“Don’t make a whole thing out of it,” Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades says near the beginning of “Copenhagen.” He’s referring to the fact that he’s shaved his beard, but he might as well be speaking for Billions itself as it returns after nearly fifteen months of pandemic hiatus. Despite the lengthy absence, this is not a season premiere, and Billions would prefer we didn’t notice how much time has passed.
That keeps the conflicts that were so rudely interrupted last June very much in play. Axe is still keenly interested in burning rival Michael Prince’s life to the ground. Prince is up for an ambassadorship to Denmark, but a very hungover Wags has a lead on digging up some dirt on him. Prince’s associate Scooter appears to have a gambling problem, which Wags plans to use as leverage to get the goods. The plan backfires when it turns out Scooter has been placing the (legal) bets on Prince’s behalf, leaving Axe humiliated at what was supposed to be his moment of triumph.
It’s a temporary setback, as in true Billions fashion, the tables don’t so much turn as rotate continuously at breakneck speed. Dollar Bill comes up with the next plan while reminiscing about reading financial periodicals on the can. It seems Prince’s first business partner died young in an accident, and his mother has no happy memories of Michael Prince. The now-billionaire cheated his partner out of millions when he made his first big deal, a revelation that turns a scheduled puff-piece TV profile into an exposé of “exploitation and betrayal.” It’s must-see TV for Axe and his crew, but it leaves Prince ditching his Danish get-up and plotting whatever comes next.
At the AG’s office, the newly clean-shaven Chuck is also looking to clean up his conscience. He’s still searching for a kidney donor for Senior, who doesn’t even trust Chuck enough to make him his medical proxy, instead putting Wendy in charge of his end-of-life decisions. This doesn’t prove so easy, as Chuck’s past bad actions keep coming back to haunt him. One of the students he’d enlisted in his scheme to discredit Todd Krakow has come into possession of a photo of young Chuck burning Yale student body election ballots in a bathtub. Chuck insists his intentions were pure, as he planned to press Yale to divest from South Africa’s Apartheid regime, while his opponent for student body president did not.
The student is unmoved by this explanation, but rather than resorting to threats or bribery, Chuck shares the wisdom of his experience. He warns young Merle that this threat of blackmail will lead him down a dark path, and urges him to live a life of honor instead. Ira, the devil on Chuck’s shoulder, wants to use the tried and true tactics. He’s assembled a folder of intel on Chuck’s former opponent, all the better to trash him in the press and make Chuck look like a hero for stealing the election. In the end, Chuck declines to use the intel, losing his cherished teaching gig at Yale in the process. Whether this is a true change of heart...sorry, I just started laughing uncontrollably. Of course it isn’t.
As always, the collision course of Axe and Chuck is bubbling in the background. As a way of saving face in case the photo leaks, Chuck has Sackler find him a case that will make him look like a hero. She digs up a predatory money lender for him to go after, but it turns out to be bait in a trap set by Axe. Once Chuck has reduced the value of the money lender to pennies, Axe snatches it up. Why? Because they have a banking charter, which Chuck has now handed him. Tune in next week, when the ever-rotating tables get turned again.
- Welcome back to Billions coverage, at least on a trial basis. I’ll be here for the next couple of episodes, and if enough of you come along for the ride, perhaps through the rest of the season.
- Taylor’s impact fund provides the opportunity for Jason Isbell to do a PSA on behalf of the Bail Project before playing “Last of My Kind.” Later, Isbell’s expressed disdain for the financial world helps Tanner get back in touch with his muse after the artist is tempted by big money. One imagines this storyline is not yet resolved.
- A trick the writers always have in their bag is dropping a villain from seasons past into the proceedings to screw up Chuck’s (or Axe’s) latest scheme. This time it’s Dr. Gilbert, the fall guy for the Ice Juice caper, now every prisoner’s (and guard’s) favorite medic. As always, Billions demands encyclopedic recall of the entire series.
- Taylor’s subplot involves an employee who won’t give up her night job working catering gigs with her pals ala Party Down. This makes Taylor look bad, but in the end it’s just another soul stolen by the world of big finance.
- While Chuck is able to resist the devil on his shoulder, Axe won’t listen to the angel on his. Wendy tries to talk him down from his Prince vendetta, but in the end she’s on board.
- Mock tuna wrap, anyone?