Starring: Paul Giamatti, Damian Lewis, Maggie Siff, Malin Åkerman
An exhilarating exploration of the forces of greed, corruption, and grift, Billions delivers material that is thoughtful and visceral in equal measure.
Loosely based on real events, the show is largely carried by the dynamic between two major characters, US Attorney Chuck Rhoades and rogue stockbroker Bobby Axelrod. Over the course of the show, Rhoades pursues Axelrod for his illegal activities, with their legal battle becoming a broad one that claims the lives of anyone caught in the crossfire.
Billions emerges as a show that is up there with the likes of The West Wing in featuring many layers to its scriptwriting. Rhoades and Axelrod’s struggle is essentially a clash between two competing ideologies and versions of what the US is meant to be. Rhoades represents a vision of the US where fairness is championed by law and order, whereby those who work hard can get ahead and those who cheat the system face justice without favour. Axelrod stresses a version of rugged individualism, claiming his only crime is working hard and being successful at making money, a man with a neoliberal distrust for government. He justifies himself by his philanthropy and providing employment to hundreds of people, a sort of buying of indulgences for his crimes and profiteering from the events of 9/11.
As a promotional poster depicting the cast in the last supper might suggest, Billions’ concept deals with a number of biblical themes. These go beyond the obvious exploration of avarice (although this is addressed well). Axelrod is something of a cult leader figure for those who work for him, and they would do anything for him accordingly. The themes of redemption, self-sabotage, and human sinfulness are never far from the surface.
The clash between these Rhoades and Axelrod is made all the more worthwhile by their own internal contradictions. The former is ostensibly a stickler for the rules. He takes this to the extent of cracking down on someone who leaves his dog’s poop on the walkway. And yet, he benefits as much from the corrupt system as he fights it, with his big house and wife who works for Axelrod. As Billions’ main heel, Axelrod is far from a moustache twirling villain. Somewhere between altruist and narcissist, his motivations are portrayed as complex.
A show based exclusively on the clash between these two competing egos would become exhausting quickly, and so Billions’ supporting storylines manage to break things up and provide levity.
As great as the writing of the show is, there are instances when the script falters. This is perhaps most clear during some of the confrontations between Rhoades and Axelrod, where the scripted exchanges devolve to the characters spelling out their own motivations. It should also be noted that the show’s sex scenes border on gratuitous, although this could be said to aid in creating an atmosphere of corruption and sleaze.
Billions is rated MA and is now streaming on Stan.
Jonathan Foye is Insights’ Editor