By Marc Snetiker
Updated January 15, 2016 at 08:48 PM EST
Credit: Jeff Neumann/Showtime

Is it a cat-and-mouse game? A showdown between boxing champs? A kings’ war of clashing castles and countries?

Ask the creators and stars to describe Billions — Showtime’s financial thriller about a U.S. prosecutor (Paul Giamatti) squaring off against a cocky billionaire (Damian Lewis) — and they’ll all share a different metaphor for the pulpy, sprawling crime drama.

“It kept reminding me of Les Misérables,” says Giamatti, whose character, attorney Chuck Rhoades, becomes hell-bent on taking down Lewis’ hedge-fund billionaire, Bobby Axelrod. “There’s this driven policeman who’s going after the other guy, who has stolen more than a loaf of bread. It’s almost like, why is he so f—ing obsessed?! It also reminds of a very pre-empire Rome, and Cicero going after all those rich Romans who were threatening the integrity of the empire. Debauched, yet with all these virtues underneath all the fat.”

But does one cheer for Javert or Valjean? The cop, or the robber? Billions demands the audience pledge allegiance to either the federal government or Wall Street — a particularly lofty challenge in 2016.

“We wrote this long before the current political situation, but you can just look around,” says co-creator Brian Koppelman, who wrote the series’ pilot with David Levien and Too Big to Fail author Aaron Ross Sorkin. “Some of us look at the businessman as the personification of evil, and others look at the businessman as the ultimate goal of American exceptionalism. We’re trying to get underneath the monolith of the billionaire and the federal prosecutor.”

Rhoades is borne of old money legacy, intent on breaking a chain of government corruption that his father continues to perpetuate. Setting his sights on Axe, he’s a caustic but careful threat, the kind of thoughtful pseudo-perfectionist who insists on waiting for the right moment to strike Axe. “I don’t really play the guy who’s in charge like this,” says Giamatti. “It was refreshing to play a guy who gets the last word and gets to win a lot of scenes and gets to tell people what the f— to do.”

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On the other side (and in a much, much nicer beach house) sits Lewis’ Axe, a hedge-fund trader of swagger and self-made legend whose arrogance in his spending and trading acumen has notched the interest of the federal government. “He’s a passionate, driven, brilliant, but not overly educated man, and I think he’s gotten to where he’s gotten because he’s quicker and more ruthless than many others,” says Lewis. “He’s sort of been written a little bit like a superhero. He lives in a rarified atmosphere where he seems to outperform and outthink everybody.”

Axe has become a kind of folk hero with plaques aplenty and buildings bearing his name, and, like Rhoades, his name means a lot in the bronze power structure of New York. “These are people who self-mythologize and recast themselves as heroes,” says Koppelman. “A big way that hedge-fund people get investors is by building the story of who they are. It’s the same with the U.S. attorney, who starts to get traction for the kinds of prosecutions he or she wants to do by creating some sort of hero’s story about the impossible pursuit that they’re going on to take down these untouchable people. So we set these opposing forces in motion against each other and really try to dive into something that’s central to the American myth.”

The cast and creators of Billions fully expect viewers to play watercooler badminton when it comes to choosing a side between billionaire and barrister. Either choice might suggest more of the audience’s political views than they might expect of a pulpy television show. “The audience will have to pick, and they may or may not reveal their own worldview,” says Lewis, who likens the crux of the show to a clash between medieval kings. “Is making money intrinsically bad? Are cops any less corrupt than the robbers? We’re in that world of grey in this show.”

Levien and Koppelman won’t swear to either Rhoades or Axe; neither will Giamatti and Lewis, of course. Maggie Siff, who plays Rhoades’ wife Wendy (and will likely emerge as the real hero of the series), says the cast is well aware of how they may gain or lose fans each week. “We all talk about it a lot,” laughs Siff. “We have Monday morning watercooler conversations every day. I’m talking to Paul and he’s like, ‘They’re going to hate me. They’re going to love Damian, and they’re going to hate me.’ It should be complicated all the time. If we do our job well, it won’t matter where people come down week to week.”

Billions debuts Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

A version of this story appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1399, on newsstands now

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