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Billions: Season 4, Episode 3 (Chucky Rhoades's Greatest Game) - Review

Billions: Season 4, Episode 1

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

WE’VE long been fans of Sky Atlantic/Showtime series Billions. And the first episode of its fourth season provided plenty more evidence of why this show remains one of the very best currently on TV.

Set in the world of high finance, the first three seasons essentially pitted shrewd US Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) against ambitious hedge-fund king Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), while placing Rhoades’ wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), also a performance coach for Axelrod, in the middle.

The beauty of this showdown was always not quite knowing who to root for. One week, it might be Rhoades, the lawman. Another week, it would be Axelrod, whose wealth was self-made and who took a perverse delight in getting one over those who sought to keep him down while on the way up.

But such is the under-handed nature of so many of both men’s dealings, the realisation quickly set in that there really were no good people on the show – no real heroes. There were bad men, morally compromised men, unscrupulous men and downright disgusting men. The women, too, had one eye on the power plays needed to ensure they remained essential companions.

It was down to the quality of the performances from Lewis and Giamatti that the shading they brought to both men made them as easy to like as it was, occasionally, to dislike.

By the end of season three, however, both Rhoades and Axelrod found themselves in the unusual position of being placed on the back foot. Rhoades had been stripped of his Attorney status, having decided to take on Clancy Brown’s equally corrupt Attorney General Waylon ‘Jock’ Jeffcoat, while Axelrod found himself ‘betrayed’ by one of his closest allies, Asia Kate Dillon’s protégé turned business rival Taylor Mason.

Season four opened with both men looking to get back on top. And it was a perverse delight, driven by witty pop culture references, excellent soundtrack choices and betrayals and counter-betrayals galore.

As ever, the writing was so tight that some of the plays being made weren’t always easy to understand. But another delight was trying to understand and anticipate them.

For Rhoades, it was about regaining some of his status by getting a carry permit for a wealthy businessman – something that’s almost impossible to achieve in New York. There was a running gag about a park anywhere permit, which was mostly rendered laughable until the one moment it became a deal clincher. But there was also innumerable shots of Giamatti having to swallow his pride and suck up the insults, as men he once lauded power over opted to bring him down a peg or two.

For Axelrod, meanwhile, the episode was about blocking Mason’s rise, while locking down existing deals – in particular, one with a wealthy sheikh. To secure the latter, he sent his second-in-command, the ever-excellent Wags (David Costabile), to do his negotiating for him. But things didn’t end well.

By the episode’s close, Rhoades appeared to be back on the rise, his objective achieved by way of clever wheeler-dealing. Axelrod, however, was faced with an even bigger problem, in the form of ruthless Russian ogliarch Grigor Andolov (John Malkovich), making his own moves to protect his investments with Mason.

Given the stakes involved, however, Chucky Rhoades’s Greatest Game was immensely fun to be a part of. Both Giamatti and Lewis seemed to be aware of the episode’s own ridiculousness at times, no matter how much Brian Koppelman and David Levien mirror current events.

This was made clear by the opening shot of Giamatti bopping along to Al Green’s I Feel Good, while pitching to a client; or Wags’ use of ‘Chaka Khan, Chaka Khan’ in a room full of appalled sheiks. Or even the nearly ever-present riffs of Fun Lovin’ Criminals King of New York as Rhoades went about his business.

It’s this pop culture savviness that makes Billions such a rich guilty pleasure. Its intellect is without question, but it doesn’t exist to make you feel incapable of keeping up. It wants to take you along for the ride, to challenge your own ethics and morals along the way.

For while we know Rhoades and Axelrod are on the back foot now, we can expect backs to be stabbed and friendships to be trashed along the way to their ‘redemption’, if that needs to be the case.

And who knows? En route to their revenge, the likes of Brown’s Jeffcoat and Rhoades’ ever despicable father, Chuck Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn) may get their own comeuppance in the process. Watching men of their stature take such a hard fall is yet another of Billions‘ many pleasures.

And with such a rich ensemble to play with, there’s also bound to be added joy found in seeing how Siff’s Wendy evolves now that she can count both of the men in her life as allies, as well as Dillon’s Mason navigate a business world in which he/she can no longer rely upon Axelrod for guidance.

Then there’s Toby Leonard Moore’s Bryan Connerty, finally being sworn in as the new US Attorney and tasked with discrediting Rhoades’ legacy, as well as Condola Rashad’s manipulative colleague Kate Sacker, who looks set to make more of her own moves designed on getting her to the top.

With so many ingredients in its melting pot, this fourth season of Billions looks set to deliver a tremendous feast for long-term fans, which can thrive even without the intense rivalry between Rhoades and Axelrod to drive it.

Billions continues to offer an embarrassment of riches.

Billions airs on Sky Atlantic on Wednesday nights at 9pm (from March 20, 2019).

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