The Art of the Long Con
by Miles Surrey | The Ringers | October 30, 2023
Showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien sat down to discuss the series finale, the art of the long con, and the public’s changing perspective on billionaires.
Throughout the course of Billions, characters have conspired to take down their enemies with comically elaborate schemes. It’s only natural, then, that the series finale, “Admirals Fund,” hinges on one last con. With self-made billionaire Mike Prince (Corey Stoll) shaping up to be the next POTUS, longtime adversaries Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) work together to take away the one thing that legitimizes Prince’s candidacy: his wealth.
As Prince goes to meet with the current (albeit unnamed) president at Camp David—a tacit acknowledgement that he’s the front-runner in the upcoming election—Chuck and Axe set about orchestrating his downfall. At the Southern District of New York’s offices, Chuck tells his staff that they’re now investigating six of the United States’ largest national gas companies for potential collusion with China, Russia, and Iran. Meanwhile, Philip Charyn (Toney Goins), who has the final say on all trades at Michael Prince Capital and has secretly soured on his boss, goes about putting all of the company’s funds into the natural gas sector. Once the SDNY’s investigation is leaked to the press as Chuck intended, the stocks crater and MPC’s risk-management algorithm sells all of the natural gas positions once they become worthless. (Since Prince doesn’t have access to his phone at Camp David, he’s oblivious to all of this going down.) By the time Chuck holds a press conference announcing that the investigation amounted to nothing but hearsay—thereby allowing the natural gas stocks to rebound—Prince’s entire portfolio has been wiped out. As for Axe, he ensures that his former Axe Capital employees are spared from the carnage by siphoning their money into a secret internal fund. In one fell swoop, Prince loses his throne.
With that, Billions arrives at its own version of a happy ending: Chuck reclaims his dream job at SDNY, Axe revives his hedge fund, Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) embraces a new challenge as the CEO of a telehealth company, and Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon) leaves the world of finance for philanthropy. (While Prince’s company is destroyed and his presidential aspirations are extinguished, his consolation prize is the $100 million he tucked away at Black-owned banks to secure Killer Mike’s endorsement.) Still, even as Billions ends, it’s hard to imagine these characters ever winding down—in the spirit of the show’s innumerable pop culture references, the action is the juice.
Of course, the world of Billions isn’t going anywhere: as Showtime announced earlier this year, as many as four spinoffs are in development. (The working titles for two of these projects: Millions and Trillions; I’m not kidding.) With the Writers Guild of America strike only just ending—and the Screen Actors Guild still negotiating with studios—there haven’t been any meaningful updates on these spinoffs. But for the time being, series cocreators Brian Koppelman and David Levien are more than happy to break down all things Billions. Below, we discuss the challenge of ending a show with such a deep ensemble, what goes into executing a long con, and the celebrity cameos that could have been.
Good to see you guys again. Brian, I haven’t seen you since you kicked my ass in tennis, but I’ve been trying to work on my game since.
Brian Koppelman: Yeah, how’s that been going, man?
Actually, it’s been going well. I won a tournament in Brooklyn last month, but it felt very fluky. It didn’t have any heavy hitters in the draw.
Koppelman: All deep respect to you, but I’m not optimistic about your chances against me.
[Laughs] Fair enough. First of all, congrats on the finale. When you guys started Billions, did you already have an idea of how long the series would go on for, or were you taking it season by season and assessing after that?
Brian Koppelman: I think the only way one can think about this is: Do you think at the beginning of something like this, it sets up to be the kind of story you could tell over a long period of time? Do the characters have enough of a charge in them, and does the world suggest the possibility for enough conflict and story and resonance to the society that you’re living in? For us, the answers to those questions were yes, and so it was like, well, let’s try. Each season, you empty the clip. Each season, you try to tell the absolute best story you can—you don’t save ideas. That’s what David Chase said, and that’s what Matt Weiner said, and that was our approach. But we did it weirdly, we had the first three seasons and we knew, if we can do it—
David Levien: The broad strokes were mapped out.
Koppelman: So then as you’re doing that, you start to think, OK, two more seasons out, and two more seasons out. In a way, yes, we certainly never felt like more than seven seasons was the right answer. At a certain point, Billions watchers were not casual fans. They were people who watched the show more than once and really invested in the canted world that these characters live in. Getting that kind of response, knowing that if we had a character have an odd enthusiasm or interesting reverence, that there were a lot of people out there to catch what we were throwing, that really does act as fuel.
