The Godfathers: Don Vito Corleone; Don Michael Corleone; and Don Robert ("Bobby") Axelrod
Have you guys been watching the ShowTime crime thriller, Billions? The reason that I have titled this critical appreciation of the show, "The Godfathers...," is because I consider Bobby Axelrod, the CEO of Axe Capital, every bit the "Mafia" don as the two Corleones. I am completely in earnest on this point. I am not trying to be clever or ironic or anything else subtle, as I draw a straight line from the two Corleones to Bobby Axelrod.
In fact, Bobby Axelrod is the fulfillment of everything the original Don Corleone had hoped for his "family," in both the sense of genetic descent and in terms of business organization. As you know, Corleone is a family name and a Family, or organization name.
Why do I say that Bobby Axelrod is the ultimate fulfillment of everything the Corleones hoped for, for their own family and Family?
For those of you who are familiar with The Godfather saga and have read the first novel---this part is not in any of the movies---I would ask you to recall a scene between Don Vito Corleone and his son Santino "Sonny" Corleone.
The Mob boss, Vito Corleone, had found out that his oldest boy, "Sonny," had hijacked a truck with some friends. The Don was upset with Sonny, not because the act was "wrong" or "against the law," or anything like that. The Godfather was peeved at Sonny because the young man had shown a poor judgment of risk versus reward in hijacking the truck. That is to say, he had done something dangerous for so little return.
Anyway, the Don says to his boy, "Don't you want to finish school? Don't you want to be a lawyer? A lawyer can steal more money with a briefcase than a thousand men with guns and masks!"
Incidentally, we learn in the third Godfather novel, I believe, The Godfather's Revenge, that young Tom Hagen had been lurking somewhere nearby and had overheard the original Godfather Corleone. Those words are what had definitively decided Tom Hagen to become a lawyer.
Okay, Bobby Axelrod is not a lawyer, of course, but you get the idea. He does have one of Wall Street's best working for him on retainer, however.
For those of you familiar with another ShowTime show, Ray Donovan, you may recall a billionaire character called Andrew Finney. You may recall a scene between him and Donovan, in which the former says of himself, "My father was a criminal so that I wouldn't have to be." This, of course, ties into our theme, does it not?
Bobby Axelrod "steals more money with a briefcase than a thousand men with guns and masks," by far, by an order of magnitude. It isn't even close. The original Godfather would be proud, moved to tears if he were alive.
Axelrod follows the tradition of the Godfathers in several key respects.
1. Bobby Axelrod follows the tradition of the Godfathers---who ruled both their "family" and their "Family"---in that it is very difficult, if not impossible to separate out his good self from his criminal self.
Example: The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Chuck Rhodes (Paul Giamatti), is trying to bust Axelrod for insider trading. Axelrod is using various stratagems to outwit his arch nemesis.
One of those stratagems was for Bobby Axelrod to use his dying friend and Axe Capital employee, something of a "milk toast" named "Donnie," to feed the U.S. Attorney's office information that he, "Donnie," would never live to testify to in court.
I won't recount the details here. If you've been watching the show, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't been watching, chances are you don't care.
The point is that it is not so easy to separate the good and sympathetic Bobby Axelrod from the criminal Bobby Axelrod---the thief with the briefcase.
Axelrod inadvertently discovered that one of his traders, "PMs," had cancer. That would be Donnie. Axelrod's first reaction had been warm and sympathetic and caring and human. Those of you familiar with the show will recall that his first reaction was to offer to send Donnie to the best oncologist he knew, a man whose research Godfather Axelrod had been funding for years.
Donnie explained that it was too late given the type of cancer he had. His only concern now was making sure his children were protected. He wanted them to have enough money to all but guarantee their futures, so that they can "do what they want to do instead of what they have to do."
Godfather Axelrod told him that there was "a way to get you there." Interestingly, Donnie directly asked if this path involved breaking the law "because I can't spend a day in jail."
And what does Don Bobby say to that? He said, "Let's let the lawyers worry about that." I love, love, love that answer because it is so typical of Godfather Axelrod; the left hand never knows what the right hand is doing.
2. "Friendship" was the currency which greased the wheels of the Corleone organization. When Godfather Corleone offered his "friendship," no man dare refuse it.
Another episode of Billions involved Godfather Axelrod going to a Metallica concert with three of his best friends in the world, from his school days. One of his "friends" overheard that the Don was "shorting" a stock, Crossco Trucking. This pal jumped in without asking Don Bobby.
Well, things went wrong for this buddy; and he stood to be wiped out. He wouldn't be able to cover the "margin calls," and all that. In desperation he went to Godfather Axelrod for help.
By the way, that scene in Billions kind of reminded me of the scene in the first Godfather movie, when that singer, the godson of the Don, was crying, "Godfather, what could I do..." and all that. Remember?
Don Vito roughly grabs his wrists and shouts, "YOU COULD BE A MAN!" He then mocks the wailing of his godson.
At any rate, Don Bobby asks his friend how much he stands to lose. "I wanna know what our friendship is worth," Godfather Axelrod says.
Anyway, the Don works it out for him. "I'm telling my people to guarantee your position....," and so forth.
