“My vengeance will come like I do: slow, thunderous, and in your eye.”
This incredible piece of dialogue comes from—who else?—Wags in the sixth episode of Billions’ fourth season, after the elite-of-the-elite Wall Street fraternity Kappa Beta Phi (a real thing, unfortunately) refuses to permit him into its secret society. For Wags, who’s just gone through a hazing ritual that required him to wear a dress and apply his own makeup, the rejection adds to what was already a considerable amount of humiliation. (The instigator for this cruel prank is Mick Nussfaur, the guy Wags had a burial plot feud with last season.) He is less than pleased. Don’t worry, like any good New York state attorney general would, I brought evidence:
It’s a fun midseason subplot—that, somehow, feels extremely on-brand for Wags—that doesn’t swing the needle for any of Billions’ larger simmering conflicts. But at the same time, it’s the perfect micro moment that doubles down on this season’s mission statement. On Billions, revenge is a dish best served on the biggest possible stage, in front of the widest audience, and it shouldn’t ever deign to be subtle.
Because Billions is such a dense, rich text—and because the show burns through plotlines quicker than most dramas on television—there’s a cumulative effect to all the political and financial scheming that’s going down in this fourth season. One of its larger ideas, aside from the weird alliance/friendship formed between Axe and Chuck after a three-season dick-swinging contest, is that both men’s former protégés have turned into arch rivals—to varying degrees of success. Through the first 10 episodes, Axe is still waging war with his former financial savant Taylor Mason, as their feud—which obviously distracts both of them from focusing 100 percent on their actual responsibilities as CEOs of two multibillion-dollar hedge funds—burns through more money than a small country’s GDP. Meanwhile, Chuck is helping his father secure what could be a lucrative development project (basically a fictional equivalent of Hudson Yards), all the while avoiding Jock Jeffcoat and his own ex-protégé, Connerty, who’s using the FBI to wiretap their phones and bug their homes in an attempt to gather enough evidence to put the Rhoadeses behind bars for shady business practices. And, of course, Wendy and Chuck’s marriage has yet to recover, and understandably so—Chuck’s public admission that they engage in BDSM would probably be a deal-breaker for most domestic partnerships.
But what’s most compelling about Taylor and Connerty’s respective pivots is how quickly Billions demonstrates they aren’t—to borrow nomenclature from a political series that featured dragons instead of hedge funds—breaking the wheel. They’re just more of the same. Connerty was once a super-idealistic liberal with an Eagle Scout–esque commitment to doing the right thing. Now he’s eagerly accepted his role as an errand boy for Jock “Taller Jeff Sessions” Jeffcoat, and, at the end of the 10th episode, has enlisted his estranged brother to break into Chuck Sr.’s home to look at some possibly incriminating documents related to the development project. (Connerty’s brother happens to be elite at two things: cracking personal safes, and getting into fights at Irish pubs. This is a very good show.)
Connerty left Chuck’s nest—well, partly because he was fired while some of Paul Giamatti’s saliva landed on his body, but also because he aspired to be a different type of politician. And say what you will about the idiocy of this plan, but it’s like a lizard-brain version of Chuck’s Ice Juice takedown. The apprentice is becoming just like the master, only his Machiavellian tactics are inherently riskier. I personally wouldn’t advise using my own brother to break into an apartment; then again, I’m not getting sage advice and karate-chopping wood with Dr. Gus. “The kamikaze get a bad name, because everyone wants to focus on the suicide,” Dr. Gus advises. “But what they miss out on is the purity of the commitment.”
Taylor has been much more deft in their post-Axe life, but the evolution has also come at the expense of some ideals. The ethos of Taylor Mason Cap seemed like it’d be about, of course, making money, but doing so through slightly more ethical and morally conscious means. Taylor even had a midseason meeting with Axe, calling for a truce so they could focus on their respective companies and avoid wasting valuable time on each other. Granted, the escalation of the Axe-Taylor feud is mostly about Axe’s ego and unwillingness to get over Taylor’s betrayal, but that toxicity has gone both ways.
It’s perhaps most telling in the eighth episode—a.k.a. the one where Mafee and Dollar Bill have the most pathetic boxing match ever put to screen—as Taylor and Axe are embroiled in a fracking-related fracas. Axe wants New York’s governor to reverse the fracking ban after betting big on the energy sector, figuring Taylor’s ideals would have them championing the anti-fracking cause. What he didn’t anticipate was Taylor quietly buying the rights to the water where fracking can take place—it’s a lot of financial mumbo-jumbo, but basically Taylor tricks Axe into betting big on fracking, and comes out an even bigger winner when the ban is overturned. Two seasons ago, Taylor was a burgeoning intern with integrity and empathy. Now, after profiting off fracking and doing business with a shady Russian oligarch, the distinction between mentor and protégé is perilously thin.
But that’s exactly why, the entertaining sight of Wags humiliated in a dress aside, this feels like Billions’ bleakest season. In the show’s universe, there have been serious issues this season—fracking, voting rights, minority rights—used as bargaining chips, revenge ploys, and playthings not just by people like Axe and Chuck and their enemies (which is to be expected), but by the former apprentices who aspired to be better people than their old mentors. Instead, they’ve sought their own type of [clears throat] slow and thunderous vengeance; one which, particularly for Connerty, seems to be ill-fated and possibly career-ending. There is no such thing as breaking the wheel on Billions: You either become one of its spokes, or you remain subject to the whims of those perpetually spinning it.