A game of Texas Hold 'Em brings out the best and worst of Bobby Axelrod
Episode 203
Credit: Jeff Neumann/SHOWTIME
S2 E3
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As much as Booby Axelrod wants to think that men like Chuck Rhoades and Todd Krakow are below him, deep down he knows they’re actually on his level. In fact, in some ways those men have more than he does. Krakow, as it’s revealed early on in “Optimal Play,” is a pretty great poker player, having won the prestigious Alpha Cup three times while Axe can count exactly zero to his name. Then there’s Chuck, who may have the grandest prize of all: Wendy. I wouldn’t necessarily say Axe has any romantic feelings for Wendy — Axe isn’t really romantic at all, so it’s hard to parse the intentions of his respect toward others — but he sure does wish he still had her around.

“Optimal Play” sees Axe reckoning with both of those seemingly unreachable symbols of achievement. Axe Capital may be back on track, but the company’s namesake isn’t going to be happy until he’s ground both Chuck and Krakow into dust. Sure, Axe is in the running to maybe bid on ownership of an NFL team, which would certainly boost his profile even higher than it already is, but that’s not enough for a man like Axe. He wants more, ad infinitum.

What that means, at least in the immediate future, is finding a way to help Boyd beat Chuck’s impending case. So he’s putting Hall on the job, because Hall is the type of ruthless person who does these kinds of things. I mean, he literally appears out of the shadows from behind a door when he meets with Boyd at the Alpha Cup later on; he’s like the Nosferatu of helping out slimy hedge fund dudes.

Meanwhile, Axe just might have a chance of getting Wendy back on his side, considering that things aren’t going so well with Chuck. In their most recent couple’s therapy session, Chuck mentions that their son Kevin is still suffering from his parents’ separation. He asks his dad to make vows to him, including never leaving him and getting Mommy back. That won’t be so easy, though; “this runs deep,” says Wendy when Chuck suggests that it’s a little too soon for him to be getting his own place. Wendy and Chuck are clearly in two different places right now, and I don’t mean physically.

But back to the Alpha Cup, which is the major through line of this episode. In fact, it’s a nice change of pace to see Billions focused largely on a single set piece. Sure, there’s a bunch of other things going on, including Chuck and his team attempting to blackmail a flight attendant into getting them some dirt on Boyd, but the main story here is the Alpha Cup. It’s a showdown between Axe and Krakow to see who — and I’m paraphrasing the always eloquent Wags here — “has the biggest swinging dick.”

Within that story, though, is an even more interesting one: the shifting dynamic developing between Axe and Taylor, who’s been invited to play alongside the boss this year, much to the chagrin of Dollar Bill. The two of them are just getting started, but already their relationship is one of the show’s most intriguing and complex. Asia Dillon brings a hell of a presence to the show, even as Taylor deadpans nearly everything they say. Taylor is proving to be more than equal to Axe, and the Alpha Cup looks to explore that further.

NEXT: Deflated bully

Let’s check in with Chuck for a second, because for the most part the story here is just a bit of waiting until a big final moment. Here, the team has secured the help of a flight attendant to get some dirt on Boyd. Sure enough, she videotapes an illicit affair with the wife of a coworker, which the team uses to get said coworker to cooperate with their investigation. Giamatti gets to delight in giving a rousing call to action when sitting with this man, asking him if he’s going to put up with Boyd “heaving his seed into your bride,” before hearing that Boyd has been rigging treasury bids. Oh yeah, that’s the good stuff we’re looking for.

That’s all well and good, but any confrontation with Boyd seems a long way off. For now, the focus is the Alpha Cup. While Taylor reluctantly shows up to compete, Krakow comes with an ace up his sleeve: Wendy. He’s hired her as his coach for the evening, but it’s more a ploy to get in Axe’s head. Sure enough, the ploy works. Before long Axe has gone all in, losing to Krakow on a bold move that doesn’t pan out.

Of course, Axe is never really down and out. So, he makes another bet with Krakow: $1 million to the man whose team lasts the longest in the tournament. Krakow, of course, believes he can beat anybody — it’s a bit of a Napoleon complex — especially a newbie like Taylor. Axe isn’t so sure, though. He sees something in Taylor. Taylor may not see it, and they may feel like competition brings out the worst in them, but that doesn’t stop Taylor from throwing down.

All this posturing leads to one hell of a sequence to close out the game. It’s come down to Taylor and Krakow, and the latter thinks he has it in the bag. He’s been on all night and thinks that Taylor is no match for him. So, when he doesn’t hit anything with a 4 and a 5 in his hand, he still goes all in, thinking he can read Taylor. Wendy advises him against it, but he doesn’t listen. In that moment, Wendy realizes she herself was being played. Krakow didn’t care about her advice; he only brought her on to mess with Axe.

It’s a huge mistake for Krakow. Taylor calls the bluff and wins with a 10 high, a hand that’s absolutely nothing in terms of Hold ‘Em but ends up winning the team the Alpha Cup. Back at the office, everyone is fist-bumping Taylor and drinking beer out of the trophy, but still Taylor isn’t happy. Taylor confronts Axe, and here there’s a parallel drawn between them and Wendy. Taylor believes they were used, as Axe only wanted to break Krakow and show his weakness to Wendy. Axe might think very highly of Taylor, but there’s no doubting he used them as a pawn in his dick-swinging game.

For now, that’s all this is: one big dick-swinging game. Axe is buying up all the signed first editions of Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, including the set that Chuck had to sell in order to get a place of his own, and he seems confident, in control. Of course, Chuck is about to come for Boyd. This is all a game for now, but it looks like things are about to get real very soon.

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