An Interview with Koppelman and Levien
by Sarene Leeds | Vulture | June 9, 2019
***This interview contains spoilers from the season four finale of Billions.***
Just as we were getting used to the idea of New York State Attorney General Chuck Rhoades Jr. (Paul Giamatti) and hedge-fund billionaire Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) playing nice with each other, Billions responded with, “Eh, not so fast.”
In its season four finale, the Showtime drama recalibrated the positions of several of its main players, most notably by shifting the dubious alliance between Chuck and Axe back into a full-on rivalry. After celebrating a victory over season-long foes Attorney General Waylon “Jock” Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown) and U.S. Attorney Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), Chuck needs someone new to take down, and he has set his sights back on Axe, who he feels has been pulling the strings of his life for far too long.
The episode “Extreme Sandbox” also saw Axe’s relationship with venture capitalist Rebecca Cantu (Nina Arianda) become collateral damage in his ongoing war with former protégé Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon). Meanwhile, Chuck’s marriage to Axe Capital performance coach Dr. Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) is in tatters again, the lowest blow being Axe using his monetary muscle to get Wendy’s medical license reinstated. Both Axe’s and Wendy’s newfound singledom also begs the question as to whether this platonic relationship is about to move into something more romantic.
Prior to the airing of the season four finale, Vulture spoke with co-showrunners and “Extreme Sandbox” writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who recently signed an overall deal with Showtime to develop new projects exclusively for the network. Here they discuss their reasoning behind some of the episode’s major creative decisions.
I think this was the strongest season of Billions yet, in which Chuck and Axe were for once, working as allies. So why make them adversaries again?
Brian Koppelman: It goes to who these characters are, and what drives them. We start by asking ourselves questions; usually, we lead from a place of curiosity, so, it’s not like there was a strategy. We knew at some point they would be turned toward one another again, but as we were writing the season, it just became clear to us that these two alphas, in the way that they’re alphas, how would they really co-exist, when each needs to make the world in exactly the form and shape that they see it to serve their own need? How are two people like that going to just co-exist peacefully? It doesn’t seem that they ultimately, long-term, could.
I am still processing Chuck’s big reveal of how he finally got his revenge on Jock and Bryan. How did you come up with — and keep straight — all the intricacies of Chuck’s season-long entrapment scheme?
David Levien: Well, it wasn’t just us. The writers’ room really pitched in coming up with the bones of this overplot. And then, we have lots of meetings about the flashbacks and how each piece of it would reveal something, so that as we were shooting each place, we could be as efficient as we could and get the flashback pieces, without having to go back. So, we’d been planning it along the whole way.
Brian Koppelman: We would be working with and telling the actors about it too. The primary players in the con were Chuck and Charles Senior, so Paul Giamatti and Jeffrey DeMunn. So we were, from the beginning, letting them know, “Okay, this is the moment you start working together.” The actors were able to play this stuff being aware of what they were doing. We’ve been thinking about this our whole lives: We wrote Ocean’s 13, and we did the thing in season two with “Golden Frog Time” [aka the Ice Juice scheme]. The Sting was one of our favorite movies when we were kids. We’ve been studying how to do this for a very, very long time.
I loved watching Bryan Connerty slide from idealistic lawyer into a vindictive one. So, is this it for Connerty? Or do you think he has it in him to make a comeback just like Axe and Chuck have over the seasons?
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