Season 5, Episode 7 of "Billions" ("The Limitless Sh*t"), Reviewed by a Finance Guy
Our favorite big finance show leaves us grappling with a few unanswered questions
Every Sunday night, we’re diving into the latest episode of Billions — the best finance-driven dramedy on premium cable — with a technical assist from Elliot Grossman, a veteran of the financial services industry. Since Billions is loosely based on real characters, we’ll be homing in on how the show tracks with the real world events and situations that inspire it. But of course, we’ll also be celebrating its wild excesses, shoddy ethics, endless cringes and highly questionable dancing.
Last week, we tackled Season 5’s all-time crazy episode “The Nordic Model.” This week, we’re taking a look at the “The Limitless Sh*t.”
You Gotta Be Kidney
Recappers and viewers alike have been asking an existential question about Billions this season: Is it satire? Or are pockets of the financial services industry and the general corridors of American power just a satire of the human race?
Consider Chuck Rhoades Sr.’s kidney. It’s failing him after a lifetime of abuse and, in spite of the fact that Chuck Sr. has donated enough money to get himself a wing at the hospital, he can’t get himself on a donor list. And so this week, his suffering son Chuck must entertain whether to collect a spare black-market kidney from a range of desperate sources — someone who is either undocumented, incarcerated or terminally ill. And all this while Chuck is in the midst of a post-divorce spiritual rehabilitation? Sheeeit.
In this episode alone, Chuck strong-arms his interns to take on a morally dubious assignment, secretly tests their blood under the guise of volunteerism and then scams the Treasury Secretary into resigning just to deal a setback to his mortal enemy. Might as well follow the kidney sherpa into hell at this point, right?
Meanwhile, Taylor Mason Carbon is trying to right its solar-panel outfit which, as it turns out, isn’t sourcing its tin from ethically sourced Australian mines, but rather conflict-stricken Congoan ones. Between kidneys and tin, purity is hard to come by … especially with Taylor and Wendy joining forces with Axe’s nemesis Mike Prince. The solar-panel play did get me thinking about how common these impact investments — a huge theme of this season — interact with the big hedge funds.
Elliot, our finance guru, explains that while ESG investing has been on the rise over the past five years, its presence in the Saarinen-stocked offices of top hedge fund firms might be overstated. “The top 20-30 hedge funds are barely involved,” he explains. “The ESG charge is being led largely by Institutional Investors (pensions, charities, and university endowments) and individuals who are investing with their conscience more than ever.”
Of course, we can talk about the dark moral quandaries of the universe without Wendy. Last week, we saw her fealty to Axe begin to face unprecedented stress as she draws closer to Taylor and Nico. And this week she finally bucks — by partnering with Mike Prince, by siding with Taylor and by not acting as a willing intermediary between Axe and Nico. Sadly for her and all of us, Axe gets the last laugh when Nico — the artiste, the iconoclast — proves himself to be utterly corruptible by money when he prostitutes himself out to a socialite with a nine-digit bank account. But hey, even Salvador Dali did Alka-Seltzer commercials. Speaking of Dali …
I Am a Drug
What is there really to say about Vigilantrix? It makes for a hilarious subplot. Seeing the entirety of Axe Capital tweaking on productivity drugs is exactly what we all need right now. Especially as everything around us goes terribly wrong, it’s nice to see everything go wrong in a totally frivolous way.
That said, watching Axe pore over market data on his screen with stylistic homages to Rain Man, I wanted to know more about how information gets processed, you know, when people aren’t high on Zeus-dose Ritalin. Last week, Taylor Mason Carbon was scraping data from Twitter. Now it’s Axe Cap opening up $3 billion to corner the rare metals market.
Earlier this season, we discussed how data science and data analysis are more central to finance than the gut instinct that makes for such great drama. But where does the information come from? The answer is everywhere. What it all comes down to, Elliot explains, is the sheer amount of data that’s available to those with the right tools at their disposal. “There are analytics technologies that will tell you how long a user’s mouse hovered over an item on the Bed, Bath and Beyond’s website,” he explains. “No data is too minute for these people to analyze.”
This is where the question of satire or real life rears its annoying head again. Is basically copping the plot of Limitless an act of hackery or a reflection of the culture? Sadly, we’re going to have to wait to find out. The coronavirus pandemic, which gets a casual allusion in this very episode, ultimately disrupted the filming of this season, leaving us with a Vigilantrix hangover and no Billions to watch for at least the next few months.
Odds and Ends
- The saga of Great Awakening preacher James Davenport, whose pantless sermonizing is referenced in this episode, is still a popular tale recounted by regional historical societies. But there’s another symbolic link to Billions here: The public renouncings of sinful luxury by fire were called Bonfires of the Vanities, also the title of a famous Tom Wolfe book about Wall Street greed and a crusading New York district attorney.
- The term “impasto” used by Nico Tanner’s socialite art admirer at the tail end of the episode got me digging: “The term impasto comes from the Italian word for ‘paste.’ Impasto technique involves applying paint as thickly as paste, creating a textured surface in which the marks of the brush (or palette knife) are often still clearly visible. Some artists used impasto to add drama to specific elements of a painting; some, like Vincent van Gogh, covered entire canvases in impasto.”
- For anyone interested in accelerating their retirement, the Medical Futurist suggests that selling your kidney could net you over $250K.
Until we return, stay away from the Scarface shit and don’t get Midsommar‘d.
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