The latest episode of Showtime’s Billions is haute tension and high drama from the outset. Increasingly, the show’s tone is inflated and mythical to the point of breaking with realism altogether; somehow, it works. Episode 10 begins with a lengthy chess metaphor from Chuck (Paul Giamatti), addressed to the entire attorney’s office. He admits that he became too lost in his feelings of hatred for the “bloodless” Axe (Damian Lewis); as he puts it, he got so into the game against Axe that he “forgot to win.” At this point — with the death of the state’s chief informant Donnie Caan, played powerfully by David Cromer, who fed them endless false information — the Axelrod case is snatched away from Rhodes and Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) for good.
Chuck spends the episode trying to stay on the warpath, and influence the endgame against Axelrod however he can by blackmailing a pesky, white-collar-crime-friendly judge off the stand (Anthony Edwards). Simultaneously, the employees of Axe Capital slow down, and come together to mourn. The episode’s trajectory become as fragmented and disorienting as the predicament as parties are now in, flashing back and forth from images of tearful speeches, imbibing, and reflection in Donnie’s funeral.
Though at first the structure seems poorly conceived — it’s easy to lose track of chronology completely — ultimately it’s effective in rolling out how complex Axe’s role in Donnie’s last months was. It’s not as simple as either what either the attorney’s office or his employee base thinks. The reward for Donnie playing the false informant for Axe, we learn, was compensation of his family for the unheard-of sum of $40 million after his death. Donnie was a very willing participant, though from Wendy we understand that he really began to loath his work toward the end of his life. We see these confusing, scattered visions of Axe’s role in Donnie’s final months, and then cut to him looking withdrawn and even guilty at Donnie’s funeral.
The final abrupt reveal explains why. Axe was far from a mere benefactor here; he encouraged Donnies doctor to withhold information about experimental cancer treatment that could have kept Donnie alive for at least a few more months. Regret floods an abstracted Axe at the end, as it overwhelms Wendy, who he freezes out. From hints dropped by Wags (David Costabile) and Donnie’s husband, it becomes clear that there was a widespread knowledge of Donnie’s illness, and that it had been tied up in business affairs in some fashion.
The final ritual at the ceremony involves each attendee placing an autumn leaf in front of a photo of Donnie, covering him up. No one in the cast truly feels at peace with Donnie and his passing. Ultimately, though, with all of his backroom deals revealed to the viewer, we see Axe stack his leaf, and thereby close this thorny, troubling chapter in his life. And he has come out safe — better than ever, perhaps. The Donnie scandal — which reflects badly on Chuck and not him — has drawn attention away from the 9/11 revelations which, last week, seemed poised to ruin his career for good. He’s dismantled the Attorney’s Office investigation. He stalks away from the funeral and his past to the strains of (in typical Billions-core fashion) to the strains of Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping.”
This willfully convoluted episode of Billions, as much as anything, laid out a rough topography of Axe’s mind — always, a complex and hard-to-grasp entity. Every time we get one crucial step closer to understanding it, we become reinvested in this wonderfully over-the-top show all over again. This episode was no exception, and so we soldier on, with bated breath, into Axe and Chuck’s uncertain, seemingly stalemated future.