[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Billions” Season 5, Episode 2, “The Chris Rock Test,” including the ending.]
For a show that’s ostensibly about two morally depraved, power-hungry men locked in a perpetual dick-swinging contest of Shakespearean proportions, this world’s stage hosts a bevy of unconventional secondary characters — and they’re far more than mere players. Like its HBO cousin “Succession,” “Billions” thrives off support from second stringers that run the gamut from ingratiating eccentrics (see Stephen Kunken’s Ari Spyros) to scrappily ambitious women (Condola Rashad’s Kate Sacker). True to form, “Billions” came out swinging with its Season 5 premiere, and the second episode makes use of some of its best supporting players to set the chess board for yet another scintillating smackdown of a season.
The Showtime drama scored many points when it introduced non-binary sensation Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon) in Season 2, and the writers quickly ramped up the savant trader’s role. At this early stage in Season 5, Taylor is back in the Axe Capital fold after striking out on their own, and has become one of the key pieces between on-again-off-again frenemies Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and Chuck Rhodes (Paul Giamatti). Having gained power within the company as both Axe and Chuck angle for their loyalty, Taylor is quickly becoming as integral to the show’s central rivalry as our beloved ball-busting Wendy (Maggie Siff).
For the time being, however, Bobby has found a new rival in golden boy billionaire Mike Prince (Corey Stoll). Flying his seaplane to yet another one of the self-aggrandizing rich guy retreats (beloved both by “Billions” and actual billionaires), the writers are setting Prince up as the good to Bobby’s evil. Axe admits as much when he proudly calls himself “a carnivorous monster” in a fireside chat, letting Prince embarrass him when his competition retorts that he’s “the cute, cuddly kind, like from ‘Monsters, Inc.'” But Bobby has always cared more about the bottom line than a first impression, and while his Prince strategy is still coming into focus, it’s clear that seaplane won’t be smooth-sailing for long.
Meanwhile, Chuck is getting into some water sports of his own. Not that kind, though we wouldn’t put it past “Billions” at this point. Opening a scene with Chuck getting waterboarded on a conference table just to see if it qualifies as torture is a bold move, one that — much like Wendy’s not-soon-to-be-forgotten wrestling display from the season premiere — signals that the “Billions” writers still know how to have fun.
Chuck is up to his old tricks, going behind the back of his so-called friend Judge Degiulio (Rob Morrow). While this little play may start to feel repetitive, it’s the shifting relationship between Chuck and Sacker that makes it worth watching. Having evolved from jockeying underling to essential, righthand woman, Sacker is the closest thing to a moral compass Chuck Rhodes has. She knows his playbook, and isn’t afraid to point out the moral ambiguities. Much like Taylor’s shifting priorities, what remains to be seen his how long this lackey stays loyal.
In just these first two episodes, we’ve seen Wendy playing mother to the lost boys of Axe Cap. While there is no such thing as too much Wendy, it would be a shame if her role stopped at glorified den mother to these wayward rabid animals. The episode spent some time setting up subplots with newer characters Lauren (Jade Eshete) and Sara (Samantha Mathis), with Wendy acting as referee, but these feel disappointingly dull compared to the rest of the show’s high-octane joy ride.
“Billions” has never been short on strong women characters, but the girls don’t always get as down and dirty as the boys. With the exception of Wendy, whose robust BDSM practice is the rare sex-positive portrayal of a healthy kink dynamic, the other women on “Billions” don’t have as much fun. A woman trader hasn’t gotten to total a car just because, or been arrested for firing rounds from the lawn of her Westchester mansion. While Sacker has always been an integral part of Chuck’s staff, she spent early seasons playing second fiddle to the goodly Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore). If “Billions” is going to keep up the momentum for Season 5, the women need to cut loose. Fortunately, there are plenty of strong contenders who could deliver. This early on, it’s anyone’s game.
Showtime airs new episodes of “Billions” on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.