The fantastically fraught kiss wouldn’t be half as effective without the skillful acting of Paul Giamatti and Jeffrey DeMunn. DeMunn has never had a better showcase on “Billions” than he has in this episode, from the nude scene in which he drops trou to intimidate Connerty during a locker-room conversation (eat your heart out, Sophocles) to his complex performance of pride, gratitude, love and secret rage bubbling as Chuck makes a surprise appearance to present him with an award at his 50th reunion at Yale.
Giamatti, meanwhile, brings out Chuck’s core of kindness and decency — they’re in there somewhere! — when he helps Wendy through the shock of both losing her lover to a deadly rocket crash and discovering that Chuck has known about Heidecker all along. It is during that conversation that Chuck reveals the true story of his first time — and not just his first time having sex. “It was the first time my father ever said he was proud of me,” Chuck says. Charles repeats this rare word of praise just before the kiss; when he pulls away, the trauma radiates from Giamatti’s eyes so strongly you can almost hear it hum.
While I could easily spend an entire review unpacking this one scene, that would do a disservice to the rest of the episode, which moves from strength to strength. Aside from the power struggle between the Rhoadeses, there’s a crisis of conscience for Taylor Mason.
As Axe Capital’s chief investment officer, Taylor bets against Heidecker’s space venture despite deeply admiring the guy and supporting his long-term goal of space colonization. Taylor’s move winds up making Axe Cap a fortune when his rocket explodes, killing both him and his company’s stock value. “You lost a hero and were rewarded for it,” Wendy says during Taylor’s therapy session after the disaster, paraphrasing Taylor’s characteristically wordy and precise description of the issue with her own trademark blunt incisiveness.
How should Taylor resolve this inner conflict? According to Wendy, it’s quite simple, and she sums it up in a sentence that could well be this show’s mantra: “Mind the truth that makes you money.” Taylor, who as a gender-nonbinary person surely has no shortage of experience in resolving conflict to get to the truth beneath, goes out and buys the same obscenely expensive Patek Philippe watch that Heidecker wore — a memento mori in gold, its purchase made affordable by the money the man’s death generated.
Bobby and Wags, meanwhile, are also wrestling with matters of life and death, albeit in very different ways. Bobby spends the episode fighting his ouster from the board of a charity with the beautifully vapid moniker World-Aid, concerned with his potential loss of prestige. But, being Bobby Axelrod, he figures out a way to weaponize his own status as persona non grata and convert his reputational loss into financial gain. Bobby senses the potential in the plans of Oscar Langstraat (the laconic comedian Mike Birbiglia), a “venture philanthropist” (shudder) who wants World-Aid to buy the solar energy company behind the air-conditioning tents the charity is providing to climate-ravaged regions of Africa. The charity’s good name will drive the stock through the roof, which will enrich the charity in turn.
After ordering Taylor to surreptitiously snap up stock for Axe Cap, Bobby spends his final board meeting ranting and raving about how stupid the idea is, knowing that the board hates him so much they’ll approve the deal just to spite him. Once again, human misery is converted to currency by players canny and amoral enough to see the play and make it.
Wags’s story line provides a comedic counterpoint to those of Taylor and Bobby. He’s on a mission to buy the last burial plot on the entire island of Manhattan — yours for the low, low price of $350,000! — which requires outmaneuvering a wealthy and profane personal-injury attorney played by Michael Kostroff, best known as the similarly sleazy lawyer Maurice Levy on “The Wire,” whose delight in playing these kinds of creeps is evident in every single line reading.
A little blackmail, a well-placed item about the lawyer’s mistress on Page Six, and boom, Wags’s eternal resting place is secured. He and Bobby meet in the graveyard and have a killer exchange about the different ways death is spoken of depending on the age of the deceased. Dying in your thirties or forties? “Tragic.” Fifties? “Such a shame.” Sixties? “Too soon.” Seventies? “A good run.” Eighties? “A life well lived.” Nineties? “Hell of a ride.” Wags repeats those last words to himself as he lies down on the grave site, gazing up at the sky, not a care in the world.
We should all be so lucky. Or is that so wealthy? On a show like “Billions,” where wealth is wielded like a magic charm, perhaps that’s a distinction without a difference.