Welcome to the world of Billions, where there's no gray area between friends and enemies. Showtime's latest examination of the white-male psyche stars award-winners Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis, ably assisted by a well-cast ensemble. Though it's more soap opera than insightful Wall Street commentary, Billions can be a promising roller-coaster of cutthroat egos if you approach it with the right attitude. It's got the potential to become a show like House of Cards or Damages: It requires a high suspension of disbelief, but rewards viewers with magnetic performances and film-caliber production values.
When we first meet U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Giamatti), he's tied up and being "treated" by a dominatrix. With her high-heeled boot on his chest, she burns his skin with a cigarette, then squats over him to "fix it" with urine. As Rhoades closes his eyes in ecstasy, we cut to shots of the New York City skyline. The show's boundary-pushing tone is set.
Cut to Rhoades in his office, as he talks on the phone about his influence with the attorney general. (He might as well be wearing a shirt that says, "I'm a VIP!") After the call, Rhoades is interrupted by Ari Spyros (Stephen Kunken), an SEC investigator, who brings news of a suspicious trading pattern. As Rhoades's partner-in-law, Bryan (Toby Leonard Moore), notes, this seems like the kind of ping the SEC gets everyday. But there's a big red flag: Three small firms knew exactly when to buy and sell — and all three have ties to Bobby "Axe" Axelrod (Lewis), a powerful hedge-fund billionaire. Spyros wants to go after him, but Rhoades isn't convinced.
We meet Bobby as he's dining on a slice with his wife Laura (Malin Akerman). He practically lived at the pizza place when he was a kid — he's the kind of guy who doesn't forget where he grew up, or the people who helped him along the way. (He's even willing to invest in a pizza place to help an old friend.) Is there something darker under that smile, though? Lewis is already playing him with a malevolent edge. In the following scene at Axe Capital, we get a bit more character definition: He's clearly the smartest man in any room. His intelligence won't be his downfall — but his ego is certainly a weakness.
Then we see Bobby in the bathroom, steeling himself for something. He gives a speech about 9/11, revealing that Axe Capital pays the tuition for 26 students whose parents worked with Axelrod on the day of the attacks. He was the only survivor; all of his partners were killed when the towers collapsed. Are these tuition payments an act of generosity? Are they a result of survivor's guilt? Does he simply want to generate good publicity? We just don't know yet.
Bobby could be a survivor in a dangerous world, a guy who transformed his random luck into success. We learn he wasn't in the office on 9/11. Was he up to something less-than-charitable? Was he supposed to be there? We also learn that Laura's brother, Dean, died in the towers. During her husband's speech, Laura threatens a 9/11 widow who speaks out; the couple clearly shares the same killer instinct. Don't mess with the Axelrods.
On cue, Rhoades schools Bryan about why it's not the right time to take down Axelrod, the so-called "Mike Tyson" of insider trading. He's simply too powerful. Unfortunately, the scene feels very scripted: It suggests that the investigation is a game of "three-dimensional chess," while several lines compare Bobby to Tyson and a "fresh bull." People don't talk like that. Anyway, Rhoades won't launch an investigation until he knows he can win. When he hears that Bobby may buy an $83 million home, he sees an opportunity — the mansion will cement Axelrod's reputation as "the one percent."
In my favorite scene of the episode, we meet Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff). She's the "Dr. Mojo" of Axe Capital, whose job lies somewhere between therapy and motivational speaking. When an employee asks for Prozac, she gives him a pep talk instead: "You don't need meds, you're just listening to the wrong voice." She's the shark whisperer. Siff is fantastic in this scene, and it's such a clever concept for a character. By the end of her speech, I was ready to start selling junk collateralized debt.
Next, we get a glimpse of Wendy and Chuck's home life. It turns out a U.S. Attorney doesn't co-exist so easily with the emotional leader of a hedge fund. Who would've guessed? Chuck asks Wendy if she's happy at her job, and she smells what he's pushing. If he's going to go after Bobby, she needs to ditch Axe Capital. Wendy has been at the firm for years, though — her job predates their marriage — and she earns eight times his salary. Also, she asks, why is his job more important than hers? The couple ends the scene happily enough, but this formative character moment doesn't necessarily bode well for the future.
