Showtime’s newest drama Billions will be one of those shows people talk about in a few years time, saying they were there at the very beginning. They knew, as far back as January 2016, this series about Wall Street was going to be awesome. It’s considered important, in Geek Land, to discover something, stick with it, tell people to watch it and when it becomes a worldwide phenomenon, claim you knew it was brilliant before anybody else did.
It happened with Breaking Bad, Homeland, House of Cards and most recently with Mr. Robot. Shows that kind of fly under the radar for a while, until suddenly newspapers and news programs start reporting on them. It’s like the world, over the course of just a couple of weeks time, opens its eyes. It’s actually a beautiful thing. Well, ‘world’, I can save you the embarrassment of having to catch up on another television drama next year, because you can join the geeks as of today. All you need to do is check out the pilot episode of Billions and you’re fully up to speed.
This is a show about two guys trying to bury each other. A ‘pissing contest’ is another description. It is not, however, a show about right and wrong, good guy versus bad guy. The story takes place in the biggest grey area of our time: Wall Street. Real estate. Insider trading. Sleaze campaigns. Press manipulation. Algorithms. And ‘fuck you money’. U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti, Straight Outta Compton, The Ides of March, Sideways, The Negotiator) puts criminals behind bars. No matter if they’re wearing pinstriped suits or three striped sneakers. He’s just and fair, whether it’s bankers or drug dealers. He does sound like one of the good guys, but nobody’s perfect. He can be quite rigid. Rancorous. Manipulative.
Chuck has got a banker – or ‘bankster’ – in his sights: very sharp, smooth, hedge fund strategist Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis, Homeland, Wolf Hall, Band of Brothers) and his company Axe Capital in particular. There’s something fishy going on with his investment behaviour, or should I say the behaviour of small companies Century Capital, Old Oaks Investment and Quaker Ridge, who are all, one way or another, linked to Axe Capital. It looks like Bobby might have insider information, which is illegal, but it’s hard to prove. Ari Spyros (Stephen Kunken, The Affair, Bridge of Spies) from SEC tries to persuade Chuck to build a case, but he knows better. The evidence is way too thin at this point.
Bobby’s Achilles’ Heel
Spyros has brought in the head of Century Capital, Dan Margolis (Daniel Cosgrove, Dirty Sexy Money, Days of Our Lives). The fact that Margolis comes by Bobby’s office is too much of a coincidence. He’s probably made a deal with the SEC, promised to help them flush Bobby out by proposing a shady deal, to see if he bites. Bobby’s too smart of a man to fall into his obvious trap. There is one thing, however, which could prove to be Bobby’s Achilles’ heel: Chuck’s wife Wendy (Maggie Siff, Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy), who works for Axe Capital as an in-house psychologist. She’s good. Very good. Bobby wants to keep her on, and even though Wendy and Chuck don’t discuss their jobs, it might be a risky thing to have one of the Rhoades walking around, who knows everything that goes on, having doctor-patient confidentiality and all that.
So are we going to address the sadomasochistic bedroom activities of the Rhoades family? Why not. The opening shot of the pilot doesn’t leave us much choice. Chuck likes to get tied up, have burning cigarettes being put out on his skin and his wife ease the pain by the healing powers of the golden shower. Like in Mr. Robot and House of Cards, the sexual games between couples don’t do much for the plot. It’s nothing more than a detail, really.
Chuck and Bobby meet each other once in the pilot, and it’s like watching two wolves trying to decide who’s the alpha male. It’s probably because there’s only one scene in which they interact, but there’s definitely great chemistry between Giamatti and Lewis. Two great actors, playing off on each other, none of them backing down; the matter of who’s the bigger alpha is still undecided. One more thing: the look of the pilot is amazing. Production (Marcus Viscidi, Rendition), cinematography (Eric Steelberg, Lone Star, Up in the Air), direction (Neil Burger, Divergent, Limitless), it’s all sublime. As slick as its subject matter, in fact.