Billions Review

In this Oct. 14, 2015, photo provided by Showtime, actors Paul Giamatti, left, as Chuck Rhodes, and Damian Lewis as Bobby “Axe” Axelrod talk on the set of “Billion” in the Brooklyn borough of New York. At right is New York Yankees first baesman Mark Texiera. Teixeira doesn’t mind if someone accuses him of acting. For the second time in five years, the Yankees first baseman made a cameo appearance on a cable television show. Teixeira played himself on an episode of “Billions” that first aired March 13. (Jeff Neumann/Showtime via AP) Jeff Neumann AP

Everybody wants to be a lion. Most people just never get the chance. I’m offering you one now. – Bobby Axelrod to Bryan Connerty (2016)

Early in its first season, Showtime’s Billions was clearly missing something. It certainly wasn’t the acting talent or star power. It wasn’t budget, it wasn’t music, it wasn’t visual stimulation, and it wasn’t scenery or setting. Its problem was its familiarity. So much of TV is recycled from other TV. In a sense, we’ve seen almost everything available to view in entertainment. Outside of technological advances, it’s really only in print that things can be done that haven’t been tried before from a storytelling perspective.

Billions was every drama you’ve ever seen, borrowing bits and pieces from some of the best and some of the most mediocre all in one savvy move. Behind the glitzy package was an antihero with money and power, skirting the law to remain rich, strong, and famous. There’s some Tony Soprano in Bobby Axelrod, but he stopped short of murder for betrayal. He rules his empire with intimidation and pressure, but loyalty and results are rewarded in much the same way Paulie Walnuts or Silvio Dante got theirs from “T.” 

Even the names, “Dollar” Bill Stearn (Is there a bigger canyon between two characters played by one man than Kelly AuCoin playing both Dollar Bill and also Pastor Tim on The Americans?), Mick Danzig, Mafee, Mike “Wags” Wagner sound a little like capos. They’re gangsters without the RICO case or the guns. Well, Danzig even had the gun.  

The series might have the most in common with an amalgamation of House of Cards and The Wire, and before you balk at me invoking David Simon in a discussion of Billions, allow me to explain. The lasting impression of The Wire was generally that nothing ever changed. Perhaps the players would, but the game would always be the game. Simon took aim at every societal apparatus, and revealed that slinging smack on the streets had much more in common with other institutions of high esteem than anyone might have thought.

Billons separates hedge funds and investment banks from the legal and political professions, the first responders, and the media, but does so only by placing each entity in a different building. The corruption, greed, and grudges are rampant, but more than anything else, the means to an end philosophy enables each group to do what they believe must be done in order to achieve a goal. 

For Axe Capital, shorting and squeezing and acting on questionably timed information is a necessity to compete in a world where hedge funds and big money are under assault more than ever before. 

For the U.S. Attorney’s office, it’s about taking these guys down and rebalancing the system. For Chuck Rhoades specifically, it’s about ending the reign of billionaire Bobby Axe, the man he also blames for all the stress in his personal life. 

For the police, it’s about protecting and serving, but it’s also about pleasing the union bosses, those with their hands on the pension fund, and it’s also about payback and revenge. 

For the media, it’s about running or burying a story based on the cost of doing so, and the benefits or lack thereof after the fact. 

For all of them, it’s the indescribable sensation of standing atop the mountain, looking down from its awesome peak onto the rest of society below. It’s about being in a position to live the life you want, and also to have the happiness of others in the palm of your hand. As Season 1 ended, Chuck confronted Axe at the hedge fund headquarters, which had been ripped apart looking for a bug that didn’t exist. Both men struck blows against one another, but at the end of the season, neither had Wendy Rhoades in any capacity.

Season 2 picks up just a few weeks later, and we find our characters in a state of flux. Bobby Axe’s paranoia has grown; to the extent only phones get past the metal detectors at the front door. He’s probably not going to any Metallica concerts with Kerry Bishe anytime soon, if I had to guess. Chuck is dealing with internal affairs investigations, and he’s splitting time at the house with Wendy, as the two’s marriage is in complete shambles due to the betrayal of trust. He’s still plotting against Axe, and she’s giving speeches as a performance coach, this time including bottles of Viagra as props.

And Wags is snorting painkillers in the Axe Capital bathroom before each day, because he’s an animal, and maybe my favorite character on the entire show. David Costabile is pretty much good at everything, particularly when it involves playing an unscrupulous prick. He took his Daniel Hardman role from Suits, added drugs and sexual promiscuity, sprinkled in a lot of “fucks” and the occasional “ass to mouth,” and voila, television gold.

Before we get back to this episode specifically, I want to go back briefly, because I forgot to mention my biggest issue with the series. I simply did not buy the Wendy Rhoades angle to the story. As much as I love Maggie Siff, and she’s been excellent, the idea that she’s married to the U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of New York, while working for a hedge fund run by a man her husband despises, simply didn’t wash with me. I can’t imagine a universe in which this kind of relationship could be allowed to continue. She’d either have to quit, or Chuck would have to give up on Axe. It ended in separation, which is the first time the pairing made any sense.

But, this caught in the middle, working on both sides concept felt so very made for television, and not reality, from the jump. It still bothers me, as does the idea that from moment one, Chuck Rhoades went after Bobby Axelrod. We didn’t ease into things at all. We didn’t see Chuck’s office score some victories first, show us what he’s capable of, and then begin to turn towards Axe a few episodes into the season. Had the first half of the series shown both sides winning a few games before the playoffs began, I think it would have worked better. However, it’s obvious Billions is Rhoades vs. Axe, and it has no qualms in being upfront about that fact.