The scene at the Rhoades's house is one of the episode's best, but the following one at the Axelrod home, a study in contrasts, feels too scripted. We meet the Axelrod boys, who are quizzed on U.S. history during dinner. Dad is already teaching them to play mind games with each other. The dinner scene is overwritten and poorly constructed, with one important moment of symbolism to come: We learn that the family dog, Elmo, is about to be fixed.
Rhoades goes to a leniency meeting for Skip (Robert LuPone), an old family friend facing a prison sentence. He's shocked to run into his father, Chuck Sr. (the always-great Jeffrey DeMunn), who comes to the meeting to support Skip. Junior loses it: This is a conflict of interest, and the ploy won't help their friend land an easier sentence. Skip did something wrong, plain and simple, and Chuck Jr. will not allow his crime to go unpunished. He reminds Chuck Sr. what he once told him: "Mercy is a word that pussies used when they couldn't take the pain."
Back to Bobby. As he watches his kids play basketball, his consigliere Mike Wagner (David Costabile), asks him to settle a dispute between two employees. Should they stay long or sell short on Superior Auto? He looks at one of them, then asks, "What's your level of certainty?" We cut to an exchange of money for insider information. The employee's response — "I am not uncertain" — is clearly a code.
Meanwhile, as Rhoades gives a speech after a police raid, he's confronted by a journalist who wants to know why he isn't going after Axelrod. He realizes that the reporter is a plant from Spyros, who's pressuring him to prosecute Bobby. Rhoades calls Spyros and gives him the Full Giamatti, threatening to "unleash holy fucking hell" if he pulls the trick again.
At Axe Capital, Bobby is still thinking about buying the house. Wendy warns him that it's an impulse purchase. Bobby agrees, but can't help himself: "If I do it, it will unleash the hounds, which makes me want it even more." Wendy brings up the idea of quitting, and he practically begs her not to leave. Axelrod Capital needs her in ways that her husband does not, which should set up an interesting dynamic as the season progresses.
As the pressure builds, Bobby has a couple of crucial interactions. First, he meets with Hall (Terry Kinney), his Deep Throat on the inside. Hall has discovered that somebody flipped, which could make things difficult for Axe Capital. He advises Bobby to control Spyros's journalist; if they turn him into a friend, he could be valuable. No matter what, though, Bobby will have to throw someone under the bus to get the SEC off his back. Hall gives Bobby a name, a photo, and a trade: Whoever "Steven Birch" is, he's about to take the fall.
Then, Bobby meets with the journalist at a closed restaurant. After feeling out the guy's loyalties, he tosses him the Steven Birch story. It's a cold-blooded move; in the next scene, he's sharing a stage with Birch. As Birch quotes A Few Good Men, Bobby stares daggers at Rhoades, who's sitting in the audience.
In the great scene that follows, Bobby and Rhoades go at it. The two lead actors are finally onscreen together. Rhoades plays mind games by bringing up the mansion. Bobby volleys back with a barb about "daddy," then adds a terrific line: "What's the point of having fuck-you money if you never say fuck you?" Rhoades talks about his powerful position; Bobby tells him he can't afford a loss. Then Rhoades punches hard, accusing him of "working that 9/11 shit." This is Bobby's weak point. Rhoades gets the last word: "They may be cheering now, but believe me, they are dying to boo."
Bobby learns there's a counteroffer on the house, just as the final straw lands — his fixed dog has been reduced to a sleeping blob. He'll be damned if he lets Rhoades fix him too. He decides to buy the mansion. Let the pissing contest begin. The episode ends with Bobby in his new house, as Hall calls with news that a case has been opened against Axe Capital.
Also: Remember the woman from the opening scene? The one with the knee-high boots? It was Wendy. Ah, Showtime.
- This show's costume budget has to be enormous — just look at Bobby's finely-tailored suits. It may seem like a small detail, but it's the kind that matters to a show like Billions. These characters need to look filthy rich, and they do.
- I wish there weren't so many lines about sharks, boxers, bulls, Navy SEALs, etc. It'd be great if the dialogue were more realistic, but we may just have to embrace the soapy elements of this show to enjoy it.
- Why didn't Siff have this energy on Sons of Anarchy? She was often flat and bland there, but she's fantastic in this premiere.
- Does anyone else think Billions might be better suited to a network like FX? The 59-minute premiere felt a bit too long to me. I'd like to see a tight, 45-minute version of it.
- Trivia: This pilot reunites director Neil Burger with Giamatti, who worked together on The Illusionist.