Season 7, Episode 5: ‘The Gulag Archipelago’
Let’s do a little narrative reverse engineering, shall we?
Imagine, if you will, that you are a both a trader and a traitor — a high-powered executive at a major investment fund, looking to fatally undermine your own boss in order to stop him from becoming the president of the United States.
Your Plan A, recruiting your even more dangerous old boss to stop him, has failed. You’re tired of waiting around for your performance-coach colleague, the ringleader of your band of mutineers, to generate a Plan B. It becomes clear that coming up with Plan C is up to you.
So you generate some short-term, medium-term and long-term goals for this plan. In the short term, you need something that will cost your hated boss enough money to rattle his cage. In the medium term, you’d like to generate doubt and dissension among his key employees, as well as elsewhere on the Street. In the long term, you want to increase the power available to a member of your own inner circle to make mischief — enough power, you hope, to engineer the fatal mistake that will take your boss down for good.
It isn’t revealed until the closing moments of this week’s episode of “Billions,” but this is precisely the action driving most of this week’s financial activity on the Prince Cap side of the story. It all looks innocent enough: Pivoting off a birthday balloon-inspired brainstorm by Dollar Bill, Taylor uncovers the opportunity to invest big in a helium processing start-up. The price of admission, however, exceeds that which Taylor and Philip are authorized to spend in the absence of their target — ahem, boss — Mike Prince, and his lieutenant, Scooter. Even after the formidable Victor somehow secures an extension of the investment window, it’s all a matter of sitting around, waiting for Mike and Scooter to answer their phones.
And where are those phones? In a secure bag at a remote church where the rapper Killer Mike is previewing his new album. Mike and Scooter are determined to secure the artist-slash-activist’s endorsement, even though Mike’s campaign manager, Bradford, told them to steer clear of this thorny territory.
Prince does wind up earning Killer Mike’s loyalty with a pledge to invest in several Atlanta-area, Black-owned banks, and Bradford is forced to give it up for his client’s sense of initiative. But Bradford should have stuck to his guns. In the time required to line up the Killer Mike’s support, Prince could have signed off on that big Helium start-up investment and reap over $1 billion in rewards. Indeed, the episode’s funniest moment comes when Scooter and Prince stroll happily out of that church, grab their phones and watch as dozens of notifications fill their home screens.
Mike’s response to all this strikes me as the worst one possible. He admits that the structure he put in place isn’t tenable while he is out running for office, then grants Wags — a member of the conspiracy against him — the same sign-off power previously reserved for himself and Scooter. Beyond that, though, he refuses to accept any responsibility whatsoever, telling his crestfallen employees that if he had been in their shoes, he would have found a workaround — so why didn’t they? He even condescendingly tells them to treat this as a chance to learn from what it feels like to lose, as if he weren’t a loser right along with them, as if he weren’t the reason they lost.
Which brings us back to those final moments. Turns out all of this, from the moment Dollar Bill divulged the original helium play, was a scheme on Taylor’s part. Taylor engineered the entire situation for this precise outcome: Wags gains power, and Prince loses prestige. Even though Wags and Wendy were kept out of the loop, they figured out what was going on — again, Taylor anticipated this — and kept quiet, allowing the plan to come to fruition.
The idea that people who abuse their power might be brought low by those they trust is a deeply appealing, even cathartic one. We can’t stand people like Prince who have granted themselves the right to run our lives; surely, we think, neither can those whom they’ve trusted to help. It’s a fun and instantly recognizable note for “Billions” to play.
But the show’s fingers are running all up and down the proverbial keyboard, bringing back long-forgotten leitmotifs. The actor Toby Leonard Moore, nearly unrecognizable beneath a beard, shaggy hair and a chef’s uniform, returns as Bryan Connerty, Chuck’s disgraced underling. Bryan’s ex-colleague and ex-girlfriend Kate dines at the hibachi restaurant where he has been working since his release from prison — a release accelerated thanks to Kate — in order to ensure he won’t be a liability when she runs for Congress. Connerty suggests that rather than cow him with threats, she should cajole him with incentives to play along, namely the restoration of his law license.
One final old friend plays a major role in this episode: Ira, Chuck’s college bestie turned deputy at the Southern District. When a mugger steals his phone, Ira turns to Chuck to recover it — ostensibly because he has some sensitive documents and emails on it, but in actuality because he has been filming intimate videos with his wife, Taiga (Comfort Clinton), and doesn’t want them leaking.
Recovering them takes some doing. It forces Chuck to tip his hand to two frenemies, the incoming New York police commissioner, Raul Gomez (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), and Attorney General Dave Mahar, that the phone is valuable. While Gomez chuckles about its contents with his buddies, Dave parlays this opportunity into a guarantee of playing first chair in any future legal action against Prince. It’s a huge concession on Chuck’s part, so huge that it gives Ira pause. In the past, Chuck has showed little compunction when it comes to messing with Ira’s life when there’s some greater good to be achieved. Why change now?
“Because you’re my friend,” Chuck says, “and that’s my big picture now.” The two men then eat sweet potato pie together — a grace note, I hope, for their entire relationship, as “Billions” begins tying off its plot threads one by one.
I don’t know if it was the actor Comfort Clinton, the writer Amadou Diallo or some other party, but whoever decided to turn Taiga’s hug goodbye for Chuck into a borderline collapse onto his shoulders out of pure relief deserves serious kudos. That one little moment took a minor character who could be seen as the butt of one of the episode’s running jokes and turned her into a real person, experiencing real, relatable emotions. (Oh come on, like you’ve never been put in a compromising digital position before.)
As far as depictions of the moral bankruptcy of power go, showing the incoming police commissioner screening someone’s private sex tapes for the amusement of his cop buddies at a soiree in honor of his swearing-in is going to be tough for “Billions” to top.
I’m not sure how I feel about the composer Brendan Angelides’s decision to score the revelation of Ira’s sex tapes with boom-chikka-bowwow porn music, but I’m leaning toward “It’s funny, so it’s allowed.”
I’m all for the episode’s tertiary plotline, the budding romance between Wendy and Bradford, but it reminds me that Wendy and Chuck’s sadomasochistic relationship is, at this point, the show’s biggest dropped ball. Other than using Chuck’s kink to write off Juliana Margulies’s character post-pandemic, this once-central aspect of the series — the show’s opening shot showed us Chuck in flagrante, remember — has completely fallen by the wayside.
For having Dollar Bill, Victor, and Taylor talk with Chipmunk-esque helium voices, I salute this episode. That’s a bit that always works, or at least so I tell myself at parties.