Between the GameStop stock debacle and Jeff Bezos leaving Earth’s orbit in a phallic rocket, it feels like the world has been product testing potential plotlines for Billions for the past two years. (Luckily for Bezos, his brief journey to the cosmos fared better than Billions’ own self-funded billionaire rocket launch from Season 3; RIP, Bob Benson.) Not that Billions needs much inspiration from the real world for its fictionalized absurdities: its fifth season has featured Bobby Axelrod and his latest billionaire rival, Mike Prince, fighting over a shaman—“You stole my shaman!” Axe says in the second episode, which I’ll never get out of my head—and Axe taking a Limitless-esque pill that nearly tanks his company. Meanwhile, Chuck and Wendy Rhoades, finalizing a divorce that was brewing after Paul Giamatti’s iconic BDSM speech to the public in the previous season, moved on to have romantic entanglements with guest stars Julianna Margulies (as a sociology professor who published a book on female orgasms) and Frank Grillo (as a buff postmodern artist painting on commission for Axe), respectively. Also, Chuck Sr. married his Native American mistress who just gave birth to his child; he’s also in dire need of a kidney transplant. You know, minor details.
Season 5 has juggled a lot of dense, ridiculous, and twisty story lines—which is to say, it’s been a typical season of Billions. But the show’s latest installment was one of the stranger casualties of last year’s COVID-imposed shutdown of television and film productions: Billions had already aired more than half its season before filming paused. The result was a 15-month hiatus for a season that was already completely written and didn’t have a natural place to hit pause before it was forced to do so. (The Limitless pill chaos unintentionally functioned as a midseason finale, which made it all the more hilarious.) The break finally ended this past Sunday, with Billions airing the eighth episode in its fifth season. But rather than acknowledge the long (albeit off-screen) passage of time, the show confidently returned to its midseason plotting with the expectation that its viewers would get right back in the saddle.
As a brief refresher, here are the most pressing concerns for the main characters heading into the back half of the season: Chuck needs to find his dad a new kidney; Wendy is trying to make sure her buff artist boyfriend doesn’t get corrupted by his newfound wealth; Axe is looking to expose the supposed do-gooder Mike for being just as much of a capitalistic monster as he is; Taylor is still working on their environmentally conscious impact fund; and Chuck Sr. is starting to consider the moral consequences of his life choices—OK, just kidding about the last one, he just really wants Wendy to pull the plug on him if the day comes when he starts slowly dying of organ failure.
But really, the most shocking moment of Billions’ return has nothing to do with plot, but one person’s appearance. What happened to Chuck?
Paul Giamatti doesn’t just look noticeably slimmer, he’s also lost the facial hair that’s been as much of a trademark for Chuck as all those kinky BDSM sessions. Seeing a clean-shaven Chuck is like spotting a zebra without stripes—it doesn’t make sense. “You look ready to toss your cap in the air at West Point,” his trusty underling Karl says, which is the only acknowledgment that Chuck has undergone a complete makeover in what amounts to a matter of days in the Billions universe. (That must’ve been one hell of a cleanse for Chuck. Did he drink tainted Ice Juice?) “Don’t make a whole thing of it,” Chuck tells Karl, an instruction that he’s really giving to the audience. But being asked not to make a thing of it makes it more of a thing, and so when I finish with this blog I’m creating a Change.org petition to bring back Chuck’s facial hair.
Unfortunately, Chuck’s makeover also comes with a new relationship status: Once again, he’s single. Whether because of COVID-related scheduling conflicts or an abrupt end to the story line that was always planned, it appears that Published Sex Author Julianna Margulies will not be returning this season. In turn, her character’s relationship with Chuck has apparently fizzled after their pre-hiatus threesome—“too many limbs, too many questions,” per Chuck—which underlined that our guy can be sated only by his sadomasochistic needs. She wanted something with a bit more variety, and really, who can blame her? Who complains about a threesome?!
One bit of good news: Buff Artist Frank Grillo is sticking around, at least in the short term. His relationship with Wendy is still going steady—much to the chagrin of Axe, who is so clearly infatuated with her that it’s hard to imagine they won’t seal the deal at some point in Billions’ run. (Given Showtime’s notorious tendency to keep shows on the air for way too long, I’m guessing Axe and Wendy will finally make out in the Season 14 finale after Axe Cap successfully builds a new headquarters on the moon.) In the meantime, Buff Artist Frank Grillo is thriving in the world of finance bros, who are so clueless about art and how to appreciate it that they pay thousands of dollars for … a doodle he draws on a piece of paper in five seconds:
Considering the ignorance on display, it’s even funnier that the Axe Cap office is filled with actual artwork from David Lynch—yes, that David Lynch. (Sadly, he probably won’t ever direct an episode of Billions, but we can always hope.) But while the Axe Cap foot soldiers are preoccupied by deciding what kind of art they should overpay for, their boss is still trying to stop Mike Prince, who is now receiving an ambassadorship to Denmark. (I have no idea why cocreators Brian Koppelman and David Levien landed on Denmark, but it seems like one big excuse to have actor Corey Stoll monologue about the Danish concept of hygge.)
Axe tries and fails to blackmail Mike’s right-hand man—his very own Wags, if you will—about an apparent side hustle with sports gambling, only to realize that the side hustle was done on his boss’s behalf. But by the end of the episode, Dollar Bill finally unearths some real dirt on Mike that confirms he isn’t the faultless philanthropic billionaire he’s made himself out to be: Mike once had a business partner whom he fleeced out of a fortune, offering him $200,000 for control of their company before selling it for millions to Microsoft behind his back. (Soon after, the partner died in a car accident.) All of this is exposed on a 60 Minutes–esque program that Mike expects is a victory lap for his accomplishments ahead of the ambassadorship—only to find out that in the end, it’s a righteous takedown about his shady past. Throwing out traditional Danish garb in a huff, you hate to see it:
It’s the first time this season that Axe has truly gotten the upper hand on Mike, but with four episodes remaining, there’s plenty of time for him to get payback. And that’s … pretty much it.
Billions’ first episode after more than a year off the air isn’t the rousing return one might expect, but that’s because there was never meant to be a hiatus in the first place. There’s plenty of chess pieces in play, and plenty of time for Billions to get back to what it does best—namely, absurd pop culture references thrown in the middle of financial jargon and random A-lister cameos from the likes of Kevin Durant and Mark Cuban. (To be fair, guitarist Jason Isbell did show up for a hot minute in this episode.) Its midseason premiere might’ve been short on fireworks, but much like Buff Artist Frank Grillo finding a moment of shirtless, artistic inspiration before the end credits, the canvas is still being painted.
For now, all that matters is that there are new episodes of Billions to savor—and with Succession Season 3 on the way next month, soon both of television’s finest shows about terrible rich people will be back in our lives. It won’t take long for either series to grow on us again; hopefully, the same can also be said of Chuck’s dearly departed facial hair.