Episode 2: "Arousal Template"
On this week’s episode of Billions, “Arousal Template,” sandwiches served as the spiritual nucleus. Last week’s premiere established the various power struggles that will be presumably explored over the course of the season. While Axe will probably spend the rest of the season finding cunning ways to fuck with his rival Taylor, Rhoades Jr. will likely try to reclaim his throne as New York City’s most powerful sub (and we’re not talking about the sandwich!). Speaking of, during this episode, Wendy starts to reassess her BDSM relationship with her hubby. “Arousal Template” fleshes out these various dynamics while introducing a new, thrilling love interest for Axe—the Lori Greiner-esque billionaire Rebecca Cantu.
Towards the beginning of the episode, Axe-Capital turncoat Mafee and Rudy meet at a microbrewery. They are eating the typical food that can be found in the numerous upscale man-caves that have popped up in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Rudy tells Mafee that after getting abruptly fired from Axe Capital and with the upcoming burden of his wife’s pregnancy hanging over him, he’s a bit desperate and interested in joining Taylor’s firm. While Mafee munches on pepperoni pizza, Rudy’s desperation for the good life is conveyed through his indulgent entree: a pretzel brioche cheeseburger dripping with grease, toppings oozing out of the burger. He only bites into it once Mafee essentially offers him a position at Taylor’s firm, and he does so with his eyes open, staring into Mafee’s. This is an extremely unsettling way to eat a sandwich, and a theme that carries through the rest of the episode.
Rhoades Jr. is slyly plotting his return to power and has been tasked with investigating the police pension fund for his ally Police Commissioner Sansone. In one of the episode’s most inspired sequences, Rudy’s first bites of his burger fade into Rhoades Jr. ripping the paper off of a bland-looking, utilitarian sandwich on his desk.
Over the course of his conversation with Michael Panay, a corrupt investor who is mishandling the police pension fund, Rhoades Jr. uses his seemingly sad sandwich as an objective correlative to subtly express his rage, loathing, and thirst for revenge.
In the middle of a monologue, he inexplicably violently slams half of his uneaten sandwich into the trash. At this point, Panay knows something is not right—Chuck is on the warpath. Speaking exclusively with a mouth full of deli meat, he corners the unsettled Panay into delivering intel about how the pension fund has been run. Rhoades Jr., a notorious sub in the bedroom, essentially dominates the sandwich as he starts to get his professional groove back.
Later on, Axe and his new love interest/rival/business partner Rebecca meet up at Broken Shaker Tiki Bar at the Freehand Hotel: the uber-rich person’s version of a laid-back, dimly lit tiki bar serving up sake and sushi. In classic Billions fashion, Axe’s agenda is as dualistic as the restaurant they dine in. He manages to convince Rebecca to sell him a good chunk of her industrial custodial company, something she will learn to regret by the end of the episode after Axe manages to increase the stock value by taking down the company’s competition by exposing their poor labor practices. However, even while Axe is scheming her, they manage to bond over their shared respect for one another’s cunning business acumen. After a few shots and rolls, she’s in his bed making sweet, sweet, 40-something divorcee love. There is almost a double-think that happens with Axe and his associates: business and pleasure are constantly co-mingled, but they also are treated as completely separate from one another.
During the third season of Billions, as an attempt to keep up with current events, the writers introduced the Russian oligarch Grigor as a power-player. Though the subplot was a bit campy, it did reflect a truth of the borderless, nefarious nature of 21st century money laundering. Even if Grigor was ruthless (he offered to kill Taylor to help Axe), he was a man of dignity who enveloped his threats with long-winded anecdotes and metaphor. The Kozlovs are depicted as brutal, barbaric, and even straight-up mob-like. To illustrate that point, there’s a quick scene that features a Kozlov ripping a supermarket Danish into smithereens during a meeting with Taylor’s firm.
The episode ends at the San Gennaro 92nd annual feast, an annual street party thrown in Manhattan’s Little Italy that is sure to induce an intense state of panic unless you’ve pre-gamed with some Klonopin. Axe is eating a meat sub with his new lover Rebecca, reconciled after he one-upped her by profiting off her company. At the same festival, Rhoades Jr. gets the endorsement from the police commissioner for his campaign for Attorney General of New York City. While Rhoades Jr. accepts the endorsement, Bryan Connerty lurks in the shadows and angrily bites into his own sub, a dark vengeance looming in his eyes, as he realizes that he’s been outmaneuvered yet again by his former boss turned nemesis.
It’s hard to miss the absence of silverware throughout the episode. Every dish consumed is what some might call “finger food.” Sandwiches, pizza, sushi; by literally holding onto their food, these power-players are aggressively acknowledging their biological drive for nourishment, and survival. The episode plays with the seeming innocuousness of pedestrian, fast casual dining by weaponizing it. Every bite of carb-wrapped protein is designed to unsettle and disorient. These scenes seek to establish unseen power dichotomies that foreshadow the tensions that will run through the rest of the season.