Why Billions Had It Completely over Succession
About a month ago I wrote a long article in which I explained the flaws with a series I loved over the past five years, Showtime’s Billions. I stand by my statements but I also stand my original appraisal of the series in that: 1) it was far and away one of the best series over the past five years and 2) it was light years better than Succession ever was. I’ve given some details in a previous article, now I’ll be more specific.
One of the central characters of Billions (until the end of Season 5) was Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod, the billionaire head of Axe Capital played magnificently by Damian Lewis. Axe was not a perfect character or human being but on his worst day he was a better person and more interesting than any member of the Roy family.
And the thing is he shouldn’t have been. He was the head of a hedge fund, you know, the kind of company that broke America’s finances in 2008 and got bailed out by the government as a result. And he was always just as ruthless as Logan Roy was. But he always came across as more interesting and likable than anybody on Succession. Maybe part of this was because he wasn’t born into wealth like the Roy children, he didn’t go to the best schools (we learn in the Pilot he went to Hofstra; which in New York is your safety school if you can’t get into Fordham) and he actually earned the money he made. (Granted we learned he did a lot of it on 9/11 which isn’t exactly the best character reference).
But I think a lot of it was due to the fact that Bobby wasn’t pretentious. One of the most famous images of Billions is him walking around his company in a sweatshirt and blue jeans, the classic alpha male. You can’t really see any of the Roys doing that. Hell, Logan can’t even walk at a brisk pace. He had the private jets, helicopters and all the trappings of privilege that the Roys had, true, but he was just as willing to be generous to his family and his employees and to the people he’d grown up with as a child. It’s hard to imagine any actual billionaire having a common touch, but Bobby did.
And maybe that’s the reason for the clearest difference between Bobby and everybody else in Succession: he had friends even among the people who worked for him. None of them were anywhere as rich as him, all of them knew they were nowhere near his intellectual equal or maybe not even the level of employee but he inspired a fierce loyalty that you can’t even comprehend the Roy family having even among their own family. We don’t see any member of the Roys have a devoted wife (at least for the first two seasons) like Lara (Malin Akerman) or a loyal consigliore like Wags (David Costabile) or a devoted friend like Wendy Rhoades (the always great Maggie Siff), who will turn a blind eye to his work even to her own husband. And this devotion and friendship was always reciprocated even when it wasn’t always owed.
This point has never been clear when it comes to threats from within. When a character on Succession offers to be a sacrificial lamb, there’s no acknowledgement from anybody in the Roys inner circle, even if that person is their own spouse. You’re supposed to go to jail for the Roys; it’s expected. Contrast with a storyline in Season 1. Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) is trying to build a case against Bobby. He arrests ‘Dollar Bill’ one of the top traders for Axe Capital on a lesser charge and then tells him it will be alleviated if he rolls on Bobby. Bill tells Chuck to go to hell. Chuck ups the ante by revealing that Bill has a second wife and family and will expose this to his first. Bill takes even less time to respond: “No Way! I am Keyzer f…ing Soze!”
In one of my favorite scenes in the entire series after the case against both Bobby and Bill have collapsed, Bobby brings Bill into his office which is soundproofed. He starts shouting at him: “We’re going to pretend to fight!” Bill immediately goes along with it, and they mock fight a strategy against traders who deserted Axe after the vultures starting circling. In the middle of this Bobby cheers Bill for what he did and shouts aggressively: “Your year end bonus is going to be big enough to support a third family!”
Bill responds: “Two’s plenty!” Then Bobby says in a much lower tone: “I love you like a brother” and Bill knows he means it. Considering that Kendall and Roman would rather take separate private jets than share the same space for a few minutes, it’s hard imagine any kind of similar devotion on Succession.
And more than that for all his ‘lack’ of an Ivy League education, I know damn well that Axe could complete out-think and outmaneuver every single person in the Roy family. None of the children — not even Shiv — would last more than a minute before he complete out maneuvered them. Logan might think he’d be able to get the better of him, but we all know that for all his supposed genius Logan is a billionaire of the previous century and Axe is new money. Bobby can see around corners Logan can’t even perceive; we saw that happen time and time again in his battles with Chuck Rhoades. Indeed, it was only when he tried to reach beyond his grasp — become closer to the kind of status of absolute invulnerability the Roys have — that he finally got into the kind of trouble that was too much for him in the Season 5 finale. Even then, he managed to escape justice.
Furthermore, considering the struggles the Roys now face, it’s equally hard to imagine they could emerge a victor with Bobby’s antagonist, Chuck. In his own way Chuck was just as smart, cagey and would have access to resources that I’m not entirely sure even the Roys brilliant legal team could avoid. I have a feeling that if Chuck had decided to take the Roys in his sights (and as we all saw in the main storyline of Season 2, they have major vulnerabilities) Kendall Roy would never have needed to do a mea culpa for Chuck and the U.S. Attorney to swoop in. Hell, two minutes in a room with him Cousin Greg would have sold them all out. That’s how brilliant Paul Giamatti is at his job. J. Smith Cameron would not have a prayer.
And to be perfectly clear, there are no saints on Billions either. But the clash of titans was brilliant, the characters fascinating and the dialogue just as brilliant. In my opinion, they also profanity better: One of the best lines in the series came in the Pilot after Chuck warns Bobby:
“What’s the point of having fuck you money if you never say fuck you?”
The Roys say ‘fuck you’ every other line, but its hard to imagine any of them delivering with the smartness of Lewis.
Billions will probably not be anywhere near as good a series as it was now that Lewis is gone, but at its peak it was better than Succession ever was. The reason that awards groups having gone into the same paroxysms of joy over it that they have for Succession has always left me scratching my head. (And that’s without considering Asia Kate Dillon who should’ve gotten a boat load of trophies by now.) But maybe that’s because it came first and that’s always the way with the series that lead the way.
So Succession isn’t original and it was even the best show on the air with a billionaire protagonist when it debuted. Why then do so many people watch it? The answer that has been suggested boggles the mind, and I’ll get to it when I wrap this article up.