Game Theory Optimal
by Sarene Leeds | Vulture | October 6, 2023
With “Game Theory Optimal,” Billions has entered its third and final act.
Although we’re still waiting for one key player to take his position — Axe — the Rebel Alliance/MPC Fifth Column can now claim Chuck Rhoades as one of its members. However, it’s hard to know what difference that will make now that Mike Prince has firmly entered Lex Luthor territory, obliterating traitors from the comforts of his lair/townhouse with the help of his dedicated hench-people.
Sorry, I buried the lede here: Prince discovered that Wendy, Wags, and Taylor were making feeble attempts at mutiny, and now they are screwed.
Billions knows the end is nigh, and soon enough, someone, or maybe even everyone in this television universe of haves and have-nots (mostly haves), must say farewell to their life of unbridled wealth and debauchery. Which is why “Game Theory Optimal” opens (and closes) with Billy Joel’s sendoff to decadence, “I’ve Loved These Days,” paired with a montage of famed New York bars and eateries frequented by the Billions characters.
Like Patsy’s Italian Restaurant, known for Frank Sinatra’s patronage, where Chuck is breaking bread with former NYPD commissioner Richie Sansome for the most Billions of reasons: He wants to know how to bring Prince to justice without any proof of the billionaire’s guilt. While career cop Sansome is no stranger to the Art of the Frame, he’s grown wiser in his retirement years and advises Chuck against proceeding in his quest to see Prince in an orange jumpsuit. A deep sense of foreboding aside, there’s no way Chuck is giving up that easily, not with four episodes of the series left. So Sansome suggests a different approach: Working off Chuck’s comparison of Prince to a “mad king,” he recommends going through Prince’s courtiers, as in Lady Dr. Wendy Rhoades.
A distraught Chuck arrives at Wendy’s door. Even though we know they both feel the same about Prince, there is too much baggage between them to jump right back into an alliance. Chuck shares his newfound post-Owl fears about Prince with his ex-wife: He wasn’t worried about a guy like Bobby Axelrod running for president, but he can’t stomach the idea of a commander-in-chief who’s willing to nuke the planet just to keep his ego inflated.
Wendy agrees, but it’s going to take a lot more than shared opinions to be Chuck’s woman on the inside. Mainly because she can’t do this without Wags and Taylor, and she needs a guarantee they won’t go down either.
Over at MPC, Kate Sacker has finally put that brilliant brain to good use, approaching Scooter with a theory that three senior-level employees are organizing an insurrection. Again, this is when I get angry at Billions for making Kate — undeniably the smartest person in the room 100 percent of the time — slow on the uptake when it suits the narrative. She’s only now realizing that Wags planted the idea of leaving MPC in her head and that he, Wendy, and Taylor are “weirdly secretive” whenever she walks by.
Scooter says they can confirm her theory right away, because guess what? Prince had the whole damn office bugged as soon as he took over. (Somehow, Kate, an attorney, is totally okay with this.) They pull up a video of the moment in episode six when Wendy, Wags, and Taylor were stupidly having a Fifth Column meeting in the office snack area, which provides the evidence Kate needs to fire them. But Scooter advises patience because he’s still researching the “sus” (yep, Scooter’s word) backdrop of a FaceTime he had with Taylor when they were in London. If you remember, Taylor was in the middle of a fireside chat with Axe at Stately Axelrod Manor when Scooter called. They passed off the cozy atmosphere as their hotel’s décor, but Scooter didn’t buy it. He took a screenshot of Taylor and hired an “expert in English architecture and antiquities” to verify their exact location.
The next morning, Wendy is in session with Dr. Mayer and her late-night meeting with Chuck has her fired up. Now she wants out of MPC, and she’s considering working with her ex-husband against Mike Prince. Dr. Mayer seems awfully invested in why Wendy feels this way, so much so that now I’m wondering if she’s under Prince’s payroll? (Since I can’t trust anyone on Billions, I certainly can’t trust Dr. Mayer.)
Dr. Mayer encourages Wendy to follow these feelings right into a brand-new job. Next thing we know, Wendy has Rian researching an online therapy site called Mental (a BetterHelp stand-in). She wants to make sure there are no financial red flags and that it won’t hurt Prince’s campaign if she jumps ship. As soon as Rian verifies that Mental checks all the boxes, Wendy meets with the co-founders, who offer her a CEO gig.
Chuck, meanwhile, appears to be committing career and public suicide. First, he calls a sentence reduction hearing that morning for … Dr. Gilbert? The beleaguered, ice cream-loving physician is flabbergasted to hear Chuck isn’t there to screw him over for the umpteenth time. Nope, Chuck wants the presiding judge to end Dr. Gilbert’s sentence immediately, which he does.
All in exchange for one teeny, tiny favor: The good doctor just needs to record, on video, every disreputable detail of how Chuck wrongfully imprisoned him.
