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Billions: Season 5, Episode 3 (Beg, Bribe, Bully) - Review

Billions: Season 5

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

MONEY is king in Billions and this was never more evident than during the events of Beg, Bribe, Bully – another mirror-image of an episode that showed how profit and fortune trumped even family values.

Not that either protagonist would necessarily have you believe that money comes first. Far from it. For both Axe (Damian Lewis) and Chuck (Paul Giamatti), the notion of family – and, by extension – being a good father and role model is of equal importance.

But scratch beneath the surface and it’s clear that money is the key to everything. If you have no money, then you can’t – as the episode’s title suggests – ‘beg, bribe or bully’. It empowers. It inspires. And while it also corrupts, who cares when you’re having this much fun?

A noticeable element of this fifth season of Billions is just how much Axe is embracing his inner monster, while Chuck – on the other hand – is trying to control it, a la Dexter. Both are aware of their own vices. But where Axe now appears content to revel in his darker side, Chuck is at least attempting to tame his and operate from a place of good.

Neither man, though, can manoeuvre without cold, hard cash.

Beg, Bribe, Bully viciously – and wittily – displayed just how important money is at the sharp end of life in the power lanes.

Axe, for example, had three things to negotiate. Primarily, there was the bullish school headmaster (JC MacKenzie) of his son’s prestige school, who was threatening to expel Gordie (Jack Gore) after his cryptocurrency-mining experiment goes wrong and causes the entire town to lose electricity.

Then there was a painter (Frank Grillo) to seduce, or get on the books, in order to get one over fellow business rival Mike Prince (Corey Stoll). And, finally, there’s the bank he wants to create, with the help of Hard Bob (Chelcie Ross) and Todd Krakow (Danny Strong). The only trouble is, they’re telling him it will be impossible because of his past legal troubles.

Chuck, on the other hand, faces his own challenges when he returns to Yale to pursue the opportunity to teach at the law school, only to find that his father, Chuck Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn), has failed to make good on his pledge to make annual donations of $100,000.

Chuck seeks to set this right by appealing to his father’s better conscience, only to find another obstacle: Chuck Sr’s desire to have Wendy and the kids join him for a family gathering and formal introduction to his new-born daughter.

By episode’s men, both Chuck and Axe are well on the way to getting most – if not all – of what they wanted.

Chuck, arguably, has the easier path, despite having to negotiate with ex-wife Wendy (Maggie Siff) over his decision to place a financial restraining order on her assets. But by releasing the order, Wendy got the funds needed to buy her own apartment, while Chuck Sr had his family reunion, prompting him to make good on his pledge.

But while family was used as a bargaining tool, the real motivator here was undoubtedly money and image. Chuck Sr had had his nose put out of joint by his son’s failure to acknowledge his new marriage or sister, so used money as leverage. Chuck, too, got what he wanted by using money as a bargaining tool.

The family reunion was very much a pretence.

Axe, meanwhile, set the wheels in motion on his bank plan and secured the services of his artist after much bargaining and financial wooing. In both cases, financial might and its power to seduce carried the day.

And similarly, in his dealings with headteacher Julien Kessel, Axe uses money to win the day. He enlists Wags (David Costabile) to find dirt on Kessel and ‘blackmails’ him into keeping Gordie enrolled… this despite the fact that Kessel’s apparent financial mis-dealings were in service to a greater good (the enrolment, at the school, of some Syrian refugee students who would otherwise have been refused the chance to study in the US).

Throughout the episode, Axe would coach his son on the power plays being made, under the admiring gaze of Wags (who, in turn, reached out to his own children). But the lessons were harsh and the opposite of fatherly, or rather good. They were designed to show how ruthless the world really is and how much it is driven by power.

When Gordie asks whether his position at the school depends on Axe tarnishing the reputation of a good man (Kessel), he watches as his father opts to press ahead with the blackmail. And he also bears witness to the full extent of his father’s bullying power, when he not only succeeds in keeping Gordie’s place, but also demands that Kessel allow him to speak to the rest of the school.

The ensuing speech finds Axe gleefully extolling the benefits of greed and capitalism in a manner that inspired memories of Gordon Gekko’s infamous “greed is good” speech from Wall Street. But it exposed the depths of the darkness to which Axe is prepared to plunge.

And his despite the fact he had earlier grappled with his conscience by running the play by Maggie and asking her whether bailing Gordie out is the right thing to do, or will intervening screw his son up in the end. The answer was always going to be intervention… but the surprise came in just how ruthless it became.

It’s testament to the quality of Billions writing team, however, that no matter how low Chuck or Axe stoop, there’s something compulsively entertaining about watching them at play. There is an artistry to their power plays (born out by the energy of their performances). But in Axe’s case, here, there was also a rock star quality, backed by the choice of music that accompanied his speech.

We know they’re bad guys. We even know that, in Axe’s case, they’re the very same guys that ruined us financially years ago and got away with it (a fact acknowledged by Kessel in this very episode). But damn if we can’t help but be seduced by the high rolling dirtiness of it all!

Read our verdict on the previous episode