Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Billions clarifies its values in its strongest episode to date

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“The Punch” is the best episode of Billions for a host of reasons, chief among them its willingness to define Chuck’s unyielding obsession with taking Bobby down. As much as Billions has shown the similarities between Chuck and Bobby, it hasn’t been able to make as convincing a case for why Chuck won’t let this go. It’s easier to identify with Bobby’s motivations simply based on a basic understanding of capitalism and entrepreneurship, as well as Bobby’s all-consuming passion for the stock market, as demonstrated in his conversation with the head of the police pension fund in “The Good Life.” Chuck has been tougher to pin down, and he becomes a more erratic target as he puts more on the line, including his career and his marriage. Chuck’s speech to Bryan about how Bobby’s chicanery affects the little guys offers a much-needed window into Chuck’s mind. He’s fooling himself of course—this is a personal grudge played out on a huge stage—but investing in Billions doesn’t require believing Chuck as a tireless crusader for the little guy, it only requires believing that he believes it.

Chuck’s impassioned speech to Bryan could have and should have come earlier in the season, but it arguably arrives just in time as Chuck goes to his most despicable means yet to maintain control of the Axe Capital case. Ari Spyros, a character whose utility remains a mystery to me, leans on Chuck to give him more access to the case, as he’s understandably suspicious of Chuck’s claim to have fully recused himself. To put Spyros back in his place, Chuck invites Martina Slovis, their mutual law school chum, to the office just long enough to scare Spyros with the threat of a years-old rape allegation. There was a bit too much ambiguity in the exchange for my taste, but my understanding is that Spyros and Martina did in fact have some sort of non-consensual encounter that resulted in Martina withdrawing from school and only recently completing her law degree. But Chuck, who according to Spyros has been his friend for six years now, has known this for a long time and apparently didn’t care much about it until he needed it as leverage to get Spyros to back off and sip his cortados elsewhere.

Of the many awful tricks Chuck has pulled since the show began, this is certainly the worst of them. Again, it doesn’t appear that Chuck is inventing the history between Spyros and Martina, but his motivation for trotting it out—which includes pretending he’s going to give Martina a job she isn’t remotely qualified for—is pretty much the worst thing ever. At this point, I’ve accepted that Billions isn’t the type of show that offers characters you want to root for, and that’s fine. But Chuck’s redeemable qualities are growing fainter by the episode, and I’d imagine that even for those in the audience who enjoy Billions’ moral ambiguity, there’s a limit to how much of these scorched-earth shenanigans can be tolerated. Just because Chuck has convinced himself that the ends justify any means doesn’t mean anyone watching the show has to believe it.

“The Punch” gets most of its gusto from Bobby’s half of the story, in which he cold-cocks an associate for driving drunk with Gordie and Dean in his car. It’s exactly the kind of episodic story Billions should be telling, because too often Bobby looks like an insurmountable foe, making Chuck look entirely outmatched by comparison. That’s still mostly the case, but “The Punch” at least serves as a reminder that there are legitimate threats to Axe Capital’s future, even if Bobby is to blame for them. The story the episode seems to want to tell is about how the stress of Chuck’s pressure on the firm has Bobby out of sorts and seething with rage, and Layner’s bad judgment gave him just the excuse he needed to let off some steam. That’s not really the story I saw, mostly because Bill Stearn’s arrest yielded exactly nothing except that his two families can now get acquainted with each other. But after the punch, Bobby finally looks frazzled as opposed to just being pissed off, and it lends some concrete stakes to a show that doesn’t always have them.

Lara’s prominence in “The Punch” is even more refreshing, since I love Malin Akerman and have long wished she had more to do than be a ruthless society wife or Bobby’s bruiser. Aside from Wendy, Billions hasn’t done a great job of animating the characters at the periphery of its central conflict. Honestly, most of these characters could go missing for an entire episode and I’m not sure I’d notice. Lara, Wags, Bryan, Kate, and Spyros all function as extensions of Bobby and Chuck, and I haven’t been all that interested in their lives beyond the case. Here, Lara gets a credible, interesting story about how she fears the Axelrods tony lifestyle might be ruining their kids. Bobby has been able to provide his family with the worry-free life he never had growing up, and he prides himself on the fact that Gordie and Dean don’t spend a moment fretting about the little things. He’s happy to let the boys leave the breakfast table without finishing their cheese omelettes, and he thinks nothing of rescuing them from the wilderness camp Lara thought might teach them some survival skills. But as a mother, Lara wants to know her kids would be able to take care of themselves if their circumstances were to change, a scenario Bobby might be able to see if it wasn’t obscured by his hubris.

The episode isn’t perfect. For one thing, Billions like to have it both ways with regard to how Bobby is regarded by the public. If he’s someone who can land on the cover of a Manhattan daily tabloid for buying an enormous house, based on widespread resentment of his insane wealth, there’s certainly no way he becomes a viral-video folk hero for punching a guy out. I don’t care how many drinks Layner had or how justified Bobby was in punching him. There’s simply no way Bobby wins that news cycle. But “The Punch” did what no other episode of Billions has done before it. It got me interested not just in the case, but in the world around it.


Stray observations

  • Chuck’s office finally has a toehold in Axe Capital, now that Donnie Caan has flipped. Speaking of moles, whatever became of Tara when all was said and done?
  • Wendy is doing what she should have done a billion years ago, which is find a new job at a company that doesn’t jeopardize her husband’s professional credibility. But Chase the headhunter is a bit too flirty.
  • The music gave the episode a boost, for sure. Starting with The Replacements and ending with The Pixies, with two Guadalcanal Diary songs sprinkled in for good measure, is a recipe for success.
  • My apologies for the delay on this one, I had some serious router issues last night.