You see, the Godfather of Axe Capital was hurt by what he considered to be a personal betrayal. He should have asked Don Bobby, who would have gotten him in on the deal "without attracting attention."
His pal should have asked "like any friend would do." To further drive home the point the Don tells his friend that he was being as crass as that character in the Rocky movie, who stitched the name of his store on Rocky's robe.
The Don found a way to signal his displeasure, later on. That was probably the end of their friendship.
Yada, yada, yada...
Anyway, the rest of this scene reminded me of the scene between Godfather Corleone and the undertaker, Bonasera in the movie.
"But uh, now you come to me and say, 'Don Corleone,' give me justice. But you don't ask with respect. You don't offer friendship. You don't even think to call me 'Godfather.' Instead you come to my home on the day my daughter's to be married and ask me to do murder for money."
"Bonasera, Bonasera! What have I ever done to make you treat me so disrespectfully. If you had come to me in friendship, then the scum who ruined your daughter would be suffering this very day. And if by chance an honest man like yourself should make enemies, then he would become my enemies. And then they would fear you!"
Now, speaking of an "honest man," those of you who watch Billions, know that Godfather Axelrod has helped an old friendly benefactor of his, expand his business. I'm talking about the proprietor of the pizza shop.
3. Revenge. Those of you familiar with the Godfather saga, in the novel and/or movie form, know that Vito Corleone had escaped Sicily as a small boy. His father had run afoul of a local Mafia chieftain. The father was killed and young Vito was pursued with an eye toward killing him, so that he would not grow up to seek revenge.
As a young, up and coming Mafia boss in New York---under the cover of a prosperous olive oil importer---Vito does manage to return to Sicily to take out the now old Mafia chief who had murdered his father.
I love watching Godfather Axelrod take revenge on people, even if it takes decades to catch up to them. His weapons are not the knife, gun, or garrote. Its money. Its leverage.
The number 16
Yet another episode of Billions saw Don Bobby buy the naming rights of a prestigious building. He was paying to have a family's name taken off and the Axelrod name put up. A certain rich family is selling those rights for 25 million.
It turns out that Godfather Axelrod knows this rich family. He enters the conference room, wearing his Metallica T-Shirt, with his wife. Several individuals from said rich family are already seated around the table.
Axelrod reintroduces himself, reminds them all who he is. You see, it seems that Axelrod used to caddy for the grandfather at the country club. "Axe" used to carry the old man's golf clubs, "and yours too," he says to one of the gentlemen seated at the table. This gentleman is a grandson, all grown up.
Don Bobby then explains to all assembled the significance of the number 16. He tells them all the story of his caddying career. He had worked there summers and had had to stretch out that money for the rest of the year. He got paid $16 per round of golf, or something like that.
Just know that 16 is the operative number! One day, it was the three of them: the rich grandfather, the grandson, and Bobby Axelrod as the caddy.
Now, the crux of the story is this: The old man took a shot. Bobby had advised him on the shot, as caddies are prone to do. The grandfather took the stroke without heading his caddy's advice. The old man missed the shot, and badly. I believe it was a put.
The grandson laughed at his grandfather for his poor eyesight. The old man got angry and took out his grief on Axelrod. He fired Bobby.
"Not from the round," Don Bobby intones into the ear of the grown up spoiled brat. "But from the club." Bobby had really, really, really needed that sixteen dollars per round; but the spoiled brat could not have cared less at the time.
Here comes the good part!
Godfather Axelrod winds up his story by saying something like, ".... and that is why I am presenting you with a check for twenty-five million dollars..."
Wait for it ---- "Minus sixteen!" Minus sixteen.... million dollars, that is!
The spoiled brats naturally start to protest. One of them, quite predictably says that the deal will be called off if Axelrod does not honor the original terms.
But Godfather Axelrod calls their bluff; and it is indeed a bluff. He lets them know, that he knows, that they are simply not in a position to turn down even nine million dollars. None of them have done a day's work since the old man kicked off; and an examination of their holdings and investments lays bare their desperation.
The Godfather says: "Get up, put the check in your pocket, and walk out. Or I will!"
Needless to say, the spoiled brats take the check and crawl out of that conference room on their bellies. Figuratively speaking, of course.
I have to tell you, that was a powerful and powerfully satisfying scene. It reminded me of perhaps the best opening line in all of crime story fiction.
"The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could; but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge."
"At length I would be avenged[.]"
That is from Edgar Allan Poe's "Cask of Amontillado."
Watching that, I believe I actually pumped my fist and said, "Yes!" I love watching Godfather Axelrod get back at people.
4. Lifelong loyalty and devotion are demanded, in both the Mafia and Axe Capital. You cannot just leave either one. You especially cannot just leave either entity to start your own "thing," your own organization, your own "shop."
Those of you familiar with The Godfather saga, will recall that trouble in Paradise came from two sources:
A. Don Vito Corleone's reluctance to lend his protection and support for illicit narcotics dealing. Don Barzini, boss of the Barzini Family was the prime mover behind the pro-drug dealing forces among the other New York Families.
B. (This one is most important for our purposes). Two of the Corleone capos, Tessio and Clemenza, wanted to leave the Corleones and start their own crime family.
