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Billions Was a More Fascinating Show in Its Second Half

Episode 112
Damian Lewis as Bobby “Axe” Axelrod.

Showtime’s drama Billions, which ended its first season on Sunday, is better than I thought it was — not great, but good, and much more compelling in the second half of its run than it was during the first. In fact, it’s a fine example of one of the conundrums faced by the creators of serialized narratives: You have more time to tell a story, or more iterations of the same story, but the audience might prefer that you just get to the point and wrap things up. That’s vexing for the more ambitious writers and producers in TV, who want to give viewers not just an involving experience, but an evolving one. Sometimes they want to, or have to, give viewers one kind of series before flipping the premise over or introducing a new wrinkle that changes your perception of what you’re watching. Other times it means trying out different modes until you find the one that works best — practice makes perfect — and that can take several weeks, or a season, though hopefully not more than that. But if you do any combination of those things, and viewers don’t like the first incarnation of the show, they might not come back, because there are a lot of options now. I’ve bailed on shows early and will continue to do so, knowing that sometimes I’ll look like a smart guy who called it correctly early on, and other times I’ll end up binge-watching nine or ten episodes in a weekend to prepare for the series finale that seemingly everyone in the critical community is writing about.

It’s tricky. Like a lot of TV watchers in this age of Peak TV, in which you could clone yourself ten times and still not to be able to watch every halfway interesting program in its entirety, I just can’t commit to everything. It’s not possible. So you make choices — hopefully informed ones, but often gut calls. I committed to the new Starz series The Girlfriend Experience (which, coincidentally, is loosely based on a 2009 movie written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who co-created Billions with financial writer Andrew Ross Sorkin) because the filmmakers associated with it are known as restless experimenters. It seemed unlikely to me that they were going to keep striking the same notes they hit in the first three or four episodes indefinitely — and they don’t; the show morphs again and again after its midpoint, settling into a finale that’s unlike anything I’ve seen. So: time well spent. I never committed to Togetherness, however, and now that it’s been canceled after two seasons, I might wait a while to catch up with the episodes I’ve missed; I liked the characters but could never get a handle on what the show was trying to say about them, or about modern romance and narcissism generally (topics Catastrophe and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tackle with more sophistication and surprise). I committed to The Walking Dead and Glee right away because I love zombie movies and musicals, respectively (and wouldn’t it be amazing if a current series scratched both itches?), but I broke up with both because the quality was so erratic. You all have your own examples, so you know what I mean.

I bailed on Billions after the fourth episode. I’ve liked Koppelman and Levien’s other work (which includes the film Solitary Man and the screenplay to Rounders) but this story about a Spy vs. Spy-type rivalry between billionaire investment wizard Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and crusading U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, Jr. (Paul Giamatti) didn’t hook me. It felt very 2005: tediously male in its casting, too enamored with the lifestyle it theoretically criticized, too dependent on hype-filled dialogue in which characters tell us what they’ve done and what they’re going to do to other characters. A couple of key character details didn’t sit right, including Chuck’s secret life of S&M with his wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), and the fact that Wendy worked as a sort of personal corporate therapist for Bobby’s staff (which introduced a running conflict-of-interest element into the scripts that often felt strained), and Bobby’s Ruthless Nice Guy aura, built around his fundraising for deceased colleagues of his old firm, which was wiped out in the 9/11 attacks while he was away from the office. (I doubt anyone’s done a study, but by now Hollywood’s fictional character 9/11 death total probably exceeds the real thing by a factor of ten.) On top of those issues — and I admit this isn’t fair to the series — I’m tired of watching rich white guys moving money around and barking threats at each other and occasionally pausing to take yachting trips or pick up sex workers.

Nevertheless, at the urging of friends, including this site’s Billions’ recapper Brian Tallerico, I caught up with the series over the weekend. I was (mostly) glad I did, although my conclusions about season one may not please the people who make it: Billions is still not a great show, but it is a reasonably intelligent and ambitious one, and much more fascinating in its second half than in its first.

And I’ll concede that a lot of what’s good in the second half comes from seeds planted in the first: There were times during those first few episodes when Billions seemed to be rubbing our collective noses in the privilege and arrogance of these Wall Street guys. HBO’s Vinyl does a version of this with record-industry executives in the 1970s, but with a kinky nihilistic undertone. It’s the only current drama that enthusiastically invites you to root for its main characters to destroy themselves; the incrementally collapsing nightclub in the pilot is the operative metaphor for the entire show, in that you want things to get worse. Billions, in contrast, is slyer, withholding obvious criticism of its main characters, at times even seeming to want you to think, Ah, the rich and powerful — they’re exactly like you and me, they just have money and power. But all that goes away once you get to know the characters and the show a bit better. The facades get peeled off, revealing the faces of people who are terrified of being exposed for who they are and having their comfort taken away. (If you’ve read this far and haven’t finished season one, you should skip the next five paragraphs, which contain major spoilers.)

