While Axe throws himself a lavish birthday party, Chuck continues to campaign as the everyman in Sandicot.

RECAP: 4/16/17 Billions
Credit: Jeff Neumann/SHOWTIME
S2 E9
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After a few weeks of delivering tense, beautifully paced episodes, Billions finally stumbles a bit this week with “Sic Transit Imperium.” In a way, it makes sense. The first half of this season was driven by Chuck’s need to take down Boyd and Axe’s need to make a boatload of money in the Sandicot casino deal. With both of those things in the rearview mirror — Boyd is sitting in prison, and Axe is in the process of seizing all of Sandicot’s assets — Billions needs to reset before its final three episodes. There are plot threads building here, from Chuck gaining momentum in his unannounced race for governor and Wendy feeling more and more out of place at Axe Capital, but “Sic Transit Imperium” is, for better or worse, largely a look at Axe’s current mindset.

Axe’s birthday is what gives Billions cause for reflection. The episode opens with Wags showing off his very expensive gift to Axe. Wags, in all his dramatic glory, has reserved him a spot in a fancy “End of Days” bunker called The Ark — an extravagant if morbid gift, but it really is the essence of Wags. For all the hilarious connotations of the bunker, Dollar Bill believes he has a more practical gift for Axe. He has some inside information on a recall for a car company called Klaxon and wants Axe to get in on it. Axe is being more careful these days though, and he’s not about to dive in without doing some research, so he takes some time to think about it.

That moment is the catalyst for much of what happens in this episode. “Sic Transit Imperium” is all about examining who Axe is and who he used to be. Dollar Bill gives him hell for not taking any chances anymore, for getting too soft, and that forces Axe into something resembling an existential crisis. Chuck and Bryan call him the “bad guy in a Bruce Springsteen song” when talking about how they’re intervening in Sandicot and hoping to chase down Axe’s leads on the casino deal, but surely Axe wouldn’t accept such a descriptor. So who is Bobby Axelrod?

If you were to ask Steph Reed, like Kate does when she questions her in the hopes of finding some shady connections within the Sandicot deal, Axe is both “unknowable” and “a Terminator.” She says he’d be writing checks to help charities one moment and then cornering the market with a ruthless deal the next. She’s describing a man unsure of his ethics, which is a trait that comes out later, when he tells Taylor to not worry about the environmental impact of their private plane trip and just make a donation to an environmental group to offset the feeling of it eating at their conscience. That’s how Axe works: For every bit of viciousness, he tries to buy himself redemption. Money solves every problem for him, even the spiritual and moral ones.

So, in other words, Steph doesn’t have a lot on Axe. She wasn’t privy to enough inside dirt. But she does tell Kate that the timing of her firing was suspicious. She says Dollar Bill came to Axe with a deal involving Victor, a former employee of Axe Capital. Axe made an example of Victor when he was testing how his team would handle a compliance check. If Victor is involved, she says, the deal must be shady. She tells Kate to keep an eye on Victor and Taylor as potential threats to Axe’s power and secrecy.

Victor, despite being in only one scene, plays an important part in this episode. He’s representative of Axe’s internal struggle between being a legitimate man who can escape the clutches of Chuck Rhoades and a man who built his empire by doing whatever’s necessary in the moment. Victor represents that viciousness and cutthroat attitude that Dollar Bill is convinced Axe doesn’t have anymore.

Case in point: Axe hires a snooty old man to set up a charitable foundation for him. It’s money spent on making him look like a good guy with a clean record, something the old Axe would never, ever do. Wags, who’s sitting in on the meeting, can’t believe it. But this is Axe’s reality now. The question remains though: How does Axe feel about this new reality? Or, as Dollar Bill puts it in his typically melodramatic way: “If we can’t live the way we want, the terrorists have already won.”

It’s clear that Axe is tired. He’s tired of Chuck, tired of feeling like the boss, and tired of his life and business now being about, as he says, “ass-covering and optics.” He’s spending all of his time making political and PR plays when he should be making money. He says he’s forgotten his roots and who he once was. He wants to cancel his lavish birthday party and run off with Lara. He wants to take her somewhere meaningful and reconnect. In it’s own way it’s noble, but that relationship is beyond an easy fix. Here, Lara learns that Wendy set the “no meetings” condition with Axe when she was re-hired. She learns that Axe lied to her.

While Axe is going through his latest existential crisis, Chuck is making his own political moves. After trying to squeeze Donald Thayer about Sandicot only to realize that Foley and Chuck’s own father are part of some shady deal with him, Chuck has no choice but to back away from investigating Axe. If he were to continue with the investigation, he’d perhaps expose his father and Foley, and he’d certainly lose his higher ground in upstate New York as the “man of the people.”

As you can see, “Sic Transit Imperium” doesn’t have much in terms of plot, but it does present moral, internal challenges for its two main characters. For Chuck, that means breaking his public vow and allowing his father to use some of his blind trust money for a business deal with Ira. For Axe, that means getting back to being the Bobby Axelrod who built Axe Capital. So, he meets with Victor and tells him to set up a satellite shop so that he can start bringing him deals like the Klaxon one.

Both men are being reckless in their search for more power and a clearer sense of identity. The question is: Will that recklessness catch up with them and ultimately be their downfall? If the defeated, betrayed look on Lara’s face that ends the episode is any indication, Axe is, at the very least, in for a personal reckoning very soon.

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