The TV Show “Billions” is possibly a landmark when it comes to depiction of the hard wired, hardcore, brutal world of clashes between the administrative machinery and the large scale Wall Street brokerage firms. In fact, “Billions” has nothing much to write home about the words synonymous with Billions such as Palatial Homes (there are some yes), Swanky Cars (Yes), Super Luxury Lifestyles (Yes) but in more than 90% of the narrative of the 4 seasons, it is far more than just money. Its an in depth look at the flora and fauna of wealth creation on a large scale. It looks at collateral damage repeatedly…. it may be people, it may be families, it may be companies but the show goes out of the way to make you realize that building Billions has a lot of accompaniments.
So, if you as a person are ready to eschew these virtues, you might want to tread a path of caution and be nimble footed every step of the way. What makes Billions a treat to watch is the kind of nasty dogfights its main protagonists enter every now and then. Be it Bobby’s outing with a child of one of his former employee who had been college funded by Axe Cap and who is refusing to work with him is led onto Bobby’s private boat and then left in an unmanned parking area with no supplies so that he given in to Bobby’s demand to work with him, Be his wife Lara who strong arms her kids school principals, fellow gym mates on a daily basis to impress upon her affluence and power are all reminders of the “Dog Eat Dog” syndrome depicted in all the seasons of “Billions” till date.
This essay aims to give an indepth look at the world of “Billions” and its lead characters, the various themes it explores and the broader message behind a show like this.
The Plot of Billions
“Billions” is a story of rivalry between US State Attorney of New York Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and Bobby Axelrod ( Damian Lewis). Chuck fresh in his office wants to bust the illegal methods of acquiring wealth by Axelrod who is a rags to riches story but deploys third degree tactics to defeat his rivals in business. This rivalry has spanned over 3 seasons and there is a surprising turn in the 4th season. As the central story revolves around Bobby and Chuck, a host of characters from their world are carried with them including Taylor Mason, Wendy Rhoades, Chuck Sr., Mike Wagner, Kate, Bryan Connerty. The episodes explore the personal lives, relationships, plots, subplots and various incidents which shape the world of Billions. Largely the there are two teams always at work against each other; one is Chuck and his State Attorney’s office and the other is Axe Capital which has the ammo of Bobby Axelrod, Wendy, Mike and others.
Character Sketches of “Billions”
Chucky Rhoades Jr. (Paul Giamatti) : Chuck is a straight shooter who has achieved a lot in life. As State Attorney he serves the territory which is the richest city in US and is home to global financial powerhouses and possibly the most diverse population on Earth. In this complex atmosphere he is pitted against Bobby Axelrod and his Axe Capital. Chuck is also a power fiend, he loves to throw his weight around in the minutest of situations. In one episode he curses a fellow daily walker whose dog poops on government area. His vindictive attitude ensures that the fellow gets his act together. Chuck deeply feels that righting a wrong in many ways. To him Bobby is symptomatic of a larger malaise which runs deep within Wall Street. He consistently is seen as a hard taskmaster at work where his deputies Bryan Connerty and Kate are managing the department with him. Chuck’s investigative streak in finding loopholes and opportunities at the same time makes him the true torchbearer of the show. But at home he is exactly the opposite, he balances a thin wire with wife Wendy who incidentally works as Chief HR officer at Axe Capital and in many ways is the soul keeper of Axe Capital. It’s the juxtaposition he finds very difficult to handle. His father Chuck Rhoades Sr. is himself a super wealthy realtor in New York who lives a very aggressive lifestyle where he womanizes and builds businesses at the same time. It’s Chuck’s disdain for his father OS that makes Chuck run for public office and government service. Chuck is anti- capitalism in a philosophical way but uses it for advantage when needed be. His odd sexual preferences with Wendy is yet another stark contrast between his public and personal life. Chuck is loosely based on US Attorney Preet Bharara and his various exploits with Stephen Cohen, Rajat Gupta and Devyani Khobragade case of the Indian government.
Bobby Axelrod ( Damian Lewis) :- Bobby is the quintessential story of the Great American Dream. It is a known fact that Bobby who is a self made Billionaire and runs Axe Capital never really runs away from his roots. He has everything, a gorgeous wife (divorced in season 3), loving kids, a big mansion, the fastest wheels on the planet and a fat bank balance. But what he is most unsatisfied with is the hunger for more dominance and more power. Bobby may not be your regular suited Billionaire from NY, he wears torn jeans, hoodies and sneakers to office. He cracks jokes with his inner sanctum at Axe Cap. He pushes his team to the limits on a daily basis but in many ways rewards them handsomely for their work. His equation with Wendy is a complex one, as he knows that she is married to Chuck who has never shown any favors to Axe Capital. He strikes deals with a unique potpourri of street level intelligence and a deep psychological understanding which is backed by a team of go getters who think he is God to them. He has a great eye for talent and recruits Taylor Mason in his company. Taylor who is projected as a non binary gender person with a super sharp understanding of the financial markets ends up fighting with Bobby and sets up her own hedge fund by poaching investors behind Axe Capital. Its this bloodbath between Bobby and Taylor which ensues in Season 4.
Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) : Wendy is married to Chuck and they too seem to have a normal, stable family life. But if you look further than that, there is a lot more than meets the eye. Wendy works for Bobby who is enemy for Chuck and she has been able to main a rare balance between work and home. Her little utter about Axe can build Chuck’s case against him. Wendy also feels that she has a halo over her head as she does emotional counselling for Axe employees and amongst them was Taylor Mason as well. She also holds secrets of various employees as well as Bobby. Her closeness (purely professional) to Bobby is a source of irritation even to Laura who ultimately leaves Bobby but Wendy sticks around. In addition she is also the soft target as she is married to Chuck. She also detests Chuck Sr. for his philandering ways and out of context influence on Chuck himself. She feels that Chuck is just imitating his dad in some ways. Maggie Siff has bought a lot of emotional depth to this character and it seems that Wendy tames Chuck quite easily at times but never takes advantage of him.
Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon) :- Taylor is Bobby’s find cum protégé. Hired by Bobby personally , Taylor proves her worth in a few days of joining Axe Cap. She has a deeply analytical perspective about life with amazing clarity on every issue in finance. She is made team head and rises very fast. After sometime when Bobby felt threatened by her brilliance and aggression , he double crosses her on a deal and throws his weight on the matter. Feeling threatened and betrayed, Taylor resigns abruptly. She reaches out to Grigor Andelov ( John Malkovich), a Russian oligarch investor who also backs Axe. After securing his funds, Taylor launches Taylor Mason Capital as an arch rival to Axe Capital. Her rivalry and frequent outmaneuvering of Bobby is the highlight of Season 4. The portrayal of Taylor by Asia Kate Dillon is very good, she brings her personal self to her screen self very well and uses it as an asset in most of the scenes. The show makes an extra effort to use her non-binary gender preference as an important tool in the narrative. She becomes an unlikely challenger to Bobby Axelrod.
Chuck Rhoades Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn) :- Chuck Sr is everything what people of his age will not be. He is a very successful business figure and has contacts, access to all the upper echelons of power in NY and Washington DC. He has cavalier habits where he repeatedly indulges in affairs with women younger than him and till recently it is revealed that he is fathering a little girl from a native American woman who is 1/4th his age. But the fact is that he is a loving father/mentor to chuck and pulls him out of problems and messes regularly.
Mike “Wags” Wagner (David Costabile) :- Mike is the true “partner in crime” with Bobby. He has literally been stuck to him like Jeeves is with Wooster! Wags has actually been with Bobby since his middle class life. He essentially is the inner sanctum for Axe Capital and he watches Bobby’s back like no one else. He spies on his wife, he spies on fellow employees, makes bribe deals with administration officials and a number of highly sensitive pursuits. Bobby always asks for Mike’s point of view on every small detail.
THE WORLD OF BILLIONS
The Billions story is set in an Ivy League template. The best tailored suits, the best cars, seductive women, best homes, New York’s most powerful are all plastered over the story. Midtown Manhattan, Upper East Side and the influential boroughs with a small shoot in the alleys of Brooklyn too are shot in the show. The production design team at Showtime have just recreated an already existing world but gritty writing by Andrew Ross Sorkin who is himself a decorated journalist brings the nuance of Wall Street’s both inner and under workings to light. One should look at a lot of popular culture pointers in the show such as songs from 80’s/ 90’s , food, clothing, etc. to get a taste of this world as a viewer. Its mostly shot indoors in offices/residences but its storytelling and build up is just too believable. Both Chuck and Bobby are both larger than life individuals but are also extremely vulnerable. I might add that the powerful presence of Asia Kate Dillon also amplifies the atmosphere.
REAL LIFE INSPIRATIONS
Creators Sorkin, Brian Koppelman, and David Levine have taken inspirations from Steve Cohen of SAC Capital for Bobby Axelrod and New York Attorney Preet Bharara for Chuck Rhoades. And they have also looked at films like “Wall Street” as well.
THEMES EXPLORED IN BILLIONS
The themes which are on full display in the show are Patriarchy, Gay/Lesbianism at work, Non Binary Gender discrimination, Male domination, Marriage issues, suppressed motherhood, Jealousy and above all “Capitalism and its various manifestations”.
Paul Giamatti shines as Chuck Rhoades and he brings his acting prowess beautifully. In one scene he is firing the hell out of a senior businessman and in another scene he is being brutally whipped by Wendy while they are having sex. This dual high-low range is hard to get in acting.
Damian Lewis brings a measured performance as Bobby but his semi stone faced look actually makes an impact. His screen presence makes you feel the brute force and system manipulation he can unleash on rivals.
Asia Kate Dillon is the find of the show. Her abrupt entry is the inflection point in the series as she poses a serious threat to the dominance of Bobby. She in fact makes Axe Capital miserable and hopeless in Season 4. Dillon shows remarkable confidence in denting this manly world of investments and banking. Her relationship with her father (Kevin Pollak) is very well written.
Billions is a top rate show. Period!