With a show like this, what’s the biggest challenge in landing the plane? My mind goes straight to just how loaded and talented the ensemble is, and trying to give every character a worthy sendoff.
Levien: Yeah, that was a big part of it. We wanted to have a good resolution for so many different characters. Over the course of the final season, we wanted to revisit tons of guest stars, and then for the core group, we had a good amount of people that needed a moment. Also, a lot of different pairings of people that needed to have resolution. It was a question of balancing that valedictory stuff with wrapping up the plot in an exciting way, so that you weren’t sitting there, having stopped moving, basically for the goodbyes. That’s what we spent the most time on: balancing in the final episode how to unfurl the big plot moves, and filtering in all of the more emotional stuff.
The public perception of billionaires has evolved quite a bit since the start of the series—there’s more scrutiny, and even animosity. Did that affect not just your approach to the series, but how you introduced a new foil like Mike Prince?
Levien: Yeah, I mean that totally informed it. When we started, we were very focused on these hedge fund billionaires who really didn’t like to be in the spotlight, and they didn’t really advertise that they were building anything for the good of humanity. They all generally did some philanthropy, but even that wasn’t super public. But then after a couple of years as we were into it, we started to realize that there was this new kind of a billionaire who maybe came from venture capital, or was an inventor, or in private equity or something, and they were bringing these ideas to benefit mankind and help everybody.
Koppleman: But putting air quotes around [benefiting mankind], we didn’t find that credible.
Levien: Maybe they tried, but the idea that by virtue of all the success, they had all the answers in every field, and that politics was a natural extension of that. So yeah, Mike Prince got introduced as this wonderful guy who had all the answers and didn’t even show you that he was competitive. Because he was so warm and cuddly, like a cuddly monster as he calls himself. But then as you spend more time with him, you start to see the darker hues that everybody gets alarmed by.
Koppelman: But also, Miles, your question is interesting because it comes from a very particular point of view—of geography, age, profession. In fact, it’s not true, right? It’s true in the microcosm, it’s completely not true in the macro. I mean, look at Shark Tank and Mark Cuban in the world, and yes, one may decry Elon [Musk], but just go online today and say something bad about him.
It’s interesting that you asked the question. I would ask you to actually probe that because you stated it like it’s a fact, but it’s a fact for a group of people who feel a certain way. Perhaps we’re in that group of people with you, who have a jaundiced eye toward that kind of power. But one of the things we learned in making the show was that in our minds, Axe was never the hero of the show. From Episode 6 of the first season on, we slowly reveal that Axe is essentially the kind of utilitarian who would let a guy die for a little more money and security. And we were shocked that the audience loved him even more.
Levien: They thought he was a badass for that.
Koppelman: We were revealing that, yes, this guy’s charming and powerful and charismatic and has great verbal skills and is a winner. But you—us—should regard him with huge amounts of suspicion, and a huge amount of awareness for the destructive power that’s on the flip side of all the gifts. At the same time, that’s when the country elects Trump—at the end of the first season, that’s when that happened. We were watching the culture in a wrestling match about this question. Perhaps for you it’s settled, but I don’t think it’s settled for most of America.
I guess I would counter that with the guild strikes. Obviously, it’s more specific to our industry, but the last time the writers were on strike, there wasn’t as much public support for it. When you lay out the facts for people, fewer will side with the studios and these wealthy executives. We don’t have to get into all that, and maybe it’s not a true consensus, but I feel like—
Koppelman: That’s the media. I mean, fans of the show couldn’t help getting some kind of wish fulfillment thing going with Axe.
It’s like Tony Soprano or Walter White. People might not get the right message from it. They might just idolize these people.
Koppelman: I’m really interested in what we’re going to discover about these kinds of people. I understand why we all would decry them. I’m really interested in why they’re effective so we can learn from it as a society. It’s fascinating to explore it, for me, with curiosity.
Diving into the finale—hopefully it goes without saying that this is a compliment—but seeing all the characters and the way they orchestrated Prince’s downfall, it almost felt like something out of an Ocean’s movie. These long cons—and seeing how all the pieces fall into place—have been one of the show’s biggest calling cards. As the creative architects behind these moments, what goes into making a long con and executing it well?
Koppelman: Imperfect information.
