If You Haven’t Seen ‘Billions’ Yet, You Should

July 9, 2019 | 8 min read

1.
The Showtime series Billions finished its fourth season last month. I’ve been watching since the 2016 premiere, but I’ve been a staff writer for The Millions since 2009, so…there was no way that, in my household, we wouldn’t be referring to the show as THE Billions. The Millions founder C. Max Magee said in an interview a few years ago, “I thought the site should be about all the millions of uncountable interesting things out there.” In good keeping, and despite recent news that could easily turn you off a show about the wheelings and dealings of the one percent (i.e. the indictment of billionaire hedge fund manager Jeffery Epstein on charges of sex trafficking of minors), I’m here to count Billions among such interesting things, and to encourage you to do so as well.

In broad strokes, the show is about two warring groups: absurdly rich venture capitalists and the public officials hell-bent on taking them down. Chief among these tribes are rags-to-riches venture capitalist ace Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, played by Damian Lewis; and U.S. District Attorney Chuck Rhoades, a Yalie, son of a Yalie, and Brooklyn Heights townhouse-dweller, played by Paul Giamatti. Tempering the testosterone are some tough ladies: Chuck’s wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), who somewhat absurdly also works for Axe as consiglieri (i.e. a high-paid, high-heeled performance coach/guru); and Lara (Malin Akerman), Bobby’s fair-haired high school sweetheart from their blue-collar ’hood whose kill-or-be-killed instincts are as merciless as her husband’s. The symmetry is complete with lieutenants and foot soldiers. On the Axe Capital side, there’s Mike “Wags” Wagner (the brilliant David Constabile, previously of The Wire and Breaking Bad) as Bobby’s right hand and court jester, along with a couple of fixer/heavy types, and a gaggle of front-line traders. And on the bureaucratic-politico side are Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), an ambitious boy scout; and Assistant District Attorney Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad).

During season one, I found myself defending the series to my bookish friends: why would I—novelist, Asian American female, middle class and cash poor—care about any of these one-percenters, or find their relentless pissing contests entertaining or compelling? How did co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien manage to hook me? I wasn’t sure, but I worried the reasons might be less than honorable. When season two came around, I tuned in faithfully, but kept my growing fandom to myself.

2.
By the end of season two, Chuck and Axe have called on every resource and strategy to destroy each other. It’s a fierce game of chess, each player anticipating moves, besting the other’s intricate calculations. No one is off limits—friends, family, bystanders—when it comes to conscripting pawns and patsies. “It’s no different than emergency triage after a mass casualty event,” says one unsuspecting victim, a doctor who aids Axe in executing nefarious deeds, then lands in prison after missing one of Chuck’s Machiavellian moves. “You save who you can and force the fate of the rest out of your mind.”

Both Chuck and Axe rack up high-stakes wins and losses, the most important of which, we come to understand, are not financial. These men want to conquer; each covets the crown of potency, the scepter of cunning. Ascension—up and up, more and more—drives them at times into the heat of recklessness; yet each claims the cost-benefit “worth it.” In the meantime, Wendy—the de facto highest of high stakes for both men—somehow maintains both her autonomy and her neutrality, even while struggling to serve two masters (or, as the Governor character says, “having the two actually serve you”). Lara, on the other hand, loses her taste for the game (and for Bobby) and quits while she’s ahead, taking the children with her.

The wards of each team valiantly, a little buffoonishly, go to battle on behalf of their leaders, eager for the victory they will share if they demonstrate radical loyalty. The formula, despite the rarefied scenario, thus materializes as familiar. Think Jimmy McNulty and Avon Barksdale; the DEA and Walter White; the FBI and Tony Soprano. The formula works: we care equally about the good guys as we do the bad guys, as it becomes harder and harder to tell them apart and as each character shape-shifts according to the moral conflict/survival imperative du jour.

3.
But there’s more to Billions than the least common denominators of the prestige drama: Over time, Billions has demonstrated a robust adaptability—the creative energy of a live organism evolving with our times. It could be argued that the series found its footing and got better. Or maybe I’m giving the writers too much credit? TV-land professionals in the know might say the focus groups spoke, the advertisers named their target audiences, and—in an interestingly meta sort of way—these interests were heeded.

In any case, in season three, the simplicity of dueling primal energies—the head-to-head white-maleness of the show’s power struggle—deconstructs and complicates. We saw shades of it in season two with the arrival at Axe Capital of Taylor Mason (played by the mesmerizing Asia Kate Dillon), a petite, doe-eyed mathematics prodigy, who also happens to be gender non-binary. Taylor’s increasing role in the company—their rise in the hierarchy based on virtuosic merit—coupled with the surprisingly elegant reconciliation of the Chuck-Wendy-Axe triangle in the season finale, effectively gives depth to characterizations that had been on the cusp of cartoonish. In other words, Taylor brings a non-binary presence explicitly into the scenario, demanding that both the characters and the viewer shift from easy contrasts and dualities to more nuanced personalities and conflicts. But Taylor doesn’t function simply as a token character with a ghettoized storyline. Rather, the entire world of the series makes this shift as well.

