Season 5, Episode 11: ‘Victory Smoke’
Watching “Billions” may be a breeze, but watching “Billions” to recap it is not. Constant pausing and rewinding is required to catch the countless twists and turns of every scheme; I would estimate that an hourlong episode takes me an hour and a half — at a minimum — to finish.
Nice work if you can get it, but it makes covering even famously dense shows like “The Wire” or “Game of Thrones” feel like recapping “Blue’s Clues.”
And this second-to-last episode of the show’s fifth season is even more complicated than the average. The conspiracy to take down Bobby Axelrod by involving him in a shady cannabis-funded banking deal, hatched by his enemies Chuck Rhoades, Mike Prince, Kate Sacker and Taylor Mason, is as dizzying a display of double- and triple-crossing as the show has ever served up.
For Chuck — still stinging from the lucrative but emotionally painful financial resolution of his divorce from Wendy — it means pressuring his father, Charles, to but the kibosh on Axe Bank, for which he serves as a trustee, knowing full well the old man will do the opposite and thus ensnare himself in the trap.
For Taylor, it means setting up a pot-centric business meeting with the disgraced former banker Lawrence Boyd (a returning Eric Bogosian), then secretly ordering the Mase Cap employee Rian to narc on the meeting to Wendy Rhoades. Taylor, who had advised Axe against getting involved in the cannabis trade — in order to persuade him to do the exact opposite — knows that Wendy will send the intel up the food chain to Bobby, costing Mase Cap its independence but digging Axe deeper into the hole his enemies have placed him in.
For Prince, it means hiring his daughters, Gail and Liz (Gracie Lawrence and Molly Brown), to make his final pitch to the chief executive of Fine Young Cannabis, Dawn Winslow (Janeane Garofalo), knowing that the pitch is a ruse.
For Kate, it means tipping off the Manhattan district attorney, Mary Ann Gramm, to price fixing by her father, Franklin (Harry Lennix), behind Chuck’s back. It’s a relatively small-time bust that serves the dual purpose of keeping him and his television networks out of the weed business — major national advertising deals being a key component of Axe’s pitch to Winslow — and of tricking Axe into believing that Chuck is playing hardball to keep him from sealing the cannabis deal. Of course, the opposite is true.
But for all the clandestine maneuvering, for all the back-stabbing of family members and sneaking around behind the bosses’ backs, the fundamental nature of the plot is simplicity itself. Chuck, Prince, Taylor and their cohorts nailed Bobby simply by luring him into business with the one legal cannabis company they knew, for a fact, was also selling the illegal stuff on the black market. If he winds up getting pinched in the season finale, it’s because he made a deal with a common criminal. Had he done his own due diligence instead of relying on Prince’s bogus intel, he would have dodged the bullet; instead, in his rush to close the deal, he takes it point-blank in the noggin.
In fact, Bobby and company walked into the trap so blithely that I was convinced, for a moment, that another twist was coming. On the contrary, when asked by Wags what he wanted his assembled minions to do, Axe froze, then simply said, “I have no [expletive] idea.”
Hearing those words come out of that mouth is like hearing a bomb explode. Bobby Axelrod, business genius, caught completely flat-footed? Bobby Axelrod, expert schemer, totally outfoxed? Bobby Axelrod, four-dimensional chess master, at a loss as to his next play? After five seasons of this show, nothing could be more shocking.
Axe’s utter failure has a physical manifestation: the victory cigars he sent to the office for his merry men to smoke once the cannabis deal is done. Ben, Tuk, Mafee, Dollar Bill, Spyros, Wags, Victor, Bach, Hall (Terry Kinney, another welcome returning guest star) … they all light up their Red Auerbach specials with gusto after spending much of the episode anticipating the pleasure, and nearly jumping the gun once or twice.
Then Wags receives the bad news that Winslow has been arrested, and orders all the cigars extinguished. For Axe Bank, the fire has well and truly gone out.
I don’t know whether the decision to keep Axe’s appearances limited to a face on videoconferencing screens was born of necessity or a deliberate creative choice, but it works beautifully. Isolating him in that manner, keeping him out of the office and away from his coterie of admiring minions, makes him seem that much more vulnerable when the hammer finally falls.
One of the episode’s funniest moments comes from Prince’s daughters, who have begged their billionaire father to allow them to sink or swim on their own, only to recoil in horror after their unwitting part in his plot against Axelrod is revealed. “You took one meeting,” he says. “We practiced our pitch all night!” his daughter Liz retorts. Oooh, one whole night! Let’s call in the biographers to immortalize the moment!
In a fantastic side plot, Wags accompanies his “inamorata” Chelsea to meet her father for the first time, only for her to discover that Wags knew who her old man was all along: Mick Nussfaur (Michael Kostroff), the ambulance chaser Wags snaked out of the last available burial plot in Manhattan back in Season 3. Nussfaur retaliated by tricking Wags into dressing in full drag for admittance into an exclusive club he had no chance of actually joining; the Chelsea business was Wags making good on his profane promise of revenge. And despite it all, Chelsea decides not to break up with him! That old Wags magic has her in its spell. It’s all so incidental to the main story line that I’ve relegated it to bullet-point status, but that is in no way an indication of how funny — and how utterly Wags — it is.
The victory cigars, and their connection to the basketball legend and cigar aficionado Red Auerbach, leaves poor Tuk at a loss. He knows all about pro wrestling, he insists, a standard reference point in the office’s macho banter. But when it comes to the court, he’s at a loss. Speaking as a guy who was at Arthur Ashe Tennis Stadium until midnight this week, watching All Elite Wrestling with his daughter — but who couldn’t sink a free throw to save his own his life — I feel Tuk’s pain.
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