When you cover pop culture for a living in the era of Peak TV, you believe you’ve seen it all: reality competition shows based on silly childhood games, pontiffs hanging out with Marilyn Manson, interactive series in which British survivalist Bear Grylls is forced to poison himself, The Masked Singer, Quibi in general. It takes a lot to be surprised in our “everything goes” television landscape. But even with the limitless possibilities of TV in 2020, a revelation about this season of Billions has broken my brain.
No, I’m not referring to the Limitless-esque subplot of the seventh episode—an actual thing in which Axe and his employees take some unregulated drugs that nearly cause them to tank the whole company—but rather some information about one of the show’s unexpected collaborators. According to Billions cocreator Brian Koppelman, all the stunning artwork inside the Axe Cap offices this season was provided by [reads over the tweet for three consecutive hours] David Lynch?!
All of the paintings and mixed media works at Axe Capital this season are created by David Lynch. Yes. That David Lynch. (the new art at Axe's downtown penthouse apartment this season is all by Bob Dylan). https://t.co/0rPRaPfAPQ— Brian Koppelman (@briankoppelman) May 11, 2020
“Yes. That David Lynch,” Koppelman helpfully clarified in his tweet—because, to be fair, David Lynch is a common name, and it’s absolutely wild that one of the best filmmakers on the planet would be working in this capacity on Showtime’s gloriously soapy finance drama. I love Billions, but it’s hard to think of a series that is a stranger fit for Lynch’s sensibilities. Granted, the point of Axe Cap’s artwork—like everything in the orbit of Bobby Axelrod—is that it’s meant to show they can afford everything of the highest quality. And when he isn’t making some of the best films and the single greatest show of all time, Lynch is a hell of a painter.
I saw Koppelman’s tweet around the time I did an interview with Kelly AuCoin—a.k.a. Dollar Bill—when the actor almost spilled the beans on a “special” director helming the seventh episode of the season before a Showtime publicist rightfully shut down the topic. “Could that special person be David Lynch?” actually crossed my mind, even though I knew the chances that David Lynch would have directed an episode of Billions, despite the Showtime connection, were about as likely as understanding the entirety of Twin Peaks. In the end, the director of that episode wound up being another David of import: Wags himself, David Costabile.
But even though Lynch’s involvement with the series begins and ends with his artwork, the thought hasn’t escaped my brain: What would a David Lynch–directed episode of Billions look like? Has David Lynch ever watched an episode of Billions? Is such a collaboration even conceivable with the show’s unique blend of financial jargon and pop culture references? Almost definitely not, but to quiet the noise inside my head, The Ringer has graciously allowed me to put this theoretical exercise on the website. Showtime, Brian Koppelman, David Levien, David Costabile, David Lynch, and my assorted friends and family: Apologies in advance, this is so dumb.
You’ve just settled in for a brand-new episode of Showtime’s critically acclaimed soapy finance drama Billions. The first sign that this might not be a normal episode of Billions comes in the show’s sparse opening credits, which show a shot of the Manhattan skyline. You have seen it dozens of times, and if Showtime allows Billions to follow the path of shows like Shameless, Homeland, and Dexter, chances are you’ll see it for many years to come. The Billions opening is as familiar to you as insider trading is to Axe Cap employees:
Alas, the normal Billions theme is replaced by crackly static; it sounds as if the entire city of New York is being pushed through an electrical socket. You’re a little unsettled. It’s a foreboding thrumming that sets the tone for the chaos and confusion to come.
The episode begins inside the Axe Cap offices. Inspired by his son’s facile attempt to impress a girl at his boarding school with a crypto-mining scheme, Axe wants everyone to focus on the cryptocurrency space. He’s particularly committed because he knows his latest nemesis, Mike Prince, is looking to make some big crypto moves. As much as he wants to make money, Axe might want to take down his enemies even more. “We’ll have that son of a bitch choking on a bowl of Garmonbozia!,” Wags exclaims, beaming with pure intensity, still looking like a caricature of Satan in a nicely tailored suit.
“Easy there, Wags,” Axe says. “We don’t have to send this guy to the Black Lodge, let’s just make sure he doesn’t make a single fucking cent. Make it happen, people, or you’re gonna find yourself dead and wrapped in plastic.” (You are not surprised to learn that this episode was written by pop culture savants Brian Koppelman and David Levien.)
As the core Axe Cap gang—Dollar Bill, Spyros, Ben Kim, Mafee, Bonnie, etc.—bicker among one another about how this used to be a cool place to work, it hits you: Everyone has coffee in their hands, with mugs that look like they’ve come from a retro diner. Ben Kim is, no surprise, the happiest of the bunch, and savors each sip with a smile spread across his face. Meanwhile, Spyros has replaced his fancy espresso maker with a Cuisinart brand drip coffee maker. “When did everyone at Axe Cap start constantly drinking coffee?” you think, but there’s no time to linger on that bizarre creative choice.
