This Season is For People Who Really Loved the Show
by Greg Braxton | LA Times | October 27, 2023
When the propulsive financial drama “Billions” premiered in 2016, its core premise centered on the vicious blood feud between U.S Atty. Chuck Rhoades and billionaire hedge fund king Bobby “Axe” Axelrod. The hatred between the two men was so fierce it was almost assured that only one man would be left standing at the end.
But the climactic moment of the series finale showcased a warm handshake between Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and Axelrod (Damian Lewis) as they reflected how their vicious duel had radically changed them both and made them better men.
The moment was unexpected but also inevitable. The former foes had joined forces this final season to combat their common enemy — Michael “Mike” Prince (Corey Stoll), a billionaire who was not as brash as Axelrod but who unveiled a sinister hunger for power as he launched his candidacy to become president.
The complicated plot by Rhoades and Axelrod to take down Prince was flavored by the head-spinning double-and triple-crosses that have made “Billions” one of Showtime’s biggest hits. Highlighting the final season was the return of Lewis, who left the show at the end of the fifth season to spend more time with his family in England. His wife, actor Helen McCrory, died of cancer in April 2021.
Executive producers Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who created the show with financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, discussed that final handshake, Lewis’ return and whether Prince was a variation of former President Donald Trump. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
When the series premiered, it seemed to be leaning toward who would get destroyed first — Rhoades or Axelrod. Did you know at that time how the drama would eventually end?
Levien: I would love to say that when we started the show that we knew where it was going to end, seven seasons and 84 episodes later. But we just didn’t have that kind of master plan.
Koppelman: We didn’t know the Mike Prince part in the beginning. But what we did know was that we wanted to keep our eyes open and our ears open, so that as the show went on, we would still understand the mores of how people in the stride of the show mythologized themselves. We have a new kind of billionaire, [one] who wants to present themselves as having concerns for the holistic nature of the world and the harm that money can do. That new rhetoric was quite different from Axe. There was a scene where Axe says, “Come on, guys like us are monsters.” And Prince says, “Well, but I’m a cuddly monster.” Anyone who tells you they’re cuddly monsters is not, right? Once we had that piece in there. we understood then the kind of ending we might be marching toward.
Levien: Damian Lewis left the show for a little while because of some difficult circumstances in his life. But then, when he was able to come back, it gave us a chance to have a fresh attack on this ending.
Koppelman: The character Mike Prince really breathed life into us. We’re seeing these characters who think they are better Caesars. We wanted to continue the story about them. When we realized we could have Bobby Axelrod come back, it allowed us to set up an ending for obsessive “Billions” fans to build something satisfying.
Still, it’s probably startling for fans to see Rhoades and Axe shaking hands at the end.
Levien: Yes, they come to a place of grudging mutual respect. There was a more dangerous enemy that seemed to threaten the well-being of everybody on the planet. That was something that could unify them temporarily. After that, they say they are going to go back to doing what they do. All bets are off. So it’s possible they will find themselves at odds again.
Koppelman: One thing we discovered as we were going is that there was a truism about them early on — each of them had reason to be revealed onto themselves, and to not lie to themselves. In Prince, they both saw someone who perhaps lied to himself in the mythologizing. So maybe Bobby and Axe saw in each other something slightly more pure.
It was a nice touch to reference Blind Faith, the supergroup fronted by Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton that recorded one album and then had a big breakup.
Koppelman: Yes. This idea that people of diverse talents can come together and create something meaningful, recognize that, and then go their separate ways — that felt real and true for us. We felt we earned that particular handshake.
Is the Mike Prince character your commentary on Donald Trump?
Koppelman: I don’t think it’s for us to say. We put it out there. We let Mike Prince articulate why he thinks he should be the leader of the free world and the rest of the world. He talks about his unique capacity to be the one person who knows when to first strike with nukes. None of it strains credulity. It’s for the viewers to figure out whether it rings of stuff that is in the current world.
Did you know that Damian Lewis would come back for the final season?
Koppelman: He did tell us before he left that he would come back for the final season, whenever that was, but it was unspecified how many episodes. The opportunity to have him for half a season was just awesome.
This season also saw the return of some great “Billions” villains, including John Malkovich as crafty Russian oligarch Grigor Andolov and Clancy Brown as U.S. Atty. Gen. Waylon Jeffcoat.
Levien: We wanted to make this season for people who really loved the show, and for ourselves. We wanted to see these characters that we had in our hearts one more time.
The other element that evolved was how the series also had this ensemble cast of outrageous and wacky characters who worked at the hedge fund.
Levien: We had such a deep bench of great actors. Each one of them would take a character that didn’t have a lot of real estate and make them indelible in a short amount of time.
So what’s next? I know it’s hard to say now. But in a perfect world, will there be more of the “Billions” universe?
Koppelman: This kind of world and these kinds of characters — very capable people who think they have all the answers and who might overestimate that capability, gamblers who put it all on the line — they fascinate us. That’s the area that we’re drawn to, and I’m sure we’ll continue working in it in some way.
Levien: It’s been an incredible experience doing this show. It’s been the most singular run of our entire career. An amazing ride.
Koppelman: We never took it for granted for a second.
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