“Axe Has Been Vanquished”
by Jeremy Egner | New York Times | October 3, 2021
This article includes spoilers from Sunday’s Season 5 finale of “Billions.”
One of TV’s last great antiheroes departed Sunday night on Showtime’s “Billions.”
Bobby Axelrod, the proudly venal hedge-fund titan played by Damian Lewis, flew off into the sunset in the Season 5 finale, slipping the grasp of the law and his chief nemesis, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), one last time on his way to a less punitive future in Switzerland.
While the character’s final scene was somewhat open-ended, with Axe (as he is most commonly known) being welcomed by the Swiss authorities after fleeing America, Lewis confirmed in a recent video interview that he was leaving the show.
“There’s an opportunity maybe for me to return,” he said from his home in North London. “But for now, broadly speaking, Axe has been vanquished.”
Lewis’s exit ends what amounts to “easily the most time I’ve spent playing one character,” he said. The actor was previously best known for his three-season stint on another Showtime series, “Homeland.”
It also comes just months after a personal tragedy. Lewis’s wife, the acclaimed actress Helen McCrory, died in April, not long after “Billions” returned from its pandemic production hiatus. Lewis shot much of his final stretch on the show remotely, from England.
Over five seasons on the pulpy markets-and-machers drama, Axe embodied the culture’s often contradictory feelings about the superrich. A self-made, self-described capitalist monster, he shamelessly destroyed anything — careers, lives, entire towns — that got between him and his next billion. But he did so with enviable audacity and panache, with an equally alluring penthouse-and-private-jet lifestyle.
“When I’m walking down the street in New York, it’s: ‘Axe, you the man!’” Lewis said. “He’s a really despicable human being, but no one seems to care.”
That’s owed largely to Lewis, who from the beginning imbued a character that could have been a sneering caricature with emotional depth and a predatory physicality. (When he was developing the character, his acting exercises included moving about on the ground like a cheetah.) Much as Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston made Don Draper and Walter White irresistible even when they were awful, Lewis made Axe’s financial marauding fun to watch.
“Damian Lewis is not an actor who’s scared the audience is going to dislike him,” said Brian Koppelman, who is a showrunner along with David Levien. “He is willing to play the character in as caustic a manner as the character requires, and he has faith that if he’s true to that, it will connect with the audience.”
But after 60 episodes of elaborate, at times inscrutable schemes, and of Chuck and Axe squaring off in various configurations, Lewis was ready to move on.
“It’s difficult to keep mining, creatively,” he said. “We know who he is.”
And after six years of spending months at a time in New York filming “Billions,” he plans to stick close to home and to his two teenage children after “we had a sadness in our family,” he said, referring to McCrory’s death, at 52, from cancer.
It’s a subject he’s reluctant to talk about, his normal expansiveness giving way to terse responses. He wants to remain in London for the foreseeable future for “obvious reasons,” he said. “It is self-evident.”
Lewis said McCrory’s death did not explain his departure from “Billions.” He initially signed on for five seasons and “always just assumed that would be enough,” he said. Koppelman said the show, which premiered in 2016, had been building toward Axe’s departure for several years.
But it does explain why Lewis spent much of the last few episodes appearing remotely. Actors and crew flew to England to shoot scenes that were framed within the show as a stint for Axe in Covid quarantine. (Lewis did return to New York for part of the final episode.)
“We wouldn’t ask him to come to America in that situation — right after the love of his life passed away, who was a remarkable, incredible artist and human being,” Koppelman said.
“It’s Damian’s private life, so it’s not really ours to comment on,” he continued. “We just feel truly, unbelievably lucky to have had five years with Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti together.”
From the beginning, the cat-and-mouse dynamic between Axe and Chuck has been the show’s defining dimension. (A close second: The abundant awkward cameos by real-life financiers and Manhattan luminaries.)
When the show returns on Jan. 23 for its sixth season, Corey Stoll’s Mike Prince, who arrived this season, will be the master-of-the-universe foil for Giamatti’s ethically ambiguous lawman. The finale found Prince literally taking Axelrod’s seat, after buying his company in an offer Axe couldn’t refuse.
With his carefully cultivated image and world-saving rhetoric, the Prince character has more in common with our current crop of rocket-riding billionaires than with the mercenary hedge-funders Axe channeled in the wake of the Great Recession. (Andrew Ross Sorkin, a New York Times editor and columnist who chronicled the 2008 crash in his book, “Too Big to Fail,” is a creator and executive producer of “Billions.”)
“A long-running show has to evolve,” Levien said. “So it’s like a reload in a great way, at the right time.” Showtime has not yet committed to a seventh season, but Gary Levine, the network’s president of entertainment, said, “From what I’ve seen of Season 6, I’m very encouraged.”
For Lewis, who is currently preparing to shoot the British Cold War series “A Spy Among Friends,” his departure from American television comes almost exactly 20 years after he was introduced to U.S. viewers, as a star of the HBO World War II mini-series “Band of Brothers,” in September 2001. It also wraps up a decade he spent mostly on Showtime, beginning with his time on “Homeland” as the soldier turned sleeper agent Nicholas Brody. (“I’ve had to say goodbye to Damian twice now,” Levine said.)
An Eton-educated Brit, Lewis has displayed a remarkable knack for playing blue-collar Americans. (Axe wears his Yonkers roots on the sleeve of his cashmere hoodie.) But he isn’t sure when, if ever, he will seek out another American series.
“I don’t like closing chapters,” he said. “But it does feel like it’s the end of that for now.”
Lewis won’t miss playing Axelrod, he said. But he is proud that he and the writers had been able to capture something about both the allure and the corrupting influence of extreme wealth.
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