With Billions, co-creators and showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien utilize a narrative structure that recalls Michael Mann’s Heat. Opposing worlds are contrasted in both, showing how similarly obsessive methods can serve conflicting ends that ultimately complement and even bolster one another in terms of pure process and gradations of moral relativity. In Heat, the lines between hero and villain are more material: Robert De Niro’s thief is a killer and—no matter how principled and charismatic he might be—this puts him in a morally inferior position to Al Pacino’s detective, even if the latter has a penchant for cutting investigative corners. But in Billions, the moral lines dividing the dueling parties have grown compellingly murky.
At the end of the show’s second season, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, baited hedge-fund king Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damien Lewis) into sabotaging an Ice Juice stock in which Chuck and his father, Charles (Jeffrey DeMunn), had invested money. In other words, Chuck manipulated the market so he could catch someone else manipulating it. It’s difficult to walk such a dangerous act of hypocrisy back, and season three finds Chuck and Axe burrowing further into their respective backchannels, each trying to pin the Ice Juice scam on the other.
In its new season, Billions doubles down on the complexity and chutzpah of Chuck and Axe’s schemes, as the men grow more brazen in their desperation to take the other down. Early in the season, Axe, who was arrested in season two’s final episode, agrees to forfeit his personal right to trade so that his hedge fund can continue to operate in his absence. In Axe’s place as C.I.O. of Axe Capital is Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon), one of the first non-binary characters on television, a brilliant analyst who continues to hide a well of empathy behind a steely, implacable wall of intelligence. Of course, Axe resents relinquishing authority, and communicates to Taylor through a series of clues that might require either a genius or a psychic to discern. (The characters in this series are so super-humanly intelligent as to often seem psychic.)
Meanwhile, Chuck’s people are beginning to turn on him. Though the new U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Oliver Dake (Christopher Denham), is basically in Chuck’s pocket, Chuck’s former protégé, Brian Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), aims to put his former mentor in place for the Ice Juice stock manipulation. Brian is one of the few unimpeachable idealists left on Billions, and is, tellingly, the show’s dullest character.
The moral lines dividing the dueling parties in Billions have grown compellingly murky in season three.
Every scam begets more scams on Billions, and so the series is coming to resemble a cross between a procedural and a farce. The more willfully and skillfully intricate the series gets, the funnier, weirder, and more resonant it also becomes. The narratives have a wonderful sense of circular, Swiss-like efficiency, suggesting the existentially calming pleasure to be gleaned from mathematic proofs. When Taylor compliments the graceful, minute intricacy of a ludicrously expensive watch, they could be observing the gears and pulleys of Billions itself. Koppelman, Levien, and their many collaborators often spin satire and pathos from the sheer narrative obligation of episodic television, which they indulge and transcend. For instance, we know that Charles will need to come back into Chuck’s fold after his son betrayed him over the Ice Juice stock last season, because, otherwise, Chuck would be concretely caught in a life-ruining crime, which is the sort of development that doesn’t usually happen to a series protagonist until the final season, if at all.
Chuck remains an especially fascinating character: rumpled, powerful, occasionally pitiable, charismatic, as gamey as Axe on his best day, and perilously close to being evil. And Giamatti hits these notes with grace and a delicious sense of insinuation, suggesting a master musician with a blue-collar urge to affirm his masculine bona fides. Chuck is evolving into one of Giamatti’s greatest roles, and the further morally astray that Chuck swerves, the closer Giamatti comes to stealing Billions out from under Lewis, who has a role that, so far, has allowed for less conflict and emotional oscillation. Axe has always played by his own rules and continues to, embracing the conservative idea of money as representing the final word on social governance. Chuck, a well-heeled liberal, has become a kind of legal free enterpriser so as to ironically fulfill the liberal notion of regulating corporations and holding them accountable for their actions.
In the past, I’ve praised Billions while claiming that it lacks personality—missing the point of where the show’s personality resides. In its craftsmanship—dialogue that’s razor-sharp, compositions of elegantly parred simplicity, and performances that make juicy meals out of said dialogue—the series fetishizes professionalism and decries sentiment in fashions that are cannily reflective of the sensibilities of its characters. Billions doesn’t ritualize its own sense of importance like most prestige-TV productions, but rather plunges the viewer into an ever-expanding world, built upon cards, which is ruled by deranged cults of personality. The series is a wicked, decadent comedy about our impending apocalypse, its relativism suggesting a cheeky come-on as well as a parting attempt at some sort of clarity.