Game Theory Optimal
by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | October 6, 2023
Season 7, Episode 9: ‘Game Theory Optimal’
Think of this week’s episode of “Billions” as the Death Star trash compactor. In this memorable scene from “Star Wars,” our heroes, Luke, Leia, Han and Chewie, are stuck waist-deep in refuse as the walls of the compactor slowly close in on them. Shooting at those walls, climbing them, bracing them with metal beams — nothing works. It is simply a race against time: Either their robotic friends C-3PO and R2-D2 figure out how to shut down the space station’s trash compactor, or — well, as Han Solo puts it, “We’re all going to be a lot thinner.”
In this crackerjack episode, the role of the left wall is played by Chuck Rhoades. Chuck has a long, dark, drunken night of the soul at Patsy’s restaurant with Richie Sansome (Michael Rispoli), a former top brass in the N.Y.P.D. Half cop, half gangster (you can take the actor out of “The Sopranos,” but you can’t take “The Sopranos” out of the actor), Sansome advises Chuck on the logistics and ethics of framing a guilty man, primarily in the negative.
But he does offer this to the beleaguered attorney: If Chuck wants to take down a king, he has to recruit members of the royal court. If those conspirators wind up going down with their monarch regardless, Sansome rationalizes, they probably deserve it for having been part of the regime in the first place.
But that won’t work for Chuck. For one thing, he cares about Wendy, one of the key courtiers he’ll need in order to stop Mike Prince from getting his finger on the nuclear button. (The stakes on this show have gotten insanely high all of a sudden!) For another, while Wendy might be willing to trust Chuck again, her colleagues and friends, Taylor and Wags, would not. No, to win them all over he’ll have to somehow guarantee his honesty.
He does so in a spectacular way — a way hidden from everyone, by the writer Beth Schacter, until Chuck’s allies and we in the audience are jumping out of our chairs to uncover it. Starting with Dr. Ari Gilbert (Seth Barrish), the Axe-associated convict whom Chuck used, framed, tossed aside and even taunted, he makes a videotaped record of every crime he has ever committed in any of his offices.
He rattles off all the greatest hits, up to and including his undermining of the infamous Ice Juice I.P.O. that briefly ruined his father, Charles, and best friend, Ira. This time, however, both men are brought in to advise on the plan; you get the sense this, too, is part of Chuck’s drive to prove his trustworthiness.
What’s the big idea? Simple: He gives the recording’s only copy to Wags, a man who just minutes before threatened to dedicate his life to annihilating Chuck should he ever hurt Wendy again. This way, everyone involved — Chuck, Wendy, Wags, Taylor, Charles, Ira and Karl — will know that if Chuck pulls any of his usual shenanigans, his destruction will be both guaranteed and, this time, irreversible. Thus, the alliance between both anti-Prince brain trusts is forged.
Unfortunately, there is that other trash compactor wall to consider, and it is closing in fast. Mike Prince has been alerted by Kate, astute and increasingly repugnant, that a mutiny may be afoot.
With her help, and that of Scooter, an expert in English architecture, and just-this-side-of-legal surveillance equipment throughout the Prince Cap offices — including in Wendy’s therapy office — Mike learns it all. Wendy, Wags and Taylor are conspiring against him. They have at least tried to involve Bobby Axelrod, lying about their whereabouts in England while they wooed him. And Philip, the dauphin of the operation, refuses to have anything to do with it.
So Prince springs his trap. He won’t fire them, because slashing his C-suite during a presidential campaign will make him look decidedly unpresidential. He’ll simply freeze them. Wendy will take a chief executive position at a mental-health start up, as she has spent the episode building up the willpower to do — but Mike has gone behind her back and bought it, so he’ll fire her as soon as the election is over, leaving her with nothing.
Wags has his authorization privileges taken away; he will be a mascot for the boys on the trading floor, nothing more. (In this respect, Prince adds with malice, little will really change.) Taylor will not be allowed to so much as log into a company computer; the effect is like locking away the firm’s most brilliant mind in a rubber room, which Prince clearly realizes is the worst punishment a genius like Taylor could endure.
So there we are, in the middle of the compactor for nearly the full hour. Chuck concocts some outrageous scheme of unknown nature on one side, and Prince and his minions uncover the truth about the mutineers on the other. All we can do is watch the inexorable progress of both plots, until the walls either stop just in time or finally squeeze shut, with the fate of our heroes in the balance.
Ain’t it grand? Beyond the wealth porn and barrage of pop-culture and sports references, the charm of “Billions” has always been that it is simply a well-made financial thriller, written by smart people who, like the characters they chronicle, enjoy being five steps ahead of everyone else. Personally, I love that feeling. I love not knowing what Chuck is up to, or whether Prince can root out the conspirators before they close ranks with Chuck, or what fate worse than death Prince is planning for his enemies once he has them in his clutches. I love being outsmarted by a television show, and that is the stock in trade of “Billions.”
- Not only does Billy Joel’s simultaneously cynical and elegiac ode to the high life, “I’ve Loved These Days,” open and close this episode, it actually replaces the composer Brendan Angelides’s trademark electronic “chug-chug-chug-chug-whirr-whirr-whirr-wirr” over the “Billions” title card. Yes, the showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien are from Long Island. How did you guess?
- The aforementioned opening involves late-night shots of a host of landmark New York City restaurants and venues, all of which are made to look like portals to realms undiscovered. Watch most big-budget sci-fi and fantasy shows of recent vintage, then watch “Billions,” then tell me which makes its setting look most like a magical moonlit wonderland of possibility and danger.
- I want to call out Ben Shenkman’s performance as Ira in this episode. Ira is an interesting character in that he serves as Chuck’s one-man Greek chorus or a Jiminy Cricket who can be routinely ignored; his job is mostly to watch his friend and react with dismay and resignation. This episode, in which he grows increasingly tongue-tied and visibly uncomfortable in his chair watching Chuck prepare to commit career suicide on camera, is his finest hour. It’s a vital role to this show, and Shenkman, who makes the character look as if he’s always nervously eyeing the exit even though he’ll never really use it, is indispensable.
- This season has demonstrated that few of the players in this high-stakes game of chess make a move without anticipating the response. A few episodes back, for example, Philip approached Wendy with his concerns about Prince, knowing full well she would relay them to Chuck. With that in mind, we are left to wonder why Wendy asked Rian to vet that mental health start-up for her. Was it just to survey its financial and ethical soundness? Or did she know Rian would take it to Prince, anticipating that he would buy it on the sly? Does Wendy need him to own it for some unknown purpose integral to their mutiny? Or is it simply that Wendy is every bit as screwed as it seems?
- Not to sound like a broken record, but it’s been that kind of season: This is the best “Billions” in quite some time.
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