Season 7, Episode 3: ‘Winston Dick Energy’
Chuck Rhoades is a man of action — most of the time. His proprietary blend of intellect and emotion is what made him the man he is today; his best friend and newly hired deputy U.S. attorney, Ira (Ben Shenkman), tells him this in so many words.
But that combination has unmade Chuck several times over, and he’s not the only one who knows it. His protégé turned foe, Kate Sacker, tells her boss Mike Prince that Rhoades’s emotion is what stops him from harnessing his full intelligence, which is every bit the equal of hers or Mike’s. So when Kate and company proffer a filing for a political super PAC to back Prince’s presidential campaign — a deliberate provocation meant to keep Chuck’s operations in plain sight — Chuck does not bite.
Which would be fine if Chuck were operating in a vacuum. Instead, he has an office full of lawyers champing at the bit for the opportunity to unleash their full skills on unsuspecting white-collar criminals everywhere — the kinds of cases that turned their freshly reinstated boss into a beloved man of the people. His reticence in choosing his opening salvo frustrates everyone: his right-hand man, Ira; his father, Charles Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn); his button man, Karl; and the Southern District’s bold up-and-comer Amanda Torre (Hannah Hodson).
Given his overall winning track record, Chuck’s colleagues understandably want him to aim at a target, any target, and pull the trigger. Karl, Ira, and Charles père even enlist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (appearing as himself) for a pep talk, staged in Grant’s Tomb no less. (Watching Chuck extrapolate a whole grandiose rationale behind the location’s selection before finding out the real reason is one of the episode’s funnier and more insightful moments.)
And so the writer of the episode, Mae Smith, sets up an exciting dilemma. We viewers know that Chuck’s braintrust is well-intentioned and that their admiration for Chuck as a hard charger is both genuine and, 99 times out of a hundred, well-placed. We viewers also know that this is the one-in-a-hundred case, and that if he does what has always served him best, he’ll fall right into Prince’s trap. It’s clever writing, building tension by ensuring both of Chuck’s possible choices seem wise from different angles but never revealing the correct angle to the character himself.
In the end, Chuck’s perspicacity serves him well. He deliberately takes Prince’s super PAC bait but instructs Karl and Ira to keep digging. Then he selects Amanda’s case for his real first big win. He is still the emotional intellectual we know and love, but he now has the power to keep that emotion in check until needed — kind of like the Hulk in “Avengers.”
Chuck isn’t the only character at a crossroads this episode. His ex-wife, Wendy, discovers that nearly all of her patients at Prince Cap are seeing a second psychiatrist on the side for “real” therapy. Unwilling to accept that what she does is mere performance coaching — and more than a little jealous that her fief has been raided — she makes an appointment to confront the interloper, Dr. Eleanor Mayer (Holland Taylor) … and winds up becoming one of the good doctor’s patients.
Mayer, it happens, really has Wendy’s number. She correctly points out that performance-based therapy necessarily requires continued high performance, a goal prioritized at the expense of anything that might free her Prince Cap clients from their “hamster wheel.” She also ferrets out that this leaves Wendy feeling one of two ways: like an “errand girl,” doing her bosses’ bidding to keep the cash flowing, or “Christlike,” suffering in order to save her patients’ souls to whatever extent she can. Perhaps Mayer’s therapy will offer a way out for all of them.
The third and final character in search of his lost mojo in this week’s episode is Wags. Once a legend on the Street, his association with a do-gooding politician has sunk his reputation in the eyes of his fellow creeps and killers. Like Chuck, he needs a big score, a sure thing, a way to get back on the map in spectacular, even theatrical, fashion.
Then along comes Winston (Will Roland). A twerpy quant who’s been a core part of the Taylor Mason team for some time, largely in spite of himself, Winston quits the firm and immediately — like, within eight hours — goes into business for himself. The risk management software he is peddling was obviously designed on Prince Cap time and on the Prince Cap dime; if he’s allowed to sell it, the financial and reputational damage to the firm would be considerable.
Acting on advice from Wendy (you can see why Dr. Mayer is concerned, no?), Wags storms into Winston’s apartment, where an attempted come-to-Jesus meeting with Taylor and Philip is already underway, and all but attacks the guy. His real purpose, though? Planting a bug on behalf of Hall (Terry Kinney), the firm’s mercenary investigator. Hall digs up not only Winston’s potential client list but also every dirty deed (and dirty Google search) the one-time hacktivist has ever committed.
All of which information Wags, Taylor, Philip and Kate present to Winston in the very conference room where he is to make his final pitch to potential buyers. Unless he comes back to Prince Cap, software in tow, as a sort of indentured servant, Wags will see to it personally that Winston’s reputation and finances are left about as intact as ancient Carthage.
Watching a good episode of “Billions,” which this undoubtedly is, is like watching someone expertly play a puzzle game — solving a Rubik’s cube, say, or beating a level of “Tetris.” You gaze in admiration as skilled hands slide pieces and panels from one place to the next until everything lines up exactly where it should. Chuck’s friends and enemies inadvertently guide him to the correct course of action. Wendy’s petulance puts her on the path toward a major breakthrough. Winston’s defection provides Wags with the fresh kill he requires. “Billions” makes it look easy, but if it were, everyone would be doing it.
Notably absent from this episode, barring a pointed glance or pained look here and there: Taylor, Wendy and Wags’s quest to stop their boss’s rise to power. Perhaps, chastened by Axe’s rejection last week, they’ve taken his “if you can’t beat him, join him” advice to heart, at least temporarily. (Also notably absent: Axe.)
Notably present in this week’s episode: the much-missed Sarah Stiles as Bonnie. The profane Axe Cap alumna returns to her old stamping grounds to narc on Winston’s new venture, then rekindles her affair with Dollar Bill before the elevator doors close on her.
Key cameos in this episode include the author Michael Lewis as himself, hosting the “Liar’s Poker” soiree at which Wags is humiliated, and the talented character actor Michael O’Keefe as the jerk who does the humiliating. (By the way, when he and his buddies were swapping old Wags war stories, did they remind you, too, of the old Bill Brasky sketches on “Saturday Night Live”?)
“What’s with you?” Wendy asks Wags. “Nothing,” he mumbles, eyes downcast, desultorily dipping a tea bag in a mug of hot water over and over. He’s been Tom Hagen’d out of the initial run at Winston by Taylor and Philip, and he’s having himself a good old-fashioned childlike sulk about it. And why not? Life is nothing to Wags if not a big NC-17-rated playground, and he’s just been knocked off the monkey bars.
Before Wags takes charge of the operation, there’s some concern in the Prince Cap inner circle about destroying Winston publicly. Mike is running for president, after all, and America is a very pro-labor environment these days.
POST AUTHOR: Sean T. Collins