Billions Season 5, Episode 1 Review: ‘The New Decas’

“That’s a lot of war to wage,” says Wags to his friend and employer Bobby Axelrod as the two men, tripping on ayahuasca, lean in close to one another, leering and cackling like a pair of entities from Twin Peaks’ Black Lodge. “That’s a lot of heads to chop. Chop chop chop.” He’s riffing on Axelrod’s stream of consciousness trip monologue, a manifesto of feudal conquest and endless, grinding war for its own sake that wouldn’t feel out of place on Game of Thrones. Later, Axelrod prowls on all fours through the sweat tent of his personal designer shaman, the sounds of jungle cats reverberating through the air around him in a hallucinatory haze. What he recalls later, clean-shaven and composed in his business psychiatrist/best friend Wendy’s office, is ugliness.

Throughout the episode, which sees Axelrod pass the ten billion mark with no more than a blip of feeling, that sense of ugliness lingers. A town strip-mined for wattage to run a crypto farm. Chuck’s mother quoting the shameless, abusive ex-husband marrying her replacement in front of her to Wendy to justify her stiff upper lip attendance at his second wedding. An ocean of money making nobody happy, not the people earning it or the people trying to punish them with inconsequential fines and reprimands. It’s all just a big, cruel, expensive version of Taylor’s resistance pool: struggling against a force of your own invention because you can’t bear to acknowledge that you’re standing still.

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When the Man Comes Around

Billions is a show where sometimes Maggie Siff hurls professional wrestler Becky “The Man” Lynch over a desk as part of a kayfabe initiative to get Axe and Taylor’s grudge-bearing crews on the same page. Lynch is as magnetic here as she is anywhere, body language loose and effortlessly dominant, voice throaty and cocksure, and ‘The New Decas’ is stacked with nearly a dozen guest appearances equally as enjoyable. Saul Rubinek (Frasier, Wall Street), Corey Stoll (Ant-Man, House of Cards), David Aaron Baker (Sex and the City, Boardwalk Empire), and a rogue’s gallery of other character actors pack virtually every scene with the combined charms of three or four separate eras of television. 

It’s a smartly plotted show, meticulous and clockwork-smooth, but Billions’ appeal relies equally on its callously glamorous vision of a world of repugnant material excess. Its characters have circled that topic numerous times, regarding it with ambivalence when they aren’t papering it over with denial, and it’s fascinating to see the empty confusion underlying their bottomless greed. When Axe compares competitor Michael Prince to a Kodiak bear — a perhaps unconscious association with his own animalistic vision of himself during his ayahuasca trip — he’s more right than he knows about both their natures. A bear is dangerous, yes, but it has no concept of morals, no framework in which to understand its actions as part of a greater continuous world. It only has its hunger, red and gnawing, demanding to be fed.