by Derek Lawrence | Entertainment Weekly | October 3, 2021
“It feels like we’re at the end.”
Sadly, Ben Kim, we are at the end of Bobby Axelrod… at least for now.
So much went down in Sunday’s season 5 finale of Billions that we might need 43 hours to talk about it all, but the biggest news is the departure of original star Damian Lewis. The Emmy winner’s decision to take a step back has long been in the works, and also follows the April death of his wife, actress Helen McCrory.
Again, a lot to discuss from “No Direction Home,” but here are some of the important highlights: Chuck (Paul Giamatti) finally has Axe on the verge of arrest, only to be betrayed by Michael Prince (Corey Stoll), who strikes a deal to buy Axe Cap, the bank, and Taylor Mason Carbon; Wendy (Maggie Siff) and Axe’s romance ends before it starts as he flees to Switzerland; Dollar Bill (Kelly AuCoin) and Mafee (Dan Soder) walk out on the new administration, while Wendy, Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon), and Wags (David Costabile) are stuck working for Prince, who becomes Axe’s successor, both as a businessman and as Chuck’s target.
“I got rid of the guy in the chair… I’m the one sitting in it,” boasts Prince, literally taking Axe’s seat, to which Chuck responds, “Not for long, pal. Not for f–ing long.”
Thankfully, we won’t have to wait f—ing long to see what’s next, as Billions season 6 is set to premiere Jan 23, and the trailer can be seen below.
To tide you over until early next year, EW chatted with creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien about crafting Lewis’ exit, making Prince the new king, and looking ahead to the end.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I have to start with the most obvious question: Was that officially goodbye to Damian and Axe?
BRIAN KOPPELMAN: The goodbyes on Billions and the hellos on Billions are never permanent; nothing is etched in stone. But that said, Damian’s time as a regular on Billions has come to an end. The guy delivered for us in such an incredible way. What he did in making Bobby Axelrod an icon is really remarkable. Knowing the conditions in which he performed, traveling back and forth to England for years to be with his family, it’s impossible to imagine just how hard and focused that guy worked. We feel really honored and lucky to have had five years of being able to know that Damian Lewis was Bobby Axelrod. But, again, not saying it’s goodbye forever.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did we arrive at this point? Has this long been the plan, or is it a more recent call? Obviously, we know Damian and his family suffered a painful loss earlier this year.
KOPPELMAN: We started talking to Damian about it three years ago. And we’re incredibly sensitive to talking about… I mean, he lost his wife, who was a wonderful person and a great artist. But I would say for a variety of reasons we started talking to him three years ago and he expressed the thought that in all likelihood he would want to be spending more time with his family and really be more in England at the end of a certain period of time, and could we start planning Axe’s departure from being a regular on the show. It was amazing that he came to us that far in advance and trusted us with what was going on in his life and with what his thinking was so that we could do things like bring Mike Prince in and be really aware in the plotting and planning of season 5. And it also made us know, okay, here’s where season 4 needs to go to set up the events of season 5 so that we could do this at the end of it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: That is lucky because most shows don’t get that kind of notice when a star decides it’s time to take a step back. So, in the end, what made this the place you wanted to leave the character, at least for now?
DAVID LEVIEN: We wanted to make sure that we explored all of the areas where a character like this would go in his life. Whether it’s the privilege, the power, the frustrations. So we laid it out and had lots of discussions in the writers’ room about the outcomes that could land for a character like this. We also had a keen awareness of our audience, what they wanted, their expectations, and tried to figure out a way that we could both deliver on those things and not play into it in an obvious way, so that there were still surprises, and that everything made sense and had an eventuality to it on a character-level and a real world-level, but also was dramatic and exciting.
KOPPELMAN: Another part of the gift of being able to plan this for years was that we could have our antennas out for what was going on in the way people in the real world were crashing the narrative of this question of outsized wealth. And the way in which you couldn’t really have Axe himself try to re-language what it meant to be a billionaire, but we were able to find a new character in Mike Prince who could take on the language of the next evolution, meaning the next forward-facing evolution of the incredibly successful and powerful financial sector billionaire. And language it in terms of being a force for good. Bobby Axelrod would never even give lip service to this notion that he was amassing this wealth for anybody but himself and his family. Now you have people talking about the utility of money and how they can do good, and we wanted to put this question on the table of, is there such thing as a good billionaire, which we couldn’t ask that question with Axe, but we could really ask with Mike Prince.
LEVIEN: Axe sprang of a time when there was a huge amount of privacy around these hedge fund billionaires because they recognize how the culture could look at their wealth. But over the years, there became a new version of it that was much more public and interested in trying to express that they were creating a positive change in the world that went along with their wealth. It was a new narrative, so we were able to jump on that and the show evolved.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Before getting into Prince and wrapping up the Axe talk, I love that we got to see Chuck and Axe spar a few more times. It felt like the old days! For you guys, was it important to throw these two together as much as possible and put a little cap on that relationship?