For example, the central triangle strained credulity in season one: how the hell does Wendy go to work every day to Axe, who butters her bread extravagantly and trusts her more than anyone, only to come home at night to Chuck, who has spent every minute of his day trying to destroy Axe? By the end of season two, though, we begin to recognize these multiple vectors of intimacy and loyalty as a grown-up treatment of partnerships of various kinds. Each character lives and loves and works simultaneously in more than one register, driven by and toward a complex set of desires, instincts, and values. In the midst of power wars, Wendy and Chuck each do what they have to do, aware of the impact on the other while also adhering to their own imperatives and ambitions. Every episode, for me, thus became a kind of fascinating profile of a modern, complicated monogamy between ambitious people. In the final scene of the season two finale, after Chuck has succeeded in toppling Axe, Wendy and Chuck meet on the steps of their house at the end of the day and look each other in the eye: Wendy’s look says, Well played, while Chuck’s says, I’m sorry, and thank you, and boy I’m tired. They walk together into the house.

In season three, the major frame-shift that happens is in some ways classic, but also of a piece with the series playing faster and looser with facile dualities: Axe and Chuck, having found in each other a worthy nemesis, now find they have common interests. Out of necessity, and braced by sufficient respect, they join forces—to both save Wendy from multiple catastrophes and to undermine mutual foes. This solid if reluctant alliance continues into season four, as the battle map is again redrawn, troops realign across the board, and Axe and Taylor—now the rebellious, prodigal protégé—draw and aim their weapons at each other.

4.
So with season four now concluded, I will once again speak forth my praise. Billions has come into its own as a progressive contemporary drama set in an utterly unprogressive world. As Daniel K. Isaac, who plays one of Axe’s loyal soldiers said in an interview with Nancy, “it’s—you know—it’s middle-aged white guys and, like, suits [who are] like, “Yo, Billions! Love that show, man.” (Isaac is Korean American and gay.) This, in my opinion, is among the most interesting things out there in TV. We see more people of color, women, and queer people in positions of hard and soft power than in most actual financial institutions and corporations—let alone mainstream movies and TV. More importantly, we see them develop and act as whole human beings: While Isaac is a secondary player, for example, be sure to see him in season three’s episode 10, “Redemption”—a breakout moment if ever there was one.

Taylor and Wendy in particular steal the show in the fourth season, as each maneuvers through intense moral decisions that call into question competing desires and core values. For Taylor, the conflicts are rooted in their identities as an idealistic millennial and organizational leader more than (or at least as much as) a gender non-conforming person. Wendy’s central moral dilemma centers around her ethics as a medical professional and loyalties as a spousal partner more than as a woman per se. In other words, the characters are neither essentialized nor tokenized, and we viewers can immerse in an evolved, integrated world where it isn’t “a thing” for a woman or a gender non-binary person to both wield power in a man’s world and manifest intersectional human complexity. Both characters are flawed—Taylor’s somewhat ironic attachment to precision and measurement feels precariously rigid, and Wendy’s penchant for saving and being saved by powerful men is at times unsettling. Thus, even as these two find themselves facing off, on some level they recognize each other’s vulnerabilities and root for each other to find footing in their power roles.

Overall the series has evolved to concern itself seriously with the relationships between power and moral codes, self-preservation of the individual and the good of the whole. The gray areas feel genuinely gray, the writing at once nuanced and sharply entertaining, and the stakes meaningful: loyalty, friendship, vocation, integrity, self-knowledge. Many of the characters are self-made, and so we can recognize—if not excuse—the primal survival-of-the-fittest drive that undergirds much of the “bro” energy among the Axe pack. At the same time, a millennial character like Taylor brings to the fore a compelling alternative philosophy to the rags-to-riches figure: “A new kind of organization,” they say, when wooing a coworker to jump Axe’s ship and come with them to their startup. “Top down but not imperious or impetuous. Integrated.”

All along, Taylor’s moral center has been piquing our interest and admiration, poking holes in the 35- to 50-something white-male zeitgeist:

I think you’re trying to bully me, and a bully is devastated when you try to stand up to him. —Season three, Taylor calling a bluff at a blackjack table

The individual sacrificing their self for the whole can be the most beautiful thing there is. But not if it’s done under duress or for the wrong reasons. —Season three, Taylor to a colleague who is being asked by Axe to lie under oath

There are things they were comfortable with at Axe Cap that we will never do here [at Mason Cap]…they turned us all into Starship Troopers, sent us to Klendathu and some of us got our brains eaten. And it wasn’t until the end of our time in that we realized we were the bad guys all along. It’s not like that here. —Season four, Taylor to their new team, largely poached from Axe

Taylor is thoroughly, methodically moral: The reasons always matter, the means as much as the ends. They believe deeply that one can be both successful and good. Contrast this with their mentor, Bobby, who says things like, “I felt guilty once…When you do something that puts yourself back in charge, remind yourself that you are not less but more powerful for what you’ve come through, that’s when you’ll feel better,” and his mother who says to him, “Maybe I shoulda told you not to talk like that when you were a kid…you woulda had a little voice inside your head that told you not to. Do you have that voice…at all?” Bobby isn’t a villain, or if he is, it’s in the Don Draper mold—despicable and admirable in equal measure. But he is a white male, rags-to-riches or not—someone to whom the Russian oligarch Grigor Andalov (played fabulously and insanely by the inimitable John Malkovich) can say about Taylor, “But she is your property, not mine.” It is the only moment a character intentionally uses the “she” pronoun in reference to Taylor, and the effect is brilliantly chilling.

Many of you may already be die-hard Billions fans. If not—if it seems too one-percenty, or too bro-ey, or too ridiculous (all of which it is, to some degree, don’t get me wrong)—I still say give it a try: As Taylor would say, the reasons matter, so don’t miss out for the wrong ones.

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016.  She is founding editor of Bloom and teaches fiction writing at Skidmore College.  Learn more about Sonya here.

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