The 'Billions' Midseason Finale Goes Full 'Limitless' in Its Pursuit of Perfection
'Billions' is taking a break. What will it look like when it returns?
For the last few seasons, Showtime's high-stakes finance drama Billions cruised like a speedboat on the choppy waters of recent history. Without digging into the specifics of the Trump administration or getting too caught up in the legal maneuvering of each scandal surrounding the White House, the show often playfully circled and cleverly mirrored current events. Characters like Clancy Brown's US Attorney General Waylon “Jock” Jeffcoat and John Malkovich's menacing Russian billionaire Grigor Andolov, two memorable villains that Chuck (Paul Giamatti) and Axe (Damien Lewis) faced off against, weren't necessarily ripped from the headlines, but they could have been. The show often treats reality like a sparring partner.
With so much happening at the moment, it's perhaps inevitable that Billions, which aired its mid-season finale Sunday night, is on its heels. Shot primarily in New York, where the coronavirus pandemic continues to have dire effects and reshape daily life, the show's production was paused back in March and this was the final episode completed before the shutdown. According to showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the rest of the season will be shot when it's safe to do so. The midseason finale did contain a stray allusion to coronavirus, name-checked by Danny Strong's floundering Todd Krakow, but it was written and shot back in February. For now, the world of Billions remains untouched by the virus.
And it's not that last night's episode "The Limitless Shit" -- written by Koppelman, Levien, and Emily Hornsby, and directed by Wags himself, David Costabile -- was reflective of any significant dip in quality. It hit many of the notes that one expects from a Billions episode: complicated schemes executed by sharp, dedicated professionals, interpersonal rivalries carefully scooched forward in ongoing arenas of battle, and plenty of Godfather references. But, like with the last few episodes of the season, something just felt off.
The episode opened with a lively dinner table discussion about the creative process that took on a certain irony given the circumstances surrounding the episode. Frank Grillo's buff painter Nico Tanner, an investment opportunity for Axe and a new love interest for Wendy (Maggie Siff) in the midst of her divorce from Chuck, mused about the worst question to receive from an appreciator of his work. He hates to hear, "How do you know it's finished?" This season of Billions feels incomplete, with all sorts of plot threads dangling, because it's been cut in half by events completely outside the control of the creators.
Riffing on questions of inspiration and productivity, the episode found Axe taking a risk on "vigilantrix," a powerful drug with a great funny name. Taking the pill gives the user access to new levels of mental agility, focus, and stamina. There was something a little too ridiculous and cartoon-like about the blue tint in Axe's eyes and the way the numbers "jumped out" of his computer screen when he took the pill. The sequence was reminiscent of one of my least favorite scenes from the first season, when Axe mentally reconstructed the scene of a pool-side punch with his photographic memory. Whenever the show gives Axe super-power like abilities, it teeters over the line between "fun" absurd and "goofy" absurd.
Luckily, the "vigilantrix" plotline was a mostly comic detour that doesn't look like it will be picked up again in future episodes. (Fittingly, there's a self-referential aspect to the episode's title: The pilot for Billions was directed by Neil Burger, the filmmaker behind Limitless, and Koppelman and Levien have collaborated with him on film projects in the past.) Taylor's moves in the impact fund space, which found them striking a tentative alliance with Corey Stoll's Mike Prince, will likely be more important to the larger storylines of the rest of the season. Similarly, Chuck's search for a kidney for his father connects to the season's larger themes about fatherhood and familial responsibility. The pieces are all in place.
That's what makes the ending, with Axe monologuing about the phrase "go to the mattresses," both exciting and frustrating. As a show like Billions moves into its fifth season, there's often a tendency to circle back to dramatic scenarios and character pairings that have worked well in the past; we want to see Axe destroy Prince, who has emerged as the smarmy do-gooder antagonist, and it will be thrilling to see Chuck go after Axe again. The final five episodes of a season tend to be when the hard work of the first half of the season, all the careful planning, starts to pay off. As Metallica's "Hardwired to Self-Destruct" revved up over the end credits of this last episode, you could hear the gears turning. When the show does return, hopefully it will be in fighting form.
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