For all of the strengths of the first season, Billions has been struggling in its sophomore season. There have certainly been moments that have stood out, from the high-stakes poker game to the addition of Asia Kate Dillon in general. But more broadly speaking, this season hasn’t managed to capture the magic of the previous year. Too many meandering stories — Wags’ descent into uselessness being the worst of the bunch — have left each episode feeling rather listless. That spark and tension between Axe and Chuck has been missing all season long. Thankfully, “Currency” is a shift in the opposite direction, a stirring, exciting episode like no other this season so far.
What’s interesting right off the bat is that “Currency” uses Wags’ character arc as a framing device. It’s interesting because Wags has been a black hole of narrative intrigue this season. He’s done nothing but get wasted, and there just isn’t that much compelling drama in watching him go off the deep end, especially as he’s not the most sympathetic character. To the show’s credit, though, the arc here plays out perfectly, even if it does seem to predict more self-destruction somewhere down the road.
So, as the episode begins, we see Wags coming to Axe Capital after apparently being absent for a while. He looks clean, together, sober. He walks right into Axe’s office and sets about giving a speech, one that seems like it’s leading up to him leaving Axe Capital behind for the benefit of his health and well-being. Axe cuts him off, though, pissed that while Wags has been off finding himself, he’s been here “fighting the battle of Thermopylae.” Axe, as always, has a flair for the dramatic.
From there, the episode flashes back to 48 hours earlier, leaving us all wondering what Wags needs to say to Axe, and also why Axe is so goddamn heated. As it turns out, he has a pretty good reason. Axe Capital made a play with Sansomic, a company releasing a new thin, glass phone set to take the market by storm. Unfortunately, the glass shatters when exposed to the heat of adhesion during the process of making the phones, forcing Sansomic to recall the huge order. The man who designed the phone jumps to his death, and Axe is left with a huge loss on his hands.
That means Axe needs a big play in order to turn this quarter around and not take a loss. Steph tells him that taking a loss is no big deal, that it happens to firms all the time, but losing isn’t in Axe’s vocabulary. So he shouts at his minions to bring him something big. Everyone plays it safe; then there’s Dollar Bill, who plays coy, telling Axe that he has an idea but that he refuses to say it in front of Steph.
While no one willingly brings a deal to Axe, he does manage to find out about one. Mafee has been sitting on something potentially huge, mostly because he’s worried the guy who has the information will end up replacing him at Axe Capital. Confronted in a bathroom stall by Axe, though, Mafee has no choice but to play ball, so he sets up a meeting with a buddy of his from another firm. The man, Everett, tells Axe about how Nigeria is on the verge of devaluing their currency, making it a huge opportunity for anyone willing to make a massive short play.
Because the play is so huge, Axe needs to rope in other investors. That means reaching out to Krakow and even the man he helped covertly put away, Price, to help make the deal happen. They all meet at a diner, and Axe makes his pitch. Everyone buys in, even if they hate Axe. They still put their own personal gain above anything else.
While Chuck and Wendy continue to struggle and Chuck finds himself flirting with a woman at the dojo he frequents, Axe’s big play takes a hit. It turns out that Price put the pieces together about his conviction, leading him to Axe as the perpetrator, and he still holds a grudge. So he passed around the information, allowing the Nigerian government to play hardball and refuse to devalue their currency. What was already going to be a huge loss is shaping up to be a monumental hit for Axe Capital.
Everett still thinks there’s a way to grease the wheels, but Axe is going to need a big name on his side. “Lawrence Boyd?” he asks, and Everett thinks that’s exactly the kind of power they need. So, a new plan is in place: Go on a TV show called Street Scoop to discuss the Nigerian currency and get Boyd to back up the devaluation, setting everything in motion.
This is where “Currency” really kicks into high gear and gets back to what should always be the main thrust of this show: the bad blood between Axe and Chuck. While Axe is focused on his deal, Chuck is pushing McKinnon to finally get that evidence on Boyd and the treasuries. For a while it looks like the whole sting is going to go down in flames, as McKinnon gets progressively more drunk during his dinner with Boyd, all while wearing a wire and under video surveillance. At the last minute, though, he pulls it together, getting Chuck and his team the evidence they need to have the FBI arrest Boyd.
All of this builds to a thrilling last stretch that finally brings Axe and Chuck back into each other’s orbit in a more substantial way than, say, last week’s boardroom meeting. It all begins with Axe unapologetically ripping into Lara for not listening to his advice and trying to expand her business too early. He seems to think he can talk to her the same way he talks to his employees, but I’m not so sure Lara will stand for that. We’ll have to wait and see because Axe leaves her hanging in shocked silence as he leaves for his Street Scoop appearance.
When Axe arrives at the studio, he gets a call from Orrin, who informs him that the FBI has a warrant out for Boyd’s arrest and will be coming for him within the hour. Axe is shocked, but he plays it cool. He still needs Boyd to go on air and support his claims about the devalued Nigerian currency. Sure enough, with no sense that Chuck is coming for him, Boyd does exactly what he’s supposed to do. As he walks away from the interview, Axe grabs him by the shoulders and gives him the bad news.
It’s bold enough to have Chuck walk in and take Boyd away, but the scene vaults into epic territory when Chuck and Axe exchange barbs. Both men are puffing up their chests, and Billions is finally making some big moves. The electric feeling of two egos about to go back to war is the feeling I’ve been jonesing for since the premiere, and “Currency” finally hands it over. It’s the tightest, most thrilling hour of the season so far, and, with Wags back on board, the framing device bringing us and the Wags-Axe relationship full circle, it’s hopefully a sign of good things to come in the back half of the season.