Our first introduction to Billions — a series about the epic, far-reaching battle between two of the most vain and power-hungry heavyweight titans in the tri-state area — is the sight of Paul Giamatti gagged and tied up on the floor, with a woman putting her lit cigarette out on his chest. Then she pees on him.
Billions! At this point, you’re already hooked, right? Us too.
Since Billions is essentially a two-man cage match, let’s get to know our contenders. We’ll get back to our urine-stained Giamatti later. First let’s profile Bobby Axelrod. Played by Damian Lewis, Axelrod is just a pizza-loving kid from Yonkers who managed to turn himself into something bigger. When we first meet him and his wife (Malin Ackerman), they’re sitting down to a slice in an empty pizzeria, enjoying the delights that he used to indulge in as a child. But he doesn’t just want to pay for a slice — he wants to put money into the business in general, because the owner, he’s learned, is having trouble covering the rent. So Axelrod makes a deal and uses his riches to personally make sure that this small business lives to see another day, like some sort of outer-borough Robin Hood.
Could this guy, this pizza savior, this Bobby from the block really be as bad as the show’s posters and other marketing materials make him out to be? Possibly — the Bobby Axelrod at the pizzeria is not the same Bobby Axelrod at the Axe Capital headquarters up in Westport, Connecticut. There, he’s a calculating, narrow-eyed financial genius who loves a brisk walk-and-talk with his underlings. To really get a sense of his prowess, we get to see him deliver a super-wordy information-packed speech about how his men, with their fancy degrees and respectable pedigree, are reading their information wrong. Bobby Axelrod, it turns out, is the only one who can read it right, even though he went to Hofstra and is from Yonkers and likes to eat at pizzerias. It’s the sort of scene that could’ve been written by Aaron Sorkin rather than Andrew Ross Sorkin (the financial journalist who did write this episode).
To really drive home who Axelrod is, we get a scene where he’s giving out college scholarship funds to a group of teenagers. They’re not just any teenagers: They’re the children of Axelrod’s former colleagues who died on 9/11 while working in the Twin Towers, where it seems Axelrod’s firm used to be located. Axelrod himself wasn’t in the office when it happened, of course, making him the only surviving partner. But he’s committed to making sure the families of his deceased coworkers are taken care of, even if it comes out of his own pocket. That’s just the kind of guy he is: A blue-collar kid done good.
Maybe too good. “Bobby Axelrod is Mike Tyson in his prime.” That quote comes from U.S. attorney Chuck Rhoades, who then goes on tell us a little bit out himself: “Since my appointment, this office is undefeated in financial prosecutions — 81 in all. And that’s because I know when the time is right.” Rhoades is basically some combination of Preet Bharara and pre-scandal Eliot Spitzer: a high-octane public official who considers himself the bogeyman of Wall Street. Some would even say he’s a “rock star.”
Rhoades is relaying all this information to his right-hand man Bryan Connerty, who would presumably already know all this, but whatever. Connerty, by the way, is played by one of this show’s many That Guys: Actors who seem to always pop up on cable dramas as a supporting character. This one is the actor Toby Leonard Moore, whom you right might remember from Daredevil as Kingpin’s right-hand man James Wesley. (On cable dramas, everyone has a right-hand man.)
Anyway, the reason Rhoades is talking about all this is because Ari Spyros from the SEC has brought in files on three small financial firms that have been engaging in activity that looks suspiciously like insider trading, and all three firms are linked to none other than Bobby Axelrod. (Spyros, by the way, is another That Guy — he’s played by Stephen Sunken, whom you might recognize as Noah’s book editor from The Affair.)
So what does Rhoades’ office plan to do about this? Not much, other than eat lots of take-out. Rhoades doesn’t think the time is quite right to pull the trigger on Axelrod. “We’ve got to play three-dimensional chess,” Rhoades says. “Axe is a folk hero in this town.” The police gave him a plaque at Ground Zero, even. No, this is not the time to move in. “A good matador doesn’t try to kill a fresh bull,” Rhoades muses. “You wait until he’s been stuck a few times.” Clearly, he ordered ham for lunch.
But that’s before Kate, a fast-rising junior staffer at the U.S. attorney’s office played by Condola Rashad (of the New York Rashads), shows up with a tip for Chuck: Axelrod is considering sinking a whole lot of money on a sprawling Hamptons estate. It’s the kind of ostentatious purchase that could make a folk hero like Axelrod become a douchey punching bag in the press.
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But even if Chuck wanted to go after Axe Capital, he has a slight problem: His wife Wendy works there. She’s their in-house therapist, a job that basically requires her to mentally fluff the guys whenever they’re feeling professionally impotent. (Wendy, by the way, is no That Guy—she’s played by the great Maggie Siff, who’s had memorable roles on Mad Men and Sons of Anarchy.) It’s an icky job that involves a lot of chest-thumping and ego-stroking, but she’s really good at it.
NEXT: A tale of two homes