What makes for great television? How about a show that combines the spine-tingling shock and awe of Game of Thrones with the amoral aspirations of Breaking Bad, the asinine wealth of Succession, the attention to detail of Mad Men, and the familial fissures of The Sopranos?
That’s exactly Showtime’s Billions (streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar) whose fifth season culminated in early October with the characteristic mixture of adrenaline and emotional acuity.
Billions may not be a show that inspires a dozen Instagram fan pages, but it is a show that intrigues and involves the viewer like little else on television today.
Inspired by the prosecution of hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen by Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 2009 to 2017, as well as the Salomon Brothers’ manipulation of US Treasury bonds in the early 1990s, Billions is quintessentially American. The idea that competence can create its own form of toxic exceptionalism, something political philosopher Michael Sandel details in his book The Tyranny of Merit, defines Billions, for both good and bad. It is also an idea that is central to the modern American dream, personified in the phenomenal potential of Silicon Valley where brilliance foments its own corollary in belligerence. Billions is brutal yet beautiful.
Goliath vs goliath
The premise of Billions is deceptively simple – a feud set in New York between two incalculably powerful men where the winner is the last man standing.
The two men in question are Robert “Bobby” Axelrod (Damian Lewis), a billionaire CEO of a hedge fund who is obsessed with Metallica and pizza (and himself), and Charles “Chuck” Rhoades Jr (Paul Giamatti), a United States attorney who is obsessed with Churchillian rhetoric and BDSM (and himself).
Both men share a passion for singular power that is the basis of the plot in Billions, with Rhoades dreaming of throwing Axelrod in jail and Axelrod intent on throwing Rhoades out of office.
Axelrod, who leveraged the 9/11 tragedy to get very rich very quickly, is the embodiment of meritocratic transcendence, a “terminator” with the cumulative egos of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, though without any desire to conquer space. But he is also a man who came from nothing and is fiercely protective of his friends and fiercely loved by the people. In other words, a populist capitalist.
Rhoades, who went to Yale and epitomises America’s old money with all its associated privileges, is a master manipulator deploying the full force of the law and its loopholes to settle his personal scores. But he is also a man who picks his victims conscientiously, punishing only those he feels are as much of a threat to society as to him. More sinned against than sinning, Rhoades is the methodical ying to Axelrod’s impulsive yang.
The beating heart of Billions, however, is neither Bobby nor Chuck, but Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff), a psychiatrist and performance coach who is Axelrod’s colleague and confidant besides being Rhoades’s wife and dominatrix. It is not just Wendy’s obvious conflicts of interest that keep Billions on edge, it is her suave and nuanced reading of people and problems that keep Billions from wallowing in masculine insecurity.
While Wendy switches between catalyst and referee in the battle of the Goliaths, a stellar supporting cast creates numerous layers for the show.
The monastic genius of Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), the first non-binary character on American television, as Axelrod’s understudy-turned-opponent-turned-ally, the seamless scheming of Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad) as Rhoades’s understudy-turned-opponent-turned-ally, the hilarious savagery of Mike Wagner (David Constable) as Axelrod’s second-in-command, and the flip-flop loyalties of Charles Rhoades Sr (Jeffrey DeMunn) as his son’s philosopher, guide, and (tor)mentor are just some of the highlights in Billions, designed to make every second of screen time relevant and riveting.
It’s all about power (and love)
Part of the charm of Billions is its tendency to appeal to the worst in the viewer – greed, ruthlessness, and blind self-interest. And yet, Billions does not glorify power, it merely documents it, in all its ambivalent shades. In doing so, it provides many a life lesson in what not to do.
Do not pull off a deal only “to leave Nagasaki behind” à la Axelrod, even if you have a billion dollars. The resentment of others, if not your own fate, has a way of catching up. Do not bond with people by “asking for favours” like Rhoades, or very soon your moral balance sheet may struggle to categorise your actions. Do not see power as an end in itself, or you may not find any victory fulfilling or any defeat cathartic.
Winning big-time and long-term may be the motto of Billions’ protagonists, but the axiom of the show is that the game of power has no permanent winners, only permanent fighting and in-fighting.
In constructing its world of power, Billions, much to the relief of those who do not get high on one-upmanship, does not take itself too seriously. Which is why there is space for innocence to bloom in a show that has no innocent characters.
Nowhere is the innocence in the form of genuine love more genuinely lovely than in the rapport between Axelrod and Wendy, who can read each other’s minds at a glance and who, for all their unflappable exteriors, are invariably present to nurse each other’s deepest vulnerabilities.
Billions, of course, is not without its flaws. Some twists can be a tad too technical (especially for humanities majors) while some verge on the ludicrous. The fact that no two people can fully trust each other (with the exception of Axelrod and Wendy) can be dystopian to the point of dismay, even disgust. Then there are the celebrity cameos – David Solomon, Kevin Durant, and Maria Sharapova, among others – that mean little more than the producers flexing their muscles.
A rotating roster of directors, including some of Hollywood’s most distinguished talents – John Singleton, Neil Burger, Karyn Kusama, Anna Boden/Ryan Fleck, and John Dahl – take it in turns to helm the episodes, lending idiosyncratic touches to a show that constantly evolves and grows.
Only in America
Billions is as American as it can get.
Political realities in America – the election of Donald Trump, the tensions with Russia, the increase in polarisation due to misinformation, and the Covid-19 crisis – are acknowledged subtly without being pandered to.
At a time when shows mostly choose to offer fluffy entertainment in the manner of ambient television like Emily in Paris or high-octane engagement in the manner of the perennially intense Money Heist, Billions emerges as an outlier.
You can either watch Billions as a show where clever writers make clever people do clever things and be amused (even bemused) or you can watch it as a show that asks the biggest questions – can there be ambition without avarice, love without envy, and hope without fear?
Ultimately, no matter your motivations as a viewer, Billions is likely to win you over, not by dazzling you at first sight, but in the way that Axelrod prefers to put out the fire in his enemies who dare to burn too bright: “Slowly, invisibly, completely.”
The author is a postgraduate student at the University of Sussex, UK, and freelance journalist writing on sport, politics, and culture. He tweets @MarikPriyam. Views are personal.