Billions built itself on the rivalry between Chuck Rhoades and Bobby Axelrod. It was the heart of the first season, which was entertaining but still finding itself, exploring what kind of show it would be. In season 2 their rivalry came to a head with a back-and-forth power play that led to a criminal investigation which played out in the first part of season 3. Season 2 shifted the stakes and the storytelling forever, though. The supporting cast became the show’s greatest strength, as the likes of Wags, Ari Spyros, Dollar Bill, and new addition Taylor Mason added everything the show was missing in its first season.
In other words, Billions could only be the story of Axe vs. Chuck for so long. At some point they had to move on from their blood feud and find new enemies, allowing the show to tell new stories and move the characters in different directions. One of the great draws of this show is that it never stagnates. The ground is always moving beneath the characters, and that makes for exciting, unpredictable drama. “Elmsley Count,” the season 3 finale, represents another massive shift, and it’s incredibly exciting.
Once it was clear that Axe wasn’t going to stand trial for his crimes, that Wendy, Axe, and Chuck had made it all go away once they got wrapped up in it, the season’s larger story started to cohere. Axe went back to Axe Capital and shunned Taylor in the process, not giving them what they believed was their fair share of duties and responsibility. Chuck went back to Southern, where he encountered a brash Texan in Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat. Since then, both Axe and Chuck have been fighting uphill battles, as Chuck tries to get out from under Jock’s thumb and Axe tries to save the reputation of his business.
As the finale gets underway, both battles seem to be cooling down. At a capital introduction event run by Spartan Ives at Citi Field, Axe and Taylor kill their pitch to investors and leave with more than $6 billion of promised investment. The thing is, Taylor has made their own pitch before arriving, giving Grigor Andolov the gist of what Taylor Mason Capital will do with its cutting-edge quant project. “You crushed it,” says Grigor’s associate, assuring that money will come soon, and so will a tense showdown with Axe in the future.
For now, though, Axe has no idea what’s coming. He’s so focused on the reputation of Axe Capital that he can’t see Taylor slipping away. He can’t see the moves he’s made as ones that go against everything Taylor built while he was away, essentially dismissing their leadership and ideas as inconsequential. That kind of blindness makes him vulnerable, and the same can be said for Chuck. By the end of the episode, the show’s two titans are on the ropes, blindsided by those who were once close to them.
The entirety of “Elmsley Count” is astonishingly propulsive. From the get-go, the episode puts the pedal to the floor and doesn’t let up. It’s the type of finale that makes you realize how perfectly the house of cards has been built, all so that it can come crashing down in spectacular fashion. Knowing what we know about Taylor, it’s exhilarating to watch Axe celebrate the night of the Citi Field meeting, only to have the episode cut to the next morning, when Wags tells Axe that he can’t seem to get a hold of any investors who promised money. Once Axe realizes both Taylor and Mafee are missing, he begins to understand what’s happened. All told, Taylor makes off with more than $3 billion of the money Axe thought was his. (Recap continues on next page)