Levien: To the audience.
Koppelman: Right. The thing that makes someone good at poker is understanding how to look at imperfect information, and if you’re telling a story, it’s how to distribute information with holes in it that might lead somebody a certain way. You know, it’s this old [Quentin] Tarantino thing, where he talked about the challenge of audiences being so sophisticated. They’ve ridden the roller coaster so many times that they start leaning left before the roller coaster banks left. Quentin’s point is that, as a creator, you have to find a way to get them leaning left and then whip right.
One thing that struck me this season was the emphasis on self-improvement from the characters. For instance, Chuck chose to help Ira with the cellphone sex tape scandal instead of throwing him under the bus. Characters didn’t necessarily change who they were as much as becoming better versions of themselves. What inspired that shift?
Levien: There has to be some kind of evolution. For some characters, they can change more. Taylor can take a stride and finally deploy money in a way that’s going to be philanthropic. For someone like Chuck, he’s not going to change completely elementally, but he can still take steps—small steps. That reflected a reality to us and yet it stayed true to his character.
It’s an interesting contrast to Prince. The other characters are willing to acknowledge their flaws and work on them, whereas Prince can only choose to believe that he’s a righteous person.
Levien: That’s something that we were working with, which is that the main characters ultimately looked at who they were and knew who they were. He was the one guy who was in denial, and that was his fatal flaw.
The characters on Billions have been driven by constant schemes to acquire more power or money—or both—and it’s hard to imagine that stopping just because the show is ending. Have you put any thought into where you see characters like Axe, Chuck, Taylor, and Wendy in five or 10 years?
Koppelman: It’s real intentional what Axe’s last lines are. We don’t really talk in terms of statements we’re trying to make. But he’s someone with all those options in life, all those tools, all that money, all that ability to buy freedom, to have freedom. Yet the only place that he feels really alive is talking to this group of mostly men and saying, “Let’s make some fucking money.” There is something about that that we wanted to leave you with, and have you think about. We hope you’ll consider why that made you feel the way it made you feel.
We watched [the finale] in a theater recently and [the audience] was cheering [for Axe], and it’s like, well, why? What are you cheering for, exactly? We’re really interested in that question.
One of the joys of Billions is seeing all the celebrity cameos, and this season you got the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Triple H, and Killer Mike. Are there any celebrities at the top of the wishlist who didn’t appear on the show?
Koppelman: Tiger Woods was the only clean turndown. With Tiger, there was nothing we could do. [Woods’s longtime agent Mark Steinberg] just wrote back, “No.” We know from someone that Tiger watches the show and he likes the show. But the answer was no. There is one heartbreak, and we haven’t said this to anyone, but we were really close to getting the great Steve Harvey on our show.
Levien: He was extremely difficult to get to. Even considering all the people that we got, he was the toughest.
Koppelman: We had a really special thing we’d written for Steve Harvey and we could never quite make it. Sadly, there was a scheduling snafu and he was on a Zoom that we didn’t know about, waiting for us. And you do not make a man like Steve Harvey wait. It’s crushing to us—we hope that whatever we do next, we can find a way to get Mr. Harvey to show up just one day. One day with Mr. Harvey and my entire life would be better.
Showtime already told me that you don’t have any updates on the Billions spinoffs. Instead, I’ve got a pitch for you guys: I’m thinking Maestro Scooter at the New York Philharmonic going full Lydia Tar.
Levien: When Scooter gets the baton in his hand, he starts to become a driven maniac.
Koppelman: I think you’ll understand, Miles, that under normal circumstances, of course we would welcome you into the writers room. But we can’t poach from Bill Simmons, and that’s the only reason. Otherwise, we would tell you to create that for us under our umbrella. But we have to close that umbrella because we’re under Bill’s umbrella. (Editor’s note: Koppelman and Levien hosted a Billions podcast with The Ringer during Season 5.)
Of course, the separation of church and state. I understand. I just wanted to throw it out there, and obviously you’ll be hearing from my lawyers if Maestro Scooter does happen.
Koppelman: I feel if you write this without acknowledging the tennis loss, you’re not including your bias in the piece.
Levien: It’s going to be one of those profile-y things where it’s like, “Koppelman likes to bully about his tennis.”
Wow, you had to bring up the loss again.
Koppelman: I think of it as a win.
Read the rest of the original article at The Ringer