfall.
But if you catch the moment the camera falls on Toney Goins’ face throughout Prince’s slow annihilation of Ruloff’s company, it’s impossible to ignore the guilt seeping out of Philip’s pores. Will this be useful to the Fifth Column down the line?
The only legal solution here, at least according to Chuck, is a “Spielbergian” intervention. One that will neutralize not only Dr. Ruloff but Prince as well.
Chuck arranges for the Department of Defense to declare Ruloff’s self-repairing concrete “classified” by the federal government. Yep, that’s pretty Spielbergian all right: This passion project will now sit untouched, as Prince explains, “like the Ark of the Covenant in that endless warehouse.” Dr. Ruloff is livid and wants nothing to do with his prize pupil, Philip, ever again. But Mike Prince? Quite the opposite.
This guy is so sure he’s going to be elected president that he doesn’t care the world has to wait on revolutionary infrastructure. He flippantly remarks about someday declassifying the project, which, obviously, will make him a ton of cash. We can tell Philip is disgusted, but he can’t let it show publicly.
He does let his feelings show in his session with Wendy later that night, though he’s not as depressed over hurting his former professor as he is angry with Wendy’s meddling. Philip is on to Wendy, noticing that the moment Chuck got involved, the situation with Dr. Ruloff got exponentially worse. He knows Wendy and Taylor are organizing a mutiny, and he wants them to leave him out of it. But the way his voice breaks during this scene and his insistence on “complete deniability” suggests a vulnerability that somewhere, deep down, he knows they may be right.
We know Wendy can’t count on Philip to join the Fifth Column right now – or ever. But having Chuck in her corner is a huge asset. Especially now that their son holds a New York State driver’s license and they live in a city with a lot of buses.
• I agree with Scooter and Wags. It’s better Prince doesn’t know who Nikki Dial and Rocco Siffredi are.
• Chuck telling the female DMV cop “Don’t make me ask the question” is a great twist on “Do you know who I am?”
• Wasn’t Dave Mahar supposed to be leading the case against Mike Prince? Is that still happening?
• I know we all look old, Rian, but Scooter and Wags are undeniably Gen-X, not boomers.
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