All season long, Billions has been creating tension between Axe and Lara. They’ve always been something of the perfect power couple, standing by each other’s sides through tough times and, you know, times of exploiting 9/11 for financial gain. Lara has always been understood as Axe’s rock, but that’s an understanding built through the show’s negligence of their relationship. They simply haven’t been the focus very often; Chuck and Wendy, for instance, get much more screentime devoted to the intricacies of their relationship. “With or Without You” brings Axe and Lara’s relationship to the forefront for the first time, and the result is one of the best episodes of this season, pulsing with tension and the kind of urgency that pushes Damian Lewis to a stellar performance.
It’s the morning after Axe’s big birthday bash, and while a handful of employees clean the place up, Axe wakes up to find Lara gone. “You lied to me,” says the note left by the bed, and that’s it. There’s no other explanation, no information on where she’s gone. Axe immediately goes on the offensive, scarily confronting Wendy while she’s walking home from the gym and chastising her for spilling the beans about their arrangement. It’s the first in a series of actions where Axe fails to take responsibility for his own behavior.
Of course, life goes on even when your wife has run off. Boyd makes a call to Axe and tells him that he has some information that he needs to hear in person. Boyd is the last person Axe wants to see on this day, but he trusts that the man will make his trip worthwhile. In the meantime, there’s not much he can do about Lara. He has Hall trying to track her down, but so far all he knows is that she took $40,000 from the vault and that she hasn’t checked in at any of Axe’s various vacation homes around the country.
Meanwhile, Chuck’s campaign is picking up steam, and that means Chuck Sr. is bringing in Ms. Minchak (Mary-Louise Parker). She’s the one who cleans up a campaign, who learns all the intimate and potentially destructive things about a candidate and attempts to snuff them out before they ruin the candidate’s chances. At the start of the episode, a laptop is stolen from the dominatrix Chuck has seen in the past, so we know there’s at least one threat out there.
The scenes with Ms. Minchak — and it should be noted that Mary-Louise Parker feels right at home in this world, delivering the signature Billions dialogue with a perfect balance of gravitas and snobbery — are quite revealing about Wendy and Chuck. While Ms. Minchak wants to make sure the relationship is resolved one way or another, and that Wendy won’t disparage Chuck publicly if there’s a divorce, she also considers Wendy a potential detriment to Chuck’s campaign for a different reason: her ties to Wall Street. After all, her presence at Axe Capital goes against Chuck’s whole angle of being a man fighting for the rights of everyday, working-class Americans.
Chuck doesn’t seem to have too many skeletons hiding in his closet though. He answers “no” to every question Minchak poses, and the only adversity he seems to reveal sees him as the victim of a hazing during his time at boarding school. Of course, there’s still that stolen laptop out there somewhere, which Chuck learns of after meeting the dominatrix out in public. She assures him that his information is secured. For some reason Chuck doesn’t seem too worried, which goes against everything we know about him as a man who needs to be in control of everything — outside of his visits to a dominatrix. As it turns out, he has his reasons for remaining so calm. As we learn later, Chuck was the one who organized the robbery. He hands over the laptop to Minchak, fully trusting her with the details that could derail his campaign.
While Axe continues to search for Lara, even showing up at her brother’s house and getting a cold reception from him and his cop buddies — surely they’re not fans of his 9/11 “get rich quick” scheme — Taylor is being put in an interesting spot. On the one hand, they’re being questioned by Bryan, who sees them as a potential sympathetic snitch: someone who doesn’t agree with Axe’s policies and might turn on him. On the other hand, they’re doing great work at Axe Capital, and everyone is praising them as the “golden child.” So, where does Taylor’s allegiance lie?
For now, it’s with Axe Capital. Taylor does go in to talk to Bryan, but they quickly realize he has no leverage and also doesn’t have their best interests in mind. Taylor sees that siding with Bryan would just be trading one manipulative asshole for another, so they stay with Axe Capital. On top of that, Taylor lands a new role as Head of Research, which means they’ll be signing off on nearly every deal produced by guys like Mafee. Taylor has risen up the ranks quickly and immediately been established as a major player at Axe Capital. It’s been one of the more interesting character arcs of the season, and it’s great news that Asia Kate Dillon will be back as a series regular in season 3.
Eventually, Axe tracks Lara down to a place in the city, but he’s warned against going to see her. He knows, deep down, that he has to give her space. Physically, he does that, but he just can’t help himself when it comes to leaving one voicemail after another. The messages move from lovingly nostalgic to unquestionably nasty. Axe comes across as an emotional abuser, trying to manipulate Lara with good memories, then laying into her moments later for not knowing her role in the relationship, which seems to be to bow down to all things Bobby Axelrod. He likes to think that he’s never lied to her, but it’s clear that he’s a micro-manipulator: someone who sees a power struggle in every single interaction and, consciously or not, tries to get the upper hand.
While Axe and Lara grow apart, Chuck and Wendy are finding their way back to each other. Chuck organizes a dinner at a new restaurant with a chef they love, and he tells Wendy all about his campaign and how it’s moving forward. They genuinely seem to enjoy each other’s company, skipping out on counseling to bond over expensive food; as they share wine, the show cuts to Axe drinking alone, a stirring bit of contrast. The night leads to Chuck and Wendy picking up their BDSM practice again as the episode comes to a close. Is this a sign that their trust and intimacy is back? Or is it a relapse into an old comfort, a temporary moment of familiarity that doesn’t fix the problems at the relationship’s core?
As “With or Without You” comes to an end, Chuck and Wendy are back in each other’s lives in a seemingly meaningful way, and yet Hall is keeping a close eye on them; Taylor is buying an expensive apartment — $26,000 a month! — to celebrate their newfound status at Axe Capital; and Axe finally sees Lara come home. He says he left numerous messages for her, but she says she’s had her phone off all day. So, when she goes inside and gives Axe the cold shoulder, he finds her phone and deletes the voicemails. Suddenly, he’s not so sure it’s a good idea to yell at her about how many times he could have cheated.
It’s a bit of a frustrating end to an otherwise compelling, complex episode, as Axe once again walks away from something potentially catastrophic with barely a mark on his ego. Sure, his behavior could still lead to his downfall, but for now Axe once again gets what he wants. There are no consequences for Bobby Axelrod. Hell, he even learns from Boyd that Chuck Sr. has some serious money pouring into “Ice Juice,” which could mean that revenge is on the way. Here’s hoping that Axe’s untouchable nature will make his comeuppance all the more delightful.