Billions is both a gauzy capitalist fantasy and an apology for what unchecked alpha-male ambition has wrought on Wall Street. Co-created by New York Times financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin and set in a postcrash New York City, it’s aimed directly at anyone who appreciates a thoughtful deconstruction of masculinity but still longs for the days when cocaine and hookers could be expensed on your AmEx card.
At a time when there’s a real hunger to see corporate greed punished on screen—just look at the raves for The Big Short—it’s interesting that Billions’ corporate-avenger protagonist is actually kind of pathetic. Paul Giamatti plays U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, who’s locked into an epic cockfight with shady hedge-fund boss Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis). Publicly, Chuck has mastered his macho David Mamet-isms. (“You don’t have to outswim the shark. You just have to outswim the guy you’re scuba diving with,” he muses.) Privately, though, he’s weak. He couldn’t have built his reputation without his rich daddy, and he’s earned a perfect record in court only by cracking down on small-time crooks rather than fighting real kingpins. When we first see him, he’s being bound and gagged by his wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff ), who’s decked out in dominatrix gear. By contrast, Bobby comes across like a working-class hero. Raised in Yonkers, where he resented the elite families he worked for as a golf caddy, he’s a self-made billionaire who enjoys humiliating other one-percenters and rewards his cash-strapped buddies by jetting them off to see Metallica in Quebec. True, he also occasionally conducts meetings in the nude while he’s running Axe Capital, a venture that sounds like a body spray for investment bankers. But while Billions pokes fun at his ridiculous douchiness, it’s betting that viewers will root for him, too.
If the battle between Chuck and Bobby were the sole focus of the series, Billions would be noteworthy more for the neck-vein-bulgingly intense performances from its stars than for its semiformulaic premise. But the character of Wendy elevates it beyond your typical Wolf of Wall Street-inspired pissing contest between two men. Married to Chuck but employed by Bobby as Axe’s in-house therapist, she’s a conflict of interest for both, and Siff’s deadpan-amused expressions suggest that she’s loyal only to herself. “I am not gonna be the shuttlecock that you two smack back and forth,” she snaps at them. If Chuck craves status and Bobby is money-hungry, Wendy’s motives are less obvious and more fun to psychoanalyze. She enjoys manipulating the guys in power, simply for the love of the game. For many viewers who lost something tangible in the financial crash thanks in part to people like Wendy, sympathizing with her might be out of the question. But then, Billions isn’t supposed to be a serious indictment of the industry anyway. This is a wildly over-the-top but thoroughly entertaining soap opera, and it works because it follows the same philosophy Bobby does: If you want to succeed, you don’t have to be the smartest one in the room. You just have to be shameless. B+