“Amusement-Park Ride of a Financial Drama”
by Sean T. Collins | The New York Times | March 26, 2018
Season 3, Episode 1: ‘Tie Goes to the Runner’
“There’s a new sheriff in town,” drawls Attorney General Waylon Jeffcoat to an assemblage of United States attorneys now under his employ, “and you are my deputies. Gonna be one hell of a turkey shoot!”
Well, yes and no. After watching the Season 3 premiere of “Billions,” Showtime’s amusement-park ride of a financial drama, it is clear that the show’s creators and characters are indeed coming out guns blazing. But the new sheriff, known as Jock, hasn’t changed the series’s old winning ways. A boots-on-the-desk Texan played by the dulcet-toned character actor Clancy Brown, Jock Jeffcoat announces he’s pulling the Justice Department away from Wall Street’s white-collar crimes. Elsewhere, the revelation that the unctuous hedge-fund creep Todd Krakow (Danny Strong), previously the show’s comic-relief antagonist, has been named Treasury Secretary is perhaps the best gag of the episode, in that funny-because-it’s-true sort of way.
The premiere is the most direct reference to the advent of the Trump era we’ve seen so far, if not explicitly so. And yet “Billions” is still the story of the hedge-fund billionaire Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), the crafty, crusading prosecutor out to take him down. The two remain uncomfortably connected by Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff), Axe’s on-staff therapist and performance coach who’s also Chuck’s wife and dominatrix. Each man is the other’s Ahab, with Wendy playing Ishmael to them all, complemented by one of the strongest supporting casts on television. Trump may have changed the playing field, but the players and the game remain the rollicking, entertaining same.
At the close of Season 2, Chuck busted Bobby on an I.P.O. sabotage scheme that he had more or less abetted himself, knowing that his nemesis would walk right into the trap. Now Chuck and Wendy — previously estranged, in large part, because of his obsession with her boss — have reconciled. On the other hand, Axe and his wife, Lara (Malin Akerman), have split over Axe’s dishonesty about continuing to work with Wendy. It didn’t help that he also put his family’s fortune and stability at risk by getting himself arrested.
Professionally, Rhoades has developed an alliance of convenience with the ambitious young attorney Oliver Dake (Christopher Denham), who was investigating Chuck for ethics violations until Chuck promised him the high-profile Axelrod collar in exchange for calling it off. Bobby has been sidelined by an asset freeze orchestrated by Dake and has to surrender his trading license in order to unfreeze it, so he’s grooming his gender-nonbinary genius, Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), to run Axe Capital until he is back in action. Taylor is abetted by Bobby’s devilish and decadent right-hand man, Mike Wagner (David Costabile), better known as Wags, while Dake contends with the suspicions of Chuck’s protégé Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore).
Meanwhile, Rhoades still harbors ambitions to become governor. Axelrod wants to keep his money, his freedom and his grudge match against Chuck going.
So yeah, there’s a lot going on.
But the brilliance of “Billions” lies in acting like there isn’t, moving at a breakneck speed through every convoluted concept and complex plotline. Dialogue whips past in huge, devastating chunks, dense with pop-culture quotes, literary allusions, legal and financial jargon, elaborate and often profane metaphors (Jeffcoat’s story about the role of “teasers” on his family’s horse ranch is particularly juicy) and a ton of brutal bon mots. The quietly killer kiss-off Chuck receives from Ira (Ben Shenkman), a friend he betrayed in his quest to destroy Axelrod, was my personal favorite: “I’ll never talk to you again once this conversation is over. Which it is.” The pacing and writing reflect the culture of its characters. You can either keep up, or give up.
It’s not all wordplay, though. These are indulgent people, and “Billions” has long played close attention to their physical rituals alongside their mental ones. Chuck and Wendy’s bondage session is handled with both explicit heat and total seriousness: the show wants you to appreciate what this practice means to the couple involved. In another scene, Wags takes Taylor to a Russian bathhouse for a private heart-to-heart, where he then defends Taylor’s toplessness by fondling his own chest when another bather gets in their face about it. (“I could have done that myself,” Taylor tells Wags in the character’s clipped cadence. “I know,” Wags says, grinning. “I wanted the release.”)
The setup for a lavish once-a-year dinner get-together for the biggest hedge-fund managers in Manhattan is depicted in loving detail — and attended by the real-life trading titans Michael Adam Karsch, Marc Lasry and Michael Platt, playing themselves. When Taylor drops an attention-getting lead on them before so much as an appetizer is served, it no doubt becomes obvious to everyone in the room that Taylor is the next big thing.
But we already knew. In case there was any doubt, in fact, the song “The Next Big Thing” by the New York proto-punk band the Dictators accompanies Taylor’s arrival at Axe Cap’s new Manhattan headquarters for Taylor’s first meeting with the company’s analysts. It’s just one of several astute music cues — I counted Garrett T. Capps’s “Born in San Antone,” Mink DeVille’s “Spanish Stroll,” and Lucy Dacus’s “Troublemaker Doppelgänger,” and may well have missed a few — that come with few previous associations, unlike the megahits dropped on viewers by many other series. The lack of pre-existing context makes you feel as if these characters were creating their own rock-star personas out of whole cloth.
But there’s a reason that “Billions” is the show about Wall Street whizzes that even socialists can love. The most striking — and damning — aspect of all the power plays is the ideology behind them: There isn’t one.
Neither Axelrod nor Chuck shows the slightest sign of believing in some higher calling or deeper purpose — not a believable one at this point, anyway (Chuck can certainly muster an impassioned speech about truth and justice when it’s convenient). You might expect this from the hedge fundamentalists: Their cause is capitalism, which they see not as a political arrangement but as a force of nature they can master like wizards. But when Rhoades brings up the concept of serving justice, it’s a joke — deliberate, winking misdirection from the real reason he handed the Axelrod case to his own one-time nemesis, Oliver Dake. When Chuck and his colleague Kate Sacher (Condola Rashad) conspire to revive the financial cases that the business-friendly new administration has warned them not to pursue, they seem to do so more from pique and pride than from a zeal to right wrongs.
The political scene “Billions” portrays is equally amoral. The New York kingmaker Black Jack Foley (portrayed by the glamorously graying actor David Strathairn) has no agenda other than to secretly be in charge of whoever is publicly in charge of the state. This mentality tracks upward to the federal level as well. “You’ve got some wolf in you,” Attorney General Jeffcoat says to Chuck during their meeting, “which is why you’re not gettin’ fired.” Neither common ground nor principled bipartisanship has anything to do with it: Jeffcoat simply wants someone he knows he can count on to bring down big game when called upon to do so.
Rarely has Red Sanders’s maxim “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing” sounded quite so appropriate.
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