Episode 3: "Chickentown"
Stans beware: this is not your typical episode of Billions. “Chickentown” doesn’t use food as an objective correlative. Rather, it uses food as a metaphorical parallel to the action. Chuck reveals the structure of the episode when he tells a reporter, “There comes a time, Lucian, when ideology meets reality.” This is certainly that time for Billions. The entire episode hyper-focuses on the tensions between the characters’ dualities, and they each find themselves forced into a game of “chicken.” There’s some game theory at play here: two characters drive towards each other at full speed, but one of them must swerve in order to avoid mutually assured destruction. However, despite making the rational decision to self-preserve, that person is viewed as a coward lacking commitment to a greater mission.
As Axe plays a game of chicken with Taylor, thwarting their attempts to make any return for their investors, Dollar Bill finds himself in a game of chicken with the Chicken Man. Chuck plays chicken with Connerty who is trying to sabotage his run for State Attorney General, and Wendy pushes Chuck into a game of chicken over the rigidity of their power dynamics in bed.
Brian manages to dig up an old case Chuck dropped against Sugar Vape—a corporation unsubtly similar to Juul—and lock down a whistle-blower sickened by the sight of kids puffing on that “piña colada poison” (and between us, we would totally like to try that poison). The goal is to sully Chuck’s name and decimate his chances at winning the A.G. position he so desperately wants—not so much to stroke his own ego anymore, but rather to please his wife and father. When Lonnie Watley alerts Chuck to this unfortunate turn of events (which renders his law firm unable to throw a planned fundraiser for his campaign), Chuck ensures him that he can get his ducks in a row, just as he always has in the past. However, his confidence is tempered by a migraine that follows him throughout the episode, leaving us concerned about his ability to perform.
Naively feeling back on top, he successfully strong-arms the whistle-blower into rescinding his comments to the bloodthirsty journalist. However, in another turn of this unpredictable game of chicken, Kate Sacker, now working with Connerty (typical as her loyalty tends to lie with he who she finds most powerful), re-convinces our depleted whistle-blower to commit to his former statements about Chuck’s flimsy moral compass.
After firm instructions from his father to show his face at the casino and greet the people despite his humiliation upon the article getting published, Chuck is faced with even more mounting tension. His game of chicken takes him directly to a stall in the men’s bathroom of the casino. He takes a rubber band and rolls it all the way up to his thigh, and uses the band to snap himself into a state of physical submission so that he can be socially dominant.
We are left wondering as we look at his poultry-like, bare flesh: how far is he willing to go?
He essentially discovers a way to mainline his kink without anyone being the wiser (This is a good idea for a startup and for the record, Dish Rag Magazine would be happy to collaborate with said startup). Chuck strolls out of the bathroom with a puffed chest like a proud rooster, but underneath his suit of armor, he’s shamefully trussed up like a bare and vulnerable chicken.
Meanwhile back at Axe Capital, Dollar Bill receives a mysterious tip about the Arkansas Chicken Index and a corrupt “Chicken Man” who is willing to fudge the bird count and influence the poultry value. Dollar Bill who is “not uncertain” of the source’s accuracy naturally loads up on stock. When things run afoul and Chicken Man is discovered dead on the floor of his living room, things start to spiral out of control for Dollar Bill who notoriously will go beyond the point of no return for Axe, no matter how personally detrimental it is.
To solve this situation, he comes up with a move that takes him to the very edge of sanity, telling Axe and Wags that he’s come up with “a final solution” to their chicken problem. Before we know it Axe and Wags are on their way to Arkansas to prevent Dollar Bill from committing a chicken holocaust. They manage to stop Dollar Bill right as he’s about to enter a major poultry facility with a capon carrying H5N1b, which he claims will “freeze transport on a few 100,000 birds,” giving them the return he promised.
Perhaps Taylor says it best when they explain to their father (who is visiting), that “Linetsky knew that if he were to create a derivative, it would develop organically in a way he couldn’t control. His only options were to learn to understand and accept where it was taking him, or step away. He had to be able to live with that.” Dollar Bill yells out in sleep-deprived exasperation, dark circles beleaguering his eyes, but Axe uncharacteristically talks him down. Despite threatening him to fire him and install him as a fry-cook earlier in the episode, now for the first time, we see Axe take a step back and really be human. He admits to Dollar Bill, “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but we can’t all be right all the time. Sometimes you gotta take a loss.” As he stares longingly at the door, Wags gives him a pat on the shoulder and—recreating the famous closing line from Chinatown—tells him, “Forget it Bill, it’s Chickentown.” Bill tosses the sick chicken over the barbed wire fence, returning it to its rightful home, accepting the organic development of things even if it doesn’t go his way. He does what he has to do to live with himself.
On the plane-ride back from Arkansas, Wags’ and Dollar Bill’s faces are dripping with grease as they devour a bucket of drive-thru fried chicken from Arkansas—an interesting perversion of comfort food considering Dollar Bill almost massacred enough chicken to feed a small country. But it also yields an odd sense of catharsis. Watching Wags and Bill eat fast food fried chicken on a private plane makes them slightly relatable despite their surreal lifestyles. We all know what it feels like to have a rough day and devour something just completely disgusting to make ourselves feel better. It’s about giving in to what feels better instead of fighting back all of the time, instead of always having something to prove. It’s therefore not shocking that while Wags and Dollar Bill are lost in their comforting consumption, Axe is at the other end of the plane having a similar experience as he breaks down the derivative that Taylor created at the beginning of the episode, retrieved through the use of Israel spy-ware. He discovers a coded request for a truce in the form of a subtle mistake that Axe knows Taylor would never make. She exposes to him in that moment that he’s not the hunter, she is.
The episode ends with one last glass of scotch, this time shared between Axe and Chuck. In this show, all of the good scheming happens over scotch. Chuck asks Axe for help, and essentially offers him an invincibility clause in exchange for support which Axe promptly accepts. As he walks out, Chuck looks at his now-empty Excedrin bottle, and tosses it into the trash as a smile of relief slowly spreads across his face.