by Sean T. Collins | New York Times | October 20, 2023
Season 7, Episode 11: ‘Axe Global’
“So, well, there’s that.” You said it, Axe. The penultimate episode of “Billions” has now come and gone, and with it one of the show’s final opportunities to really blow us away with a patented five-steps-ahead scheme that ends in a sudden twist turning everything on its ear. That is … not what we got.
Don’t get me wrong — the five-steps-ahead thing is still alive and well in “Billions”-land. Mike’s story line hinges on how, or whether, to respond to the latest attack from Chuck and company: an all-out legal assault on his private holdings by the Southern District of New York. These are the only companies in which Prince Cap remains invested after Mike orders everything else dissolved to reduce vulnerability to Axe’s financial machinations. He has already voluntarily taken a huge loss as a defensive maneuver; to lose further, from that position, would make him look fatally weak.
The information finds its way to the Prince brain trust via the young Southern District prosecutor Amanda Torre, who seems to act on her own out of disgust with Chuck’s vendetta. Given what we come to learn of his plan, though, it seems more likely she’s only playing the informant while still working for the team. (Honestly, the only thing that stops me from saying “She’s in on it” is the trust placed in her intel by Kate, who is no dummy. On the other hand … well, more on that later.)
Using a football metaphor as elaborate as it is unnecessary — seriously, guys, the iocane powder scene from “The Princess Bride” would have served perfectly well — Mike games out the various scenarios. Maybe this is the attack, and they should meet it full on. Or maybe Chuck is counting on a big response, so they should hold their fire. Or maybe he expects them to hold their fire, so they should attack. And so on, and so on, and so on.
Then Mike realizes that Chuck’s plan is to immerse him in the dilemma of which proverbial cup to drink from. While he and his brightest minds are trying to untangle the legal and financial implications of Chuck’s maneuver, Chuck and Axe are out there advancing the real plan, which involves an assault on the political front.
Chuck and Axe are out to woo the popular centrist Democratic politician Nancy Dunlop away from endorsing Mike after he torpedoed her candidacy at that gathering of the rich and powerful in Episode 8. While wounded, she’s not politically dead, and her support — perhaps even as a running mate — would make Mike the heir apparent to the White House, security briefings and all. But, again, she’s not politically dead, and could conceivably win the presidency herself, provided she has the backing of a big-money player like Axe.
The results are as disappointing to Chuck, Axe, Wags, Wendy and Taylor as they are scathing about the political establishment. Here’s a woman with strong centrist-Democrat bona fides, described by Chuck as “my beau ideal” of a candidate, openly offering her services to the highest bidder. That turns out to be Mike, who offers her the vice presidency. Their big debate about the first-strike use of nuclear weapons is apparently water under the bridge when political power is on the table.
Cynicism really is the order of the day in this episode. In addition to courting Dunlop, Axe takes a run at rehiring his old crew. Wendy and Taylor are on board, obviously, as is the much-missed Mafee. Victor, Dollar Bill and Rian all show up to hear out the offer but decline, dutifully reporting it to Mike after the fact. Tuk and Ben Kim also turn it down, though they know their affection for Axe is too strong to do so in person; as such, they feel no need to flag the communication.
That’s their mistake. Dollar Bill and Victor are rewarded for their candor and loyalty, while Ben Kim and Tuk are given the ax for failing to tattle and for lacking the fortitude to decline the offer in person. Such men can’t be trusted. As for Rian, she walks away from both outfits, choosing to quit Prince Cap and travel the world.
That leaves the anomaly of Winston (Will Roland). Anchored to Prince Cap by its legal takeover of the algorithm he developed on company time, he extorts a huge payout to adjust it to Mike’s new low-risk parameters. We are left to wonder about the inclusion of this scene, which seems to do little beyond giving the actor Stephen Kunken more time to shine as the truly awful compliance officer Ari Spyros, and allowing Roland to recite some lyrics from Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick.” (“Aqualung” gets all the attention, but real Tull-heads know.) Perhaps this dog will bark in the finale.