Once I was able to forgive what I thought was lazy writing in the first few episodes, I began to sit back and let the show entertain me, and it increasingly did so. The story structure did remind me of Frank and Claire Underwood, and there were times when I was waiting for Billions to go in a direction, and it would take another 45 minutes to get to the conclusion I anticipated the week before. It’s not on the level of a Breaking Bad. But the melodrama and the Days of Our Lives of it all worked, especially down the stretch last year.

If you like the show, as I do, my guess is you also enjoyed the premiere. It was everything you expect Billions to be, but with different haircuts. We didn’t go into the bondage, sadism, and masochism or visit any dominatrices in seedy sex clubs, but it’s never something the series needed. I realized early on why it existed, namely to keep us thinking about the secrets everyone harbors, regardless of social standing or perceived goodness. For the DA and his therapist wife to be into serious kink brought them down a level, and put hero and villain on an imperfect, but completely level playing field.

As unbelievable as the Axe-Chuck-Wendy triad was and is, nothing has rang more falsely television than Christopher Denham’s Oliver Dake character. It’s not that Dakes don’t exist, but it’s that they don’t speak, walk, and move like robotic teacher’s pets that talk in a matter-of-fact, accusatory fashion, without any hint of humanity. We’re supposed to hate this guy, and we do, but with every second he’s on screen, he’s more and more comical. If that was the goal, Billions succeeded. But, if we’re supposed to see him as credible, I’m too busy laughing at him for other emotions to register. Even the hair and the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce-model glasses feel out of place and ridiculous.

One thing that does come from Dake, and we’ve already experienced it, is that he brings story elements to life that otherwise might be obscured. For instance, as the episode comes to a close, we find out that it’s likely Bryan Connerty made the call that unleashed the Kraken on the U.S. Attorney’s office. Maybe that slice tasted better than we thought. Toby Leonard Moore continues to to outstanding work as Connerty, who is probably the only person in Rhoades’ office that it’s okay to implicitly root for, at least for now. 

Dake is odd, and so is Mafee’s intern. Dan Soder is the perfect person for this spot. He plays pure, awkward comedy well, so his interaction with the vegan fit beautifully. Him being a stand-up comedian most likely helps. That’s why you ready my stuff. For deep insight such as this. He’s a comic, so he plays comedy well. Brilliance folks. Brilliance.

Axe meeting with Hall and Orrin Bach at Empire City Yonkers Raceway is a nice touch. Again, there’s a little Tony in Bobby, just as there’s a little of the dark side of Carmella in Lara, and the analogy of the horse track and the gambling world to stock trading and analyzing data is a good one. Bobby tells Bach that it was in that place he first understood how the world worked. He learned to watch the betting boards and not the horses. The smart money, the expert plays came late and they came heavy. Once you learn how to spot the winners, then you can watch the race to see why those horses were the winners.

By acting with purpose and understatement, I created a more just environment. – Chuck Rhoades

And then, “I need Rhoades gone, or this will never be over.” He sics Bach on him, as Chuck gets served with 127 lawsuits from former clients he “fucked” in the past. Then Rhoades gets the call from the Attorney General, and he’s expecting to be fired. He won’t be fired, because Billions has a season of content to fill and needs him in position to go after Axe, but the meeting will be interesting, to say the least. While critics have received the first four episodes, I’m composing this after just the first, before diving back into the others. So, I don’t know any further details yet.

Bobby Axe wants Wendy back at Axe Capital. Chuck Rhoades wants Wendy back in the marriage. Lara wouldn’t mind if Wendy were dead, but is busy getting people fired at her kids’ school. Malin Akerman makes one hell of a manipulator, doesn’t she? I’ll bet most women Lara knows often say, “See you next Tuesday” to her, if you catch my drift.. Todd Krakow (Danny Strong) wants Wendy at Krakow Capital. Dake may want Wendy in jail alongside her husband for the five million dollar payoff. Hell, I want Wendy too. 

Maggie Siff is the most fascinating, and simultaneously infuriating portion of Billions, but without her, despite how frustrating her story is, the show would lose at least half its appeal and even more of its tension. She drives the actions and stokes the fires of everyone around her, and both where she ends up and how soon she gets there will be of utmost importance along with the trials and tribulations of both the alpha males in her life.  

Billions is back, which means a full elevator load of acting talent just stepped off onto our collective floor. From the exquisite and intense Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti, and Maggie Siff, down through even the bit players, the series is loaded. They’re playing jerks, liars, and malcontents, but that works. Any show that casts multiple people from The Americans has probably made some good choices in staffing its story. Billions is still Billions, for better and for worse. It’s slick, moves quickly, and hasn’t contradicted itself yet in its writing or execution.

As derivative as it might be in many respects, it’s an increasingly good series, and one it will be fun to chat with you about this season. I’ve been obsessed with high finance and white-collar corruption since high school, and originally when it was announced, I couldn’t have been more excited for it. So far, so good. I won’t say so great, not yet. But, I really enjoyed Season 1 as escapist fiction, based on some truth. Season 2 started strong, and it’s damn sure better than Homeland right now. The Billions premiere alone provided more entertainment value than the first five episodes of its Showtime brethren. 

Season 2 is often where dramas peak, sometimes finding a level they can’t ever replicate again. Whether that’s true or not for Billions is yet to be seen, but I’m willing to buy some shares in creators Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Andrew Ross Sorkin, and stake my reputation that we have not yet experienced the best this show has to offer. That’s an appetizing thought. I need to call my broker.

I’m @JMartOutkick. I’m also at jmartclone@gmail.com. Got a question? Ask away. I’ll give you a Maserati. It may not be a bribe, but dang it looks like one.

Written by Jason Martin