It all begins with Paul Giamatti half-naked and hog-tied on the floor, a dominatrix astride him, pissing on the burn from the cigarette she just put out on his chest. Billions is clearly trying hard to get your attention: it knows ‘market fixing drama’ sounds boring enough, so the show starts with a scene lifted straight from The Wolf of Wall Street, that other story of greed and corporate psychopathy that spared the technical details and focused instead on the debauched drama. Rather than having Leonardo DiCaprio’s douchebag broker willingly submitting to abuse from a hooker, though, this show has Giamatti’s New York attorney Chuck Rhoades taking punishment from his own leather-clad wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff). And this, ladies and gentleman, is how Billions introduces its hero.
Billions continues the minor mainstream education in how crooked the money industry can be just in time for the next cataclysmic economic event, following more sober examinations like Margin Call and Arbitrage by going the high-class soap opera-with-F bombs route. Recognizing the fact that corporate corruption won’t be all that interesting to the average viewer, Showtime makes its latest show a seedy, profane power play.
Admirably, nobody is particularly likable in Billions—not even Jeffrey DeMunn, Frank Darabont’s go-to pillar of warmth, who shows up as Chuck’s Wall Street-savvy father. He’s shady. Everybody’s shady—most of all Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), a billionaire hedge funder and asshole that was the last man standing in his firm after 9/11 killed all the other partners. Generic power music soundtracks his every move. He’s a self-made man, a street kid-turned-megatrader. He makes his young sons do push-ups if one loses a bet with the other; he spares admiration for the family dog when it pees on the rug (“he’s staking out his territory,” Axelrod proudly tells the children).
We first meet ‘Axe’ impulse buying a neighbourhood pizzeria he frequented in his youth, partly to save the place from being turned into a falafel shop, partly because he can. This is a man that enjoys how it feels to have money, how it feels to win.
Giamatti’s Rhoades, meanwhile, is shown sending an old family friend to jail for financial crimes, just to highlight how goddamn tough he is. So when Rhoades is told by the SEC that a “suspect trading pattern” implicates Axe in an insider information scheme, the stage is set for a showdown, between an incorruptible law man and an ultra-capable crook that never wants to lose his grip on power.
This dynamic makes Billions a kind of Heat for the financial sector: two guys who are opposite sides of the same coin, both heavily flawed, both relentless. The pair even get their own coffee shop scene moment in the pilot, with Chuck confronting Axelrod after the latter gives a talk at an investment conference, and insists he gives up before he gets caught. Rhoades urges Axelrod not to buy the $60 million beach house he’s got his eye on, knowing the purchase will be a sign of Axe’s guilt, while Axe taunts Rhoades with the size of his fortune (“What’s the point of having fuck you money, if you never get to say “fuck you”?” goes episode one’s best line). This is what Billions was made for: the pleasure of watching two heavyweight actors snarl at each other whilst engaged in a public dick-measuring competition.
Giamatti and Lewis are Michael Shannons or James Gandolfinis: exceptionally watchable performers denied the looks or the marquee quality that could ever make them cinematic stars. But like Shannon and Gandolfini, they fit right in as leads for quality television, where it’s the talent and not necessarily the level of attractiveness that’s paramount. Lewis breathes arrogance and a strange sex appeal as Axelrod (it’s that raspy whisper of a voice, no doubt), while Giamatti looks constantly like he’s about to explode with rage. (Nothing else on Earth sounds like Paul Giamatti screaming. We only receive the gift of it once this episode, but something suggests Rhoades is going to erupt more often as the series progresses.) The two of them paired here for this almost operatically masculine display is enough to say “fuck film—the big boys play on television now.”
The pilot’s fixation on Rhoades and Axelrod means the women are short-changed in this episode, but it’s on the show’s mind. Chuck talks of how he never just wanted a trophy wife slaving away in the kitchen, like his mother did for his father. And though there’s not much for either of them to do in episode one, there’s scope for both Siff and Malin Akerman (playing Axelrod’s wife Lara) to expand their roles later. Akerman relishes her one big scene here, Lara’s icy exchange with the widow of one of Axe’s fallen partners (“You’re fucking right I am,” she responds when asked if she’s making threats).
Siff will obviously have the more integral part of the two wives down the line, playing as she does both Chuck’s spouse and a ‘motivational psychologist’ (in layman’s terms: she shouts at people until they regain confidence) for Axelrod’s company. By the end of the pilot, she’s accepted a job as personal shrink to Axe, the flirtatious boss who might just have the hots for her, an obviously ridiculous set-up, considering her husband is about to investigate him for fraud. But that’s this show, so eager to add dramatic weight to its subject it thinks pitting two bulls like Giamatti and Lewis against each other isn’t enough—there has to be the suggestion of an unholy love triangle down the line as well.
This kind of dramatic over-compensation and reluctance to presume audience intelligence stops Billions’ opener from being great. After the Financial Corruption for Dummies approach of The Big Short, the decision of Billions’ writing team to leave the rapid-fire trader talk un-translated, like a blur for the uninitiated, feels like a cop-out. (Forbes has written a ‘Billions for the 99%’ article to explain the show’s “hedge fund speak” to anyone left stumped.) Nonetheless, Billions’ pilot is full of promise for what’s to come: terrific acting, some spicy dialogue, and casual, hard-boiled cynicism going hand-in-hand with the sickly glamor of a daytime soap.
Exchange of the week:
“This got your panties all sticky?” “Drenched.” -Rhoades’s right-hand man Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) and SEC agent Spyros (Stephen Kunken).