by Matthew Thompson
Billions sees U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) going after hedge fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damien Lewis) for insider trading and other improprieties used to gain his fund’s considerable wealth. Making the whole affair all the more tricky is Chuck’s wife Wendy’s position as performance coach at the fund as well as her close relationship with Axelrod. This puts her smack dab in the middle of the two men as they wage war on each other throughout the series.
I don’t think it is exaggerating to say that I hate both of the lead characters. Axelrod is a cocky criminal. While his charisma is alluring at first, the more you see how he operates, the harder it becomes to root for him. While it can be fun to see him destroy his enemies, you soon realize he is just as likely to do the same to his friends or people who just don’t deserve any of his wrath. You would think then it would be easy to pull for Rhoades to put him behind bars, but his behavior can be just as off-putting at times. His position of authority warrants higher standards and his hypocritical behavior and corner cutting can be tough to stomach as a result. But as has been proven time and time again, you don’t need likable leads to create interesting television. Both Axe and Chuck are very good at what they do and it is easy to appreciate that despite the tactics they might employ. The ensuing chess match between the two can be absolutely riveting and acts as a compelling centerpiece for the series buoyed by strong performances from Giamatti and Lewis.
Those who would like someone to get behind – or at least someone less hateable – will do better to look to the supporting cast. As the series progressed, I found myself rooting for Wendy (Maggie Siff) – along with Axelrod’s wife Lara (Malin Akerman) – to distance themselves from these two destructive men. And even though they are tied up in a lot of the same nefarious activities as their boss, I generally liked the group of recurring employees at Axelrod’s fund Axe Capital. I guess it comes down to the way they act and treat others in comparison to Bobby. And if nothing else, their loyalty is commendable. “Dollar” Bill Stearn shows the lengths he would go to for the fund throughout the series. Axe’s eccentric right-hand man Mike “Wags” Wagner adds some humor to the proceedings as does Mafee who just comes off extremely affable whenever he pops up. My favorite character in Billions is Season 2 addition Taylor Mason. Taylor is a vastly intelligent analyst who shoots up the ranks from intern to Axe’s inner circle. They are the only one that seems to see the market on the same wavelength as Axe and their interactions with everyone from Mafee to Wendy to Axelrod himself were highlights of the series as it improved greatly during its sophomore season. Taylor happens to be one of the most prominent non-binary characters on TV too (the internet tells me they are perhaps the first mainstream one on television in North America) and Asia Kate Dillon does a wonderful job in bringing this fascinating character to the screen.
I initially dropped this show after two episodes when it first premiered. It was merely fine in a television landscape where that doesn’t really get the job done anymore. For some reason, I decided to give it another shot this summer. While I’m glad I picked it back up, Season 1 was still mostly just solid, occasionally showing flickers of its greater potential. Billions doesn’t truly find its footing until the second season which felt like a sizeable step up from the first. And while I think the setup for the third is very promising, my next concern is how long they will try to prolong the series. It feels like another season or two should be enough. Showtime doesn’t really roll that way though, often continuing their successful series (Dexter, Homeland, etc.) long past their creative expiration dates. For now, I’m enjoying the back and forth battles between Bobby Axelrod and Chuck Rhoades on the financial frontlines, but I can’t help worrying a bit about the long-term outlook for Billions’ stock.
Season 1 Grade: B-/C+
Season 2 Grade: B+
A few more things:
- Best Episode: The final two episodes of the second season were Billions at the top of its game. The good impression they left on me may have even inflated my opinion of the show a bit. The penultimate episode of Season 2 “Golden Frog Time” is probably the series’ high point so far. Showing the lead up to Ice Juice’s debut on the market and Axe’s efforts to sabotage it – and Chuck in the process – before the final scenes flipped the whole thing on its head – with Wendy stuck in the middle again – made for one fantastic hour of TV.
- There are some really forced guest spots, but none was worse than Mark Cuban. Acting is not his forte to say the least.
- There are some other characters I didn’t really mention here like the other lawyers in the U.S. Attorney’s office. I guess I just don’t enjoy the drama there as much as the stuff at the fund.
- I usually like to say whether I recommend a show in a review like this, but I’m not sure what to do with something like Billions. I obviously grew to enjoy it myself, but I watch more TV than most. With so much great television out there now, unless I grade something in the A-range, I don’t think I can wholeheartedly recommend it. So while I liked Billions particularly in Season 2, it still doesn’t feel like a must-watch series.