At about the midway point of season 3, Billions threw its audience and its characters a curve ball, setting aside the near blood feud between Paul Giamatti’s Chuck “Where We’re Going We Need Rhoades” Rhoades and Damian Lewis’s Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod. The moment was naturally facilitated by Maggie Skiff’s Wendy Rhoades, who has long been a consigliere of sorts for both sides of the vendetta between the two men. The trio arranged a scheme that would be beneficial for all involved, and it would make their enemies even more determined to take them down. Though it felt revolutionary and reinvigorating at the time, it wasn’t so much a reinvention of the series as it was an incredibly smart move by co-creators and showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who understood what the show needed wasn’t more Chuck vs. Axe, but rather Chuck and Axe vs. the world.
The scope of Koppelman and Levien’s plan wasn’t fully revealed until the season 3 finale, which dealt Chuck and Axe a series of defeats the likes of which they’d only delivered unto one another. In other words, the season 3 finale, ‘Elmsley Count,’ drew a line in the sand, one that had Chuck, Axe (and all of Axe Capital), and Wendy on one side, and on the other were Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) (and their nascent rival hedge fund that includes Mafee), Grigor Andolov (John Malkovich), Waylan ‘Jock’ Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown), Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), and Kate Sacker (Colonda Rashad).
Those refocused priorities — i.e., all-consuming vendettas — help fashion the season 4 premiere, ‘Chucky Rhoades’s Greatest Game,’ into one where the audience isn’t quite sure what’s going to happen because the balance of power has shifted so drastically. Seeing Axe and Chuck on their heels to this degree comes as an unexpected breath of fresh air to a series that didn’t necessarily need to open the windows in the first place. That the shift in Billions’s narrative priorities didn’t absolutely need to happen — who wouldn’t have been fine with watching Chuck and Axe throw caution to the wind for a few more seasons just to put the screws to one another? — makes the change all the more fulfilling. Moreover, it gives major players like Taylor and Grigor a chance to strut their stuff in a way that is directly responsible for much of the conflict that will drive Axe’s storyline for the first part of season 4.
But as much as Billions is pressing the idea that Taylor and Grigor are opponents unlike any that Axe has ever faced before, the premiere isn’t titled ‘Chucky Rhoades’s Greatest Game’ because Chuck Rhoades spends it sitting on the bench. While Axe is busy handling the disappearance of Mike ‘Wags’ Wagner (David Costabile) after meeting with Farhad (Amir Arison), the point man for some potential Middle Eastern investors, Chuck is tasked with procuring a concealed carry permit for a friend of his father’s (the always great Jeffry DeMunn). Chuck initially attacks the problem with a seemingly worthless ace up his sleeve — a park anywhere permit — that no one wants. Koppelman and Levien have a lot of fun, initially at Chuck’s expense, as he has to re-learn how quid pro quo works now that he no longer has the power of the office of the U.S. Attorney behind him.
It’s an entertaining way to spend the hour, watching Giamatti’s face become a mask of incredulity as his presumed golden ticket is repeatedly looked upon as though he’s just pulled a turd from his jacket pocket. But it also effectively establishes just how far back Chuck is from his usual starting point. Billions rightly treats Chuck’s pitiable situation as a source of humor, particularly when Chuck Sr and Ira (Ben Shenkman) arrive to excoriate the former U.S. Attorney for his inability (or unwillingness) to procure a concealed carry permit. Chuck’s unwillingness doesn’t stem from some political belief so much as idleness — a byproduct of his time spent in a position power — and as such much of the episode revolves around Chuck learning to flex certain muscles that’ve atrophied over time. By the end of it, Chuck’s no longer groveling at the feet of men more powerful than he is. Instead, he’s made an ally out of Police Commissioner Richie Sansome (Michael Rispoli) and even put his newfound friendship with Axe to good use.
Though ‘Chucky Rhoades’s Greatest Game’ functions as a solid season premiere, it just as easily could have been a midseason episode. It’s a flex on behalf of the showrunners and the cast that demonstrates just how well Billions knows what it is and what it’s doing. That’s never more apparent than by the sheer amount of pop culture references dropped in the episode, as is the case with Glenn Flesher’s Orrin Bach, who seems to stop by just to compare an NDA to AC/DC in ’78. But as seamlessly as the dialogue opens the door for those references, it also seamlessly opens the door for Taylor’s new consigliere Sara Hammon (Samantha Mathis), who struts around Taylor’s new company like she’s been on the show the whole time.
In all, it’s a solid start to the new season, one that offers up a welcome change to the show’s power structure without sacrificing what makes Billons so watchable in the first place. Giamatti and Lewis are at the top of their game as usual, but shifting the characters’ ire to competent (and in the case of Grigor, frightening) adversaries injects a new energy into the proceedings. That change marks a new beginning of sorts, one that opens a window after willfully closing a door in season 3.
Billions continues next Sunday with ‘Arousal Template’ @9pm on Showtime.