Showtime’s Billions is a drama about wealthy hedge fund traders who fancy themselves white-collar gangsters and philosophers. These men have a taste for rarefied women, sports cars, and liquor, living in houses the size of small public schools, but they also see every encounter as a prison-yard standoff. More than a degree of over-compensation is at play here: On one partially conscious level, these bulldogs are afraid that they now occupy a “soft” station of privilege, and on a simpler level, the personality that appears to be drawn to this amoral high-pressure job is one that runs perpetually hot. Of course, losing one’s temper in the slippery world of high finance can give law enforcement a way to pressure someone to turn against their company. In this fashion, insider trading is like life in the underworld.
Next to many of his traders, hedge fund maestro Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) has his head straight, as he’s a married family man who keeps his eye on the big picture of his kingdom, Axe Capital. But Axe also has an indulgence, which is the epic pissing contest in which he’s engaged with U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), who’s trying to nail him for insider trading. Series creators Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Andrew Ross Sorkin inform this rivalry with a clever role-reversal. Axe and Chuck’s war involves class resentment, of course, but Chuck, who would be the unquestioned hero of a more routine Wall Street narrative, is the insider, a man born into wealth with an inherited track to a political career if he behaves himself. Axe, a salt-of-the-earth man’s man with a penchant for junk food and sports as well as a head for numbers, is authentically self-made, which is to say that he comes by his survival-of-the-fittest, supposedly free-market hypocrisy more authentically than most.
Billions’s first season didn’t compel us to root for conventional justice. The conflict between Axe and Chuck is one of personality, with moral and legal ideologies existing as readymade pretenses. But their conflict also has sexual stakes. Chuck’s wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), who used to work as a psychiatrist for Axe Capital, was the object of their contention in season one. Chuck, a rumpled, overweight political tactician as ruthless and cunning as Axe, doesn’t aesthetically match up with the chic and gorgeous Wendy. Axe and Wendy have yet to sleep together, but they have an emotional affair, and she makes more visual sense with the fit, good-looking Axe, who subtly walks as if his cock is the center of his personal gravity. With issues of morality off the table, viewers may root for the man they most relate to: Chuck signifies a ferocious transcendence of appearance (he’s an alpha in disguise, trimming down by embracing jujitsu), while Axe is a prodigious cover of a traditional bro.
The series frequently charts the intersections between micro misbehavior—the various ways Axe’s employees inadvertently threaten the company with their he-men antics, the sketchy methods attorneys have of shaking down people for information—with the macro of Chuck and Axe’s grudge match, which reflects the hopelessly tainted relationship between money and politics. This theme crystallizes with particular precision this season, which is concerned with an Ayn Randian notion of the self eclipsing all else. Gifted people, whether they’re traders, attorneys, or artists, are driven to honor the relentless energy of their creativity—a figurative itch that must be scratched. Chuck, Axe, and their vividly rendered go-betweens on both sides of the law come to life when they’re actualizing their raw talent into will, at the expense of other people who’re less talented and willful. (One of Axe’s most gifted analysts is transgender, adding another self-consciously, ironically inclusive and tolerant nuance to Axe’s heteronormative industry of class manipulation.)
As in corporate dramas like Wall Street and Glengarry Glen Ross, language is understood to be the greatest weapon in Billions, the key to rationalizing the inexcusable, and the second season boasts subtler and more intricate and playful dialogue than the first. The series is often composed of duets in which terrific actors parry sharp, overheated rhetoric back and forth, chewing over words that provide a poetry that’s absent from the routine visual schematic.
World history is often referenced with amusing and disturbing grandiosity, with Axe citing, say, the Mongolians and the Romans before executing pivotal plays. Discussing an evasion of Chuck and his attorneys, a character advises Axe, with purplish-ness typical of the series, that “we better make sure we burn the gallows down before he gets to you.” Chuck relishes the writing of Winston Churchill, and advises a subordinate that it’s best to ask a cornered enemy for a favor so as to give them a misplaced sense of power, which is how Chuck is manipulating that subordinate at that very moment. In Billions, obviousness is often the deepest form of misdirection and subtlety, and every play contains multitudes of implications and reverberations.
Misdirection governs the show’s thornier second season. In the first, Chuck and Axe went head-to-head and both lost Wendy as they left the battlefield feeling vulnerable. But the sexual tension hasn’t been resolved, only distilled, as Wendy was only a surrogate anyway. Now, Chuck and Axe can focus almost entirely on one another, though Wendy bobs in and out of the narrative, as a freelancing therapist, and her gifts are now lacking the focal point that every character on this series craves.
The second season of the series certainly finds everyone scrambling, concocting periphery cons that appear unrelated to their primary quest, which come to cumulatively suggest multiple snakes eating their own tails. In an effort to salvage his job, which is endangered by unsavory actions taken in the first season, Chuck goes after another billionaire magnate, Lawrence Boyd (Eric Bogosian), who has connections that could ironically save Chuck in a more direct and less legal fashion. Similarly, Axe helps Lawrence to potentially test the waters for another open war with Chuck, memorably defining Lawrence as a “scout” and, more brutally, as “cannon fodder.”
Billions used to suggest a well-devised 2D chess simulation, with strategies and theorems neatly worked out. Now this deliciously smug melodrama merges chess with the expansiveness of the board game Risk, scattering all parties so that seemingly anything goes. This is a soap opera for dudes, a genre toy uninterested in the actual ramifications of political corruption, and so the emotional dimension is limited and perfunctory, particularly compared to a great working-man’s crime series like Better Call Saul. What Billions offers is vicarious revelry in stylish power, exuding a trashy, toxic purity.