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‘Billions’ Review: Sex-Positive Episode ‘Contract’ Brings Some Much-Needed Heat

A few muted assignations spice things up in an improved fifth episode, but Season 5 still needs more of that old "Billions" magic.

Julianna Margulies in “Billions” Season 5

Showtime

It’s a tried-and-true method, in life and TV: When things get dull, just add sex. After four underwhelming episodes, mostly spent exhaustingly establishing new rivalries and schemes that hardly raise an eyebrow, the writers of “Billions” have finally delivered at least some of the goods that have recently been in short supply. The fifth episode of the season, “Contract,” advances new romantic entanglements for recently divorced Wendy (Maggie Siff) and Chuck (Paul Giamatti).

Since the groundwork had been carefully laid for both assignations, both were consummated without much fanfare or build-up. Still, as anyone who’s been through a dry spell will tell ya — it’s better than nothin’.

“Contract” begins with Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) and Wendy teaming up to launch an impact fun within Axe Capital, later revealed to be named Taylor Mason Carbon. Taylor is an active presence in the season so far, but their character seems to have lost their mojo. Their maneuvering with Wendy is mysteriously devoid of intrigue, despite heated warnings from Taylor’s underlings not to trust the ambitious corporate performance coach. Lauren (Jade Eshete) alludes to the show’s former glory when she reminds Mafee (Dan Soder) that he knows all too well “what Wendy Rhoades is capable of doing.” (She once half-seduced him into lying under oath.)

Speaking of seduction, Wendy may finally have found a hunk worthy of her attention — the brooding artist she’s been seducing. The oh-so-precisely-paint-splattered Nico Tanner (Frank Grillo) may be Axe’s (Damian Lewis) newest plaything, but it’s Wendy who’s reaping the benefits. Surely Axe won’t mind; he’s used to sharing. Art boy may not be as intellectually stimulating as U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, but he’s a hell of a lot less complicated (and easier on the eyes). Get it, Wendy.

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Damian Lewis in “Billions”

Showtime

Lest Chuck feel left out, it only took him two episodes to woo the newest addition to “Billions,” bestselling author and Yale University professor of sociology Catherine Brant (Julianna Margulies). Margulies fits right in with the show’s arch tone and heightened rhetoric, but unfortunately her leading lady talents are being squandered on a supporting part. She does get the season’s most provocative scene so far, in which she and Chuck dance around discussing his predilection for BDSM, which he awkwardly refers to as his “modality.” Despite such stilted language, this frank discussion of sexuality is a refreshing example of a healthy and mature discussion of erotic preferences between consenting adults.

“I don’t judge in that area,” Catherine tells Chuck. Breathing a sigh of relief, he replies: “Ask me anything. And be as direct as you possibly can.” After fumbling for her words, she spits out: “Shit, I’m just gonna ask it. Do you like penetrative sex? Does it work for you?” And while (almost) no one is chomping at the bit to hear Paul Giamatti talk about sex, it’s kind of cute when says: “Oh, in the right setting, it really works.”

“Billions” has always risen above the competition — and there are many cheap imitations out there — with its uncanny capacity to hold competing truths. It’s a melodrama bordering on soap opera, about the most despicable power-hungry bullies, people who will do anything for their bottom line, the one-percenters playing with the rest of the world like toys on a string. The characters, though fun to observe, are despicable people.

And yet. “Billions” delivered TV’s first recurring non-binary character, making Taylor an integral part of the show from day one. From the beginning of the first season, “Billions” featured a main character who craved being submissive to women, embracing BDSM in an open, nonjudgmental, and positive way. The show stars multiple black women in prominent roles, most notable the excellent Condola Rashad, but also Jade Eshete, Tijuana Ricks, Shaunette Renée Wilson, and Kaliswa Brewster. “Billions” was always more than the sum of its seemingly disparate parts. Unfortunately, the pieces are unraveling. But we’ll always have Paris.

Grade: B-

Showtime airs new episodes of “Billions” on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.

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