Paul Giamatti
Photo: Jeff Neumann (Showtime)

Chuck Rhoades has a mess to clean up, and in a sense, so do Billions showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who co-wrote the third season premiere “Tie Goes To The Runner.” The Ice Juice scheme that capped last season brought the series to new heights, but its aftermath posed several narrative problems going forward. Axe was left facing the potential end of his empire and possible prison time, while Chuck had burned a number of bridges to achieve his feel-good victory. “Worth it,” he said at the end of last year’s finale, but the initial flush of triumph has faded by the time we see him again. He’s got a lot of loose ends to tie up, and so do Koppelman and Levien, but that doesn’t prevent them from piling up new threats right from the jump.

The result is a dense and dizzying hour that severely tested my note-taking speed limit. There’s no slow build or gradual re-acclimation into this world to be found here; we’re thrown into the deep with seemingly every character who ever appeared on the show and a handful of new ones just to keep it interesting. As a feat of plate-spinning, it’s impressive; as an hour of drama, it’s somewhat lacking on its own terms even as it whets the appetite for the season to come. Honestly, I lost track of how many times Chuck walked into another room to meet up with another character he screwed over last year in hopes of making amends or cutting a new deal. If the writers wanted to get all of that out of the way immediately, I certainly understand the impulse, but in practice it gets a bit monotonous.

Chuck’s first meeting of the hour sets the tone and gives the episode its title, while adding yet more red meat to the stew of toxic masculinity that is Billions. Said meat is in the form of Clancy Brown as the new Attorney General, Waylon “Jock” Jeffcoat, who speaks with a cartoonish drawl, puts his cowboy boots up on his desk, and regales Chuck with a folksy anecdote. In traditional Billions fashion, we aren’t left to ponder the hidden meaning of his story about the teaser, the horse that gets a mare all worked up before the stud comes in to do the fun part. Jock spells it all out for us: Chuck is the teaser who did all the groundwork on Axe Capital, and Dake is the stud who gets to prosecute the case while Chuck goes back to his stall to fuck a bucket of oats.

Clancy Brown
Photo: Jeff Neumann (Showtime)

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Jock has a directive from the new president (unnamed, but it’s not too hard to read between the lines, especially once we learn he’s populated his cabinet with buffoons like Todd Krakow): ease up on the insider trading prosecutions and direct the energies of the Southern District away from the president’s Wall Street golf buddies. This naturally leaves Chuck bristling (or “chafed,” as he tells Sacker) and sets up another conflict going forward. Already extant feuds are dealt with in perfunctory fashion. Rhoades Sr. wants nothing to do with him and hopes to sabotage his run for governor, but Blackjack Foley advises him to “embrace it or accept it.” Having seen his dream of Ice Juice billions collapse thanks to Chuck, Ira is in no mood to accept his olive branch or his musings on the egg cream (“No egg, no cream.”). Deke has gotten a makeover befitting his new position, ditching the nerdlinger look, but reluctantly agreeing to keep a lid on Wendy’s involvement in Ice Juice per the terms of their agreement.

Wendy is one of the few people Chuck is on good terms with as the season opens, but in the Billions world, “good terms” are always relative. In this case, it means returning to therapy, which really means Wendy strapping on the leather gear and spanking Chuck while torturing him with details of her affair with Craig Heidecker last season. Increasingly improbable as it is, Wendy continues to be the link between the two main characters, as she drop in on a fuming Axe in seclusion. Leading him through a “Dickens Process” allows him to reflect on when rage has served him and when it has cost him, but the end result with Axe is always the same: “Fuck Dickens.”

With his assets frozen, Axe refuses to even go to the office, leaving Taylor in charge. (Seeing Wags act as Taylor’s wingman offers some amusement, although I continue to regard David Costabile’s character as a spice to be used judiciously.) Although enormously resistant to the idea (for the usual control freak reasons), Axe eventually agrees to give up his trading license in order to free the frozen assets and get the company rolling again before mass defections occur. That gives Taylor even more power, revealed in the climactic scene set at an “idea dinner” attended by all the top hedge fund managers. After soaking in testosterone for 55 minutes, it comes as a relief to see a slightly built non-binary character march into a roomful of alpha males and command their attention by announcing a “silverback fucking gorilla of an idea,” as Koppelman and Levien are no doubt very aware. Taylor has already proven to be more than the creators’ concession toward otherness in an overwhelmingly straight male world; they may well be the linchpin of this entire season. Or maybe not. “Tie Goes To The Runner” is so overcrowded with possibilities, it’s anybody’s guess at this point.

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Stray observations

  • There are many other characters to check in with this week, and yes, Lara is still one of them. It’s been hard enough for the writers to find a place for her in the narrative that rises above cliché, and having her separated from Axe may push her even further to the margins. There’s a hint here that something is going on between her and Jerry O’Connell’s Birch, but in the end she decides to keep her money with Axe.
  • Who else? How about Connerty, now working for Dake but finding himself in a familiar position as his boss declines to share certain information with him. Connerty might have thought he was finally working for a stand-up do-gooder, but Dake’s ethics are proving to be as flexible as everyone else’s.
  • Oh, and Axe Capital has a new head of compliance. He seems smug.

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