2. At a dinner honoring the departing “Head of Crim” (presumably short for “criminal” or some variant), a position all the members of his team of attorneys covet as the next big step forward in their careers, Chuck tells the story of a chess match in Washington Square Park. (Chess is the “Stairway to Heaven” of symbolism.) At a crucial moment in the game, he explains, he caught his opponent conning his way to victory by swiping one of his pieces off the board. Rather than call him out immediately on the con, Chuck allowed the man to win, but he quietly threatened to “make things difficult” for him if he tried it again the rest of the day. “Your next opponent is that boy,” he told the man, “and I want him to have a very good time playing against you.”
For Chuck, this moment signifies a dramatic shift in thinking, a chance to reframe his approach with regard to Axe. “I created a more just environment,” he boasts to his colleagues. And with that, he vows to find a more subtle way to ensnare Axe, rather than fighting fire with fire, which has left his career and personal life in ruins.
3. During a cookout on Axe’s back porch, an investor representing a police retirement fund tells Axe an old story about a motorcycle club dealing drugs out of the men’s room at a bar. One night, he was doing surveillance and wound up falling through the ceiling of the men’s room, where he was immediately surrounded by Hell’s Angels types, who beat him nearly to death with boots and bottles. That same night, every cop in the station went to the bar with nightsticks and reduced them to a “smudge on the floor.” The lesson? “It’s hard to defend against numbers.” And with that little insight, Axe formulates a plan to defeat Chuck by buying up 127 lawsuits from the people Chuck has wronged and overwhelming him with them in court.
“Billions” needn’t be shamed for its allegories (except maybe the chess one) because it is dealing in complex financial and legal gambits that are hard to explain without harness racing as a visual aid. The season premiere finds the stress and paranoia of this protracted battle weighing heavily on both men, who are committed to locking horns no matter how miserable it makes them. “In the great expanse of time, we are already dead,” Axe declares to his troops in a de-motivational speech about the coming extinction of the hedge fund business. He wants to be the last man standing in an apocalypse of his own creation.
Bulls and Bears
• Axe’s strategy of hurting Chuck by buying up other lawsuits against him resembles Silicon Valley entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s recent action against Gawker Media. Stung by a 2007 story on Gawker’s Valleywag blog that outed him as gay, Thiel wound up bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s successful lawsuit over a sex tape Gawker published without his consent. The $140 million judgment against Gawker — settled at $31 million — was enough to drive the outlet into bankruptcy. Axe’s death-by-a-thousand-papercuts approach is a little different, but the concept of sponsoring lawsuits is the same.
• The second season introduces a host of new characters, who each show a lot of promise. Putting Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon), who identifies as neither male nor female, alongside the animals on Axe’s killing floor sets up a fascinating contrast in behavior and temperament that threatens to upend the frat-house atmosphere. As Oliver Dake, Chuck’s new inquisitor, Christopher Denham plays someone who appears to be on the up-and-up, but reads as a villain anyway. This may be a side effect of our attraction to antiheroes like Chuck, but there seem to be other motives at play, too, in Oliver’s aggressive tactics.
• Wags’s reference to Traci Lords, the porn star who scandalized the industry in the mid-80s, actually errs by calling her “barely legal,” since she was found to be underage for all but one of her videos.
• A fourth handy allegory, with Chuck pinned on the judo mat: “You can generate offense out of defense, even on your back.”
• Bringing Wendy back into Chuck’s and Axe’s orbits will take some doing, but the timing of Axe’s $5 million payment to her is so fishy that she won’t be able to extract herself from either of them easily. As the most valuable player of the first season, it’s hard to imagine she’ll stay sidelined for long.
• It never occurred to me until now that we never see Chuck and Wendy’s kids, even now that they’re “nesting” in their home while their parents rotate nights. If other characters didn’t reference their existence, this could be a “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” situation.
The Season 2 premiere is available to stream now on Showtime and YouTube; Showtime will air the season premiere on Sunday, Feb. 19, at 10 p.m. Eastern.
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