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Send each friend a storySee AlsoFlashback to the "Billion" premiere: Ax's future at Ax Capital is in doubt"Billions" Recap: Will Chuck or Ax Secure a Vital Piece of Evidence?Flashback to the "Billion" finale: The house of cards collapses"Billions" recap: Ax isn't done dealing yet
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Season 3, Episode 6: "The Third Ortolan"
If there's one place we can come together in these divided times, it's certainly to appreciate a show that offers us opening scenes like this week's: Ax and Wags seated at a table, cloth napkins draped over their heads , which obscures faces, "for two reasons," as Wags puts it: "to prevent the flavors from escaping, and to hide this shameful and depraved act from God."
"Well, if there were a God, I think He would know," comes Ax's reply—in a room lit with enough candles to fuel a decent pagan sacrifice. There's no immediate explanation, no wrap-up of any kind until the last 15 minutes of the episode, but the tone is set for one of the best episodes of Billions in recent memory. It's the simple joys that bind us together, you know?
It turns out that this extremely confusing entry in this week's episode explains the title of the episode: "The Third Ortolan." As we later learn, Ax and Wags enjoy a ritualized Last Supper together, prepared by real-life superstar chef Wylie Dufresne. The dish on offer, he explains, is ortolan, a lush songbird long banned from eating because of the cruel method the birds are killed: caught in the wild; kept in the dark where they can stuff themselves to twice their size; then drowned in the very armagnac that marinates them until they're pulled out, roasted and eaten whole, bone-in and all.
Until then, we know this is sort of a last supper as Ax prepares to surrender to authorities the next day. Not because of the noble efforts of Bryan Connerty, whose case against Axelrod is about to be thrown out of court. Nor is it due to the machinations of Chuck Rhoades, who has secured a foil from an complicit doctor incriminating Axe and who spends much of the episode trying and failing to place it in Bobby's house.
No, Ax's incipient demise comes from its own ostensible ally, Ax Capital's pushy compliance chief Ari Spyros. Fueled by delusions of grandeur so strong you can almost see yourself dragging a superhero's cloak as you walk, Spyros is out to prove his indispensability to a company that largely sidelines him in important decisions, including Axe's own legal strategy lets. (Neither he, nor Chief Investment Officer Taylor Mason, nor even trusted in-house therapist, Wendy Rhoades, are allowed to attend these sessions.) Spyros is also determined to leave it to his old colleague Chuck, who enlists his help with Planting the evidence, he then threatens to prosecute him over a year-long allegation of date rape when he objects.
"We're not in Hollywood, Chuck," Spyros sneers. "Nothing will happen. Say it loud enough, they might even make me president.” Hey, even a broken watch, am I right?
So Spyros goes, in his own words, "the full le Carré" and arranges a melodramatic midnight meeting with Connerty, where he hands the eager lawyer a smoking gun... with Wendy's fingerprints all over it.
Back when Ax sabotaged the IPO of Ice Juice, in which Chuck and his friends and family were heavily invested, Wendy tried to warn him about what Ax was up to, not realizing that her husband was orchestrating the whole thing. In a game that was half piqued and half shrewd financial management, she ordered a huge short sale of Ice Juice stock and made a lot of money.
Unfortunately, she did so while in Chuck's offices, turning mere insider trading into what for all the world looks like a criminal conspiracy with her husband. Now Bryan can use Wendy, who is deeply loved and respected by both Bobby and Chuck, as leverage against both men, both of whom would like to go to jail to keep them out.
The fallout is a wonderful domino effect of reaction shots with talented actors. When Spyros reveals what he's done, Axe, Wags and attorney Orrin Bach give Spyros looks scathing enough to defoliate every plant in the office. In his comedic performance as Spyros, Stephen Kunken reacts with the kind of stunned fear you'd expectLou Costello meets Frankenstein's monster. As Bobby forces himself to break the news to Wendy, Maggie Siff's tearful, slightly broken-voiced effort to remain calm and controlled should be familiar to anyone who has had a moment of realizing that life is the way they are because of their own doing as you know it is coming to an end. (At least that's what I was told.)
Paul Giamatti's gruff sense of dignity when Chuck gets a workout, whether it's glaring at Toby Leonard Moore's I'm Not Mad, I'm Disappointed Connerty, or apologizing to his no-longer-estranged father, Charles. This last part gives actor Jeffrey DeMunn what the reaction of the evening might be: as his son hugs him, he finally manages to murmur "O.K., O.K." The first "O.K." says, "Uh,Thewas unexpected”; the second says, "But I can work with it."
So we come back to where we started, at the table with Axe, Wags and Dufresne. "When I climaxed, I felt his small chest crack and the hot juices rushing up my esophagus," Wags reports after the deed was accomplished. "Sublimate." And then, wags are wags, he adds, "Got any more? I'm still a little hungry."
"You know what they say about Ortolan," says Dufresne. "One is bliss, two is gluttony."
Wags is undeterred: "How about three?"
By the time the Ortolans are engulfed, Bobby has already informed his ex-wife Lara of his surrender plan, and she has warned him that if he goes through with it, she will take his children to California. (Malin Akerman's ability to convey Lara's hard-earned combination of anger and admiration for her ex should not be underestimated.) Chuck has told Wendy that he too will fall on his sword to protect her, and she has forbidden him to . Instead, she arranges a three-person meeting at Bobby's apartment: just her, Axe, Chuck, and unbeknownst to the other attendees, the telltale slide Chuck is carrying in his pocket.
What follows is the show's most subtle and wisest reference to pop culture's macho milestones yet. After exchanging inconveniences and appearing to calm down at Wendy's command (you can get the woman out of the dominatrix dungeon...), Chuck and Ax sit and stare at each other across the table until Chuck asks if he can be excused to go to the bathroom, and Bobby agrees.
If you've seen The Godfather - and God knows Chuck and Bobby memorized that thing - you'll realize what's going on here. Chuck sneaks around the apartment, reaches the bathroom and starts rummaging around. He's not exactly Michael Corleone looking for the revolver that Tessio placed behind the old-fashioned toilet tank so he can come out with guns blazing. But if he goes through with his plan to place the slide and have the FBI raid the site the next morning, the results will be almost as devastating to Bobby as Michael's trip to the bathroom was to Sollozzo and McCluskey.
There's just one problem, unspoken but obvious: if Chuck does this under a flag of truce negotiated by Wendy, he'll likely destroy their trust and their marriage forever. You can't travel to the Sicilian countryside and wait for that kind of crime.
When Chuck returns to the table, we in the audience have a few seconds to think about Schrodinger's slide: did he plant it or not so the FBI could pursue their case against Bobby without using Wendy as leverage? Then boom! He puts his cards and foil on the table.
Ax is stunned. Wendy is first surprised, then visibly relieved. "I think you used to have a moral compass," Bryan told him earlier in the episode, "and it served you, got you where you are, made you great. Then it was warped or broke.” Granted, Chuck is currently working with his nemesis to save the three from Connerty's wrath, but his sudden change of heart is unmistakably an attempt to rediscover his moral magnetic north.
From author Alice O'Neill to director John Dahl to composer Eskmo (whose vibrant score has never sounded better) to the entire cast, Billions has offered a miniature masterpiece of ethical conundrums, shortcuts and sacrifices, sophisticated and finish entertaining from start to finish. Do you have more? I'm still hungry.
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