Billions premiere recap: Pilot
Let the games begin
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
But at home at their shared brownstone, Rhoades floats the idea of her getting a new job somewhere else. It’s an unsubtle suggestion to say the least: Immediately Chuck and Wendy start bickering about which one of them has the right to keep his or her job in the event of a conflict of interest. Should it be the noble crime-fighting public servant, or the one pulling down the eight-figure salary that keeps the family comfortable? Tempers flare, but they eventually come to a détente. “Of course your job’s important, you’re a superhero,” Wendy tells him, sounding a lot like she does at work.
From there we jump to the considerably larger Axelrod home, where the family is sitting down to a quaint personal chef-made meal. Seated at the table is Bobby’s wife, Lara. She, like Bobby, is also a rough-and-tumble product of the outer-boroughs. You can tell, because she says it out loud a lot. When a Waspy Connecticut widow asks Lara if she’s threatening her in an earlier scene, Lara replied, “You’re f—ing right I am. It’s how I grew up.” So there you have it. Combined, they make for interesting parents: When a dog urinates on the furniture, Bobby turns it into a lesson for his two sons on how pissing contests work. And when one of the boys loses a bet, Lara makes him do pushups in the middle of his meal. They’re like a family of jocks.
Chuck comes from a more rarefied world: His father, we learn, is a wealthy and well-connected attorney himself. In fact, he shows up to his son’s office to try and get a prison-bound family friend some leniency for his financial crimes. Rhoades, however, won’t do it, no matter many Hamptons summers he’s spent with the guilty, teary-eyed old man in question. Rhoades is just too damn moral.
But when a nosy Wall Street Journal reporter publicly questions Rhoades on why he won’t move on Axe Capital, Rhoades decides it’s time to take some action. So he tries to put an idea in Axelrod’s head: to not buy that Hamptons property. His reasoning is that an innocent man wouldn’t buy it out of discipline, while a guilty man would just to prove he’s got nothing to hide.
But Axelrod definitely has stuff to hide. For instance, there’s his shady off-the-books adviser known simply as “Hall.” They meet dramatically in an underground facility full of pipes. (The boiler room?) It turns out that pressure is starting to come Axelrod’s way. An FBI informant tried to catch him on tape, and that nosy reporter is also causing trouble. The U.S. Attorney could be close behind, and as Hall knows from “that night in Reykjavik,” Axelrod’s biggest fear is Feds in windbreakers. So, they come up with a plan: Lay low, keep your guard up, and make the reporter your friend. Also: feed the reporter some “inside” information on fellow banker Stephen Birch, which would deflect attention.
The plan works. Axelrod’s lunch with the Pulitzer-hungry reporter turns them into chums, putting Birch on the hot seat. And Axe decides not to buy the house. He’s making all the right moves.
But things go haywire when he runs into Rhoades and they speak face-to-face. Remember that pissing-contest lesson Axelrod was trying to teach his sons? We get to a live demonstration right here. The two men scowl at each other as they repeat threatening, metaphor-stuffed sentences to each other in growling voices.
It’s enough to make Axelrod snap. He’s not some neutered dog — he’s a big man! And a big man like him deserves a big house. So he makes the purchase, negative attention be damned.
And just like that, the game is on! Who will win the pissing contest, Bobby or Chuck? So far, there’s only one answer: Wendy, who we already saw literally pissing on Chuck. That’s why I’m declaring her the official winner of the first episode of Billions.
- Wouldn’t Axelrod have his own personal bathroom at work? You’d think so, yet we see him having a moment of reflection in his company’s employee restroom.
- As ever, Lewis’ American accent is great, though it isn’t airtight. You can hear it cracking from time to time, especially whenever he says the word “father.”
- Lara tells someone she comes from a “big Irish family, five sibs.” Sibs. Who does that?
- On an eye-level, the show does an impressive job at depicting finance guys. Those dudes love throwing on a sleeveless fleece vest indoors.
- What we should really arrest Axelrod for is the way he talks to his sons like they’re tiny little Goldman Sachs interns.
- Spyros is pretty obnoxious, but you have got to give him credit for calling Rhoades out on his hammy metaphors.
- There are some other important That Guys I haven’t mentioned yet: David Costabile plays Axelrod’s right-hand man, nicknamed Wags. He’s a veteran of such cable dramas as Breaking Bad, Suits, and, um, Low Winter Sun. And then there’s Axelrod employee Ben Martin, who’s played by Nathan Darrow — you might remember him as the threesome-having driver from House of Cards. Billions: a safe house for wayward That Guys.