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‘Billions’ Season 3 Finale: Crash of the Titans

Season 3, Episode 12: ‘Elmsley Count’

The fall was coming from inside the house. After years spent fending off attacks from without, from rival financiers to a certain ax-grinding United States attorney, Bobby Axelrod got caught flat-footed by his own protégé. Making good on the surprise ending of last week’s episode, in which Taylor Mason made a surprising move to go solo, the Season 3 finale of “Billions” showed Taylor’s plan in action — and it really was all action.

Named “Elmsley Count” after a magicians’ trick in which key cards are kept hidden from the audience, tonight’s hugely entertaining episode reminded me of nothing so much as another Season 3 finale: “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” the third-season closer for “Mad Men.” That memorable hour was basically a heist movie in which the priceless treasure being stolen, by a breakaway ad agency led by Don Draper, was nothing more or less than their own talent (and client lists). Here, however, we see that heist more from the perspective of the gobsmacked titan than from that of the brash young upstart, as Bobby, Wags and Wendy slowly piece together the necessary details to form the big picture of their betrayal: the unreturned calls, the missing money, the absent analysts, and the juuuuust-this-side-of-suspicious actions of Taylor the day before.

In brief asides, we also see Taylor’s various pitches to potential team members: good-natured but misused Mafee, who agrees; timid Ben Kim, who demurs; and outraged Wendy Rhoades, who explodes. It is during this third and final pitch that Taylor’s philosophy emerges. Protesting a bit too much considering the way she manipulated Mafee to save herself, Wendy tells the rebel leader that what they do in their business isn’t only about money. “The thing that makes it matter is lasting relationships, true loyalty, real trust.”

After the briefest pause from reflection, Taylor replies, in that maddening monotone: “No, I’m pretty sure there’s only money, and it can buy all those things, or at least the same result. That’s what you and Axe taught me.” Wendy’s vengeful fury from that moment forward stems at least in part from the fact that she knows Taylor is right: This is the message her and Bobby’s behavior conveys.

 

Axe himself, naturally, is even angrier. Taylor’s departure doesn’t just remove from his control the most brilliant mind for money he’s ever encountered, it also removes investments, future investors and his reputation for untouchability and for the loyalty of his staff. Such is his anger that he entertains, for a frighteningly long period of time, the offer of his Russian backer Grigor Andolov (who is playing both sides of this conflict) to have Taylor killed. However you feel about Bobby’s very serious consideration of that offer, it’s hard to deny the weight of Andolov’s casually issued, completely sincere statements of lethal intent. Watching him contemptuously backhand Axe’s coldblooded fixer, Hall, cursing at him with no more consideration than you’d give a Twitter troll, you can see he means business, even among people for whom meaning business istheir business.

“How can I keep my money with a man who won’t kill for it?” he asks Bobby — rhetorically, since to Grigor, this is a question with only one answer: He can’t. It’s to Bobby’s credit that he doesn’t accept the offer, but it doesn’t say much for him that he considered it at all.

Meanwhile, another palace coup is brewing — and no, it’s not the one Chuck has spent the past few episodes engineering against Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat, although he thinks it is right up until the moment he’s proven wrong.

By the time Chuck arrives at his own office for what he thinks will be a listening party for taped evidence of Jeffcoat’s obstructing justice, the signs are mounting that something stinks. Aside from the parallel story line of Bobby’s betrayal and all its sleight-of-hand references, Chuck’s snare snaps shut just a little too easily given the size and cunning of its intended quarry. When a steely-eyed Kate Sacker tells Chuck that the day he had long dreaded had arrived at last — when the political skills he taught her were used against him — there is no doubt that something wicked lurks behind those office doors. Apparently Bobby and Wendy aren’t the only ones capable of teaching their brilliant underlings all the wrong lessons.

But the extent of the wicked thing waiting was as much a shock to me as it must have been to Chuck. Gathered around the smirking, hulking personage of Jock Jeffcoat is a small army of people Chuck once trusted: not only the New York attorney general, Alvin Epstein, the real Judas in this case; not only Sacker, the worm within the Southern District; but also the previously defenestrated do-gooders Oliver Dake and (this one hurts) Bryan Connerty. The blocking of this scene is as important as anything that actually gets said: We’ve never seen Chuck this badly outmanned, let alone outmatched. Jock’s position behind Chuck’s own desk (he inevitably concludes their conversation by kicking his feet up on the thing) is also physical inversion of the world as we’ve known it.

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