Season 7, Episode 7: ‘DMV’
Well, that was a nasty bit of business.
One of the best episodes of “Billions” in recent memory, “DMV” — named after the government agency turned into an unlikely bed of low-stakes graft and influence-peddling by the Rhoades family — shows the depths to which many of the show’s leading players will sink to get what they want. Even if their desires are relatively high-minded, the depths remain the same.
Philip gets a turn in the spotlight this week when he reels in Prince Cap’s latest whale: bioengineered, self-repairing concrete, invented by one of his mentors in college, Dr. Mike Rulov (Timothy Busfield). Thrilled by the benefits such a material would present for America’s crumbling infrastructure, to say nothing of how rich it would make them all, Philip pitches the idea to Prince, who loves it.
A little too much, unfortunately. It’s such a great invention, with such potential for positive change in the world, that Mike insists on owning it lock, stock and barrel. If Rulov demurs, Prince is prepared to snap up related projects and sue Rulov for infringement, a practice called “patent sharking.”
Though stunned at Prince’s “blitzkrieg” tactics, Philip tries to play good cop. With the legal and financial resources of one of the smaller G7 nations, Prince would make the new concrete a bigger deal than Rulov could, even with his own high-rollers backing him. But there was clearly no chance of such a sale, even before Prince started making veiled threats. Rulov is simply not the kind of person willing to sell off something into which he has poured so much of himself.
When Philip dutifully relays this information to Prince, it only provides the billionaire with more ammo. If Rulov cares about the concrete so much, Prince reasons, then tying it up in litigation for years will force him to sell because of his simple but irresistible desire to see his creation out in the world. Not that Mike is in any hurry for that to happen, even if he wins the fight: At the suggestion of the increasingly sinister Kate Sacker, he considers keeping the technology under wraps until he can roll it out as part of his 2028 re-election campaign. Such is the transactional nature of Mike’s do-gooding at this point.
Desperate, Philip turns to Wendy — not for her advice, although that’s the front he puts up, but rather for her connection to Chuck. He knows that if he tells her the whole story, she will reach out to her ex, who will see an opportunity to stick it to Prince.
But Philip’s hope that Chuck can shut down the entire patent-sharking sector is a pipe dream. All Chuck can do is have a friend at the Defense Department classify the patent as a matter of national security, seize Rulov’s efforts, and prevent either man from being the sole controller of such an important invention. Of course, the government will most likely sit on it forever, benefiting no one. But if that’s what it takes to stop Prince from getting his hands on this potential game-changer, so be it.
Even after this debacle, Philip still wants nothing to do with the plot against Prince, the existence of which Wendy intimates to him after many a knowing glance between herself and Taylor. Philip storms out of her office, all but yelling, “Deniability! Deniability!” with his fingers in his ears.
Two parallel story lines echo these abuses of power. In one, Charles Sr. and his grandson, Kevin, are arrested when Charles attempts to bribe a Department of Motor Vehicles employee (Patrick Fischler) into giving Kevin a passing grade on his driver’s test. Chuck throws his weight around, cuts a sweetheart deal with the district attorney, lands the outraged DMV employee a promotion and joins Wendy at Kevin’s next test in his father’s place. Everyone wins, except anyone who thinks we’re all equal in the eyes of the law.
Meanwhile, after the disastrous “truth-telling sessions” that saw the Prince Cap foot soldiers tear their boss to shreds, they express discomfort with the idea of Mike conducting the annual performance reviews. But it doesn’t stop there. Banding together, they elect Victor and Rian to tell the committee Mike assembles to take his place — Wags, Scooter, Taylor and Philip — that they reject the committee’s authority to conduct the reviews. They pitch postponing them for a year and detaching their annual comp from the review process in the meantime. Mike caves and even throws them a gala casino night as a morale-building exercise.
Or so it seems. In reality, he and Scooter have colluded to have the whole evening recorded, employing the real-life poker ace Vanessa Selbst to analyze their behavior and risk patterns — a performance review without the consent of the performers. Judging from Victor’s and Rian’s reactions, this has exactly the effect on morale you would expect it to.
But here’s the thing, as Chuck explains to Philip: In this world, there are harbor seals, like Rulov, and there are sharks, like Prince. Whether it’s running a promising start-up out of business in order to seize it for himself, or making an end-run around his staff’s expressed desires just because he can, Prince will go in for the kill. “Sharks will shark,” Chuck says ruefully. “Harbor seals will harbor seal. That is the way of the ocean.” At this point, everyone’s out in the deep water, watching President Prince’s dorsal fin get closer and closer.
Charles Sr. gets the biggest laugh lines of the night, twice over. First there’s the precise way he chooses to express his righteous indignation upon being arrested: “This is ridiculous! I was social friends with Robert Moses!” (Charles either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that Moses’s reputational stock has somewhat fallen since their last soirée.)
Then there’s the deft way Charles gets Chuck to focus on his own parental neglect in failing to take Kevin to the test — rather than on Charles’s own literally criminal behavior. “Who’s the [expletive] now?” he asks before repeating it more slowly for emphasis: “Who’s … the [expletive] … now?” Chuck’s teary-eyed failure to recognize just how ridiculous this is shows how effective a manipulator Charles remains.
What a delight to see Fischler, an actor who in years past cemented his status as one of the screen’s most memorable actors in the space of just two scenes. “Mad Men” viewers will recall his turn as the insult comic Jimmy Barrett, whose dressing down of Don Draper for sleeping with his wife — “You’re garbage, and you know it” — all but flays off the ad man’s skin. Meanwhile, David Lynch fans, or anyone familiar with a “scariest scenes of all time” listicle, know him as the man from the “Winkie’s dream” sequence in “Mulholland Drive,” in which his portrayal of a man facing his worst nightmare is as convincing as it is unnerving.
Which members of the Prince Cap Movie Night crew understand that “The Wolf of Wall Street” is intended as a cautionary tale rather than a how-to manual? According to Wags, they are Kate, Victor, and Rian — not that it has stopped any of the three from acting rather wolfish.
It’s fun to see the folks on the floor form a sort of pop-up union to collectively fight against the performance reviews. The “Hot Labor Summer” continues, even in “Billions”-land.
Normally I’d come down pretty hard on a needle drop as narratively obvious as playing R.E.M.’s “Drive” after a kid passes his driving test, but I’m choosing to believe the song was chosen not for its title but for its somber tone, reflective of the mood of the rest of the episode. Otherwise, “I Can’t Drive 55” by Sammy Hagar was sitting right there.