Dollar Bill is at his trading desk; ever the dutiful employee, he’s already found a position that will not only give Axe Cap a healthy return, but help push Mike Prince out of the crypto space. He clicks on his cursor to finalize the transaction. It’s at this moment a discordant shriek pierces the room—the camera takes you into the world of Dollar Bill’s computer monitor, a surreal realm of pain and suffering. All color vanishes. You can’t quite articulate what you’re seeing; it’s as if taking a journey through the subconscious. It’s a living nightmare. Screams continue to echo as your sense of logic cedes control. Billions has never been more scarring—no, not even when we saw that Chuck Rhoades pierced his nipple, or the time he kissed his dad on the lips. You have never been more scared of an episode of Billions in your life. You think you might be on the brink of an existential awakening.
Through the pandemonium, you think you hear the faint sound of a bell. Yes, the sound is getting clearer—it’s beginning to overwhelm the constant thrumming of static, the screams. “Holy shit,” you realize, “is that the New York Stock Exchange trading bell?” It is. Misery, chaos, capitalism; they’re all notes of the same pitch. You’re beginning to understand. We are trapped in the worst version of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence and—oh, just as your mind is descending further into the abyss, you look up and the episode is back to Ben Kim smiling like a total goober. “That sure was a damn fine cup of coffee, I shall go get another!” he says with pride to no one in particular. You are almost curled up into a ball, crying.
Taylor Mason is not at Axe Cap. In what may be a series first, they have taken a personal day. “It is my firm belief that we should all take time to, as Mafee would say, ‘Just chill out for a bit,’” they tell Wendy over the phone. “That is why I have signed up for my first Transcendental Meditation course. I look forward to the clarity this will provide as well as the other therapeutic benefits therein. Further, this will be greatly beneficial for our new business venture at Taylor Mason Carbon. I am also going to sign an online petition asking Netflix to renew The OA. I am going to hang up now.” They hang up on Wendy.
As Taylor’s instructor enters the room, their eyebrows raise—it is clear they recognize the person who will lead their session. Taylor’s typically blank veneer has given way to a hint of genuine excitement.
“WELL HELLO THERE, YOU MUST BE TAYLOR MASON.” It is the loud, familiar Midwestern drawl of iconic American filmmaker David Lynch, making another in a long line of Billions celebrity cameos. “I figured, if I’m going to take Transcendental Medication seriously, why not learn from the very best in the field?” Taylor says with a look of satisfaction before citing, in considerable detail, Lynch’s work at the David Lynch Foundation. It’s so comprehensive you might even consider it sponcon. (“How the fuck does his hair stick up like that, it’s so cool,” they also think.) “I am a proponent of auteur theory, and I believe that the opening sequence of your 1986 film Blue Velvet is a compelling microcosm of the themes and imagery that are carried throughout your work,” they continue. “This idea that there is an insidious underbelly woven into the fabric of small-town America is very compelling indeed.”
“OK,” Lynch replies half-heartedly, almost like he’s halfway into his own transcendental state of being and doesn’t like telling people the meaning behind his art. After a spontaneous run-in with Isabella Rossellini holding a cannoli outside the meditation studio’s window, they begin.
“Darkness is nothing—it’s the absence of something,” he tells Taylor as they sit down parallel to one another. “Negativity is the absence of this all-positive that lies within. When you start enlivening that, the darkness of negativity starts to go away in the light of this positive. Once you clear out this tube, the ideas start coming and you’ll know what to build, what to paint, what to invent. What blocks the flow of ideas is negativity. If you meditate, you’ll start to see the solutions coming.”
“Whoa,” they reply.
For the next 25 minutes, we watch as Taylor Mason and David Lynch sit perfectly still and meditate. For the first and only time in Billions’ history, a character looks to be at peace—if only for a fleeting moment before returning to the stonks. Showtime’s internal data would later confirm that 85 percent of viewers became impatient and stopped watching the episode during this sequence. Corresponding data will also confirm these are the same viewers that thought having a Barstool employee making a cameo with CC Sabathia at Buff Artist Frank Grillo’s exhibition was a good idea.
Bryan Connerty has been let out of prison early for good behavior—also, everyone at the penitentiary was impressed at how quickly he rose through the ranks of the underground boxing ring. (Within three months, he became middleweight champ!) He’s a changed man, someone with regrets who has faced his insecurities head on and—just kidding, he wants to get revenge on his former mentor, Chuck Rhoades, at any cost.
