Billions shorts its viewers’ ability to understand characters and their motivations

Billions shorts its viewers’ ability to understand characters and their motivations

What Billions does well: present complicated financial schemes simply and clearly enough that someone who is hopeless with money can understand them, or at least get the general idea. What Billions doesn’t do so well: allow the audience to process the emotional fallout from these various transactions without cluttering the scenes with needless expository dialogue, ham-fisted metaphors, and foreshadowing that comes charging down Wall Street like a herd of maddened bulls.

The Nigerian currency play that fuels this hour’s wheeling and dealing sounds like an email scam from the ’90s at first, but writer Brian Chamberlayne lays it out so that we can grasp the moves Axe has to make to pull it off and the obstacles that stand in his way. A flaw in the manufacture of a thin-screen smartphone has caused the manufacturing company, one of Axe’s major holdings, to take a nosedive on the stock market. (Red siren metaphor/foreshadowing alert: the engineer who designed the screen takes a nosedive out of a high hotel window.) Acting on a tip from a friend of Mafee who has inside knowledge that the Nigerian currency, the naira, is about to be devalued, Axe intends to short enough of it to make it happen faster and keep his quarterly earnings in the black.

He can’t do it alone, though, so he proposes a Legion of Super-Villains team-up with Malverne, Krakow, and Birch (who, the ”previously on” segment reminds us, he screwed back in season one). They all enjoy seeing him squirm and wouldn’t be sad if Axe Capital had a down quarter, but they love making money even more, so they agree to go in on the plan with him. For Birch, though, this is just a ruse: he’s figured out that it was Axe that tipped a reporter to dig into his business just to see what action Chuck was willing to take. Birch decides to back the naira, if only to keep it afloat long enough to sink Axe’s quarterly earnings report.

For Axe’s plan to succeed, he needs to not only keep Malverne and Krakow on board, he has to convince Lawrence Boyd to publicly back him. What Axe doesn’t know is that Chuck has Boyd on the hook: his inside man Tom McKinnon has a dinner date set with Boyd, and their wives will be along just for added tension. So far, McKinnon has proven to be an inept mole, and this set-up looks primed for disaster as McKinnon gets drunker and more surly as dinner progresses. As it turns out, there’s a method to his madness, and he’s able to push Boyd to a place where he freely offers up his involvement in the rigged Treasury bids. A judge signs a warrant, and Axe is tipped off just before a television appearance in which Boyd will endorse Axe’s view of the naira.

Of course, Axe doesn’t tip Boyd until after the broadcast, when Chuck and the feds are already closing in. We know what he’s done and we know why, but Chamberlayne’s script puts a longwinded explanation of what we’ve just seen play out in Boyd’s mouth anyway. Just letting it play out on Bogosian’s face for a moment before handing over his watch would have been enough on some shows, but that’s never going to be the Billions way. Character moments are spoon-fed more often than not.

Take the case of Wags, whose disappearance acts as a framing device for the episode. His bender has mostly been treated as a goof, but in “Currency” we’re told it’s born out of pain: a man he once worked for and greatly admired is now suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. This “carcass with no further purpose” has Wags considering his own worth at Axe Capital now that Steph Reed has been installed as Chief of Staff. It takes Wendy the Great and Powerful to draw this realization out of him and put him on the path back toward productivity, but it feels like a revelation Wags should have taken about 10 seconds to come up with on his own. In any case, his worries are for naught. Axe starts breaking his self-imposed rule of having Reed present at all business conversations left and right, and once he sees that’s the only way he can keep his business forever in the black, he fires her. That’s just the way it works on Billions: if you’re not helping someone make money or put away those who do, you are a carcass with no further purpose.

Stray observations

  • Lara would like to make more money too, and to that end, Axe gets Boyd to set up a meeting for her to woo potential investors in the IV business. As it turns out, though, this is simply Axe’s way of telling his wife he doesn’t think she’s ready for that. There’s never been as much friction in the Axelrod marriage as between the Rhoades, but this isn’t a great moment for them.
  • Dake thinks Lonnie is his path toward taking down Chuck. In related news, Dake is boring and, as far as we’ve seen, not that great at his job.
  • Great moments in marriage counseling: Wendy thinks Chuck wears his power suits everywhere so no one ever forgets he’s the US Attorney. In fact, he wears them because he fears people wondering why she ever settled for him.
  • However last week’s deposition turned out, we don’t find out tonight. Axe and Chuck do see each other again at Boyd’s arrest, however, and enjoy a brief exchange of one-upmanship.
  • If you need Brian, he’ll be at Go club.

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