I watched the first few episodes of Billions when it debuted back in 2016, and there was something about it that made my stomach roil. It was a toxic, dick-swinging contest between two wealthy assholes (Damian Lewis’s billionaire hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod and Paul Giamatti’s U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades) aspiring for more money, more power, no matter the costs. I’m not sure exactly what soured me on the series, but I decided to try again two weeks ago (mostly because of my colleague Brian Grubb’s recaps over on Uproxx), and for whatever reason, it clicked in to place for me.
I’ve watched 36 episodes in the last two weeks to catch up on the series before this week’s fourth season premiere, and I have a lot of thoughts on Billions. The gist of them all is this: It’s still a toxic, dick-swinging contest between two wealthy assholes, but the cultural climate has changed enough so that I don’t care — I’m here to see people win and lose, and see their lives shattered and ruined. I’m not rooting for anyone on Billions, except maybe Maggie Siff’s power-therapist, Wendy; I’m rooting against everyone (well, OK. I’m not rooting against Wags, either, because David Costabile as the show’s Id and comic-relief is amazing).
Basically, Billions is Suits, only with much (much) better acting, much better writing, and an actual knowledge of the subject material.* The theme of both shows, however, is the same — destroy or be destroyed — it’s just that Billions is sharper and plays a longer game. But Brian Koppelman brings the same intensity he brought to a poker game in Rounders to every episode of Billions, plus a sort of deep-throated Shakespearean quality, embodied in every Giamatti monologue. The entire series is about collecting and vanquishing enemies. It’s basically The Sopranos, except instead of whacking an enemy, the characters empty their bank accounts or strip them of their positions. But true to life when you’re dealing with a bunch of rich, white dudes: Everyone eventually makes a comeback, even Jerry O’Connell’s douchebag Steven Birch, one of many characters on the series designed solely to act as a punching bag or sacrificial lamb.
Having watched three seasons in two weeks, I’m not exactly thrilled that I have to wait and see how season 4 plays out over the course of three months, but the season premiere deftly sets the story in motion by turning our capitalist, power-hungry megalomaniacs into underdogs. Chuck, stripped of his job a U.S. Attorney by a Trump appointed Attorney General who Chuck failed to depose at the end of last season, has to start all over again from the bottom. He has to prove his worth by securing a carry permit in New York City for an influential friend, and the only leverage he has to work with is a citywide parking pass. Chuck, however, does his magic. He secures one favor in exchange for another favor until he finds the influential person who actually needs that parking pass, and he exchanges it for another favor which he cashes in for that carry permit. It’s a fairly comical storyline used to illustrate that Chuck is down, but he’s still got the hustle and the connections to work his way back up. He also has a very important man in his corner now: Bobby Axelrod, his nemesis turned friend, at least for the time being.
It’s fun seeing Chuck and Axe on the same side now, and I can’t wait to see how the two hatch one scheme to take down all of their common enemies. For Axe, his primary enemy now is Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), Axe’s former protege who betrayed Bobby and opened up their own shop. Axe’s main obstacle to removing Mason from power is Russian oligarch Grigor Andolov (John Malkovich), a man with even more wealth and power than Axe, who is also protecting Mason. Andolov is willing to go to considerable lengths to do so, as well, as he demonstrated this week by drugging and abducting Wags as leverage (the Sheik, it turns out, was a MacGuffin). Interestingly, however, Taylor Mason — who is non-binary, and played by a non-binary actor — also went to considerable lengths by dressing as a woman, an uncomfortable demand made by their new right hand, Sara Hammon, played by Samantha Mathis (and yes, I am very excited to see Samantha Mathis in this season). It is a discomfiting sight, to say the least, but it illustrates that they are willing to sell their soul not so much for money, but to win. It’s been fun to see the evolution of Mason from a timid and naive analyst to cutthroat hedgefund manager in their own right, and while I’m not exactly rooting for them, I do hope they survive another season, because Asia Kate Dillon has been a remarkable addition to the cast (Malin Akerman, meanwhile, has been demoted to a recurring role).
That’s the lay of the land after the season premiere. Axe and Chuck are each backed into their respective corners, their enemies have been labeled, and now it’s time for each to get to work trying to destroy them. Meanwhile, Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) who took Chuck’s job, has stuck his head out just far enough to get it cut off again.
*Interestingly, show creator Brian Koppelman has a law degree yet is covering the hedge fund industry while the Suits creator Aaron Korsh is a former investment banker, who knows nothing about the law.
Header Image Source: Showtime