What linked the two sources of trouble was Tessio, who betrayed the Corleones by colluding with Godfather Barzini.
By asking permission and showing "patience," Tessio and Clemenza was conducting their separation from the Corleones in the approved way, at first. But Tessio, impatient to begin his own Godfather-hood, colluded with Barzini to have Michael Corleone killed.
You know the rest. It was Tessio who was killed instead. "Tom, can you get me off for old times sake?"
"Can't do it, Sal."
"Tell Michael it was only business. I always liked him."
"He understands that, Sal."
Similarly, a trader CANNOT just leave Axe Capital!
You see, there is a right way to leave Axe Capital to start your own company; and there is a wrong way to leave Axe Capital to start your own company.
If you do it the right way there will be some initial, shall we say, discomfort. But then "information" will start flowing your way---very profitable information; and it is well worth the initial pain.
The Godfather was written by Mario Puzo, who had made books about the old Sicilian-American Mafia something of a specialty. There is another novel by Mr. Puzo called The Last Don, which was made into a television multi-part movie.
I won't go into it here, but there is a scene in which we see the right way to separate off from the Clericuzio crime Family. You see, the Clericuzios are moving away from overt street crime into gambling. They have high hopes that gambling will be established as legal in all fifty states of the Union.
If that happens, the Clericuzios will be able to count of billions per year pouring into their coffers, without anything like the risk of public condemnation that comes with drugs, prostitution, and the like.
There is a man called Ballazzo. Virginio Ballazzo. He was a long-time capo for the Clericuzios. One day, in a big meeting with all the other Mob bosses from around the country, in addition to announcing his withdrawal from certain activities, which he cedes to the other families----he announced that Virginio Ballazzo will form his own Family in New York.
Ballazzo is to be completely independent of the Clericuzio. Ballazzo will pay a ten percent tribute to the Clericuzio.
There is a right way to leave Axe Capital, to start your own shop. After you've worked for Godfather Axelrod for a sufficient length of time, with sufficient loyalty and "ass-kissery, he wishes you well."
Godfather Axelrod gives you "some capital," to start your own trading firm. In return for that, the departing trader is expected to provide transparency on his trades. Basically, the Godfather continues to benefit from your work as a trader, as though you were still actually working for Axe Capital, which you are, when you think about it.
But then information starts to flow your way; and this information makes the initial period of "transparency" all worth the trouble.
There is a wrong way to leave Axe Capital. Those of you who've been watching Billions, know all about it. Three traders left the firm without even giving notice. What was worse, they broke into Axe Capital in the middle of the night and removed files from the office.
Don Bobby retaliated by sending one of his most trusted people, William "Dollar Bill" Stern, to give the three a false tip. Stern and Axelrod had staged a fake argument in front of the entire office, so that people would think they were now enemies.
Anyway, the three traders bit on the tip. Indeed, they thought that Stern would soon be joining them in their renegade venture.
The long and short of it is that the three traders find their new firm ruined before it has even started. That's a wrap!
And then, out of nowhere Don Bobby literally swoops into their "Bat Cave" and saves them! For Godfather Axelrod is a merciful godfather. And a forgiving one. Sort of.
He offers them 250 million in seed money "to keep the lights on." He doesn't want very much in return: just "full transparency" on all their trades; their trading records must be delivered to the Axe Capital office "EVERY NIGHT!"; there is some kind of fee for something or other that goes around 20-25 percent that the three traders have to cough up.
But since we're all friends here, "let's call it 40 percent." The Godfather can pull his money anytime he wants; but the traders cannot get out from under him by selling their firm. Also, there is a limit to how much "outside capital" they can raise; and at no time may they have more than 999 million dollars under management.
Helpless to do anything else, the humbled and upbraided traders accept the terms, in full supplication before the Godfather.
"And I better see you at Donnie's funeral," Don Bobby says as he takes his leave.
I'll leave you with this thought.
It did not happen in a day. It did not happen in a year. But by the turn of the new millennium and just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bobby Axelrod became the Godfather. The Don. Don Axelrod.
Anyone familiar with the first "The Godfather" novel, may recognize the above as a modification of a line that goes something like this: "It did not happen in a day. It did not happen in a year. But, by the end of the Prohibition period and the start of the Great Depression, Vito Corleone had become the Godfather. The Don. Don Corleone."
5. Axe Capital has something of the Mafia structure.
a. Godfather Axelrod is the organization's "Boss."
b. His "underboss" is Axelrod's right-hand man, everybody calls "Wags." (The Corleones never used this position).
c. Axelrod's "consiliere or advisor is the industrial psychologist, Wendy Rhodes. (For the Corleones, its the lawyer, Tom Hagen, adopted child of the Corleones).
d. Axelrod's capos or "captains" are people like "Dollar Bill" Stern and others, senior traders who oversee the other junior traders.
e. Godfather Axelrod's soldatos or "soldiers" are the regular traders.
f. Don Bobby's enforcer is a shadowy operative known only as "Hall," who reeks of an ex-CIA type, or something like that.
I can't wait for the finale!
Thank you for reading. Bye! Bye!