“When I pull a deal off the table, I leave Nagasaki behind.”
So said hedge fund billionaire Bobby “Axe” Axelrod on Sunday evening to U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades in the terrific season finale of Showtime’s “Billions.” Season finales don’t get much better.
Bobby was promising a “Nagasaki” to come. What he had yanked off the table was a plea deal for all past crimes whereby he’d pay the U.S. government $1.5 billion in exchange for freedom from felony prosecution and jail time.
But at the final sitdown where that deal was supposed to happen, Rhoades cunningly manipulated Axe’s ego and anger so well that the hedge fund conquistador tore his Godzilla-sized check up into eight pieces and threw it into the federal prosecutor’s face.
So there we were on Sunday evening with the first escalatingly superb season of “Billions” coming to a close. And for the season finale, Chuck was paying an unusual private visit to Axe’s fund headquarters, which now looked like Hitler’s bombed-out bunker in the final hours of World War II.
Axe was standing in his basement which had been ripped apart, down to “the rivets” by a security team looking for a fictional hidden microphone that Chuck had supposedly planted but which had never been found. It was just one more way that Chuck, in lieu of being able to prosecute his prey, was messing with his head instead.
To jack up Axe’s paranoia even higher, Chuck gave him that ripped-up check, which he’d had framed and which he had exhibited in his office.
That’s when Axe promised Chuck a “Nagasaki” to come.
To which, Chuck replied with his personal characterization of the Axelrod vs. Rhoades death match – the brutal and below-the-belt slugfest between an unprincipled and all-conquering Wall Street grandee and the equally unprincipled U.S. Attorney determined that such gargantuan financial crime deserved jail at the very least.
Chuck had the season’s final line. It was a battle he said between a man with “unlimited resources” (i.e. Axelrod) and “a man with nothing left to lose” (himself).
They had both lost the woman they had in common – Rhoades’ wife who, in the show’s crazily useful basic absurdity, was also the resident shrink of Axelrod’s firm, healing his employees sufficiently to make them more successful sharks in treacherous waters.
And why was all of this the most satisfying confrontation of 2016 TV thus far?
Because the ultra-brilliant floor plan of “Billions” gave us that final six-minute confrontation between the two extraordinary stars of the show – Damian Lewis as Axe and Paul Giamatti as Chuck.
We watched the wonderful thing that happens on television when you give two actors lines full of scabrous rants and megalomaniacal tirades they can deliver at full throttle without shame.
The finale began with Axe’s team psychiatrist – Rhoades’ wife, bound by doctor-patient privilege – earning a Maserati for her contributions to his firm and its conquistador triumphs. In its final minute, the series’ lead actors got the equivalent, in dramatic dialogue, of a sleek Maserati to tool around in.
If you have missed “Billions,” and you have digital cable or some other Showtime On Demand possibility, you should watch the first season from beginning to end. You’ll find it immensely satisfying, especially when you get to that finale wherein you understand that everyone involved with the show knew exactly how to bring down the final curtain.
None of this sudden “Sopranos” darkness, to, at the final second, yank away the audience’s privileges and award them back to the writers. At the end of that show’s multiyear run, David Chase and his minions were re-asserting their primary possession of their characters. They were – especially in the finale – telling the audience “we invented the show. We will do with it what we please in its final seconds.”
At the end of the first season of “Billions,” the writers finally gave us the confrontation in the ruins that the whole season had implicitly promised.
That is what I loved about “Billions.” A lot of television has become so good that it has become TV for the writers’ sakes. Here was television so good that its final first season episode was for its actors’ and its audiences’ sakes.
I can’t imagine after a season so well-designed and so cunningly put together, how they’re going to give us a “Nagasaki” in season two.
But after so much cleverness for our sakes, maybe its writers might be justified in thinking they have nothing left to lose.
That would make them very dangerous indeed.