Given that the economy crashed more than 8 years ago thanks in no small part to the greed of high-finance types, and that former President Obama’s Justice Department faced great criticism for not jailing or even aggressively prosecuting any Wall Street CEOs, it’s a little surprising that a show like Billions didn’t appear until 2016. A high-flying billionaire, playing by his own rules, cutting a few corners, and living the lifestyle that 99.9% of us can only guess at, being pursued by a U.S. Attorney with a personal grudge? How was this not a show in 2009?
Whatever the reason, it’s a show now, and a pretty addictive one at that, highlighted by strong perfomances by Homeland alum Damian Lewis as new-money billionaire Bobby Axelrod, head of Axe Capital; bona fide movie star Paul Giamatti as driven blue-blood U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades; ur-Mad Men love interest Maggie Siff as Chuck’s wife Wendy, a talented therapist who just happens to be the performance coach at Axe Capital; and erstwhile Breaking Bad chemist/barista David Costabile as Bobby’s consigliere Mike “Wags” Wagner. Though Billions’ plot machinations are often incomprehensible (particularly the ones about particular financial maneuvers) or strain credulity — the show has never offered a plausible explanation for why Wendy would continue working for a man her husband so fervently believes is a criminal and is so actively trying to prosecute — the well-drawn characters are the true coin of the realm.
So if we were to do like Bobby Axelrod and sell Billions off for parts, here’s our market valuation of its most viable assets:
Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) — $250MM
Billions is unusual in that, unlike other Peak TV© dramas, which follow an antihero as he confronts a succession of antagonists, usually one per season, it’s set up with a pair of antiheroes whose antagonists are each other. Lose either of them, and there’s no show. But given that the show is called Billions and Axe is the billionaire, and given that he’s the one traveling in private jets, hanging out with Metallica, buying giant yachts, and generally showing us how the 1% lives, he’s first among equals. His tiny mouth is still a little distracting, but he’s a much more plausible character here than the one he played on Homeland, whose every thought, word, and deed was deliberately opaque. Here he’s a swaggering alpha dog, secure in knowing that he is the smartest guy in any room and comfortable in his own skin. His only Achilles’ heel is his hatred for his pursuer, which Lewis plays with just the right level of controlled fury. The rest of the time, you just wish you were lucky enough to rate a ride on his private jet.
U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) — $250MM
Every Peak TV© series needs a little Serious Actor ballast, and Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti provides it in spades as the careerist U.S. Attorney who is not quite as morally superior to his quarry as he might like to believe. Boiling with bitterness over his wife’s continued employment at Axe Capital, as well how elusive Axe himself proves to be, Chuck cuts more than a few corners himself in the course of his investigations, allowing Billions to show that the backroom horse-trading, social-climbing political world that Chuck has so mastered and Bobby’s closed circuit of insider trading are really two sides of the same coin. The cat-and-mouse game between Chuck and Axe is the meat of this show, with neither holding advantage over the other for long, and it’s Chuck’s doggedness (and Giamatti’s commitment to it) that makes the conceit hold up over two full seasons.
Dr. Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) — $100MM
Season 1 Wendy, it must be said, is a little underwritten, little more than, as she herself puts it, “a chew toy” for Chuck and Axe to fight over. Season 2 Wendy makes a couple of changes that I won’t reveal here that give her a little more agency, but both Wendys are imbued with the visibly fierce intelligence of Maggie Siff, which goes a long way toward papering over inconsistencies in her character. I don’t know if “performance coaching” is a real career for trained psychologists in the high finance world, or if it’s plausible that such a coach would command a salary high enough to make her loyal to her shady employer, but Siff sells every scene with a tight smile and a clear indication that she knows more than she’s letting on. One thing that she doesn’t quite sell is how a woman of her gifts would wind up with Paul Giamatti, but let’s be honest: nobody could sell that.
Mike “Wags” Wagner (David Costabile) — $150MM
Previously best known as Gale, the mild-mannered apprentice meth chemist who ended his run on Breaking Bad with a hole in his face, Costabile is cast way against type as Axe’s right-hand man Wags, the movie-quoting, drug-taking, big-spending fixer at Axe Capital. A solid 80% of the funny lines on Billions come through Costabile’s mouth and are 80% funnier for it. Every drama needs some comic relief, and Wags supplies it better than most.
Lara Axelrod (Malin Akerman) — $150k
I’m sure Ms. Akerman is a very nice person in real life, and I have seen her play nice people reasonably well, but she is horribly miscast here as a working-class woman who kept her hardscrabble edge even after she met and married billionaire-in-the-making Bobby Axelrod. She’s not helped much by the show’s writers, who have seldom found much interesting for her to do other than disapprove of her husband’s close relationship with Wendy, but she has such a charisma deficit in this role, such a total lack of chemistry with Lewis or anyone else, and an affect even flatter than Taylor’s studied Asperger’s-outcast thing, that she sticks out like a sore thumb. If Billions was The Godfather Part III, she would be Sofia Coppola.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad) — $40MM
The daughter of NFL great Ahmad and Cosby Show mom Phylicia, Ms. Rashad has a uniquely self-possessed screen presence that makes her very interesting to watch. Next time they are casting Vulcans for a Star Trek project, they should give her a look, as her every word, every move, even every glance comes off as very carefully considered.
Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon) — $200MM
Axe Capital, and Billions as a whole, got a huge shot in the arm with the Season 2 arrival of the nonbinary-gendered financial analyst Taylor, who upon meeting Axe announces, with a curiously flat affect, “Hi. I’m Taylor. My pronouns are them, they, and their.” Taylor is easily the most interesting character on the show, and their gender ID is only a small part of the reason. As a new arrival to Axe Capital, they are an audience surrogate of sorts, but they also begin their tenure with some ethical reservations about the high-finance world — reservations that erode over time. And, as we learned from The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, the most interesting characters are the ones who are great at what they do, and it’s clear from the jump that, to paraphrase one of the great narrators, Taylor has an almost preternatural grasp of international finance, so watching them navigate this strange new world while also feeling their oats as their talent comes into full flower is one of the great pleasures of season 2.
Billions recently completed its second season, and all 24 episodes are available on-demand on Showtime, free to all Sling TV subscribers this weekend.