To catch up on the premiere episode, check out my previous Billions coverage here. Mild spoilers ahead!
While the pilot episode of Showtime’s newest addition simmered with kinetic energy and allowed us a peek into its true potential, this week’s episode felt choppy and struggled to find its voice. There was, however, one glistening moment that was almost fantastic enough to redeem the entire 54 minutes of “Naming Rights.”
Before we get to that, let’s address the positives and the negatives of the episode. First things first, as the saying goes.
Paul Giamatti’s performance as Chuck Rhoades. The man’s got skill and uses it well, leaving me questioning his true intentions and just how pure his morality is. A man can be a great many things, and Chuck Rhoades seems to have a myriad of faces. At times, he comes across like a human dodecahedron, flipping himself to the side that befits his current circumstances while also allowing him both the most leeway and the greatest advantage. Giamatti captures this character with a shocking dexterity, closing in on the heart of Chuck Rhoades before we’ve even been made sure he has one. While, in my opinion, Giamatti hasn’t truly become Chuck Rhoades — as Rami Malek has with Mr. Robot‘s Elliot Alderson or Mads Mikkelsen had with Hannibal‘s Dr. Lecter — I already like what I see now, and eagerly await for more to be revealed. The only way is up for the actor, and the forecast is clear.
The Axelrod/Rhoades chase. Chuck Rhoades has been nipping at Bobby Axelrod’s heels – sometimes letting his passions get the best of him – in attempts to take him down for insider trading. This week shows the headstrong alphas in what is basically a large-scale chess game: Axe Capital defends its kings and queens from the Attorney’s office, and the latter gets sidetracked in his endeavors, requiring him to make additional moves — this time against Bobby’s adversary Steven Birch of Piedmont Capital. While some decisions seem to be made in haste, others are meticulously calculated – like the orchestration of the fake U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission raid and the ways in which Bobby pushes Wendy to clearly define her allegiance to him – in order to ensure enormous payoffs for the players in question. Like a hacker and a cyber security agency, the former will always be multiple steps ahead, sometimes so insightful that they can’t be seen at all. The question Billions raises regards exactly who will be invisible to the other, who will gain advantage, Bobby or Chuck, the increasingly ruthless billionaire or the rigid abider of justice? Plans must be carried out, and if one screw comes loose, the entire structure crashes. In a drama series, this kind of tension is expected – the push/pull, the conflict between two anti-heroes that verges on a double antagonist battle, the winding path to victory only wide enough for one. It’s gripping, it leaves you lurching forward in your seat or biting at your cuticles in anticipation. Like many shows of its genre, Billions leaves the audience wondering, “Who will win this round?” But this time, we ask, “Can we ever be sure? Can we really hand a character a victory crown with full confidence, or will it be snatched from their head before they can give their acceptance speech?”
Dialogue. Some lines had me close to wincing from secondhand embarrassment, and others simply fell short. This episode rode waves, swiftly falling from peaks of punched-up and purposeful words into valleys of awkward and empty conversations. Take the locker room scene, for instance. That was one valley even Diana Ross herself might have found too wide to conquer.
The Rhoades’ decline in dynamic. Though I love Maggie Siff and appreciate her strengths as an actress, and of course admire Paul Giamatti for his as well, the feasible chemistry between her Wendy and his Chuck is dwindling, and fast. I see a great future for each character on their own, but hope the kinks — no pun intended — between the pair smooth out over the show’s course.
The closing scene of “Naming Rights” was, in my opinion, phenomenal and spot-on for who Bobby Axelrod is as a person, and as a character in the way Damian Lewis plays him. He’s in a perpetual existential pissing contest with everyone — and sometimes, it seems, everything — and swaggering into a round-table meeting of minds wearing a heather gray Metallica shirt and doling out decrees is the epitome of all Bobby Axelrod stands for. He’s making good use of his “‘f**k you money.'”
Catch “Naming Rights” now on Hulu with the Showtime add-on subscription, or on Showtime, Sunday, January 24 at 10/9c.