Chuck and Wendy’s sex life was introduced in the first scene of the pilot in what seemed like a clichéd premium cable-edgy opener (Wendy stubbing out a cigarette on Chuck’s bare chest and peeing on the wound). But as Billions unfolded, it made their sex life integral to the series and to our understanding of their marriage, which was woven around an excitingly unstable mix of danger and trust. (Wendy was on the inside of Bobby’s company, and in fact had known him for longer than she’d known Chuck.) The moment where Chuck visits a dominatrix without asking Wendy first, then uses their safe word much more quickly than usual because he feels guilty for going behind her back, is one of TV’s more sophisticated depictions of sexual practices that are more often trotted out for alleged shock value or easy laughs. At first I thought Chuck looked at Wendy and Bobby talking on that bridge and assumed they were having an affair, but now I don’t think that’s remotely what the moment was about; it was more about the lack of intimacy that Chuck experienced with Wendy at that fraught stage in their relationship, and maybe the idea that she was getting something out of her relationship with Bobby that she wasn’t getting from Chuck.

Wendy and Chuck’s sex life was one of many aspects of Billions that deepened over time. The show also showed us that Bobby, rather than being a working-class hero who also happened to be a business genius, was somewhat resented or distrusted by people in his community because he’d risen so high and moved so far away from them, geographically and emotionally. There’s a touch of Jay Gatsby to the character — not just in the reinvention aspect, or in the fact that Bobby’s fortune is built on a kind of crime (more on that in a moment), but in how Bobby embraces signifiers of super-wealth in large part because they are signifiers, assuring him that he’s not that outer-borough nobody anymore. (This is all mixed up with his childhood abandonment issues as well, and Billions was wise not to spell these out too explicitly, just as it’s wise not to underline Chuck’s resentment of his investor father, who he’s symbolically destroying by going after Bobby, and in the process, spying on his own wife and stealing her private records.)

The writing and direction of the episodes get across the idea that ethical behavior isn’t either/or — that there’s a continuum, with utter scrupulousness on one end and sociopathic indifference on the other, and people slide along it depending on what’s happening in their lives and what they want to achieve, possess, protect, or save. Season one’s best exchange is the long one between Wendy and Bobby, where they spend all night picking over that long con involving a terminally ill employee that Bobby used to torpedo federal investigators’ case against him. He worries that he could’ve just insisted on medical treatment for the employee and extended his life for a few months instead of using him to protect his business. Then he asks her if he’s a sociopath. While cautioning him that he’s “self-sabotaging,” she reassures him that no one who was truly concerned about being a sociopath could actually be one, then warns him that he has the ability to turn his emotions on and off as needed, which means he’s in a sociopathy danger zone. His behavior on 9/11 suggests this has always been an issue for him. He tells outraged relatives, colleagues, and firefighters that he saw the first plane hit the towers and realized he had to do something to provide for the families; although the show doesn’t entirely rule this possibility out, it seems more likely that he was just behaving instinctively, looking for an opportunity to make money on a day when almost anyone else would have other things on their minds. (The scene where Bobby figures out who sent the video of the punch-out at the pool by remembering the position of everyone who was there is a great reminder of how the character got to where he is: by paying attention to details even when he’s at his most emotional.)

If Billions were as consistently excellent throughout as it was in these moments, it would be one of the best dramas on the air. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of air in the plotting, a lot of subplots that just aren’t compelling (I don’t care about who’s sleeping with whom in the various offices — not on this show; I’d rather spend more time watching David Costabile’s fixer, Wags, talk to Bobby about money). There are too many moments where the storytelling seems to reboot itself to fill out an allotted 12 episodes, and too many moments where the actors and the scene have done a fine job of getting a point across but the dialogue still feels compelled to sum up for us. And as increasingly finely detailed as Bobby’s character is, something about Damian Lewis’s performance still isn’t doing it for me. He’s very believable as a straight-up decent guy or a tortured soul, but I’ve never found him credible as a working-class East Coast guy or as a man who made billions by being off-the-cuff charming, and a financial savant, too. (I don’t know whom I’d believe in that role — Jon Bernthal, probably.)  Right now the best I can say about him is that he’s doing a heroic job of overcoming seeming miscast.

And as strong as that final showdown between Bobby and Chuck was, it arrived six episodes too late. I am more intrigued by these main characters now than I was 12 TV hours ago, but I’m not sure that I want to spend another 12 hours in their company; the realization that their battle royale was only just warmed up was probably meant to be elating but came across as deflating. It made Billions seem as if it had fallen prey to the most persistent curse of serialized TV: the tendency to mistake running in place for a journey.

Billions Was a Better Show in Its Second Half