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Billions: Season 5, Episode 2 (The Chris Rock Test) - Review

Billions: Season 5, Episod 2

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

THE chess pieces were moved around the board in ever more fascinating ways as Billions moved through the gears in its second episode, The Chris Rock Test. Hell, there was even a game of chess midway through involving a cameo from real-world grandmaster Hikaru Nakamur!

But while no one is quite in check mate yet, it’s the nature of the high-stakes world in which Billions operate that just about everyone flirted with being temporarily in check.

Primarily, we had Axe (Damian Lewis), whose decision to go on the offensive against business ogliarch Mike Prince (Corey Stoll) at the latter’s annual charity conference backfired spectacularly. For much of the episode, he and trusted partner Wags (David Costabile) appeared to have the upper hand.

A debate between the two often had Mike on the back foot, as Axe attempted to prove that his host wasn’t quite the gracious business leader he made himself out to be. But this, in turn, involved another stealth play by Axe, as his recent experience with ayahuasca gave him the idea of making psilocybin mainstream, particularly as he had a key shaman in his pocket to grab the required investors.

But by episode’s end, Mike had turned the tables completely, presenting the shaman as his, to his guests, to the consternation and surprise of both Axe and Wags.

In truth, though, this was always going to be Mike’s episode. Billions is too early into its latest run of episodes to have Axe triumph so soon. Mike had to establish himself as a worthwhile opponent. And thanks to the events of The Chris Rock Test, he now has.

Axe is on the back foot. But that’s arguably where he’s most dangerous. It should be fascinating to see the two go head to head: Axe’s self-confessed monster against the smooth, unflappable operator that Stoll has skilfully set Mike up to be already.

At the same conference, Wags had his own moment of reckoning, or failure. The Chris Rock test of the episode’s title alluded to his own failure to keep his daughter off the pole… a revelation painfully exposed [literally] to him as he attempted to land a new client at a high-end strip club. Wag’s moment of realisation/horror was beautifully conveyed by Costabile, as ever… as was his hang-dog demeanour the following morning.

Elsewhere, making his own smart chess moves was Chuck (Paul Giamatti), now very much on the offensive. His first move placed soon-to-be ex-wife Wendy (Maggie Siff) into ‘check’, by freezing her money and preventing her from buying her own apartment. It was a declaration of war… the start of a new game against another master.

But ever the player himself, Chuck also had a second game in motion, his long-time friend Judge DeGiulio (Rob Morrow) and an attempt to get him confirmed as a circuit court judge. The task was made harder by the judge’s past that included drafting a torture memo in which he condoned waterboarding.

Chuck saw an opportunity to exploit this and pounced, blocking DeGiulio’s path but placing him as solicitor general – a key position in his ongoing battle against Axe. He is moving his own pieces around the New York state board.

Chuck, meanwhile, is wresting with his own demons, citing a “dark passenger” that needs to be controlled and used tactically. Dexter was his reference point – and Dexter’s father, his guru. It’s interesting a man of Chuck’s intellectual calibre should reference a piece of pulp fiction such as Dexter – for while the TV series was very clever for most of its run, the books they were based on were pulpy by comparison. And one can only hope that Billions doesn’t eventually succumb to the same fatal flaws as Dexter, which ended on a low.

Right now, however, Billions remains at the top of its game… always one or two moves ahead of its viewers as each episode unveils fiendish plays.

There were more in The Chris Rock Test. Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), Wendy and Lauren (Jade Eshete) all made moves, of sorts, mostly involving taking control of their own destinies within the AxeCap empire.

But you know there will be moves and counter-moves aplenty before the season is out. And that’s where the great joy of watching Billions lies… grappling with the plays and trying to understand or even see them before they’re finished.

As ever, the moves are slick, fast and ruthlessly calculated. Billions is currently in little danger of losing its status as one of the kings of television dramas right now.

Read our review of the previous episode