Billions recap: Axe's new foe beats him at his own game
In the season premiere of Billions, Axe meets the man he believes to be his latest adversary. I say "believes to be" because for Axe, everyone is his enemy. He'll never be happy nor satisfied with the life he's built. He's always going to be judging himself against others, or judging the choices of others and seeking to punish them for not living the way he assumes they should be. There's no better evidence of that than the spiritual journey he undertook with Wags. Rather than finding enlightenment, Axe has found a shaman to attach to his hopeful push into the industry of psychoceuticals, the use of hallucinogenic drugs to combat things like PTSD, anxiety, and depression. (Side note: Michael Pollan's How to Change Your Mind is an excellent book on that topic.)
Now, Chuck is using Mike Prince's conference invitation to set up a play to get those drugs approved for use. He has no real interest in the conference as a place for people to exchange real ideas about the work they do and what their responsibilities might be as people with extreme wealth. That's not Axe's bag. No, he's headed to the conference with Wags and Taylor by his side to snag a face-to-face with a man named Shank who's about to leave a pharma company for the FDA. Not only is Axe hoping to buy the shares Shank will have to divest, but he's also interested in creating a friendship that will allow for some leverage within the FDA to help get the drugs approved.
So, Axe comes to the vaunted fireside chat with his own intentions. It's meant to be the highlight of the conference, with Axe and Prince discussing whether a new form of capitalism is necessary. "Let's make this quick: no," says Axe. It's good for a laugh, but it also shows that he's entered into this space in bad faith and with a flippant attitude. He has no intention of actually engaging Prince's ideas about community, support systems, and privilege; whether Prince believes in those things or is just good at adopting the rhetoric is another question altogether. Instead, Axe preaches the tao of exceptionalism and greed. "I am a monster. You have to be one," which allows Prince to make a quip about being one of the "cuddly ones from Monsters Inc."
This tête-à-tête will come to define the season, and much like seasons past, it's delightful to see just how well the casting contributes to the show. It's a lot of fun to watch Damian Lewis and Corey Stoll square off, and it gives us a break from the usual Chuck-Axe feud. Axe has never come across someone like Stoll's Prince before, a man who seems to genuinely be interested in doing good with his fortune. Sure, he makes a big play in this episode that gets under Axe's skin and has the potential to make him a lot of money — he swoops in and snags Axe's shaman, lending credibility to whatever psychoceutical play he's going to make, and all but assuring that Axe won't have a piece — but he also seems to understand that this new form of treatment could help a lot of people.
As usual, it's beautiful storytelling. We watch every domino get set up, as Axe carefully plans each step, only to have a variable come out of nowhere and ruin everything. The episode also splits Chuck and Axe into separate but thematically related stories. While Axe is up to his old tricks (and getting bested this time around), Chuck is trying to change, attempting to use his manipulative skills to do good. He tells Kate that he's been reading a lot of Dexter and that he sees this whole thing as managing his Dark Passenger. He wants to use his lust for power and crushing opponents to go after the right people.
To say he does so in this episode is perhaps a bit misleading. He's still largely doing things for himself, helping Judge DeGiulio dodge a career-ending fiasco involving the famous "Torture Memo," setting him up as the Solicitor General, which will give Chuck his own access to arguments in the Supreme Court. The question is this: does this fit in with the "new" Chuck, or is it more of the same? In a late-episode reveal, Chuck admits to Kate that he initially leaked the memo that put DeGiulio in hot water, but that it all happened before his transformation into a more conscientious person. We'll see if that holds true as the season rolls on.
"The Chris Rock Test" is essentially an episode that gets the ball rolling on the season's overarching stories. There's the psychoceutical play, the rivalry between Prince and Axe, the continued tension between Axe Cap and Taylor Mason Capital, and Chuck's feud with Wendy, where he ups the stakes and freezes her assets, setting up a potential showdown in court. Things are just getting started, but they're already getting messy. You love to see it.