Billions Was Once One of My Favorite Shows. I Won’t Be Watching It Again.
Part 1: How Billions Started strong and became a mess.
For much of the time I’ve been writing this column, I have been a great booster of Showtime’s Billions. For the four seasons I watched it I thought it was one of the most underrated series of the New Golden Age, a story of the clashes of money and power and some truly revolutionary perspectives on sex and gender.
Then strangely, while the fifth season was going on way back in early 2020 I started having issues with where the series was. These issues have led me to rethink much of my earlier position on the show. And that in turn has led me to wonder that a series that I once considered one of cables greatest might somehow be even worse than what so many people consider the default series: ones headed by a White Male Antihero. In this article, I’m going to discuss my specific problems with the series — many of which I now realize were in plain sight even when I was enjoying it — and what this may say for what far too many series on television in the past decade have become.
For the record, I think the initial premise and indeed much of the first four seasons of Billions was as remarkable as I said it was. The writing was always razor; the duel between the two protagonists, Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod (Damien Lewis) and U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhodes (the always exceptional Paul Giamatti) was magnificent and the writers were always did their best to have so much of the battle go on with neither even in the same room for much of the season. Many of the characters could be as dazzling: Maggie Siff was remarkable as Wendy Rhodes, Chuck’s wife and the performance coach at Axe Capital, David Costabile, doing some of his best work as Wags, Bobby’s utterly loyal consigliore and the groundbreaking work of Asia Kate Dillon, television’s first ever nonbinary character as Taylor, someone who first looks to mentor with Axe and then quickly wants to overtake him. The series has always had an exceptional guest cast, featuring as versatile a group ranging from Eric Bogosian to Danny Strong to John Malkovich in one of his greatest roles.
But in retrospect the writers have never seemed convinced that all of this talent was ever enough, and they constantly threw in changes that never made sense. One of the worst they ever did involved Bobby’s marriage to Lara (Malin Akerman). In the first season, this was one of the greatest strengths of the series. Lara hadn’t been born into money and had working class roots. The partnership she and Bobby was genuine and based on true love and both were utterly willing to go to the mat for each other — a complete contrast to the often chaotic world of Chuck and Wendy. But apparently the writers held to the cliché that a happy marriage doesn’t make for good television, and in the second season they began dismantling it, really for what seemed to be the most pathetic of excuses. There was a valid reason for Lara to divorce Axe early in Season 3; there was a good chance he might go to prison. But in doing so, they not only cut out the clear contrast to Chuck and Wendy’s relationship, they took out one of the major sympathetic vibes to Bobby. Not only did he become another womanizer with no roots, he basically stopped being nice to many of the people who had helped him along the way. A lot of the sympathy we ever had for Bobby was more or less gone by the end of Season 3 and his character has never truly recovered from it.
This was a big blow to the series, but it wasn’t helped by the similar mess they made with Chuck. The reason we emphasized more with Bobby than Chuck in the first season was, for all his determination for being in public service, he was at his core, just as ruthless as Bobby is. He comes from old money (his relationship with his father has been a problem that the series still hasn’t been able to fix) and in the early season he seemed more determined to destroy Bobby not despite the fact Wendy works for him, but really because of it. There’s always been some kind of bad blood between the two (Wendy acknowledged as much early in Season 3) and Chuck seems determined to destroy Bobby whatever the cost. Even when he and Wendy separated, even when it cost him millions of dollars, and even when it could cost him his freedom. Perhaps the message the writers have been trying to say is that Bobby and Chuck are essentially the same person: if they’re not destroying someone, they have no purpose. But that lesson was made clear painfully early, and neither one seems willing to learn it. Well, that’s not quite true.
At the end of Season 3 Chuck was fired because he overreached in his scope. As a result, the series made its most daring move: Chuck and Bobby became allies. In all candor I really wish the series had stuck with this decision: it was a bold one and it was giving the show more growth then it had in the previous season. Instead, Chuck seemed to become as ruthless as Bobby and while Wendy seemed to admire it in the former, she didn’t approve of it in the latter. When Chuck exposed a private secret despite Wendy’s urging not to, she never forgave him. Their marriage would stumble along for the rest of the season, but she finally decided to divorce him. Chuck chose to take this as a lesson not that he had aired, but that Bobby’s mere presence had corrupted him and resumed his determination to bring Axe down. “People like us must destroy people like them,” he said early in the fifth season. He still refuses to admit that he really is people like ‘them’
Now at this point, you might well think Wendy is the most sympathetic character. If anything, I see her as much a villain as the two male leads. She knows that her mere presence is causing this inevitable conflict. She knows both these men so well that she has to know they will eventually destroy each other. (She actually tried to mediate on this more than once when the circumstance got too dire.) But she won’t give an inch to either. She might say it’s because of her position as a therapist, but she was more willing to destroy her career to get back at someone who she thought wronged her. I think it’s very simple. She likes having power over people who have power, and she likes being near all this wealth.
And at its core, that’s one of the greatest problems with Billions. Everybody’s so focused on destroying each other that no one cares how they do it. In the first season, Bobby manipulated a dying colleague into being a witness for Chuck to outmaneuver him. Axe Capital invested in a town on the idea a casino would be built there, and when it wasn’t they basically starved it to death. Axe was willing to destroy an entire company just to bankrupt Chuck. Chuck was willing to lose his fortune at that just to get at Axe. Much of the fourth season was about Chuck’s determination to destroy the Attorney General. The fact that kind of scandal would in a normal world cause a Presidency to topple never crossed his mind. The fact that Jock Jeffcoat was a monster was incidental; he got in Chuck’s way, he had to be removed. And that’s leaving aside that almost ever other story connected with how Axe Capital makes its money is based on some government, country or industry facing disaster. That’s just met with a shrug as business by the Masters of the Universe.
And in a weird way, that leads me to what may be the biggest problem with how I view the series. Halfway through the fourth seasons, when Axe Capital was being rivaled by Taylor’s company, two employees: ‘Dollar’ Bill and Mafee who ended up on opposites of the conflict got into a shouting match and said they’d settle it in a fight. This led to the episode ‘Fight Night’ where Bill and Mafee were going to face off in a charity fight. Both of them had spent weeks, presumably, being trained by the best. They were being pushed by their respective mentors to go out and kill. Bets were being taken on who would win and when. Then the fight happened…and neither could so much as land a punch on the other. As the announcers watched in astonishment, they spend eight or nine rounds swinging at each other and quoting Rocky, but the fight ended in mutual exhaustion. Not going to lie, this is a very funny scene. But at its core, it speaks to a darker truth about so many of the characters in these series. They may be able to deliver verbal blows, but they can’t fight to save their lives. Everybody in this series, to a degree, probably has great verbal skills and intelligence but in the world of the ninety-nine percent, they’d been useless. They’re little better than all the trolls we see on social media, except they actually have all the money and power in the world. You don’t have to be as smart as these characters supposedly are to draw a map to the political and economic situation we’re in today.
Now were these flaws only central to Billions they would be anomalous but something you could ignore. As I said, however, I think they are a bigger part of what so much Peak TV of this era has become. In the conclusion, I’ll go from the specific to the general.