“What’s the point of having’ fuck-you money’ if you never say ‘fuck-you’?”
Bobby Axelrod (Damien Lewis) is a billionaire – a popular mogul with a charitable public persona but a divine sense of skill when it comes to the money market. Almost the only man left standing after many of his office partners were wiped out in the 9/11 attacks, he has risen like a financial phoenix to new heights – admired by some, feared by others. He gets what he wants and blueprints his life accordingly. United States Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) is a man who speaks truth unto power but knows how to wield it if his contemporaries stray outside the moral code. Away from his complicated home-life, he is singular (and highly successful) figure… bringing prosecutions against those who deal in insider-trading and disregard for the law. From a wealthy family, he respects money, but only when it is earned without compromising his particular brand of ethics
In many ways flipsides of the same con, Axelrod and Rhoades find themselves on a collision course, a game of Wall Street chicken, both having the power to turn away and avoid a potentially disastrous collision but both secretly yearning to test the others’ prowess against their own. Assuming their best poker-faces, their masks only occasionally slipping in their contempt for the other, the opening salvos of battle are about to begin…
Billions is a drama that feels like a West Wing walk-and-talk mixed with a House of Cards gameplay and a Sopranos sucker gut-punch – the kind of drama where its central players know all the right and effective words but each and every one of them has a smiling face they present to the public and a snarl they keep for their dirtier moments. One moment it’s the uncorked sparkling wine from the cellars of the entitled elite, the next a perfectly distilled backroom whiskey that will burn the throat shortly before it goes for the jugular.
The series, created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin is as surefire a success as one could predict – its Showtime housing allowing it the space to be both sacred and profane without any of the network concerns. If you can get past the opening scene, involving a more blunt and earthy example of domination that wants to symbolic of power-plays to feels a little too blunt for its own good, then there’s rich pickings here. (The book-ending final scene of the opening episode also gives it better context).
Damien Lewis brings with him that mercurial leading-man quality that so benefitted early episodes of Homeland before that show disappeared up its own counter-intelligence in a maze of contrivances. His super-rich mover-and shaker is probably closer to the real deal than many would admit, a self-made man on some levels but one whose rise has not been down to sheer luck or even skill, but the utter clarity and will for what needs to be done to win. He’s what Trump sees in the talking mirror but with tact and diplomacy.
Giamatti is king of the character-actors, often masterfully playing an underdog given his day and Rhoades is a part which he takes and runs with – his expressive face likely to see him on many award lists. In the end he insures his District Attorney is as much a mass of contradictions as his quarry.
The supporting cast are also much more than one-scene background players. Toby Leonard Moore (late of Daredevil’s first season) is just as quietly calculating as Rhoades’ right hand man as he was Wilson Fisk’s. Malin Ackerman (Watchmen, Trophy Wife) is effective Axelrod’s wife, a force in her own right and Maggie Siff (Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men) burns intently as Rhoades’ wife and Bobby’s psychotherapist – the conflict of interest around which some of the saga pivots. Terry Kinney and the fixer ‘Hall’ also makes good use of a brief but important scene.
It may not be to everyone’s tastes – the free-range testosterone and pissing-contest metaphors rapidly become the text rather than the subtext, but Billions is a series that speaks to that voice in our heads that constantly notes how the rich rarely get punished and how even the crash of 2008 has yet to see them pay, either morally or through actual financial restitution. However it is smart enough to know the allure of that money and power. Like a Gordon Gekko for the ‘L’oreal for Men’ generation, it’s impossible not to appreciate Axelrod’s smarts. For all we might despise some of his methods, we’re all hanging on to that personal that giant lotto win which would give us access to the same health spa and private jets and the savvy to hold onto it.
Great dramas like Breaking Bad showed karma can be a bitch. Billions, at the opposite end of the income spectrum, wholeheartedly accepts that fact, but still insists she gets to wear the best diamonds.