‘Billions’ Season 4 Finale: Collateral Damage
Season 4, Episode 12: ‘Extreme Sandbox’
At a key moment in the season finale of “Billions” — although neither character involved knows just how key until it’s too late — Rebecca Cantu and Wendy Rhoades take a day trip to a recreational construction site. Yes, there are recreational construction sites. A small chain of them, actually.
That chain, and this episode, is called “Extreme Sandbox.” The concept is simple: Give people the keys to actual heavy machinery and let them dig holes and smash cars on a closed course to their hearts’ content.
If the concept sounds familiar, perhaps you watched it secure funding for expansion on an episode of the entrepreneurship reality competition series “Shark Tank.” One of the sharks who backed the idea was the real-life billionaire Mark Cuban. Sure enough, he makes a cameo appearance here, playing himself, to greet the fictional billionaire Rebecca when she arrives on site.
“Something about the directness of the metaphor,” Rebecca says to Wendy as they prepare to mount up and dig in, “is going to feel absurd for a minute. I need you to fight that off and own the fact that you’re moving the [expletive] earth.”
She concludes, “Because that’s what you are, and what you do in the actual world.”
Hold that thought.
And in the meantime, marvel at the rest of this masterly episode, which takes place outside the Extreme Sandbox’s confines. When the schemes that Bobby and Chuck laid in place to destroy their enemies come to fruition, there are no safety precautions. For the people they destroy — while inflicting considerable damage on themselves in the process — the wreckage they leave behind is very, very real.
Of the two erstwhile allies, Chuck makes a more satisfyingly cathartic go of things. As some viewers might have suspected, “the idiot who stands to lose the most” in his and his father’s real-estate scheme was Chuck’s former protégé turned arch enemy, Bryan Connerty, and his Texan overlord, Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat.
The Rhoadeses knew that the two federal attorneys’ zeal to destroy Chuck would leave them wide open for retaliation. More important, from a poetic-justice perspective, they knew using that zeal against Bryan and Jock would be the juiciest way to get it done.
So from a very early stage, Chuck and Charles discussed bribing officials all the way up to Treasury Secretary Todd Krakow, part of a sting operation designed to catch Connerty and Jeffcoat breaking the law in pursuit of the Rhoadeses’ wholly imaginary lawbreaking.
Ignoring the warnings of his underling Kate Sacker, whom Chuck brought on board to help deliver the coup de grace, Bryan gets busted listening to a sealed tape recording in which Chuck and Charles hilariously make fun of him with the absolute certainty that he’s listening in. He’s in the process of clumsily resealing the tape that predicted his demise when the arrest is made. Surveillance photos of his break-in at Charles’s house seal the deal.
As for Jeffcoat’s threats to destroy Chuck once and for all … well, you might say — or he, himself, certainly might say — that he’s all hat and no cattle. With the help of a bugged lapel pin Kate placed on Bryan’s suit jacket, Rhoades has Jock on tape ordering Bryan to break the law. Ol’ Jock is in deep manure this time.
The only flaw in Chuck’s plan is that he took his eyes off what should be the real prize: his wife Wendy’s career. Although she voluntarily confessed to abusing patient confidentiality, she’s still hoping to keep her medical license, but Chuck is too busy with his vendetta to properly help.
Not so Bobby. Axe takes time out from his busy schedule of making money and ruining lives to donate millions to a charity supported by head of the medical board, helping to earn Wendy a reprieve.
When she finds out the identity of her benefactor, Wendy decamps from her marital home, perhaps permanently, and crashes in the guest room at Bobby’s bachelor pad. There’s a moment, a minute even, where we (and Bobby?) believe she may want to share his bed instead, but that tantalizing and likely disastrous prospect is put off for now.
Don’t think that Bobby’s slacking in the revenge department for a second, though. The moment Rebecca and Wendy head off to the Extreme Sandbox, he makes his move.
Through a back room deal with the investor Sandy Benzinger — whose bluster about preserving an American institution is revealed to be just that — he arranges to shutter the Saler’s department store chain Rebecca dreamed of owning since she was a child, effective immediately.
The company is stripped for parts. Its employees are given pennies on the dollar for their years of loyal service. Its debt is off-loaded to the appliance company owned by Taylor Mason. His rival is ruined. He and Sandy and even Rebecca get even richer.
And his and Rebecca’s relationship is ruined, but who cares? Not Bobby. The moment Rebecca struck a deal with Taylor over that appliance company, he tells her, he knew that he could either strike back at her now or let it fester for years. If he ripped off the scab, as he puts it, and found there’s nothing healthy underneath, so be it.
All that remains is kicking Taylor Mason Capital when it’s down, and that’s where Chuck comes in. At Bobby’s direction, Chuck uses Axe’s former employee Rudy as a cat’s paw — while revealing that the guy has a pretty solid operatic tenor voice — in a sting operation intended to snare Taylor on insider trading.
Taylor, who smells a rat and just wants to make a relatively honest living (or killing), passes on the deal. That’s not supposed to stop Chuck from taking Taylor in on trumped-up charges regardless, offering a humiliating deal to go back to work at Axe Cap in exchange for freedom from prosecution.
But with his marriage a shambles, Chuck has once again fixed his eye on his true enemy, the man he blames for all his problems: Axe. Taylor and the brain trust of Mase Cap will go back to Bobby’s shop, all right, but as Chuck’s inside agents.
It’s nothing Bobby wouldn’t do to Chuck if the opportunity presented itself, and that’s what Taylor is counting on. At some point the two men will turn on each other. All Taylor has to do to come out on top is wait it out and walk away calmly when the inevitable explosion occurs.
But the grimmest thing about “Billions” in general, and about this episode in particular, is not the personal damage these characters do to the people they know and work with and even love. It’s the utterly impersonal destruction they visit on people, thousands of them, whom they don’t know at all.
Sure, Bobby broke Rebecca’s heart. But she can cry herself to sleep on a billion dollar bed as a result. The 50,000 employees of the store Axe annihilated along with his relationship? They’ll take what they can get.
“What they can get” is whatever Bobby, Sandy and the rest of these sociopaths, with their childlike nicknames and salt-of-the-earth affectations, deign to give them. To such men, the lives of the working class are worth less than a rounding error.
That they have working-class roots themselves appears only to harden their resolve not to care anymore. They got out; what’s everyone else’s excuse? The notion that their own cruelty might be what’s keeping their former peers down, and that their predecessors in the game helped create the very conditions they felt it necessary to escape, never occurs to them.
It’s not a lesson they have any incentive to learn. They’re earth movers. The world is their extreme sandbox, and they have the place to themselves.
Perhaps that’s why so many real-life billionaires are willing to appear on a show that makes them look like monsters. They can afford to.