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Billions: Season 4, Episode 12 (Extreme Sandbox) - Finale reviewed

Billions: Extreme Sandbox

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

THE best television shows are those that go from strength to strength, continually subverting expectation and finding new ways in which to involve viewers in their central characters. Billions is a classic case in point.

Already beloved by those who tune in as one of the very best television shows of the moment [if not of all time], the fourth season proceeded to deliver one humdinger after another. And the finale arguably topped the lot, delivering on the promise of a season’s worth of build-up to produce one hell of a sting, as well as some tantalising new directions for the future.

[Spoilers ahead]

At its core, Billions has always been a show that highlights the corruptive influence of power and money. It delves into the lives of the rich 1%, those men and women who live a higher lifestyle than we could ever imagine. From ‘his and her’s private jets’ to the ability to buy department stores, basketball teams or eat the finest [and sometimes most illegal] foods, these are the alphas.

In one corner, Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), an ambitious but ruthless hedge-fund king driven to succeed and be the best. In the other, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), a shrewd and equally ambitious US Attorney, who isn’t averse to breaking the odd moral and ethical code to get what he wants.

Prior to season four, these two were sworn enemies. But the dynamic changed. Circumstances and common enemies prompted an unlikely alliance. They suddenly needed each other to get what they wanted.

By the end of Extreme Sandbox, this ‘friendship’ was hanging by a thread, but not in the manner in which many expected.

Up until this point, both Axelrod and Rhoades had been preoccupied with new enemies. For Axe, it was former employee Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon), now going it alone having turned their back on Axe Cap. Rhoades, meanwhile, had to regain power while continuing in his pursuit of Attorney General Waylon ‘Jock’ Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown), all the while being mindful of former student turned attacker Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) – the man now occupying his former office.

This final episode saw revenge – the underlying theme of this series – being dished. Axe took down Taylor in ruthless fashion, bankrupting the fledgling company the latter had set up, and sacrificing his own relationship in the process. It was a turn of events and a betrayal worthy of Michael Corleone in The Godfather: Part II.

Rhoades, meanwhile, turned the tables on both Jeffcoat and Connerty in spectacular fashion, leading to their arrests for conspiracy to break the law in their single-minded pursuit of him. But in doing so, he took his eye off the ball of his own marriage to Wendy (Maggie Siff), who had been forced to fight her own battles alone (or with silent help from Axe), and who subsequently left their marital home with a sense of betrayal of her own.

The collateral damage warned of by Axe’s trusted second-in-command during the previous episode was expansive and it’ll be interesting to see how the people involved come back [or whether they do].

What makes Billions such a work of genius, however, is the writing, by co-showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien. As with all episodes in this brilliant series, they delivered the plays with such relish that you almost don’t realise you’re watching some terrible people doing terrible things. There’s a devious brilliance that’s hard not to admire.

Rhoades, at least, has been fighting himself most of this series, as insights into his childhood and upbringing have revealed how he came to be the man he is. Giamatti channels this inner turmoil brilliantly. But then armed with such brilliant writing, he toys with viewers emotions sometimes from scene to scene.

His verbal takedown of Jeffcoat, delivered in Italian, was an early episode highlight, delivered with biting relish. But there was some measure of sympathy in the way he delivered his vengeance to the beleaguered Connerty – almost as if it came with some measure of regret for failing to guide this once promising protégé in the way he wanted.

And then there was the devastation, as Chuck came to realise that his own success came at the expense – potentially – of his marriage, as Wendy walked out and left him alone and in need of his domination and/or punishment. As usual, Giamatti delivered a veritable masterclass.

But brilliant, too, was the way in which Koppelman and Levien worked their audience. A season long arc involving the takedown of Jeffcoat was only unveiled in this final episode. They had dangled the carrot but despite arousing suspicions on several occasions, the manner in which Chuck’s revenge unfolded was truly
breathtaking.

The supposedly shady business dealings between Chuck and his father, Charles (Jeffrey DeMunn), were exposed as a ruse; a means to a lengthy end. While the key mystery player in potentially bringing Chuck and Charles down, aka ‘the idiot’, was eventually found to be Connerty himself – driven to break the rules and his own moral code in his pursuit of Chuck, and set up to bring on his own demise. It was wonderfully played, having taken its inspiration from The Sting (by Koppelman and Levien’s own admission].

Axe, meanwhile, took a turn to the really dark side. His decision to place revenge over love was brutally cold. And the manner in which it was delivered – behind his girlfriend’s back and then, belatedly, to her face by way of explanation – was chilling.

This was Axe at his most primal. His most instinctive. He had to win, no matter what the cost. And in doing so, he not only burned his romance, but also his alliance with Chuck – making the latter feel so loathe to support him in his takedown of Taylor that Chuck, instead, made his own play to reignite his rivalry with Axe. It was the move that Axe won’t have seen coming.

So, as we enter season five [which has been commissioned], Rhoades is now lined up against Axe once more, only this time in stealth mode. He has asked Taylor – now forced to go back to Axe’s company and work for him – to be his spy.

Taylor, meanwhile, intends to play both sides, so as to allow both men to destroy themselves going forward. And that, in itself, makes for a fascinating new possibility. Who really will be left standing?

Billions offers a masterclass in power politics and business strategy. It is ferociously compelling.