Whatever may eventually happen with this almost vestigial story line, it doesn’t here. There’s no big prestige to whatever trick the writers Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Beth Schacter are pulling, not in this episode anyway. This one really is as simple as two groups vying for an alliance with a minor character we’ve seen only once, ahead of revealing her pick. Forgive me, but I still have visions of that fabulous shock ending from Season 2’s penultimate episode dancing in my head, a level of scheming, skulduggery and surprise that I want to see again before the curtain closes.
We may yet get it. I simply refuse to believe that a show this beautifully bombastic won’t go out with a bang, in a finale with more twists and turns than a Mario Kart racetrack. Keep in mind that while the opposing armies seem pretty firmly established, they have every possibility of fracturing, reconfiguring or turning on themselves. Which leads to the biggest question of all, and no, it’s not whether Chuck and Axe can stop Mike Prince — it’s whether they will be back at each other’s throats if and when they do.
- I don’t know about you, but opening an episode with a David Bowie cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” and closing it with Procul Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” is a guaranteed way to get on my good side.
- The laugh line of the night goes to this exchange between Mafee and Chuck, an odd couple if ever there was one, after Mafee repeatedly asks permission to smoke up during one of their meetings, claiming it sharpens his mind. “My doctor says I have a paradoxical reaction to weed,” he explains. “Your doctor says that,” Chuck replies, deadpan. “I mean, she’s not technically a doctor,” Mafee admits. “More of a spirit walker.”
- I’m broadly sympathetic with Mafee’s claim regarding the mind-expanding power of the devil’s lettuce, but “spirit walker”? He’d have been better off just saying, “The guy behind the counter at the gray-market shop where I bought it said it’s good for creativity.”
- I won’t soon forget Ari reciting “Jerusalem” to a deeply confused Winston and Kate during their meeting. I had no idea how badly I needed to hear Kunken proclaim “Bring me my chariot of fire” until I was actually hearing it.
- There’s a weird optics thing going on with Prince’s brain trust, right? Other than Prince himself, every member — Scooter, Philip, Kate, Bradford, even their informant Amanda — is a person of color. The Chuck/Axe/Wendy/Wags/Taylor alliance is as white as the surface of a mirror on Wags’s coffee table.
- That said, there are no doubt many cards yet to be played, and it would not surprise me at all if one or more of Mike’s minions is secretly plotting his downfall. As I alluded to earlier, my money is on Kate. Even aside from her co-signing of the possible double agent Amanda, her becoming this evil this quickly feels like a smoke screen for something else.
- On the other hand, Scooter betraying his liege lord at last would have an even more poetic ring to it. Philip seems like a true believer in the mission of making loads of money at this point, but in the past he’s been wise to what a weasel Mike really is, and in this episode he rather pointedly asks Scooter if he ever questions Mike’s will. As for Bradford, I don’t see him shivving his boss, but I also can’t imagine him sticking around if it seems he’s backing the losing horse.
- The point is that Mike’s support network does not seem as firm to me as it does to him. Doesn’t he learn this to his detriment in this very episode? His wife, Andy, leaves him for the mountain-climbing boyfriend he deliberately sacrificed on the altar of his own ambitions before Axe secured the guy’s liberation.
- Come to think of it, Mike’s near-total lack of emotional response to the apparent end of his marriage (campaign appearances aside) strikes me as a weakness in and of itself. Any man so fixated on a political prize that he breezes past rejection by the love of his life is vulnerable to attack from beyond his range of focus. Axe sneaking behind his back to free the mountain climber — and thus put the kibosh on the Princes’ marriage while the man was picking out tuxedos for his launch party — is in fact, a case in point.
- Tough to believe it took the show this long to set a scene in Rao’s, as it does for Axe and Dunlop’s big sales-pitch meeting. Perhaps they were saving the big guns for the final act.
- When Mike hears he has been invited to Camp David, he replies, “Boom,” with a subtle accompanying explosive sound effect. I’d say the show has made its stakes pretty clear.
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