The Intersection of Philanthropy, Politics, Finance and Family, and How They Can Poison and Enrich Each Other at the Same Time
by Brian Tallerico | Roger Ebert.com | March 22, 2018
There’s a flow to “Billions” that’s not quite like anything else on television. The quick pace of the dialogue is often reminiscent of prime David Mamet—as is the examination of male power roles—but it’s also a refreshingly modern show (you might want to bone up on what cryptocurrency is before the new season). The first two seasons built to the kind of wonderful climax that justified any plot holes or narrative speed bumps in the nearly two dozen episodes that came before it. They gave fans the feeling that the writers of the show had been working to that moment from the very beginning, and that “Billions” had just moved to another level in the pyramid of quality TV. I’m happy to report that the third season maintains that high quality level. The breakneck pacing of the end of season two can’t be maintained (and we wouldn’t want it to be), but the characters have arguably grown even richer and more complex as the team behind this show explores how its two power players respond when that power is stripped away by the systems around them.
That pair is U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and financial genius Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis), mortal enemies in every possible way. For two seasons, the two played three-dimensional chess, moving pieces around as Axe attempted to avoid prosecution by Chuck, who sacrificed everything to get his man. The unfolding drama introduced us to a number of key players in the world of Rhoades and Axelrod, including their wives, Wendy (Maggie Siff) and Lara (Malin Akerman). Wendy happened to work for Axe, pulling her between the two power players. And we also met key soldiers on both sides of the war, including Bryan (Toby Leonard Moore), Wags (David Costabile), Sacker (Condola Rashad), Chuck’s father (Jeffrey DeMunn), and Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon). I’m being intentionally vague about how all of these characters intertwine because the joy of “Billions” is in how the show’s creators define the complex relationships within the construct of their show, and you really should catch up if you get a chance.
Suffice to say, Chuck Rhoades made a major play at the end of season two, finally toppling Axelrod in a way that Chuck presumes will be fatal. The third season opens with both men trying to pick up the pieces. Axe is trying to stay involved in the only world he understands, even as his marriage falls apart. Chuck can’t directly handle the case against Axe, and has destroyed relationships in his effort to nail him, especially the one with his father. Both men are at a crossroads, but they’re looking back from whence they came to make sure no one is coming up behind them. They’re paranoid and nervous, and Lewis and Giamatti are great in these episodes.
One of the reasons they’re so good is how much they cede to one of the best supporting casts on television. I’ve always been a sucker for a phenomenal ensemble (it’s what made “Deadwood” so good) and I love the cast of characters on “Billions.” Lewis and Giamatti get a lot of the attention, but this is a show that doesn’t work without the entire ensemble. Costabile and Siff have been great since the beginning—as have Kelly AuCoin, Dan Soder, and other familiar faces—but the show really got a boost from the season two addition of Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor, a new Axe employee who identifies as “they/them.” Introduced into a truly masculine, testosterone-heavy world, the inclusion of a brilliant character that defies traditional gender constructs invigorated the writing on “Billions.” And Dillon gives one of the best performances on television. It’s great to see their role expanded even further in season three. The same goes for the work of great character Jeffrey DeMunn in the first arc of the new season. He’s phenomenal. Finally, in a show that has always cast its characters brilliantly, there are some fantastic new faces this year, including Clancy Brown and, later in the season, John Malkovich.
“Billions” is about modern power dynamics in a way that no other TV show has really captured—the different ones between boss/employee, husband/wife, father/son, etc. And, within those dynamics, it’s about what we’re willing to give up today to get more of tomorrow. That’s what Bobby Axelrod does for a living, playing his hunches about futures in the financial market, but it’s really a mirror of what so many of us do in our business and personal lives. The writers of “Billions” understand the intersection of philanthropy, politics, finance, and family lives, and how they can poison and enrich each other at the same time.
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