He grabs coffee with his brother, Jackie, New York’s finest safe-cracker. They’re at a nondescript diner. Connerty starts telling his brother about his intricate, 46-step plan to frame Chuck for witness tampering, but he can sense Jackie isn’t quite there with him. Something’s bothering him. “EY JACKIE, YOU GAVOON, WHAT’S GOING ON EN THERE?” Connerty asks, pointing at his noggin’. A side effect of his long stint in prison is that now Connerty can’t stop talking like a caricature of a New Yorker. (He has already said, “EY, I’M WALKING OVAH HERE” twice in the past hour. It’s really weird.)
“I just wanted to come here,” Jackie says. “I had a dream about this place. It’s the second one I’ve had, but they’re both the same. They start out that, I’m in here, but it’s not day or night. It’s kind of half night, you know? It looks just like this, except for the light. And I’m scared like I can’t tell you.” Beads of sweat drip down his forehead. “You’re in both dreams, and you’re scared,” he continues. “I get even more frightened when I see how afraid you are, and then I realize what it is: There’s a man. In back of this place. He’s the one who’s doing it. I can see him through the wall. I can see his face. I hope I never see that face, ever, outside a dream.”
“YOU EIN’T SEEN NUTHIN!” Connerty shouts, interrupting his brother, and then declaring that he’s gonna beat the crap out of anyone who’s standing outside the diner. (Clearly, his ego has ballooned after he won all those prison boxing matches.) Jackie is hesitant, but Connerty convinces him to go outside with him. He points Connerty to the area behind the dumpster; the place where all his fear resides. It feels like time is no longer moving as the brothers slowly make their way over. Against his better judgment, Connerty is starting to get nervous too. And then it shows up. The thing.
It’s only on screen for a moment, but Jackie collapses into his brother’s arms. “EY JACKIE!” Connerty shouts, but the next time he turns his head toward the dumpster, he no longer sees the monster: He’s staring at Chuck Sr.
“Oh sonny, you run into some strange characters getting over-the-counter kidney medications on the street,” Chuck Sr. tells him. “Aren’t you supposed to be behind bars?” Chuck Sr. helps Connerty take his brother to the hospital, mostly so that he can steal some morphine.
Once again, Chuck Rhoades is feeling like a dirty boy. While his new relationship with Published Sex Author Julianna Margulies has expanded his sexual proclivities so that he doesn’t always have to be pummeled by a dominatrix to achieve gratification, sometimes the heart wants what it wants—and for Chuck, today that’s good old-fashioned punishment. He believes he’ll be sated by a new dominatrix who’s got some really promising Yelp reviews that include quotes like, “That BDSM pounding you like is going to come back in style.”
The dominatrix, played by Laura Harring, escorts Chuck into her dom domicile. He is beguiled by the red curtains and distinctive floor: a chevron-like pattern of alternating black and white. It’s quite a trip if you spend a lot of time staring at it. “Oh how this reminds me of the vicissitude of the seasons in our great state of New York, such exuberance,” Chuck says, proud of using some fancy words, at which point the dom slaps him across the face for speaking out of turn. Naturally, he is quite aroused.
Chuck is once again strapped in and ready to submit, but a pervading sense of dread begins creeping over him. “Where am I, exactly?” he thinks. The layout of the room doesn’t make any architectural sense as the basement of a Brooklyn brownstone: it’s so expansive, and you can’t even see the ceiling. And what’s with the statue of the Venus de Milo in the corner? Chuck’s starting to get a little scared. “Can we, uh, can we hold off for just one second?” he asks, getting more freaked out by the fact that it sounds like he’s talking backward. Too late, he’s being whacked with a paddle by Laura Harring.
The pain and the fear is undeniably intoxicating, but he doesn’t feel like there’s any sense of control in this space. Nothing beyond what we would consider within the fabric of our reality. (Or is it a dream, and who is the dreamer?) There’s another problem: Chuck never established a safe word. He doesn’t know what to say, or how to get out of this. Screams of pleasure are slowly giving way to wails of torment; total cacophony ensues. The camera zooms into Chuck’s face as it contorts into pure terror—it is some of the finest acting of Paul Giamatti’s career. (Big Fat Liar is no longer his Apex Mountain.)
“Red, red!” Chuck screams, but the paddling continues. “Stop! Halt!” He’s getting more desperate. “Cease this!” Nope, that doesn’t work either. Finally, as if through some kind of spiritual intercession, he recites the magic word; not even knowing what’s coming out of his mouth as he says it. “Silencio.” The dominatrix stops. It feels like she’s retreating within herself as the words are spoken. He is unhooked and rushes for the exit, not even caring that he’s still wearing all that tight, uncomfortable leather.
The world as Chuck remembers it feels different—the streets are adorned with new real estate developments, and he’s seeing a lot of Tesla models he isn’t familiar with. Chuck needs to get his bearings. He pulls out his phone and calls his ex-wife, Wendy. “ … Chuck?!” She sounds alarmed. “What is it, Wend?” he responds.
“We thought you were dead, Chuck,” she says. “It’s been 25 years.”