by Sarene Leeds | Vulture | September 29, 2023
Mike Prince is an unstoppable force. Now that he’s been newly minted as the preferred presidential candidate by a powerful political operative, it will take a lot more than a fledgling Fifth Column and a determined U.S. Attorney to take this guy down.
“The Owl” is the last, what I would call, “casual” episode. Its minimal plotlines set the stage for the chaos that will ensue over the final four episodes. That’s not a spoiler: remember that we’re still owed three more Axe episodes. And Axe + Billions = chaos.
Much of the action takes place at a secret society retreat in snowy, upstate New York known as “The Owl.” Historically, this is where scions of blue-blooded families have gathered to anoint future world leaders and, according to Senior, engage in “the occasional nude frolic.” It turns out several men who have had access to the nuclear codes have experienced “transcendent” (and naked) moments in those woods while getting in touch with their primal instincts.
Senior loves to go for the “animalistic nature” of it all. But both Chuck and Mike Prince have agendas this time around: Prince needs to bend the ear of one George Pike IV, a.k.a. “Fourth,” a kingmaker who effortlessly drops names like Billy Graham, “Jack,” and “Bobby” (as in Kennedy). Because if Fourth gives his endorsement to another particular Owl attendee, a centrist Montana governor far ahead of Prince in the polls, the billionaire can kiss his presidential dreams goodbye. Not surprisingly, Chuck decides to attend to help said Montana governor, Nancy Dunlop, the first female ever granted Owl membership, win Fourth over.
Before Prince can start communing with nature and the political elite, though, he must solve a problem for his wife, Andy. Apparently, a “friend” of hers was climbing a mountain on the Nepal/China border before tackling Mount Everest, and now he’s injured and trapped on the Chinese side. Oh, and he’s more than just a “friend.” Even though Bradford Luke is all, “NO MESSING WITH CHINA IF YOU WANT TO BECOME PRESIDENT,” Prince arranges a private, invisible rescue with the best team money can buy.
Upon arrival at the very rustic Owl (think summer camp, in the winter, without toilets), we meet the ball-busting Gov. Nancy Dunlop, played by Melina Kanakaredes, decked out in a lumberjack jacket and a big, dumb hat. This likable version of Sarah Palin is undoubtedly a worthy opponent to any presidential candidate: Not only does she specialize in “cracking tough nuts,” but she has no qualms about participating in the Owl’s “tradition” where shirtless men engage in “Indian leg wrestling” (Senior’s words, not mine). The governor, wearing little more than a bra and jeans, easily disarms her challenger, Senior’s hanger-on Dr. Swerdlow. Needless to say, Prince, Scooter, and Bradford are worried.
So it’s a perfect time for Chuck and Prince to bump into each other while using the Owl’s facilities (read: the woods). There’s some initial bonding over their mutual loathing of the old, rich, white guy nakedness of it all, but that doesn’t last long once they get onto the subject of (clothed) human nature. Whereas Chuck believes good leaders are those who possess a modicum of self-doubt, Prince argues the opposite: The only ones who should rule are people like him, who have zero self-doubt.
The next morning, Chuck meets with Governor Dunlop and offers to help secure her Democratic nomination by greasing the wheels with George Pike IV. Although the governor accepts the favor, the words Chuck uses to make his case prove once again that he is ultimately no different than Prince, or, as we’ll soon learn, Fourth himself: “I have made a career out of winning the ear of powerful men and making them see the world the way I see it.”
And now it’s time to meet the elusive Fourth, and he was worth the wait because he’s played by Griffin Dunne. Prince introduces himself to the political operative and immediately secures an invitation to Fourth’s esteemed firepit talk that evening. This talk is the room where it happens, so all Prince has to do is charm Fourth and do it better than Governor Dunlop, who’s also invited. That, and don’t show any weakness.
As soon as Fourth talks about listening to “new voices” who can lead the country to even more greatness and he dismisses Governor Dunlop’s viewpoints on nuclear weapons usage as “sensible,” it’s game over. Prince almost doesn’t even need to say out loud that he would, without hesitation, bomb a hostile country with plans to launch an attack. But he does. Because Mike Prince feels fine with the end of the world as we know it. In his mind, that’s a better decision than leading with hesitation, which he claims would be Governor Dunlop’s approach. While most gasp in horror, Fourth is impressed, calling Prince’s viewpoint “a nuance few are brave enough to voice” and the embodiment of America’s core value, “strength of nation.”
This is how the 2016 election happened, folks…
What seals the deal for Prince, however, is his announcement that he has already ordered MPC to liquidate all foreign investments, ensuring that he has a fully domestic financial portfolio. Governor Dunlop would do the same as soon as she secured her party’s nomination, but it’s already too late. At the end of the fireside chat, Fourth shakes Prince’s hand, while barely acknowledging Governor Dunlop.
Chuck makes a last-ditch attempt to change Fourth’s mind later in the evening, but Fourth has no interest in listening to Chuck’s idealistic takes on American democracy. While I don’t agree with Fourth, he does have a point when he says that Chuck is the one “harboring loony notions”: Chuck should know by now that American history is not written by “the populace, the rule of law, or the voters.” Sadly, it’s always been the “big men with agendas.” From where Fourth stands, Chuck is small potatoes, and Mike Prince is the man who can Make America Great Again.
Except there’s always a catch: Yes, Fourth is going to take Prince under his wing and arrange a series of introductions. That is, as soon as Prince eliminates any trace of his open marriage and its current entanglement with the Chinese government. So much for keeping Andy’s stranded lover story a secret…
Back at the MPC offices, an anxious Andy, Prince, Scooter, Wendy, and Bradford are huddled around the phone talking to the trapped climber, Derek. He can see the rescuers! And … other … people. We hear screaming and gunshots before the phone goes dead. Andy is devastated, but Prince and Scooter are eerily calm as they lay out the facts: Derek is probably alive, albeit in Chinese custody. Later at the Prince townhouse, Andy is confused: How the hell could the best rescue team in the world allow the Chinese authorities to capture Derek? Prince confirms that he did what she asked by getting Derek off the mountain. But it’s also obvious that he alerted the Chinese government to Derek’s presence.
People sure do weird things when they’re given a lot of power. And in case you really weren’t sure that Mike Prince is the latest Billions character to sell his soul to the devil, the episode’s final images should clear things right up. The Owl retreat concludes with the male attendees, wearing dark, hooded cloaks (better dark than white, I guess) and carrying torches, setting a giant wooded owl statue aflame to the haunting tune of Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.”
Good grief, this country is bizarre.
• I deliberately refuse to discuss the Wags-Chels subplot for two reasons: (1) It felt like a leftover storyline from another season that the writers wanted to squeeze in before Billions concluded. (2) I. Hate. That. Baby. Shower. Game. With. Every. Fiber. Of. My. Being.
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