Television always has been an essential respite from the stress and daily grind of our lives. After a long day, sometimes you just want to kick back and watch some dumb robots fight each other while Aaron Paul looks very confused, or see two normal people have an on-and-off relationship for a few years. Me? I want nothing more than to unwind while watching brilliant thespian Paul Giamatti telling a bunch of reporters that his character engages in consensual BDSM with his adoring wife who whips him into submission. That is but a taste of what transpires on Showtime’s Billions: a rich, simile-loving text, and perhaps my biggest guilty pleasure on the small screen.
Under normal circumstances, I’d prepare for a new season of Billions like an upper middle class kid waiting to open presents on Christmas morning knowing Papa has provided everything on the wish list. But the COVID-19 pandemic putting a halt to things like interacting with other human beings has made the return of Chuck Rhoades, Bobby Axelrod, and their perpetual dick-swinging contest into something more than just a show that I want. It will be a spiritual journey. I plan to inhale the fifth season of Billions with the type of intensity and detail usually reserved for a smash hit like Game of Thrones (before it turned to utter shit), and there’s nothing that can stop me.
Let’s celebrate the return of Billions with some superlatives from Sunday night’s premiere, “The New Decas.”
Most Uncomfortable Wedding
Last season, Chuck Sr. quote, “tasted the fruit,” of a Native American community in upstate New York and fathered a child. (Hint: the fruit refers to a woman’s vagina.) Chuck Sr. becoming a dad again was a bizarre, hilarious turn of events—and rather than push the situation off to the side and give it throwaway punch line status, Billions has our guy straight up marry his baby mama, Roxanne, in the opening scene of “The New Decas.”
The wedding is an exceptionally awkward affair, and not just because Chuck’s poor mother decides to attend. Wendy and Chuck are currently bracing for a divorce—they haven’t been able to reconcile things after he exposed the details of their sex life without her consent—and they’re also both at the wedding. The pending separation will surely hang over the character’s heads all season, and rather than step out of the way when Chuck and Axe begin inevitably fighting, Wendy could now start taking her boss’s side. (Also, there is still a lot of unresolved sexual tension between Wendy and Axe, and if they ever hook up I can’t imagine what wildly irrational things Chuck will do to get revenge.)
Anyway, mazel tov to Chuck Sr. and Roxanne. I hope she enjoys his seasoned snag as much as he likes tasting her fruit.
Greatest Vision Quest
“Somewhere off the Alaska-Canada highway” is where Billions reacquaints us with Axe and Wags, who’ve taken some time off from shorting positions to trip out on ayahuasca in a random hut. In their hallucinogenic state, Wags ebulliently talks about the “great Earth Mother”; Axe, meanwhile, still just wants to wage war against his enemies. I can’t say I’m surprised.
Damian Lewis brings some absolutely chaotic energy—and a solid beard—to this sequence, in what I can only assume is a deep-cut reference to his gonzo performance in the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher.
That joke will land with maybe five people, and that’s fine with me.
It’s easy to forget that the Rhoadeses and Axe are both actually raising children, and that their offspring weren’t raptured at some point in Season 3, confirming that Billions exists in The Leftovers Cinematic Universe. I do think there’s a larger point to Billions ignoring the kids: People who occupy their lives with empty pursuits, like trying to spite enemies in finance/government, would be terrible parents who don’t know what matters.
But the series goes back to the Kids Corner in the premiere, and unfortunately, it isn’t good news. The Rhoadeses’ oldest, Kevin, got absolutely hammered at his grandfather’s wedding—it was so bad that Wendy almost had to take her son to the hospital. She tried calling and texting Chuck all night for help, but our guy was unresponsive. Why?
Once again, BDSM gets in between Wendy and Chuck. (Kevin, thankfully, is fine, and just ends up nursing a terrible hangover offscreen.) But the fact that Chuck wasn’t available for a near-emergency is enough to convince Wendy that they need to make things official: The divorce is happening. Chuck is obviously devastated, and I feel for him, but he’s become his own worst enemy. Maybe don’t betray your wife’s trust, and maybe don’t put your phone on silent mode when you’re getting punished like the dirty boy you are—family emergencies take priority over getting strung up and pummeled harder than a tennis ball on Rafael Nadal’s side of the court.
