[This is a review of Billions season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
Showtime’s newest drama series, Billions, starring Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti as a pair of powerful alpha males on the verge of an epic “pissing contest,” is an admittedly shallow look at the world of finance and the sort of greed, privilege, and misconduct that wrecked the economy not long ago. The series doesn’t spend much time focusing on what its co-lead Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod (Lewis) actually does; it doesn’t go for didactic lessons about hedge funds or bubbles or short-selling stocks. The closest the premiere ever gets to a demonstration of Bobby’s business and how he earned his billions is in a flurry of dialogue by Lewis to two of his employees, wherein the proverbial axe cuts down their almost-there assumptions about a deal that’s about to go down. The one-sided interplay ends with a comment on high-priced educations, suggesting the primary takeaway, then, isn’t how the world of high finance works or even what the moral and legal implications are of playing fast and loose with billions of dollars. Instead it’s more interested in looking at the sort of personality that’s compelled to mark their territory on either side of that particular legal divide.
From the very first moment, in which Giamatti’s artfully bound U.S Attorney Chuck Rhoades is seen willingly used as an ashtray and… another receptacle by his wife Wendy (Maggie Siff), Billions is literally about power and control, submission and dominance, and when, how, and with whom these two inflated alpha males – Axe and Rhoades – cede power or chose to demonstrate it. The series wraps itself in the cloak of real-world relevance, of Wall Street malfeasance and the sort of affected finger-wagging one might expect of a series in 2016 that spends any amount of time with a member of the one percent. But it’s not really interested in the right or wrong of either man; that is irrelevant, really. Instead, the ambitions of the series are a little lower, sometimes a little seedier, but mostly it’s about poking fun at the fragility of the male ego.
Made by Brian Koppelman & David Levien (Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen), and Andrew Ross Sorkin (Too Big To Fail), Billions is the sort of slick, surface-level prestige drama that Showtime specializes in. It has a great cast that includes Malin Akerman, Jeffrey DeMunn (The Walking Dead), Glenn Fleshler (True Detective), Nathan Darrow (House of Cards), and David Costabile (Breaking Bad). And even though the pilot doesn’t necessarily demonstrate it knows what to do with any of these actors outside of watching them swoon sycophantically over either Axelrod or Rhoades, there are plenty of examples throughout the first hour script to suggest that’s kind of the point. They’re all worshipping at the altar of unrestrained machismo. Even Rhoades and Axelrod hold a begrudging respect for the power the other wields, though it’s Rhoades who begins the comparisons, calling his would-be adversary “Mike Tyson in his prime” and warning his right-hand man Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore, Daredevil) “a good matador doesn’t try to kill a fresh bull,” underlining exactly how he views Axelrod.
But there is never any indication these comparisons are anything other than ego building for both men. Sure, Axelrod might be Mike Tyson in his prime, or he might be a walking symbol of masculine virility, but what does that make Rhoades? It makes him the guy with the chutzpah to step into the ring with the champ, the matador effortlessly sidestepping the bull’s red-flared charge. It’s ego stroking of the highest order and Billions has great fun turning its two leads into a pair of posturing peacocks, strutting around with their ostentatious tails flared. And had it not made such an effort to underline this aspect of its characters, or to poke fun at the utter silliness of their alpha male routine, the series might have been another insufferable celebration of toxic masculinity.
Instead, amidst all the talk of $83 million dollar beachfront properties, the government going soft on Wall Street lawbreakers, and the pending investigation into Axelrod’s hedge fund, the pilot tips its hand to the audience, presumably telling those watching what it thinks of these swaggering alpha males. One such instance revolves around Wendy’s job as a “performance coach” at Axe Capital, a therapist of sorts to the men making millions of dollars before lunch. Seated across from an underperforming Mick Danzig (Darrow), Wendy slowly rebuilds the crumbling façade of his ego with a round of McConaughey-esque Wolf of Wall Street chest thumping and a totally straight-faced comparison to a Navy SEAL. Between the ritualistic self-flattery, man-friendly warrior analogy, and reminder he took home $7 million dollars last year, Wendy successfully re-inflates Danzig’s sagging self-esteem. The next time he appears onscreen, Danzig is like a child, waiting to be praised by both Axelrod and Wendy (dad and mom) for a job well done. It’s a funny moment that director Neil Burger (Limitless) seems to know to hang on for just long enough that the joke can sink in.
Although she isn’t given nearly enough to do, Siff is a standout in the pilot episode. Her encounter with Danzig is funny in a familiar way, but mostly it proves the series has some wit. A heated conversation with her husband over the possible need to quit her job at Axe Capital hints at a conflict down the line that may help give Wendy the screen time Siff deserves. Besides, Wendy is the only character who doesn’t fawn at either Axelrod or Rhoades; she has the potential to be a key piece of the narrative, which is more than can be said for Akerman and her character’s stiff insular Boston working-class family routine that doesn’t do enough to distinguish her from the other remora-like beings swimming around her shark of a husband.
Another moment comes late in the hour when Axelrod sees his untrained German shepherd breathing heavily on his bed, a surgical cone wrapped around his neck. The dog has been neutered and his wife Lara (Akerman) informs Bobby of this emasculating event in the most nonchalant manner possible. It’s an incredibly hokey moment: a man sees man’s best friend with his manhood stripped away and is suddenly compelled to act impulsively, to prove his masculinity, to prove he hasn’t been neutered by a grandstanding U.S. Attorney. He’s ready to get into a pissing contest with his adversary because, dammit, “what’s the point in having f*** you money if you never get to say f*** you?”
It’s such a potentially terrible, hackneyed moment that you have to believe is Billions tipping its hand; it’s telling the audience, “Yes, you should be laughing at these men, their motivations, and their actions, because we are.” You have to believe that this series takes seriously the amusement it gathers from exposing the delicateness of the male ego; otherwise it’s just going to end up being subjected to the same level of ridicule. It is entirely possible that as Billions progresses, it will prove to be as sycophantic to its co-leads as everyone around them, but until then, it’s okay to give the show the benefit of the doubt and hope that its take on the overwhelming machismo on display is a subversive one worth investing in.
Billions continues next Sunday with ‘Naming Rights’ @10pm on Showtime.