Wendy Rhoades: So Powerful Without the Bitch Title
by Michael Idato | March 20, 2019 | Sydney Morning Herald
As TV couples go, Billions‘ Wendy and Chuck Rhoades are a little out of the ordinary.
By day Wendy is the confident in-house performance coach at Axe Capital, encouraging her boss Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) to ever greater heights of financial chicanery.
At night she goes home to Chuck (Paul Giamatti), the US attorney determined to bring down Bobby, with whom she engages in Bondage/Discipline-Sadism/Masochism (BDSM) role play, with Wendy in the dominant role and Chuck as the slave.
It is, admits actress Maggie Siff, a lot to take in.
“Maggie, the psychotherapist, analysing Wendy, would probably say that both of those relationships are terrible for her in terms of her discovering her highest self,” Siff says.
“I think both of those relationships have driven her to towards darkness and in her desire to stick it out and help each of them succeed and ascend, she’s paid a price.”
And yet, if we borrow a sentiment from actress Joan Collins, who refused to let her famous creation Alexis Carrington be gendered, instead saying she simply did things the way men did, phrases like “towards darkness” seem to suggest we are programmed to have different expectations of women.
Where some people see darkness, perhaps Wendy sees strength?
“One of the things that I love about Wendy is that I don’t think people would call her a bitch,” Siff responds. “One of the things that makes the character so interesting is that she is so powerful without having that title or that perception stuck to her. She’s got a soft touch.
“One of the reasons we like Bobby is because we sense that there’s great potential in him, to sort of maybe transcend himself and then the ways that he’s bad are incredibly entertaining because he’s so smart,” Siff says. “I think Wendy is moving into that kind of territory.”
The couple’s complex marriage is something else again. As Joanna Lumley’s Patsy, presented with a pornographic image which was supposedly degrading, once said: “She’s the one holding the whip.”
People are fascinated by the couple’s bedroom scenes, she says, adding that she has been stopped on the street by couples admitting that they play this out and are excited to see it on television.
“There are a lot of people who say, it must take a long time to shoot those scenes,” Siff says. “People are just trying to imagine what it must be like to have to do take after take after take, how long I have to be in that costume, or how long does Paul have to live there tied up?
“And then I’ve definitely had some friends who are like, I’ve tried to watch the show and I just couldn’t see you do that and I had to turn it off. It totally runs the gamut.”
While much of the attention lavished on the critically acclaimed Billions seems to focus on its masculine narrative, or more specifically, the toxic masculinity of the hedge fund world in which the show is set, Siff acknowledges the show has a powerful female and other-gendered narrative as well.
“But Wendy also works in her own track and then there’s the gender non-binary character (Axe Capital analyst Taylor Amber Mason who works with Bobby) played by Asia Kate Dillon,” Siff says. “I think these three streams are all having a conversation with each other.”
Significantly, Siff says, using the women of Billions as a moral compass to the men seemed particularly reductive.
“I remember having a conversation with our creators, [saying] that was not necessarily the most interesting space for her to inhabit,” Siff says.
“I think the way she’s begun to slide around into anti-hero territory is also a little bit unusual or radical in television. [It] makes her a more dimensional character. It makes her a stranger character. It makes her a more mysterious character.”
“I always think of her as being somebody who can penetrate the character of anybody she’s talking to, and she really understands who the best version of whoever it is, who’s sitting in front of her is,” Siff says. “In that sense, she has an incredibly strong ethical sense and perception.
“[But] I think she’s got big blinders on when it comes to herself. I think there are things about herself she just isn’t really taking full stock of, and among those things, I think her own interest in money and power and control, that’s where things get, and have gotten, shifty for her.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Siff used the self-help guru Anthony Robbins as a touchstone in the creation of the character, though she agrees the Billions iteration of a character is tonally much darker.
“There’s that great moment when Wendy is told, you messed up, you made Axelrod a monster,” she says. “And when they say that, you see my character visibly blanched, having to take that possibility on.