“I am on the brink of huge change,” Chuck says to Wendy. “I am going to force myself to evolve.” “I believe that you believe that, Chuck,” she responds. I am beginning to sense a theme for the new season.
Most Toxic Workplace Environment
Company mergers are hard, especially when they involve one person sharing office space with someone they once challenged to a very anticlimactic boxing match. It doesn’t take long for the tension between Axe Capital and Taylor Mason Capital employees to approach DEFCON 1; as a prank, someone reversed the water on the toilet flusher in the unisex bathroom. “This shit, literally, has to stop,” Wendy tells them in a town hall.
Whatever progress Wendy hoped to achieve is quickly upended by more bickering, non-literal shit-talking, and Bonnie making a loud fart noise. It is exceptional television.
Pettiest Feud (So Far)
Departing from the ayahuasca hut and bidding farewell to their shaman, Wags and Axe set off on a cross-country road trip via motorbike to slowly make their way back to New York. I wish I could say the dudes looked cool in doing so, but their vibe—washed, one might call it—felt more like a deleted scene from a Cialis commercial.
But Wags convinces his boss to cut the road trip short and just head back to the city ASAP so that Axe can appear on a Vanity Fair “New Decas” cover, celebrating the rarefied folk who are part of the $10 billion club. (I couldn’t help but think of both Travis Kalanick and Silicon Valley’s Russ Hanneman and Tres Commas.) It’s there that we meet Axe’s newest adversary in the finance world, Mike Prince (played by Corey Stoll). Mike is the kind of guy who wins Mr. Basketball in the state of Indiana and then says he couldn’t have done it without his teammates; I like to imagine he was a combo guard who averaged a healthy 25-5-5. (Brian Koppelman, David Levien: Feel free to make up Mike Prince’s stats so that I can overanalyze his game and come up with a scouting report.) Also, Mike’s version of Wags is a guy named SCOOTER.
More importantly, Mike is someone who perceives himself as an entrepreneur who is also a force for social good. Axe, naturally, has a more cynical approach to their world—I almost (almost!) prefer someone like him, who’s at least willing to acknowledge he’s a terrible person—and believes that under his humble veneer, Mike is as much of a monster as he is. But really, Axe will expend a lot of energy going to war with Mike because he stole the Vanity Fair cover. Thin-skinned billionaires are America’s most treasured resource, for some reason.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Mike and Chuck eventually crossed paths and did the whole “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” thing. Mike would make a valuable ally, and he, of all people, should know the power of a good assist.
Best Way of Boosting Office Morale
How does Wendy go about improving the Axe Cap culture? I could give you dozens of guesses, but I don’t think you’d ever land on “enlists WWE superstar Becky Lynch to have a fight fake with her at the reception desk.” This is art.
Lynch, who credits Wendy’s sessions with giving her the confidence to become one of WWE’s most important figures, likens working with people we might not like to being pinned in a match—sometimes you need to help your opponent sell the fight, even if you always want to be on the winning end. It’s simple, good advice, and everyone is so awestruck that they might actually listen to it.
I also had a theory that Dan Soder—who plays Mafee and is a noted WWE fanatic—didn’t know Becky Lynch was going to show up on the set, because it looks like his character is actually in a state of shock. But according to my colleague David Shoemaker, Soder did know it was happening; he was just so goddamn excited.
Most Billions Moment
Just to bring everyone back up to speed going into Season 5: Axe and Chuck are pretending to be friends but are really engaging in a shadow war, Chuck thinks Taylor is working as a double agent for Chuck at Axe Cap, but Taylor is actually planning to step back and let Axe and Chuck destroy themselves. Everyone is out here playing 4D chess. By the end of “The New Decas,” Axe knows that Taylor was working for Chuck, but Chuck also realizes that Axe knows that Taylor was conspiring against him because Axe makes a peace offering in the form of signed first edition Churchill books. “It’s a triple-cross!” Chuck says, which is the most Billions plot development I can think of.
And so Chuck and Axe are going to keep up the facade of being friendly as they continue to try to undermine one another; after making a public statement about their divorce, Wendy is going to be caught in the crossfire (again); and Taylor is going to maintain this definitely unstable display of loyalty to Axe and Chuck while actually trying to destroy both of them and be the only person left standing.
Billions is most certainly back, and it’s gearing up to be as Billions as the show’s ever been. See you at the next vision quest.