Billions recap: Axe invites the devil into his house
In an effort to bring in new money, Axe may have courted a man he can't control
At the outset of “Icebreaker,” Chuck is in a strange spot. He’s not fighting for his life in Southern, or working to bring charges against an enemy. Rather, he’s in West Texas in the middle of the night. He’s come to see the Attorney General about the case against Jose Lugo, the kid who was nearly beaten to death by a prison guard before killing him in self-defense. It’s a case Chuck didn’t want to take, but he had no choice but to prosecute the kid on instructions from Attorney General Waylon “Jock” Jeffcoat. Now, Chuck finds himself in the back of a pickup truck, shooting a coyote that’s bothering Jock’s cattle herd. Out of place indeed, but an apt visual metaphor for the kill or be killed nature of this episode.
“Icebreaker” is packed to the brim with important, weighty decisions that all boil down to that question of killing or being killed. It’s an episode filled with decisions that seem to have a monumental impact on the character arcs of the season, and it all begins when Axe decides to take a meeting with an advisor who works for Grigor Andolov (John Malkovich, deliciously creepy as always), a Russian oil baron and oligarch who’s also a very dangerous man. He’s the kind of man whose reputation of violence precedes him. But, he also has a ton of money and influence, and what Axe needs is an icebreaker, a first investment that gets him back in the game and tells other investors that it’s safe to start letting Axe play with their money.
Meanwhile, at the Southern office, Kate has spent 48 hours, nonstop, preparing for the Jose Lugo case. She’s looked at every angle to convict the kid, and yet she’s walking into that courtroom wanting to lose. She tells Chuck as much, and while he sympathizes with her, he wants her focused. He sees this as a necessary, if difficult to swallow evil. He still thinks he can tiptoe around the Attorney General’s ideas, giving just a little here and there and yet still accomplishing his own noble goals. He learns a hard truth about that strategy later on.
“Icebreaker” essentially sets up two major stories, and one minor one as well, and all three have to do with power and its consequences. Axe brings in a guy from Spartan Ives to try and sniff out some other icebreakers, but the decision to get in bed with someone as notorious as Grigor weighs heavy on his mind. Before the episode ends Chuck will realize that he’s stuck in a battle with the Attorney General, and that Jock believes he has all the power. Enemies and consequences around every corner.
More innocuous, but no less fun, is the story of Dollar Bill Stern having his lucky dollar stolen. Someone swipes it early on in the episode, and Dollar Bill goes full Liam Neeson trying to figure out who did it. His crusade doesn’t have the effect he hopes for, as both Ben Kim and new employee Bonnie immediately stand up to his bullying. Eventually though, Wags snitches on the thief, knowing that their numbers are low. Nothing about this storyline seems important, but it’s exactly the kind of storyline that works in an episode like “Icebreaker.” With so much bleakness elsewhere, it’s good to have something lighthearted to balance things out.
But, back to the heavier stuff. “Icebreaker” isn’t nearly as complexly plotted and paced as the previous episodes this season, but it has something more, which is a very real sense of dread. When Axe finally meets with Grigor at a New York Islanders scrimmage where he apparently gets to play because of his previously mentioned wealth and influence, it’s clear that something is off. “Survival is all,” says Grigor, and while Axe heartily agrees, it seems like he doesn’t fully grasp that this man is different. He’s not just a Wall Street type like Axe. He’s a legit criminal tough guy, and that could mean a lot of bad news down the road. (Recap continues on next page)
Taylor thinks Axe’s partnership with Grigor is reckless too, and they voice their opinion again and again in an effort to talk some sense into him. Taylor even goes so far as to deliberately throw the first meeting with Grigor’s advisor, pitching him on a plan that’s heavy on environmentally friendly positions, something that doesn’t sit well with, you know, burly Russian dudes who made their money off of oil.
Wags tries to get Taylor to accept that they won’t always see what Axe sees, and that’s okay. He does so by talking about his big house and (presumably) ex-wife that he hates, which is one way to make your point. No matter, the talk does seem to resonate with Taylor, as they go back to Axe and say that while they can’t always see the vision, they’ll do their best to play ball. Still, this is Taylor we’re talking about. They’re not about to give in that easily. So, they set up a secret headquarters to continue the quant algorithm project, basically promising a huge clash with Axe sometime later this season.
While Grigor and Axe have yet another tense conversation at Axe’s place, Kate heads to court to prosecute the kid she believes is innocent. Then, she gets the worst news possible: Jose was killed during transport to the court, the officers severing his spinal cord in an apparent struggle against a resisting, handcuffed prisoner. It’s a twist pulled straight from our world’s headlines, a nod to the injustice done to Freddie Gray.
Kate storms back to the office, livid, and gets Chuck to sign the paper that drops all the charges against the dead man. She feels guilty and heartbroken, and she tries to drown that feeling with booze at the bar, finding Connerty at their usual spot and trying to buddy up with him. He’s having none of it though, still feeling hurt and abandoned by her actions when he was at Southern.
Chuck’s also livid, but he feels they have a course of action. He believes that they can now prosecute the guards, as this is clearly a case of them executing a man before he had a chance to stand trial. Both him and Kate take their case to Jeffcoat, but to absolutely no one’s surprise he doesn’t want to bring charges. He says that “all lives are not created equal,” and that Jose was just a drug pusher who got what was coming to him. It’s a disgusting line of thinking, and one that finally pushes Chuck to the edge. As he sits in the dark at the end of the episode, with Wendy telling him that he can’t just subtly resist the Attorney General’s orders, he decides that it’s time for an “assassination.” Chuck is ready to take down Jeffcoat, no matter the cost.
“Icebreakers” is all about weighing the costs. Chuck decides that his goals aren’t compatible with the AG, and that he’ll fight back no matter what. Taylor decides that the quant program is too important to kill, and that they’ll keep it alive even if it means going against Axe’s orders. Bryan gets an interview and a trial run as special counsel for the New York office of the FBI, realizing that he’ll pursue his noble goals at any cost.
Then there’s Axe, who decides that the ascendency of Axe Capital after the dismissal of the indictment is too important to not take big swings. So, he calls in a favor to Todd Krakow — and Kevin Durant, in a sloppily shoehorned cameo — showing Grigor that he has influence with a government official, and then makes their deal in the middle of the night at Axe Capital. Grigor warns him not to lose his money, but that’s far from the scariest part. Rather, the episode ends with Grigor telling a story about raping a woman in Russia and then leaving her for the soldiers to have their way with her. He says it all with a cold smirk on his face, enjoying making Axe squirm. And squirm he does. The look on Axe’s face as the story unfolds is one we’ve never seen before: genuine worry. He’s just made a deal with what could turn out to be a devil he truly can’t handle.