Billions recap: 'The Kingmaker'
Axe finally gets to the bottom of the Sandicot Screwjob
As Billions gets closer to the end of its second season, two narrative threads are slowly unraveling. First there’s Chuck and his bid for governor. It’s been a pretty low-key story line all season long, only ramping up in the last few episodes, but it’s been the motivation behind so many of his actions. For all the talk of wanting to take down Axe and Boyd, Chuck is still very much motivated by his own personal gain. The end goal, at least for now, is the governor’s office. For Axe, his goals are perhaps a little more vindictive: he wants to find out who screwed him over on the Sandicot deal so that, presumably, he can screw them back. That’s kind of how the world of Billions works, after all.
Chuck’s bid for governor, for all intents and purposes, seems to run through Black Jack Foley. Or so says Chuck Sr. at least, and when “The Kingmaker” kicks off, Chuck is in a bad way after failing to secure the clerkship for Foley’s granddaughter. Foley has thus decided to back candidate Rob Sweeney. Chuck’s father later gives him hell — in a cigar locker of course, to really drive home his point — about his failure to suck up to the right people. But Chuck’s having none of it; he’s riding high on his takedown of Boyd, and believes he can get by on his own. “I have my own power,” he says, and he might not be wrong.
Meanwhile, Axe is adamant about finding out why Foley wanted to screw him, if indeed he did it on purpose. So he gives Taylor a task. He asks them to find out who Foley is buying ore from for his steel, hoping that he can snatch up a bunch of product and send a message. While Taylor takes that on, Wags overhears Mafee on a call from a Spartan-Ives competitor promising to give them an offer they can’t refuse if they so choose to do business with them. Mafee shows some hesitation at taking the meeting, but Wags is all in, even after Mafee shows some concern for his sobriety. Wags is having none of the comparison to, in his words, “Courtney Love in ’93,” so the meeting is booked.
Once Taylor comes up with a name, Chuck sets out to meet with the distributor and see what kind of deal he can make. That gives us one of the best scenes of the night, simple in its execution but oh so telling in its content: Axe and Lara walk on an airstrip discussing Lara’s need to be in Sandicot to promote charter schools and the Axe Capital-funded rebuild of the city, while Axe needs to make moves against Foley. The two of them kiss, and as the camera zooms out we watch them walk into two different private planes. It’s the kind of shot that makes you hate these people, even if it’s injected with a little bit of cool factor as well.
While Axe is on his way to try to get a step up on Foley, Chuck is working his own magic. He approaches Foley’s now-preferred candidate, Rob Sweeney, a former EMT, about becoming his lieutenant governor, asking him to drop out of the race and join Chuck’s campaign instead. His selling point? Name recognition and good polling. Sweeney refuses though, saying that stranger things have happened than a near-nobody getting elected.
That answer doesn’t satisfy Chuck, and, as we know, he’s not above getting someone to do the dirty work for him in order to bury an opponent. He tells Ira to do some digging on Sweeney, and what he finds is quite something. Chuck goes back to meet with Sweeney again, this time armed with something real. He’s found out that Sweeney sent his gay son to a Christian boot camp in the hopes of “praying the gay away,” and Chuck also has some of the heartbreaking letters the boy wrote during his stay there. Sweeney puts on a tough front, but later he drops out of the race, and Chuck gets the first notch in his belt.
While Chuck has his showdown with Sweeney, his colleagues Bryan and Kate have stumbled upon a potential lead in the effort to take down Axe Capital. Chuck has mostly left that case behind, but the two can’t help but follow up on Kate’s idea for gathering up dirt on Axe: Dr. Gus, the former employee who, if his personality is any indicator, certainly holds a grudge against Axe.
So, Kate and Bryan give the former Axe Capital therapist a visit, and after Bryan somehow manages to appeal to Gus’ Bushido philosophy, he gives them a little something on Axe. He says he can’t give them the kind of dirt they’re looking for because he wasn’t privy to those kinds of conversations, but he does know someone who was: Steph Reed, former chief of staff who was also unceremoniously let go when Wags came back into the fold. An interview with Steph later on confirms that she might be willing to talk if a subpoena were presented, but Chuck is hesitant to really go after Axe now that he’s working toward his own political gains.
While Chuck and Axe are grinding hard to get ahead, Wags seems to be having a jolly old time being wooed by a potential firm, taking in the high-end strip club like an old pro. Mafee feels pretty out of place, but as the scene progresses it’s clear that this isn’t about finding a new team to do business with. It’s about putting on a performance in front of the Spartan-Ives guy who frequents said high-end strip club.
So Wags squeezes a new deal out of Spartan-Ives, which cuts Axe Capital’s fee by 20 percent for the next two years. Wags brings the news to Axe, but he’s unimpressed, saying that while it’s good, it’s not “come see me in the middle of the night good.” That’s because Wags has other things on his mind. He thinks Axe is unfocused, spending too much time trying to get to the bottom of the Sandicot Screwjob — with mention of Undertaker and Mankind’s “Hell in a Cell” match in this episode, and the Ric Flair reference earlier on this season, I feel I have to keep with the wrestling theme — and not enough time worrying about his bottom line at Axe Capital. Of course Axe doesn’t see it that way, but this is a man who’s easily blinded by vengeance.
To be fair, Axe does eventually get what he wants, even if his visit to Foley’s ore distributor doesn’t pay off. He still gets a sit-down meeting with Foley. But the meeting doesn’t exactly give him much to go on. It’s clear that Foley is an intensely loyal person, and it’s done wonders for his career. He seems untouchable here, a figure of political and financial power that Axe has never come up against. Axe leaves the meeting with no real hope, but of course there’s a Plan B. Danny Margolis, former Axe Capital employee who screwed Axe over, is now working as a waiter at a catering service that’s working Foley’s upcoming party for a number of bigwigs. Naturally, Axe hires him to be his spy, to snap some photos of the party to see if Axe can get a lead on who was the Vince McMahon to his Bret Hart.
During the party, Chuck and Foley get a moment alone. Foley was impressed by Chuck’s ability to force Sweeney out of the race, but he still holds all the power. No campaign for governor will succeed without him. So Chuck sets his ego aside for a moment and asks Foley for his help, which he readily accepts. It’s the start of a beautiful friendship, or at least one built out of a grudging respect and a sense that favors will be owed for years to come.
While Taylor and Wendy have a moving late-night chat, with Wendy playing the role of patient and, in a veiled way, opening up about her infidelity and the way Axe Capital has changed her, Axe is fired up after receiving pictures of Chuck, his father, and Foley at the party. That sends Axe flying over to the Yale Club to confront them.
It’s all Axe versus Chuck from here on out. It’s tied into everything. Axe is angrier than ever to get one over on Chuck after realizing that his father was the one who likely screwed him. But Chuck is more determined than ever, realizing that his father’s play has given him an advantage. Axe’s asset forfeiture decimates the part of the state where Chuck polls weakest, and that allows him to shape the narrative and become a Man of the People. He can use Axe to bolster his own campaign’s chances.
It’s a smart play, but you can’t help but wonder if it’s all too combustible. Every time Chuck and Axe get this close to one another, things explode. I think that’s coming, and the fallout will certainly be worse than anything that came before it.