Showtime’s new series “Billions” doesn’t quite match the spectacular parade of excess in “The Wolf of Wall Street.” But it also isn’t the harrowing look at the 2008 economic collapse and corruption of big banks cynically dissected by “The Big Short.” It’s the story of powerful U.S. District Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti, “Love & Mercy”) and his mission to take down hedge fund giant Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis, “Homeland”). The showdown between corruption and justice isn’t as simple as we’d like to believe it is, and “Billions” goes to great lengths to demonstrate this theme.
If you are an advocate of justice and hate the “one percent,” then the show expects you to root for Chuck in his relentless pursuit of Axe and his financial empire. However, in the show’s opening Chuck is introduced bound and powerless (consensually, we assume), under a mysterious figure dressed in dominatrix attire. The unsettling details of this short, yet repellant scene don’t bear mentioning. But its role in characterizing Chuck, the supposed hero of this series, is significant and necessitates discussion. Why show the formidable pinnacle of justice, U.S. attorney, husband and father of two getting sexually dominated within the first 30 seconds of the premiere? Pure shock value?
What’s more, this introduction is followed by Rhoades’s Assistant U.S. Attorney Kate (Condola Rashad, “Master of None”) lecturing an office newcomer about having to “be beyond reproach.” These words linger as, for the first time in the episode, Rhoades is revealed to be none other than the New York U.S. District Attorney. The stark contradiction between the two images of Rhoades is the first of many ploys to subtly build tension throughout the episode that instead result in lukewarm uneasiness. No one wants to see a middle-aged man (particularly one with clout) getting kinky.
The most contrived part of the plot is the role Axe’s wife Lara (Malin Akerman, “Watchmen”) plays. The girl from a poor New York Irish family turned billionaire’s wife – poised, yet retaining a tough edge –– is like a shoe that fits half a size too big on Akerman, adding little depth to her character. When a former partner’s wife embarrasses Axe in front of his employees, Lara’s thinly veiled threat lacks the punch it tries to deliver. She only serves as an accessory to Axe’s character –– another strand in the unravelling rope of his relatable image.
There’s no such thing as a relatable billionaire. Axe’s reputation as a “man of the people” (he eats pizza at his old neighborhood joint … then decides to invest in it) is a weakly devised obstacle put up for Chuck to knock down in his fight against Axelrod. Despite this, Lewis’s performance as the acute, egoistic alpha male is convincing. Between his and Giamatti’s subtle glares and weighted one-liners, the antagonism between the two is palpable.
Also complicating Axe’s history is his role as the only surviving partner of his hedge fund after 9/11. The tragic circumstances of his ascent to power leave us uncertain whether to feel sorry for him or resent him. As the episode unfolds, it becomes clearer that the man is power hungry and manipulative, purchasing an ostentatious mansion and “good-naturedly” pitting his kids against one another in a trivia match at the dinner table.
Aesthetically, the show has some redeeming qualities. A quick cut away to the sweaty fingerprints left on a leather chair by an old colleague Dan Margolis (Daniel Cosgrove, “Days of Our Lives”) confirms Axe’s suspicions that he’s an FBI informant. The sleek cinematography highlights Axe’s smooth demeanor and makes Rhoades appear even more overwrought than his agitated nature suggests he is. And while Axe maintains his austerity at all times, we see Rhoades soften in the presence of his wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff, “Sons of Anarchy”).
Wendy Rhoades can’t go without mentioning. Her position as an HR executive for Axe Capital (Axelrod’s company) puts her in the convenient predicament of working for the target of her husband’s crusade against profiteering. She’s a powerhouse in her own right, but when Chuck’s attack on Axe escalates she’s forced to choose: her job or her husband (the timeworn source of marital conflict)? With all the testosterone coursing through the series, it’s refreshing to have a wife who isn’t just a narrative embellishment. But between her and Lara, there isn’t much going on for women in this series. Especially not for Chuck’s mother, who’s relegated to the kitchen by Chuck’s calculating, upper crust attorney of a father.
This brings us back to Chuck, who’s clearly sitting on top of some deep-seated issues. His character, combined with Axe’s guile and America’s interest with the financial sector, will hopefully make for some interesting episodes as the series moves forward.