Season 5, Episode 4: ‘Opportunity Zone’
Wendy Rhoades stares at the man opposite her. And stares. And stares. And stares some more.
The man opposite her is the artist Nic Tanner, the recent recipient of a gigantic commission from Bobby Axelrod. This Renaissance Italy-style largess has him dealing with perhaps his first bout of artist’s block. Wendy has some wise words for him, but the staring comes first. Why? Because he needs fight his own way out of his artist’s block; stonewalling his demurrals and excuses is how she’s teaching him this.
According to Wendy, any obstacles between him and success as Bobby’s artist-in-residence are self-imposed. She tasks him with envisioning a better future, then getting off his duffer and doing whatever it takes to get himself there.
That Wendy’s act of artist-whispering is successful nearly goes without saying. She’s a performance coach, a great one in fact, and figuring out how to unlock people’s potential is what she does. So is striking up a nearly instant interpersonal chemistry with her clients; if you look at it from the right angle, it’s almost as if she were coming on to Tanner rather than coaching him. Something similar happens later when she and Bobby have dinner in their shared apartment, as a comfortable silence between friends starts feeling like … something more.
But you can also see her skill at work with Taylor Mason — the person who, I’ll remind you, nearly ended Wendy’s career for using her case notes to brutally sabotage Taylor’s personal and professional life. But you can’t argue with success, and that’s exactly what Wendy helps Taylor achieve when they sit down for a second meeting with an oil executive they’re attempting to persuade to “greenwash” their company.
From mortal enemies to a potentially permanent partnership in a matter of minutes? That’s the power of Wendy Rhoades.
What is Bobby’s power? I wonder if, more than anything else, it’s knowing when to get the hell out of Dodge. In a grim way, that’s how his rise to the top began: He narrowly escaped death on 9/11 and made a fortune that very day. And he’s been known to high-tail it from investments that have gone belly-up, as he did when the upstate New York town of Sandicot proved to be less than the lucrative business opportunity he had anticipated.
So when he puts himself in contention for investing in an “opportunity zone” in an economically depressed area of Yonkers, his hometown, it’s easy for both the town worthies and his chief rival, Mike Prince, to paint him as a serial lam artist, one who will abandon Yonkers the moment it no longer proves useful to him. It takes all of his interpersonal skill — heavily influenced by his years under Wendy’s tutelage, might I add — to convince the decision makers otherwise, by drawing on his indisputable personal history in the area.
But even though he beats both Prince and Charles Rhoades Sr. — who had been sicced on the project by his son, Chuck, as a way to rattle him — and wins the day, that habit of leaving dies hard. All it takes is some thinly veiled mockery by Prince, who tells Axe he “stinks” of Yonkers, to cause Bobby to skip out on the elaborate dinner he had planned with the family currently living in the house where he grew up. He slings mild expletives at Yonkers as he leaves, as if attempting to verbally scrub off that stink — of growing up poor, of having something to prove, of needing to feel valued. For Bobby, it’s better to just beat it.
And what about Chuck, the third corner of this bizarre triangle? In this episode, at least, he appears only partially committed to his own power: legally boogie-woogieing until his enemy gets tripped up. His plan to use his father to scoop the Yonkers opportunity zone out from under Axe flops thanks to his father’s inveterate racism, while a potential partnership with Prince comes up short thanks to Prince’s sense of morality. (Yeah, sure, that’ll last.)
Chuck seems much more alive in the hallowed halls of his alma mater, Yale. He’s not just teaching there — he’s being taught. His election-day speech, in which he went public about being a sexual masochist, is on the syllabus of Catherine Brant (Julianna Margulies), a best-selling writer and sociology professor who seemingly specializes in sexuality. (A quick comparison of Brant and Wendy reveals her as Chuck’s type almost immediately.) While he at first doesn’t want to speak to her class about this infamous speech, he eventually gives in.
Was his public confession an act of submission, or an attempt to play the dominant by strategically surrendering? Chuck frames the speech as an emotional release rather than a “carnal” one, but this is the big question about his character, isn’t it? Are his personal and professional spheres distinct, or do they overlap like a Venn diagram — master sometimes, servant others, driven always by the imbalance of power and the question of who wields it?
This is a jam-packed episode of “Billions,” for what it’s worth. (As if there were any other kind?) In addition to the adventures of Wendy and Taylor and Bobby and Chuck, we see Wags try and fail to reconnect with his baby-faced Christian son, George, and decide that fathering a whole new child is easier. We see Kate Sacker warn her father, Franklin (Harry Lennix), against partnering with Axe to bring diversity to his Yonkers scheme, then divulge to Chuck that the pair plan to go into the banking business together. We see Mafee settle back into the easy camaraderie of Axe Cap, to the point where Taylor allows him to change his seat in the office rather than keep him sequestered with the Mase Cap quants.
But as is custom on “Billions,” the plot beats pertaining to our main characters do much more than advance story lines. They reveal who these people are just as surely as a stare-down from Wendy Rhoades does.