by Kyle Fowle | Entertainment Weekly | October 1, 2023
It should come as no surprise that Chuck Sr. is a man who ventures out into the woods at least once a year with a bunch of his rich male friends to “reconnect with nature” while drinking, wrestling, and frollicking naked amongst the trees. This year, his 52nd, he wants his son to join him. Chuck (Paul Giamatti), of course, is a man of substance, a man of the city, and has no interest in engaging with the traditions his father prefers.
It’s only when Michael Prince (Corey Stoll) decides he needs to attend the retreat that Chuck thinks twice about going. For Prince, the decision is purely political. His poll numbers aren’t bad, and he’s managing to drum up some media attention by playing up the angle that he’s the answer to government bureaucracy and that he’ll actually get things done when in office, but a lot of potential votes are being swallowed up by another candidate, Governor Nancy Dunlop (Melina Kanakaredes). She’s a threat to Prince, and the worry is that she could get the Democratic nomination and that her centrist views will render Prince’s “antidote to the establishment” angle dead in the water.
So, everyone packs up to head out into the wilderness in the dead of winter. Typically speaking, I love these kinds of episodes of Billions, where the characters have an excuse to come together and spar with one another. These types of episodes seem rarer in the later seasons, with our main characters seldom sharing screen time, so it’s refreshing to get an episode that, Wags hijinks aside, largely takes place in one location.
The rivalry between Prince and Dunlop kicks off as soon as they arrive at the retreat. They share a drink at the bar, but it’s clear that Prince isn’t in his element. While Dunlop is fully giving herself over to the festivities, Prince is having trouble not acting like he’s above it all. It’s that kind of elitism that Prince’s team is trying to shed, and the hope is that he can learn a little something from Dunlop about making yourself appealing to more conservative voters.
Complicating all of this, Andy (Piper Perabo) needs a favor. A friend of hers has disappeared while mountain climbing, and they can’t use a beacon to coordinate a rescue because the man took an alternate route and crossed into China. Doing so would alert the Chinese government and he’d be held hostage. So Andy asks for Prince to coordinate a private, secret rescue using his connections. Prince does so despite the fact that if they get caught, his campaign is over, and despite his complicated feelings about the man being rescued, who’s one of Andy’s romantic connections in their open marriage.
Back at the retreat, Chuck and Prince deliver one of the better scenes of the season, talking to each other outside while they take a leak. They discuss ideas of self-doubt, power, and leadership, with Chuck expressing that someone like Prince, who has no self doubt at all, should never be in office, while Prince insists those are the only kind of people who should be making important decisions. It’s a great back-and-forth.
While Dunlop seems to have the favor of everyone throughout the trip, it’s eventually Prince who takes a more aggressive approach to try and win over hearts and minds. A debate about nuclear weapons sees Prince state that he wouldn’t take a “strike first” action off the table — no matter how much destruction it caused — if it meant preserving the country. At the same time, Prince sees no real way forward with the mountain climber situation and coordinates it so that the rescue goes wrong and the man is captured by the Chinese government.
All of this represents a shift in Prince’s persona. He’s becoming harsher, more cynical, and completely focused on his need for power. He’s finally turning into the man everyone’s been worried about.
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