by Sarene Leeds | Vulture | October 13, 2023
Bobby Axelrod just doesn’t work as a supporting character. With two episodes left in Billions, Axe has finally returned stateside after an almost two-season absence, but good God, getting him here was harder than pulling an abscessed tooth. And that was just this episode alone!
In case you couldn’t tell, I’m conflicted by the Axe homecoming. On the one hand, Billions is infinitely better whenever Damian Lewis is onscreen. That is an undeniable fact. On the other hand, every one of his appearances this season has been little more than a glorified cameo. Even now, with Axe firmly aligned with Team Wendy-Chuck-Wags-Taylor, I’m still scratching my head over why the four of them needed him so badly. Chuck giving Axe the “Thank God you’re here” cliché? Insert eye roll emoji.
At this point, I’m not impressed with how Billions turned Wendy into a damsel in distress needing to be rescued by Sir Axelrod. And it will take a lot more than Axe showing up in a Slayer T-shirt for me to feel confident that he’ll ultimately topple Mike Prince. Axe’s big save of the episode — screwing with Prince’s dainty ego to keep Wendy out of prison — isn’t going to set Prince back for long.
While I get why we had to wait until the end of “Enemies List” for Axe’s surprise New York reveal, these kinds of narrative setups sometimes make Billions tedious. Did it have to take the entire episode for Axe to devise a workable plan? Of course not, but what’s a drama without tension?
We begin at Britain’s Haddon Hall, with Prince, making good on his promise from the end of last week’s episode. Since he erroneously believes Axe is the mastermind between Wendy, Wags, and Taylor’s mutiny, Prince has flown across the pond to give his archenemy a stern warning: Don’t mess with me and don’t even think about contacting Wendy. Because if he does, she will be the one to suffer the consequences, not Axe.
“I have her tied to the railroad tracks, and I own the whole damn Transcontinental,” Prince tells Dudley Do-Axe. This line is genius, considering I wanted to make a Snidely Whiplash reference in the last recap — and now the Billions writers have done it for me.
What a time for Chuck to literally call in that BIG favor from Axe. Though, to be fair, Chuck’s SOS helps Axe put Prince’s visit into perspective: As soon as he looks at Prince, he immediately understands why Chuck is calling. So long, Zen Axe, because Mike Prince has just awakened the sleeping giant that is Yonkers Axe. Threatening Axe is one thing, but threatening Wendy Rhoades? Big mistake, big, huge. The two billionaires then trade some Pulp Fiction references, with Axe wrapping things up by offering some foreshadow-y advice: Focus on your friends, not your enemies. Just like Bryan Connerty told Kate Sacker a few episodes ago. Hmm…
Speak of the devil (or is she?), the next scene has Kate ordering Wendy and Wags to comply with the new leadership structure at Michael Prince Capital (where it’s publicly announced that they’re on staff, albeit stripped of all authority). I’m suspicious of her behavior here because while her character isn’t warm and fuzzy, she’s not an uber-bitch, either. Please tell me she’s a double agent for someone in the government. She’s too smart not to have a long game. Also curious is Kate’s recruitment of Chuck’s SDNY colleague Amanda Torre at a “Women in Criminal Law” breakfast. She hints that Amanda could take over for her at MPC when she runs for Congress … along with planting a seed of doubt about Chuck and his so-called good intentions.
Another character who’s been unfairly stuck with the short end of the stick all season is Taylor Mason. It feels like Billions doesn’t know what to do with them. Unfortunately, sending them off to Haddon Hall wasn’t the answer either. Taylor is officially out at MPC, so they show up at Axe’s doorstep, having left their $650 million portfolio behind and determined to “take that fucker down before he rises any higher.” While it’s nice to see Axe and Taylor bonding again, their attempts to figure out how exactly Prince has ensnared Wendy and how they can circumvent his communication blockade didn’t lead to any breakthroughs.
With Taylor MIA and Axe constantly giving Chuck the brush-off, things aren’t looking too good for the anti-Prince movement. But it doesn’t take long for Chuck, Wags, and Wendy to deduce why Axe is dragging his feet: Prince threatened someone he loved (*cough* Wendy). What they don’t know is that obliterating Wendy’s career was only Prince’s first move.
Now that Wendy is officially the CEO of Mental, she has full access to the company’s financial data, and the books look a little sketchy. So she has Rian help her do a deeper dive into Mental’s financials. You’ve heard of boy math and girl math, right? Well, Rian says Mental has been doing “Enron math.” Whatever data Rian looked at during her initial research doesn’t even come close to what she and Wendy are seeing now: As in a second set of books and a level of fraud that would make George Santos blanch.
