‘Billions’ Season 4, Episode 3: Hurts So Good
Season 4, Episode 3: ‘Chickentown’
“I used to try and pretend I was dreaming all of the pain, but don’t you kid yourself: Some things have to be endured. And that’s what makes the pleasures so sweet.”
Whether as shorthand for their feelings, metaphors for their predicaments, or models for their aspired-to lifestyles, characters on “Billions” simply love dropping pop-culture quotes on one another. In fact this week’s episode, “Chickentown,” takes its name from a bowdlerized version of the famous “Forget it, Jake …” conclusion to “Chinatown,” referenced when Bobby Axelrod and Wags Wagner stop their mad-dog lieutenant Bill Stearn, known as Dollar Bill (Kelly AuCoin, delightfully amoral), from salvaging an insider-trading scheme by wiping out a poultry farm. (It’s a long story.)
Still, to the best of my recollection, no one on this quotation-happy show has yet referenced Clive Barker’s sadomasochistic horror film “Hellraiser,” whose undead antagonist Frank Cotton I’ve quoted above. No, not even Chuck and Wendy Rhoades, who can at least attest to the veracity of Cotton’s claim about pleasure and pain as a sexual matter.
Yet after watching “Chickentown” I want to set up a “Hellraiser” screening in Bobby Axelrod’s home theater just to make everyone wake up and smell the suffering. Axe, Chuck, Taylor Mason, even the lovably loathsome Dollar Bill — they all seem to require intense adversity to be at their best, whether they realize it or not.
Of all the characters, Taylor is the most deeply embedded in the “or not” category. After three episodes of low-key warfare with Axe, who resents the younger hedge-fund wiz for breaking away from his firm last season, Taylor calls for a strikingly shot late-night waterfront meeting to broker a truce. Why waste so much time attacking and defending, the argument goes, when they can reach terms that allow Taylor Mason Capital to operate freely while allowing Axe Cap to invest in the company and reap the PR rewards on Wall Street?
But take a look at how Taylor has spent the days leading up to the dramatic rendezvous. Bobby’s crack industrial-espionage team has exploited a cybersecurity weakness to uncover his rival’s trading patterns and positions. Knowing Taylor is a perfectionist, and that Taylor Mason Capital’s team of brainiac market-math “quants” is the pride of their firm, Axe launches an infuriatingly subtle scheme to make penny-ante trades simply to screw up their predicted results.
To help stem the bleeding of this death by a thousand cuts, Taylor employs — and I’m quoting here, to capture the full awkwardness of the relationship — “Douglas Mason … yes, this is my … he’s my father.” At first, the gruff, slightly schlubby Douglas (Kevin Pollak) seems a world apart from his gender-nonbinary child, whom he relentlessly misgenders as “she.” But it turns out he, too, is a mathematical genius, though his trade was aerospace rather than the Street.
Together, the Masons craft a new algorithm to make an end-run around Axe’s sabotage — or so they want him to believe. With the help of a surveillance photo procured by his dirty-deeds specialist Hall (Terry Kinney), Axe has a copy of the algo he spends a full day attempting to decipher before realizing it has a mistake. He knows his enemy well enough to know one thing: Taylor Mason doesn’t make mistakes. This isn’t an error. This is a message: We know you’re watching. Without Axe’s needling, Taylor’s defensive capabilities wouldn’t have received so spectacular a showcase, forcing Bobby to the bargaining table.
Nor would Mr. Mason have spent enough time around his kid, now not only an adult but a bona fide Master of the Financial Universe, to relent from his alienating behavior. “You know I don’t think that ‘woke’ stuff is worthless or for idiots just because I’m no good at it, right?” he asks after their work is complete. “I know it matters.” Taylor, the coolest customer on the whole show, tears up in response. All it took was not one but two father figures’ relentless hammering away to achieve this moment of realization.
This is not to say that enduring a parent who casually uses the incorrect pronouns in referring to a child they’re supposed to love and care for is some sort of ennobling sacrifice that’s worth the pain — far from it. But this circumstance shaped Taylor into a person whose “arousal template,” to borrow a phrase from last week’s episode, is proving doubters disastrously wrong. In that sense, mission accomplished.
For Chuck, the pleasure-pain relationship is more literal than for anyone else on the show, but what’s true in his bedroom is true in the world at large. Indeed, his story line this week sees his personal and professional brands of reward and punishment merge like they rarely have before.
Rhoades’s masochistic misadventure begins when his old colleague Lonnie Watley (Malachi Weir, whose professorial presence is unmistakable) warns him of an impending expose that will harm his chances in the attorney general’s race, involving a dropped case against a vape manufacturer whose CEO was a pal of Charles Rhoades, Sr. Chuck tries to stop the story at the source, but the editor rebuffs him. He attempts to scare the whistle-blowing star witness out of going on the record, but his former underling Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad, quietly ruthless) persuades him that a lucrative lawsuit against the vape company could be in the offing if he goes forward.
The outfoxed and exposed Chuck finds that he and Wendy are personae non gratae at a fund-raiser they have to grin and bear their way through that night. Wracked by tension headaches, he figures out a way to make pain work for him, however. Earlier that day he’d gotten aroused by the simple sight of watching Wendy snap a rubber band during the course of a conversation. So he sneaks off to the men’s room, wraps a rubber band around his thigh like a Staples-brand cilice, and spends the rest of the awkward meet-and-greet surreptitiously snapping it through the leg of his trousers. Whatever gets you through the night!
But it’s not until he reaches out to his enemy turned ally Bobby that Chuck’s head finally clears. (The Michael Bolton concert he and his dad took in didn’t seem to help matters, to be fair.) The lawman is not above admitting needs the moneyman’s help.
“I don’t just mean money, though I do mean money,” he clarifies via a deft line reading by Paul Giamatti.
Remember the schemes Axe had been leveraging against Taylor, designed to nibble around the margins rather than risk a frontal assault? Chuck wants him to do the same thing to his opponent in the A.G. race by hitting the coffers of his largest donors. The handshake deal that results — a quid pro quo, with Bobby’s quo to be named later — is enough for Chuck to throw his headache medicine away.
It’s also a much-needed win for Axe. After all, he’d been forced into armistice with Taylor, for now anyway. And at the end of the black-comedy subplot that saw Dollar Bill nearly poison the food supply in order to get an edge on the agribusiness sector, he actually found himself saying “Sometimes you just gotta take a loss,” though the words caught in his throat like so much tainted chicken. Did enduring that pain make the pleasure of potentially having the future attorney general of New York in his pocket that much sweeter? Bet the farm on it.
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of the character nicknamed Dollar Bill. He is Bill Stearn, not Stern. It also misstated the given name of the actor who plays him. He is Kelly AuCoin, not Terry.
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