In Billions, money isn’t money, but a scorecard signifying a theoretically cold and objective qualification of bitterness and one-upmanship. The show’s dominating characters are too well-off for currency to matter to them in the visceral fashion that it does for most people. As a struggling investigator says to an inexplicably rich female co-worker at one point, “Only people with money forget about money,” and the woman in question presumably doesn’t have anywhere near the kind of capital that hedge fund king Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) possesses.
Creators Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Andrew Ross Sorkin relish the fruits of Axe’s “fuck-you money,” which means he can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants to. Axe shows up to a meeting in a faded Metallica T-shirt, lecturing a variety of suited bluebloods on a 30-year grudge he’s righting with a boatload of contributions. Earlier, we see Axe buying into a struggling pizza parlor because it’s baked quality pie with just the right kind of tomatoes since his childhood, when he was a struggling working-class kid. A trip to the Galapagos in a new custom-built boat? A private screening of a real film print of Citizen Kane in the middle of the day? All just a part of the rarest-of-the-rarefied life. Not to mention unending meetings with politicians, adoring starlets, and desperate henchmen. Anything is possible at any given time for Axe, whose fortune serves as a self-perpetuating engine of power providing all kinds of information and access.
Axe’s background, which involves mysterious connections to 9/11, is the show’s shrewdest touch. This guy isn’t the crass, heartless monster often offered up by greed fables like Wall Street, Boiler Room, and The Wolf of Wall Street. No, Axe is a white-collar gangster who only destroys people who play his game, and he gives benefits back to the poor, which signifies that he’s smart as well as burdened with a palpable and relatable blue-collar chip on his shoulder. Contrastingly, Axe’s most significant opponent, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, is a man who can afford to self-righteously spout off about laws and ethics because he’s got a trust fund and the connections necessary for an eventual run at national politics.
Axe and Chuck represent the U.S.’s persecution of corrupt hedge fund players as a vast pissing contest. Lower-class citizens have little to do with either’s motivations. Chuck is ironically shown to do more collateral damage to the proletariat than Axe, as he relentlessly crushes desperate people who’ve given Axe’s men illegal inside tips for the sake of survival. Billions doesn’t divide its characters into binaries as banal as that of “good” and “bad,” but Chuck’s purposefully less appealing than Axe, and quite a bit of that bluntly has to do with looks. Axe is a sexy, fit, virile man with laser-beam eyes and a smooth, insinuating voice, while Chuck is hairy, overweight, and viscerally uncomfortable with himself in the tradition of many of Giamatti’s best characters, though his intelligence and his fearlessness, not to mention the backing of the government, render him a formidable ally.
The discrepancy in the protagonists’ appearances physically literalizes their resentment of one another. Chuck is an heir to political royalty, but Axe is the sort of apparently self-made alpha that truly commands our society’s respect. Axe symbolizes our country’s uneasy relationship with large-scale con men, who represent the American dream of transcending a broken social system while simultaneously further breaking said system, while Chuck illustrates that elections merely allow voters to choose from among a limited group of socially preordained candidates. Billions is disinterested in conventional “morality,” which is the paradoxical wellspring of its moralism. Both men are revealed to be alike as obsessive elitists who only (partially) reveal themselves in negotiations with their dearest.
Axe and Chuck’s rivalry is ultimately rooted in sexual jealousy. In a self-consciously melodramatic twist, Chuck’s wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), works for Axe as his fund’s on-site psychiatrist, serving as a “shuffle board peg” who’s batted back and forth between the men. Every moment between Wendy and Axe is implicatively erotic, most obviously an exchange where both lounge naked in the latter’s cavernous pool, so as to avoid the potentiality for recording devices. Wendy’s scenes with Chuck are occasionally dominated by S&M theatrics that cumulatively strike one as over-compensatory on the latter’s part—a way of potentially turning his feelings of inferiority toward her on their side. Appearance is a hierarchy that exists parallel to that of net worth or social connection, and Wendy and Axe belong on the same rung of that particular ladder. Chuck doesn’t, and knows it.
Prior to producing this series, Koppelman and Levien wrote a number of sturdy genre films, most remarkably Rounders, and Sorkin is a journalist who famously published Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System—and Themselves. Both sensibilities explicitly inform Billions, a lurid, textured soap opera with an understanding of finance as a rarefied ecosystem that rules unto itself at the cost of most everyone else. The literate macho zingers often suggest a modern-day Sweet Smell of Success, compellingly merging with the casually worn cynicism, which insists that law and order is but a smoke screen, or, perhaps, a battleground fit only for titans mighty enough to thrash it to shreds.