The trouble is, when Wendy enthusiastically signed her contract with Mental in last week’s episode, like so many of us, she failed to read the fine print: As Mental’s CEO, she is “personally liable” for the company’s financials. Not only that, but the real, fraudulent data was on Wendy’s tablet the whole time, making it look like she did know the company was cooking the books. Now Wendy understands why Prince was so supportive of her new job — he knew she was walking right into his trap.
Wendy meets with Chuck and Ira for legal advice, but even they are all, Sorry, Wend, get ready for 35 years in federal prison. But, hey, at least Chuck now understands why Axe was being so cagey all this time.
During an encrypted FaceTime, Wendy pleads with Axe to return to the U.S. — not for her sake, but for democracy’s sake. (Would someone please explain why Bobby Axelrod is suddenly Captain America?) She rattles off a bunch of Billions plotlines to help Axe better understand Prince’s willingness to throw friends and loved ones under the bus to serve his own needs. When she gets to The One Where Prince Hands Over the Son of a Business Partner for Expedience and The One Where Prince “Let a Climber He’s Trying to Rescue for His Wife Get Taken by the Fucking Chinese for Self-Preservation,” Axe’s eyes light up.
Suddenly, Chuck is waltzing into Prince’s office with a gift: Documentation stating he has arranged to release Kai Huang Liu “the younger” (a.k.a. NFT Scammer Son from episode four), who is now on a plane back home to Taiwan. Not only that, Chuck says he’s willing to “take all the heat” stateside while Prince gets the credit in Taiwan. Prince, the arrogant SOB that he is, thinks Chuck did this to ensure he won’t get fired once he’s in the White House. Chuck doesn’t argue; there is no use having a fight before Prince’s “big night” tonight.
At a flashy campaign gala at Lincoln Center, Prince and his entourage arrive to the strains of U2’s “Beautiful Day.” Just in time for Axe, clad in the most Axe uniform ever (a Slayer T-shirt and leather jacket), to perform a human record scratch in front of an ashen-faced Prince.
And now we’re about to get the full Bobby Axelrod we’ve missed for two whole seasons.
Axe has the best plus-one ever for the evening: Derek, as in Andy’s climbing lover/the guy Prince had captured by the Chinese government. How did Axe secure his release? So glad you asked, Mikey! See, Chuck lied to him about Kai Huang Liu’s safe return to Taipei. Instead, Axe and Chuck concocted a “straight-up swap” — Kai Huang Liu was given over to the Chinese in exchange for Derek’s safe return home. (It turns out Scammer Son sold some bogus NFTs to the Chinese as well…)
Prince doesn’t flinch, insisting he’s putting Wendy behind bars. Yeah, not so fast. Derek is more than willing to book himself onto every cable news program and spill every depraved detail about Mike and Andy Prince’s very, very open marriage. Again, Prince shrugs it off. That is until Axe aims his words squarely at “President Cuck”: Voters don’t pick the guy who “can’t satisfy his own wife.”
(I mean, they do, but Axe is on a roll here.)
Axe presents a new deal to Prince: Destroy any documentation linking Wendy to Mental’s shady financials and never try to ruin her life again. In return, Derek will keep his mouth shut. Oh, and Prince better not try to have Derek taken out; Axe already has his full testimony on video.
One thing is for certain, though, Bobby Axelrod apparently is the only person who can make Michael Thomas Aquinas Prince shit his pants. He tried to warn him against focusing on his enemies because by doing so, Prince woke up all his enemies. And to quote Bono, Axe is now “wide awake.” Before going inside the gala, Prince informs Philip and Scooter that they need to clear their entire portfolio (“We’re going to cash”) because his enemies are coming for him.
• Sorry, Corey Stoll, but you’re no Paul Giamatti doing Jeffrey DeMunn-as-Senior. That Damian Lewis-as-Axe impression fell flatter than a pancake (eater).
• Bradford Luke envisioning himself as the “guardrail in chief” to a megalomaniac president like Mike Prince tracks with his character, disappointing as that revelation may be to Wendy. Come on, Wend, do you really want to work with a guy who likens himself to Richard Nixon’s advisors?
• All the U2 references in this episode had me ROTFLMAO:
• Who better to showcase America’s greatness than one of Ireland’s best exports?
• Prince wanting U2 to play “Until the End of the World” at his gala was a poetic choice. (The Achtung Baby tune is a fictional conversation between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot.)
• Throughout the episode, I wondered if Showtime scored the band for a cameo like they did with Metallica in season one. But as soon as I heard the album track of “Beautiful Day” (as opposed to a live version), I knew Bono wasn’t showing up.
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