Chuck then continues his trip down Billions’ crooked-scheme memory lane by appearing in his own self-incriminating video, confessing every single time he “cut corners” in a case. Ice Juice. Voter suppression. Hiring Jackie Connerty for a jewel heist. It’s a great reminder that Chuck is not the good guy here. Never was. It’s also not surprising to learn that his litany of crimes stretches far back before Billions began.
So, Scooter’s FaceTime research is in, and now Prince knows that Taylor wasn’t doing business in London seven episodes ago. Instead, they were sipping whiskey at Haddon Hall, a castle owned by Bobby Axelrod. Since Prince and Co. knew Wendy and Wags were in London at the same time, they (correctly) assume all three were conspiring with Axe. Prince is triggered. But Bradford Luke advises him to tread lightly: If he fires Taylor, Wendy, and Wags, he’ll just look like a bad manager. Bad manager = terrible president.
Not to worry, Brad. You’re dealing with a villain of grandiose proportions here. Expect mind games with a heavy dose of torture. But no firing.
Mind games first: Prince meets with Wendy and gives her his full blessing to take the CEO job at Mental (Rian tipped him off to Wendy’s interest in the company), along with a promise of a future White House position. Now confident she can take the leap, Wendy accepts her new role in front of a beaming Dr. Mayer. Wendy then meets with Wags and Taylor to inform them it’s time to bring Chuck into the fold.
How upset is Wags over this idea? He desecrates Michter’s whiskey by drinking it straight out of the bottle. He then marches into Chuck’s SDNY office, where David Costabile delivers the most beautiful speech of loyalty to Wendy. We’re talking about the level of Mercedes Ruehl’s bereft mom warning Tom Hanks that she will “spend the rest of her life making you suffer” speech in Big.
Good news: This is exactly what Chuck needed to hear: that Wags doesn’t trust him. Yet. A befuddled Wags then follows Chuck back to Brooklyn…
At the Rhoades home, Chuck shares the fruits of his labor with Wendy, Wags, and Taylor, something that could annihilate his public and professional life with one click: An impossible-to-copy USB drive that holds copious documentation of his illegal career moves.
Chuck created this digital trail of his crimes to prove that the Fifth Column could trust him. See, Chuck knows that if he entrusts the drive to Wendy, she will never use its contents against him no matter what, because kids. There is one person, however, who would, without hesitation, use that drive against Chuck if he betrayed any of the three people standing before him: Michael Wagner.
Therefore, Chuck hands the drive to Wags, assured by Wendy that her colleague won’t burn any of them if Chuck comes through with helping them destroy Prince. Like Senior says, it’s a high-risk play, but it was the only way these four could ever work together.
Just as Chuck is about to name Axe as their final ally, Wendy, Wags, and Taylor are summoned to Prince’s townhouse. They all know this is a bad sign.
We do, too, because right before this scene, Prince sneers to Scooter, Bradford, and Kate that he’s “taken care of Wendy,” but he needs to know who can really run MPC once he’s in the White House and has “put the others in a box.” Scooter shows Prince something on his phone — something we don’t see — and Prince nods in agreement. Yikes.
And here comes the torture: Upon the Fifth Column’s arrival at Prince’s lair, where they’re also joined by a confused-looking Philip, a smug Prince lays out, in excruciating detail, how absolutely dunzo Wendy, Wags, and Taylor are. Firing them? Where’s the pain in that? Instead, all three will remain at the company, with their assets frozen and stripped of anything resembling authority.
Prince has even cut off Wendy’s exit route: As soon as she moves over to Mental, she’ll be fired, because evil genius that he is, Prince is a majority holder of Mental through a shell corporation.
All predictable developments for Billions. But what I’m trying to figure out is what is up with Philip.
Philip has been handed MPC’s the reins, but there’s some sort of blackmail or missing details at play here. Scooter presents a video of a session between Wendy and Philip, the one where he tells her to leave him out of whatever she’s planning. (What we don’t know is if this is what Scooter showed Prince on his phone or if it was something else.) Wendy is understandably furious that Prince had the audacity to put cameras in her private sessions, but Scooter retorts that Philip signed a waiver beforehand.
Did he? We have no proof of this. Plus, when Scooter looks at Philip for confirmation, there’s a pause, as if Philip is desperately trying to keep up with whatever Uncle Scooter is telegraphing with his eyes. Philip responds in the affirmative, but I’m not sure which way things are going to swing with this character. I think Philip is being punished for not reporting what he knew about the impending mutiny, and he’s now Prince’s puppet.
Now that Wendy, Wags, and Taylor have been cut off at the knees, it looks like the time has come for Chuck to call in that favor to Axe. He’d better do it quickly, though, because Prince, fueled by rage and ego, is headed to Haddon Hall.
• I’m curious about Kate Sacker and her long game. She is a political animal, so will she be the one who ends up on top?
• Why did it take Scooter seven episodes to figure out Taylor was at Haddon Hall?
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