This week’s Billions opens with two very different exchanges. The first sees Wendy arriving at Farpoint, a company looking to complete a manned mission to Mars, and talking with the CEO Craig Heidecker — hello, James Wolk! — about providing a psych evaluation for Elena Gabriel, the woman set to take on that mission. For Wendy, this job is quite the change. Sure, she’s still working to ensure the mental competency of men and women, but it’s serving a higher purpose. She’s a long way from making sure a bunch of egotistical men feel focused enough to go make millions of dollars for an even more egotistical man in a Metallica T-shirt.
Then there’s Bobby Axelrod, who’s repeatedly having the same conversations. Here, he’s speaking with Mark Cuban. He wants to know why it’s so hard for regular guys like them to find footing inside the establishment that is the world of professional sports. As Cuban lays out, most of those guys inherited their money, and see hardworking, bootstrapping types like Axe and Cuban as a threat. The only way to find their way in? Change the hearts and minds of the people.
It’s good advice. Axe may be a smart analyst, but he usually leaves a trail of PR problems in his wake. Axe’s ego and big mouth have contributed to his success about as much as his exploitation of 9/11, but that also leaves him vulnerable. He doesn’t look like the face of an NFL franchise because of how outspoken he is. He doesn’t subscribe to a bunch of unwritten rules, meaning he’s often left on the outside, this whole NFL deal just the latest in a long line of PR stumbling blocks for Axe.
“The Oath” is a bit of a strange episode when it comes to parsing out the details of the NFL deal and how it ties in with everything else, including Axe’s current state of mind. It doesn’t have the intense, compelling focus of last week’s poker story, nor does it really dig into the feud between Axe and Chuck until the very end. That leaves the episode feeling rather listless. There’s a lot going on, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a cohesive whole here. In essence, “The Oath” ends up feeling like a bunch of moments that exist in a vacuum, an episode that’s a lot of table-setting without much action.
Of course, that table-setting is necessary to bring Chuck and Axe back into each other’s orbit. So, “The Oath” works to show how the whole Spartan-Ives case is really a way for both Chuck and Axe to use Boyd to settle their own feud. With the AG getting restless about a lack of progress in the case, the heat is on Chuck to produce something before he’s fired. There are a lot of pieces in play. Dake is telling Bryan that Chuck is going down, so he might as well jump ship while he has the chance; Lonnie is avoiding anything to do with the case; Kate’s dad is found to have $12 million in offshore accounts; and Chuck Sr. seems to have a role somewhere in all this.
Luckily, Chuck sees the bigger picture, and “The Oath” spends the latter half of its episode organizing this mess of loyalties and secrets.
So, “The Oath” essentially follows both Axe and Chuck as they work to fix their problems. For Axe, that’s changing how he’s perceived by the public and by those who could award him an NFL team. For Chuck, it’s coming up with evidence that Spartan-Ives is doing something illegal. As their source within the company says, “The faucet is off.” Spartan-Ives stopped rigging treasuries as soon as Chuck started going after them. Chuck needs to get that faucet flowing again, quickly.
While Wendy gains some insight into Elena by talking about Wilco songs — and Lana invokes The Wire to justify her ruthlessness when it comes to her new business giving pick-me-ups to finance bros — Axe is stretching his charity legs. He realizes that giving back to the community is what a good potential NFL owner does, so he organizes a meeting with Sandy Benzinger (The Americans‘ Richard Thomas), the head of a charity called The Giving Oath.
While it looks like Axe is going to change his greedy ways, it turns out the meeting itself is a PR stunt. All Axe wanted was to be “caught” meeting with Sandy. The whole donation thing is just a ruse; the media coverage alone is enough to give Axe the shine he needs to seem like a likable, caring businessman. The only problem? Sandy doesn’t like being a pawn. So, he takes great pleasure in calling Axe later to inform him the NFL has deemed him an unfit buyer, with Sandy seemingly pulling a few strings behind the scenes.
That brings us to Chuck. With nothing substantial to go on in regard to taking down Spartan-Ives, he switches his game plan. He thinks he understands a man like Boyd, and he believes that if he relinquishes some power and makes it look like Boyd is winning, then he’ll stumble and Chuck will suddenly have something to go on. Sure enough, after Chuck meets with Boyd and they make a small deal about sacrificing some middle management in exchange for an internal investigation, Boyd slips up. He goes right back to rigging treasuries, thinking the heat is off. But why does he do that so quickly? Why does he take Chuck at his word?
Well, that’s where things get interesting. He doesn’t take Chuck at his word, but he sure as hell takes Chuck Sr. at his word. That’s right, Chuck’s own father is a close friend of Boyd’s and seems to have his interests in mind. Chuck knows this, so he manipulates that loyalty to his advantage. He knows his father will go running to Boyd with any information, so he feeds him a line about accepting the internal investigation and moving on from the case. Of course, Chuck doesn’t just move on. He holds grudges forever, and the Spartan-Ives case isn’t going anywhere.
So, in the midst of Wags going off the rails and getting a tattoo on his ass and Bruno’s nephew, Marco, coming to Axe with an opportunity to invest in real estate and a casino, there’s finally another meeting between Axe and Chuck. Sure, it’s meant to be a deposition about what really happened when Chuck showed up at Axe Capital at the end of last season, but it’s mostly another excuse to get these two in a room together and once again reignite their rivalry.
And this is what I mean when I say “The Oath” is a lot of table-setting. Sure, we get that final scene with Axe and Chuck once again going toe-to-toe — this time with the cliffhanger of Axe unexpectedly using his denied NFL bid as ammo against Chuck — but it’s a lone highlight in a largely meandering episode. That’s to be expected at this point. Billions has done a good job of moving on from last season’s story and setting up new conflicts, but at some point, there had to be an episode that settled things down before amping up the tension. “The Oath” seems to be that episode.
Here’s hoping that by next week, Billions is back to the more chaotic pace that’s defined some of the show’s best episodes.