Episodes 5 & 6: "A Proper Sendoff" and "Maximum Recreational Depth"
Before we dig into this review, let’s address the elephant in the room: Yes, we missed last week’s deadline. Please forgive us. Please have mercy. We blame Easter and Passover. We blame Aries season transitioning to Taurus season. We blame the sun, the moon, AND the stars. But most importantly, we blame ourselves. While we were procrastinating (by engaging in lively discourse about America’s new favorite Teletubbie, Pete Buttigieg, on several group-chats), Billions finally returned to form. Usually, the halfway point of a Billions season is when things kick into high gear—subplots are cemented, new alliances are formed, and elaborate schemes are etched out in the storage rooms of candy shops (more to come). Luckily these last two episodes managed to get us there, and finally, praise Jewish G-d, there’s food again!
Both this week and last week’s episodes started off with our beloved characters indulging in a simulation of authenticity. Part of Billions’ allure is its ability to give viewers a glimpse into the sensationalized lives of the upper echelon. “A Proper Sendoff” commenced with Wendy, Chuck, Axe, and Rebecca Cantu at an empty Una Pizza Napoletana (an upscale rendering of a great Italian-American tradition), being served by celebrity chef and owner, Anthony Mangieri. Like all of the cameos on Billions, the appearance of this restaurant is used as a narrative vehicle to portray an oozing sense of privilege and exclusivity. It was only last season that Axe and Chuck were mortal enemies. Now, they are united by their shared love of scheming and luxuriating (and Wendy’s feeling a bit left out). Spaces like Una Pizza Napoletana function as metaphorical adult playgrounds—they facilitate the liberated curiosity’s renegotiation and new articulation of the American authentic. Time and time again, particularly in this season, we see food being used as a metaphor for the stuff of legends, a living incarnation of reinvention that can not only be consumed, but actually admired (so much so that Chuck haunts us with the image of him willingly stripping down in Time Square to eat it if he had to).
In a similar vein, “Maximum Recreational Depth” begins with a Wendy and Taylor date at Morgenstern’s Ice Cream, where they are served by none other than...drum roll please...Nick Morgenstern—the chef and creator of the iconic spot! While handing Wendy what appears to be a root beer float, he mentions that though the speakeasy may be an American tradition this particular treat is “for friends only,” revealing to us that he has spiked this one especially for America’s new favorite psychiatrist (Sorry Dr. Melfi, but Mr. Soprano has left the building). As Wendy sips away at her alcoholic, childish concoction, we’re left contemplating once again what it means to be able to enjoy the inclusivity allotted through privilege, but to also simultaneously experience the exclusivity of what you’re enjoying. This secretly alcoholic root beer float is the best metaphor for what Wendy, Axe, and all of the power players in this show all share. From the exterior, they are partaking in some form of populism. But they get their true joy— and power—from what they keep secret.
When we see Axe dining with Victor at Haandi, a classic Indian spot in Murray Hill (aka Curry Hill), we immediately see what he’s trying to keep secret. They’re in a small hole in the wall that Axe won’t get spotted at because he’s afraid of being associated with the criminal activity tied to Victor. But to Victor, this is a spot rife with childhood nostalgia. Victor is trying to break bread with Axe, reminiscing on his childhood visits to this spot. Meanwhile, Axe is trying to take advantage of his vulnerability—specifically exposed whilst dining on comfort food—to get to the truth of what mess Victor has made this time around. Axe doesn’t eat any of the food, but he does take a bite out of Victor’s ego when he decides to buy up his entire firm, forcing him to become a member of the Axe Cap team once again to pay off his new debt.
Countering Axe’s strategy, we see Wendy sitting down to talk about her problems with Taylor, whom she positions as the only person she can speak to without fear of repercussion. We are strung along throughout the episode to believe that there is an odd but intimate friendship developing between Taylor and Wendy, only to discover by the end of the episode that the vegan mango rice ice cream was not a peace offering but rather a Trojan horse. Wendy, unlike Axe, exploits her own vulnerability to construct the notion of neutral ground between her and Taylor, when in fact, she’s gaming Taylor all along to find out precisely how to destroy them. At the end of the episode when Wendy reveals her devious side-mission to the Axe crew, a seriously downtrodden Wags (in drag) hands her his half-empty bottle of Scotch which she promptly takes a swig of—now an official member of this sinister boys’ club.
The episode concludes with a second visit from Chuck and Adam DeGiulio to Economy Candy (an L.E.S. stronghold since 1937, and fittingly, of legendary status). This next time around, however, Chuck isn’t just pocketing a tiny lollipop—he’s reaching for the King-size version. Like two kids in a candy shop (well, literally in this case), DeGiulio and Rhoades discuss the maniacal game of cat-and-mouse they’re playing with Bryan Connerty. They wish to trap him in a mess of his own making, revealing an added layer of depth to Chuck’s strategy. However, we are taken even deeper as all of these players’ actions reverberate out, when we discover that Connerty had been surveilling Chuck the entire time. Repeatedly characterized as a power-hungry justice-seeker with an appetite than cannot be sated, Bryan finally gets a bite of his heavy-hitting entree and boy, is it juicy.