On the billionaire side of the “Billions” ledger, the behavior is, unsurprisingly, even worse. Bobby begins the episode by officially signing divorce papers with his now ex-wife Lara; the meeting is cordial, as is their private discussion of their finances and legal situation afterward. The thrust of that conversation, however, is completely infuriating. They treat the prospect of the court case leaving them with “only” $300 to $320 million as if they’d just been bankrupted.
Later, Axe approaches the disgraced investor Michael Panay (Hari Dhillon) to operate as a catspaw, making the trades that Bobby is barred from handling on his own. “Forty,” Panay says of the amount of money left to him after his downfall. “Guess I can live on that.” To be clear, he is talking about 40 million, not 40 thousand, dollars. In order to save himself from the ignominy of living off an amount of money most Americans won’t see in the course of their lifetimes, he effectively sells his soul to the redheaded devil.
It is a move that should further enrich him, Axe, the police pension fund they’re handling and Raul Gomez, the ex-cop who runs the fund. All it requires is becoming a highly paid wage slave to an even richer man. The heart bleeds, doesn’t it?
Running parallel to these threads of realpolitik and greed, Taylor and Wags’s story line this episode raises the intriguing idea that even masters of the financial universe like themselves could be brought low by the rise of the machines. Contrary to longstanding policy at Axe Capital, Taylor wants to bring in quantitative analysts, or “quants,” who create complex computer algorithms that tell them what and when to trade instead of relying on the human insights and personal touches of Dollar Bill, Mafee, Kim, Rudy and the rest of the hotshots working the Axe Cap terminals. (Well, Dollar Bill is a hotshot, anyway; the others are nervous wrecks, as we see when Mafee’s therapeutic session with Wendy Rhoades devolves, to his horror, into a slippery-slope monologue about whether or not he checks out her backside when she walks around the office.)
A variety of entertaining candidates for the gig traipse in and out of the office. The final candidate is a real Goldilocks: He’s older, wiser, calmer, kinder — a NASA data analyst with decades of experience who has become a quant because he sees the market as a way to learn what the whole world is thinking at any given moment. But as Taylor susses out, he is also working in cahoots with Wags to build a backdoor into his algorithm, allowing the firm’s fully human traders to hastily recreate its analysis and reap the rewards themselves.
Taylor winds up vowing to build Axe Cap a better quant of its own — perhaps the one time a boss actually acts on behalf of the underlings rather than against them. Like everything else on this end of the story, though, it’s all in favor of filthy lucre in the end.
Tying together the episode’s triangle of plotlines is a cynical sense of humor that’s laugh-out-loud funny throughout, the way “Mad Men” used to make you guffaw at its characters’ avaricious awfulness. The episode opens with Ira’s officially canceling his marriage proposal to his beautiful girlfriend on account of his financial woes; you can all but see his bank account draining with every sprinkle of $14-per-gram white truffles she has shaved onto her pasta. (She stops at 20 grams, which the waiter cheerfully says is the season’s largest order. Hooray?)
Ira is also morbidly funny during an initial interview with Bryan over coffee, where he responds to the prospect of discussing Ice Juice’s collapse by asking “Shall we relive my divorce, and the day the music died?” As Ira, the actor Ben Shenkman makes for a terrifically sardonic patsy; this guy is not supposed to win, so when he does by accepting Axe’s payout and the gift of a gigantic engagement ring, the applause of his fellow diners after his girlfriend accepts his proposal sounds like a mockery of the order of things.
Even in their attempt to stop Jeffcoat from throwing the book at the abused prisoner, Rhoades and Sacher understand the need to properly angle the facts. “Looks innocent, no?” Chuck says as they pull up the photo that runs with the exonerating news story. “Handsome, for sure,” she says. “Even better,” he concludes. Bosses know how much perception matters. That’s why, when you’re used to billions like Axelrod and Panay are, no number of millions shy of that tenth digit will do.
“You want it darker, we kill the flame,” Leonard Cohen croons on the soundtrack as Axe cashes in and Ira slides his ill-gotten ring onto his fiancée’s eager finger. Funny and fast-paced though it is, “Billions” likes it quite dark indeed.