‘The Chris Rock Test’ is classic Billions, self-mythologizing finance and government types jockeying for power in increasingly rarefied circles of influence and free capital. Axe and the gang head to billionaire-with-a-conscience Mike Prince’s weekend retreat where the ultra rich tell each other how moral and giving they are while fighting tooth and nail over the patronage of a professional shaman to shore up their attempts to legalize ayahuasca therapy. The self-congratulation of it all is obscene, finance titans loading pallets of bottled water with their own two hands to prove to each other and the world how virtuous they are, how hard they work. Axelrod’s reaction to the entire thing — a realization that he no longer has any interest in maintaining a pretense of humanity — is at least honest.
During a fireside chat/debate with Prince, Axelrod refers to himself as a monster and says Prince never could have reached his heights without being one too. It’s a reptilian piece of self-awareness, but an insightful one. The simple fact of a billionaire’s existence is testament to incredible cruelty and callousness, no matter how many relief packages they send to third-world countries they’ll never see. Damien Lewis and Corey Stoll play naturally off one another, Stoll’s open, slightly goofy good looks contrasted against Lewis’s beady eyes and the hard angles of his faces in a visual echo of their personalities and ethoses. Both are predators, but one still wears the human skin the other is busy trying to peel off.
Just Shaman Things
“Focus on the “you” part and you may find that the “him” part doesn’t matter all that much,” says Chuck’s EMDR therapist in response to Chuck’s assertion that crushing Bobby Axelrod and his financial empire will give him more time and focus to direct at his own personal growth. Paul Giamatti’s avoidance crystallizes into the physical as he hems and haws and ultimately blows the guy off. It isn’t what he wants to hear, or who he wants to be. His repeated reference to the “dark passenger” of Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter show just how deeply he’s receded into vengeful, oppositional thinking aimed at the tangle of emotions surrounding Axelrod’s relationship to his wife Wendy. Hating Axe for enjoying a stronger bond with Wendy than he himself did during their marriage is easier than hating himself for failing her as a partner, so that’s where he puts his energy. It’s uncomfortably transparent, but Giamatti embodies it with such smug self-assuredness it’s impossible to tell whether Chuck knows it or not.
The therapy session is part of a larger thread running through the opening of season five: the penetration of enlightenment and wellness ideology into the uppermost echelons of society. What could a shaman who rubs elbows with billionaires possibly offer to the world? What good will Chuck learning to manage his trauma responses do if he’s only pursuing it to become a more efficient political maneuverer? Everything, in their world, is a game piece in an increasingly abstract and meaningless competition. What would destroying Bobby Axelrod even look like for Chuck? What would it mean if Taylor slipped his leash and went out on their own again? The sheer amount of money and power swirling around Billions’ characters swallows and diffuses everything they do. It’s too much for their minds to cope with, too much to anticipate, too many factors at play; you can’t crush a man like Bobby Axelrod any more than you can defeat the ocean.