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‘Billions’ Recap Season 5, Episode 9: A Prince Among Thieves

Season 5, Episode 9: ‘Implosion’ “He’s not dead till I say he’s dead,” says Bobby Axelrod of his decabillionaire rival, Mike Prince. “Bobby …

‘Billions’ Recap Season 5, Episode 9: A Prince Among Thieves

Season 5, Episode 9: ‘Implosion’

“He’s not dead till I say he’s dead,” says Bobby Axelrod of his decabillionaire rival, Mike Prince.

“Bobby Axelrod has to be wiped from the face of the earth,” says Mike Prince of his decabillionaire rival, Bobby Axelrod.

Heck yeah, says I.

“Billions” is never better than when its combatants (often a more apt word than “characters”) have well and truly joined the battle against one another, concocting complex schemes and building toward dramatic denouements for their rivalries. As this week’s episode drew to a close, not one but three worthy adversaries — Mike Prince; Chuck Rhoades; and, in something of a surprise, Taylor Mason — had all joined forces to take Bobby Axelrod down.

Will it stick? Probably no more or less than all their past attempts, including those that took place in this very episode. Will it be fun to watch? I would bet a decabillionaire’s daily ill-gotten gains on it.

This latest round of hostilities began in last week’s episode when Bobby reached out to the still-grieving mother of Prince’s former partner, whom he convinced to blast Prince on national television. It was one of the most effective reputation destroying maneuvers in recent “Billions” memory, and in addition to scrapping his ambassadorship to Denmark, it drove many of Prince’s clients, business partners and charity partners heading for the hills.

Sure, he can talk a few of them into staying with an intimidating, Van Halen-quoting monologue or two. But the writing is on the wall, in letters so large even Princecan read them.

So, after a meeting with his ex-partner’s mother, he does what he considers to be the right thing. Rather than let his plummeting reputation sink the impact-investment sector, he divests all of his do-good holdings so they’re not tainted with his sociopathic stink.

Naturally, this is seen as good news within the halls of Axe Cap, specifically the Taylor Mason Carbon wing of the office. Taylor realizes they can buy up Prince’s former holdings on the cheap, shoring up both the sector and their own control of it.

Axe’s response? He wants to offload everything Axe Cap owns in the sector, turning Prince’s good deed into the first domino that will sink the entire decarbonization market. Why? Just to make Prince look even worse than he already does.

Taylor, of course, is aghast at the idea, which is both immoral and — this should be the more important consideration for Axe — a money loser. So Bobby goes around his semiautonomous lieutenant and orders Taylor’s underling Mafee (Dan Soder) to make the trades. There goes the sector, and there goes all of Prince’s attempts to rehab his reputation along with them.

For Bobby, this is just more tit-for-tat, a follow-up to Prince’s attempt to get at Axe by stranding at sea the first shipment of his frozen-pizza pet project. On the advice of his star pizza chef’s cousin, Paul Manzarello (Domenick Lombardozzi), Bobby buys up a bunch of Italian-made pizza ovens and recreates the entire shipment domestically, allowing his right-hand man, Wags, to show up Scooter, his counterpart at Prince’s firm, at a supermarket. For Prince, it’s the last straw: Axelrod delenda est.

Chuck, meanwhile, continues his machinations against his old rival — while he’s not busy helping his dying father pick out coffins. Recognizing that his maneuverings unwittingly handed Axe the bank charter he had been seeking, Chuck reaches out to Drew Moody (an impressively sinister Michael Cerveris), attorney general for the tax-haven state of Delaware, in an attempt to nip the problem in the bud.

Moody blows him off. “I don’t believe corporations are people,” he purrs. “They’re better than people, because they don’t [expletive] up when they get so obsessed with one thing they can’t see reality.” I’m not sure this tracks given Axe Cap’s behavior, but OK, sure.

Chuck devises a novel workaround for this particular stone wall, though. He has his father, Charles Sr., appointed as special trustee to Axe’s new bank, ready to ride herd and make life for the fledgling operation a living hell, so long as he is still alive to do so.

And that’s precisely the vulnerability upon which Axelrod seizes. Utilizing the secret employee files compiled by Wendy Rhoades before her big ethics investigation a while back, Axe discovers that his minion Danny Margolis (Daniel Cosgrove) is a donor match for the kidney transplant Charles needs to stay alive; by the time Chuck gets wind of it, the operation is all but underway. Now Bobby can say he has done the one thing Charles’s own son couldn’t: He saved the old man’s life.

So much for that punitive trusteeship!

But Prince is surprisingly optimistic. Recognizing an excess of emotion in Axe’s decision to cut his pizza partners in on atypically favorable terms, Prince sees the new bank as a blessing in disguise. With no one in place to stop him, Prince says, Axe will get reckless and make mistakes — “fatal ones.” All they have to do is let him run with it, continuing to cut corners and wage war against Prince until he makes a blunder from which he can’t recover.

So when Taylor rolls into Chuck and Prince’s conversation and asks, point blank, “How are we taking down Bobby Axelrod?,” the last piece of the puzzle snaps into place. If these three together can’t do it, no one can.

But what if that’s just it — what if no one can? Consider the fate of Nico Tanner, Axe Cap’s artist in residence. His relationship with Bobby has effectively ruined his artistic drive; he is now both overly attached to making money and bitterly resentful of his patron’s control over him. So he slashes the canvas of the final painting to which he was contracted with Bobby and winds up destroying his relationship with Wendy in the process. Raking in the big bucks only made him painfully aware of his need for the big bucks, and the result is an omnidirectional disaster.

But not for Bobby. Sifting through the detritus of Tanner’s trashed studio, he snaps up the sketch of Wendy that Tanner penciled after a night together, then decides to hang a painting that Nico appears to have defaced with an entire can of black paint. That ruined painting isn’t ruined at all, as Bobby sees it — it has the power and emotion he was looking for all along.

And why would he see it any different? Profiting from disaster is the Bobby Axelrod way. Or as Chuck puts it elsewhere in the episode, “Every time I move, I make his life better and mine worse.” Is Chuck’s alliance with Prince and Mason a way out of this dynamic, or will it simply dig the hole deeper?

Loose change:

  • Fans of Bobby DeNiro take note: This episode referenced both “The Irishman” (with Charles Sr. hilariously arguing that his life is now too short to watch a four-hour movie) and “Cop Land.”

  • Prince refers to himself as “the Atomic Punk” to a recalcitrant investor, thus harnessing the power of Van Halen (it’s a reference to a song on their first album). Chuck paraphrased the Van Halen frontman David Lee Roth in last week’s episode. Here’s hoping Axe does karaoke to “Hot for Teacher” or something next week.

  • Speaking of that old-time rock ‘n’ roll, it was nice to hear Bruce Springsteen’s “Adam Raised a Cain” on the soundtrack.

  • Something to note: Rian, one of Mase Carb’s rising stars, nearly quits the firm over the sell-off debacle before being talked out of it by Taylor. I still feel like there’s a connection developing here that will go deeper than boss and employee.

  • Don’t think for a second that Chuck’s alliance with Prince makes them friends. “Because I’m so rich, I’m inherently guilty?” Prince says during one of their first meetings. “It’s what I built a good chunk of my career on,” Chuck replies. Prince counters by saying the mega-rich can’t be policed by outsiders; the only way they can really do good in the world is “to demand it of ourselves.” Given his track record, I’m not filled with confidence.

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