Six episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Fear not, fellow mathematics morons – although Showtime’s Billions is set among the high-stakes, high-money firms of Wall Street, peering inside the day-to-day battles of its most savagely savvy bulls and bears, it’s also something of a Trojan horse. With New York Times financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin credited as a co-creator and its premium-network pedigree, no one would have been shocked to see the series invest heavily in numbers-nerd jargon and stock-market-driven storytelling unintelligible to those of us without a Harvard diploma; but as brought to life by Sorkin and Ocean’s Thirteen co-writers Brian Koppleman and David Levien (all three on board as co-creators as well as exec-producers), Billions is much more concerned with having a good time than it is with providing an economics lesson.
To be clear, that’s a good thing – with characters like hedge-fund kingpin Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis, picking his teeth clean with every line) and District Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti, all blustering fury), Billions doesn’t need to educate, but it’s perfectly built to entertain.
The plot focuses on a brewing game of cat-and-mouse between Rhodes and Axelrod, with the former attempting to sniff out the latter’s financial dirty dealings as much to feed his own career ambitions as to lay down the law. But that’s just a jumping-off point for the series, which strolls down just about every melodramatic avenue in sight, fully capitalizing on its own potential to hand cucumber-cool performers a plethora of badass soundbites to chew on.
And so it is that Billions fits snugly into Showtime’s library of consummately bingeable originals. It’s the kind of show that introduces its would-be hero bound and gagged, with a dominatrix rubbing a lit cigarette out on its bare chest. It’s the kind of show that’s extremely prone to ratatat dialogue and slap-in-the-face one-liners (“What’s the point of having fuck you money if you never say fuck you?” Axe snarls at Rhoades, ending a particularly tense back-and-forth), but in a way that’s elating far more frequently than it’s eye-rolling. It’s the kind of show that won’t leave you thinking for long but feels so damn good to watch in the moment that its junkier plot elements never feel cheap. And because Billions is fully aware that it’s that kind of show, it plays its part incredibly well.
In the same vein as so many works set in the world of high finance, the original Wall Street and far fizzier Wolf of Wall Street among them, Billions is a study in outsized machismo and chess-champion maneuvering. Axe and Rhoades’ impending war of wits (and various pre-takedown jabs) essentially amounts to a high-stakes dick-measuring contest between two egotistical titans used to bludgeoning any and all obstacles in their paths. Their beef is both professional and personal, and they know it, egging on one another not because it will directly benefit them but in hopes of getting under another’s skin enough to exact maximum discomfort.
Interestingly, though, Billions turns convention on its head in how it paints these two familiar figures. As Axe, Lewis exudes suave, master-of-his-domain charisma, prowling through the spotless hallways of his billion-dollar firm with a smile as smooth as his bespoke suits. From a blue-collar background, he also enjoys his reputation as a heroic humanitarian in his native New York, having gained widespread admiration for his actions in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 after his employer and all his co-workers died in the attacks. And outside of some sharkish pumping-up of his traders, there’s not much about Axe to dislike – he’s charming, cheery and dedicated, both to his employees and to his wife (Malin Akerman, entirely believable in the role of a cutthroat mother wolf).
Rhoades, on the other hand, may have the law on his side but more often comes across as a bullying blowhard, so enraged by the success of someone like Axe (whom he’s convinced broke the law somewhere along the way during his rise to prominence) that his vitriol toward the guy has become his driving force. Living in the shadow of his well-connected father and brilliant wife Wendy (Maggie Siff, a dramatic standout in the blue-chip cast), Rhoades is desperate to assert dominance over just about everyone he encounters, from his oft-abused co-workers to a poor dog-walker who forgot poop bags. It’s a tribute to Giamatti’s talent for playing these driven, devious power players that Rhoades’ venom doesn’t turn the character into an out-and-out cartoon.
Still, the most interesting piece on Billions‘ chess board is neither of the men but Wendy, also a psychologist who works in-house for Axe’s firm, hearing and knowing all then subtly pushing her own singular agenda through suggestion and counsel. Radiating icy calm and poise, Siff is handed the show’s most richly drawn character, and the actreess provides what’s by far the most layered performance. When she dons a dominatrix costume and rubs a lit cigarette into Rhoades’ chest, it feels like a well-duh moment for him (of course the control-freak D.A. gets off on having that control taken away) but a fascinating one for her.
To watch Billions is to be thoroughly entertained by the sudsy chest-pounding of its two very good male leads but utterly enthralled by the ambiguity and uncertainty of what lies beneath Siff’s placid exterior.
Ridiculously entertaining even as it rejects realism nearly across the board, Billions is a sudsy fantasy of a financial drama, populating its narrative chess board with the kinds of characters you'll shake your head at but watch with wide eyes.