KOPPELMAN: From the very beginning of the series, we’ve really tried to be specific about how frequently we would allow them to directly interact so that each time it would be like Ali-Frazier. So, in this season finale, we felt like we earned the first scene, which is sort of like the pre-fight padder at the weigh-in, with the microphones there for the public, and then we’d see the main event with the two of them really squaring off in that conference room.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I remember talking to Corey when we debuted the first look of him on the show, and he joked that there had been a couple opportunities in the past to join, but he’d been waiting on something a little juicier. He definitely got that with Prince! Did Corey know coming in that this was the plan for him and the character?
KOPPELMAN: He knew. Even when he had that convo with you, he knew.
LEVIEN: We wanted to work with Corey for years and years. We’d loved his work, and he’d come and done a table read for a movie of ours, and we thought he was incredible. And then, like you said, we talked to him about various opportunities to be on the show. He was hard to book because he was busy all the time. So often we would find little gaps in his schedule and come to him with something that was a little more limited in scope because we thought that he would have the time to do it. But those aren’t the characters that get to do the really meaty stuff. So we waited and bided our time and then really set this up so that he could have full banquet with this character.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do you anticipate the Chuck and Prince dynamic comparing and differing to what we’ve seen unfold through the years between Chuck and Axe?
KOPPELMAN: You did a really good job of framing that question, but we never give any kind of spoiler stuff like that. So I would just say Billions season 6 really does have all the stuff you love about the tone and ensemble and feel. It is a Billions season, but it is structured differently; it’s the next evolution of the show. But the characters are still set. All the characters still have their own needs, desires, wants, and those needs, desires, wants might very well come into conflict with other characters on the show.
LEVIEN: Brian used the word evolution and I would say that the characters evolved too, and Chuck’s strategy and toolkit has to evolve to deal with this new foe.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve long avoided “going there” with Wendy and Axe. So, even if Axe contends that they never really started it, why did you finally decide to steer in that direction? Especially knowing that Axe was about to be coming off the board.
KOPPELMAN: That’s something really important there, Derek, which is they never really do start it. That just felt like where the characters needed to go, which is to say everything. Departures are an incredible opportunity to say what’s unsaid. And it happened really organically. When we understood where Axe was going and the pressure Axe was going to be under and where Wendy was and what Chuck was going to do, it just seemed clear that there would be this moment that Wendy and Axe could look at each other and say the thing that they’ve wanted to say. For us, the reaction to it from the audience and the way they’ve grappled with the question has been perfect.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Wendy tells Taylor that they’ve basically become Axe on his worst day. You have Taylor really coming to grips with who they’ve become, and even advise new protégé Rian (Eva Victor) to run from the industry. What did you want to send Taylor through here in these last few episodes?
LEVIEN: Taylor is another one of the characters who’s evolving. If you look at a younger character like that on this continuum, who has this exposure to this increasing wealth, it’s about what that wealth can potentially do to a person and a character. Those are the forces that are buffeting Taylor and affecting that character that started in one place, perhaps more idealistic and younger in various ways, and now is really in it and grappling with what all that money and power does to an individual. They’re very much in it.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: We know Taylor and Wendy are almost stuck at what was known as Axe Cap, but you have Dollar Bill and Mafee quitting in favor of a team-up. Why were those the two that you decided to remove from the office? For comedy purposes alone, it seems like a winning move.
KOPPELMAN: A lot of this stuff is instinctive and just what feels right; it’s how we’ve written the whole show. You write this moment of Mike Prince coming in and saying, “I own all this,” and suddenly as you’re writing, it’s just like Dollar Bill’s like, “F— it, I’m out of here,” and Mafee is like, “Me too.” It’s, oh my God, of course.
LEVIEN: Dollar Bill was so bonded to Axe and Axe’s way of doing things that it really felt like he couldn’t stay. And Mafee had gone through other sorts of rapids between Taylor and Axe and his loyalties and leaving and coming back. Like Brian said, it just felt like the right thing that they should get in that elevator together.
KOPPELMAN: And then there are some great things that came out of that, right? Which is the audience gets to know that even though Dollar Bill and Mafee are not at Axe Capital, or what’s going to be Michael Prince Capital, they’re together somewhere in an office. And obviously, that creates lots of opportunities potentially for story.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I wouldn’t dare ask for a season 6 tease, but Ben Kim (Daniel K. Isaac) saying it feels like we’re at the end made me wonder if you’ve mapped out the endgame for the show and when that would come into play. Or will it be more based on instinct in the moment?
KOPPELMAN: We do understand the way in which we will eventually end the show. But we’re not there yet. And we think that this whole situation presents the opportunity for a lot of storytelling that’s compelling to us. We’re still completely engaged with these characters and this story and this world. And so while we know what the end game would be, we don’t feel like we’re there right now.
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