The Shadow of 'Citizen Kane' Falls Over Showtime's 'Billions' in Episode 5

The show likens its sympathetic villain, Axe, to Orson Welles' film, spelling doom and gloom.

Showtime Network

Showtime’s Billions is a show on which everything is usually as it seems. That’s not to say it’s necessarily predictable in its actual particulars — certainly not more than other comparable shows — but just that passing things that seem like they might be important in the future usually are. We don’t know exactly what Axe is up to in this episode, when he decides to sell off most of the company’s shares and decides, apparently, to ship off with his family to the Galapagos Islands. We don’t see Chuck hitting up an S&M club in … Iowa? … and definitely not him talking it through in real-life with Wendy on the phone. But we can expect that everything on the show will grow more self-consciously “extreme,” as things move toward the inevitable point of conflict or disaster. Seems like we’re just waiting for a major character to die, or at least be fired dramatically, or change allegiances. You expect the unexpected, and then when the unexpected happens you say, “Of course.”

In the Neil LaBute-directed fifth episode of Billions, it’s clear that darkness is closing in. Axelrod sits in the screening room in his house, apparently replaying the first 10 minutes of Citizen Kane. (Wags walks in and calls the mansion “Xanadu.”) Last week’s Metallica fever dream stuck in a passing reference to the film, and Axe mentions how, despite having run back Rocky seven times, he had never seen Citizen Kane. The symbolic importance of Axelrod scrambling to see the cynical, haunting film when he gets home is vague enough to seem incredibly simplistic.

Rocky is a story of perseverance and triumph — inspirational to Axe, no doubt. Citizen Kane is a troubled rise and fall story — a jaded, mature man’s film. Orson Welles demonstrates how lonely the rich can truly be, and how useless without a cause. Kane pushed his empire to the brink and then it imploded. There was room for no one else in his life. The first few minutes Axelrod runs back during the episode take place at the bitter end of Kane’s life, showing him on his deathbed in his decrepit mansion. Axe is in the process of realizing that his life will not always be the way it is — that changes, for better or worse. Galapagos, good; dying alone in Xanadu, bad.

The episode’s drama ultimately ends up being something of a red herring. Despite the side thread of Chuck and the gang making progress toward an arrest and a raid on Axe Capital, it’s mostly designed to show us that Axe will make very risky plays for big returns. As he stands on the precipice of running away from it all, and watches Kane in the dark in the middle of the afternoon, we wonder — along with every other character on the show — if he has truly lost it. We imagine the screws loosening that will facilitate his fall from grace. He, like Kane, could find himself ruined and alone almost overnight — a man whose whims caused the rest of the world to turn away from him. Lara (Malin Akerman) is upset by the prospect of leaving Connecticut, and feels like a pawn in her husband’s secret games, just like everyone else.

It’s unclear whether Wendy does talk Tommy down from the precipice, or whether he really knew he wouldn’t just leave and cash out all along. But the episode does teach us that his ego and inner caprices can take control of him in dangerous ways. “I got this feeling that there was some other kind of life I could be living,” he wonders to Wendy, ecstatically. In the history of this kind of narrative, that gambling-addict propensity to take sudden chances is any all-powerful villain or anti-hero’s Achilles heel.

Like The Sopranos episodes it recalls, the feds’ stakeout on the Axelrod house and the ramping-up initiative against Axe Capital feel slightly overdone. The complications of the plot are familiar, especially the struggles to dig up dirt and flip witnesses. As Chuck’s ambitions to stick it to Axelrod become more vehement, he’s willing to be more and more merciless, as he is with the tactics he uses on the family in Iowa. He’s less cognizant of propriety, even as he’s overtly being pushed to recuse himself from working on the case against his wife’s company.

So both he and Axe become destabilized as the fight rages harder, and stand to have more to lose. “The Good Life” raises the stakes for the show’s dramatic breaking point — when the blows dealt will actually be fatal for Chuck or Tommy. Kane infringes on the show like a glimpse of Billions Yet to Come, a reflection of the dangers both Chuck and Axe are running.

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