“We’re going to have to put on a hell of a show, but this will be our legacy.”
Well, Chuck, you did put on a hell of a show for Connerty, and Billions creators David Levien and Brian Koppelman put on a hell of a show for their viewers by ending season 4 with maybe the series’ best episode to date.
Filled with backstabbing, twists, Italian, and a f—ing idiot, “Extreme Sandbox” was a busy one. Here’s a quick summary: Axe destroyed Rebecca’s new company as payback for her making a deal with Taylor; Axe had Chuck arrest Taylor but not charge them, wanting Taylor to be forced back to Axe Capital; Chuck, angered by Axe saving Wendy’s medical license, made a separate deal with Taylor to have them help take down Axe; Taylor did go back, but to let Chuck and Axe destroy each other; and Connerty’s investigation into Chuck and Chuck Sr. took a shocking turn when he broke the law to listen to privileged recordings, on which he learned that his former boss set him up.
To recap all the craziness, EW chatted with Levien and Koppelman about making Chuck and Axe adversaries again, Paul Giamatti’s epic Italian tirade, and the art of the con.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Last season ended with Chuck and Axe becoming allies, and this season ended with Chuck and Axe becoming adversaries again. Was that always the plan? Did it just feel inevitable that they’d soon be back at odds?
DAVID LEVIEN: When we thought of bringing them together, we didn’t know exactly when they would start to be at odds again, but we just knew two men with these qualities, this alpha-dog mentality, that a peace and alliance could never last forever.
This time around, we have Taylor in the mix with their own agenda, and Axe doesn’t know Chuck is coming after him. What excites you about exploring this different adversarial dynamic?
BRIAN KOPPELMAN: What you get with Taylor is someone who is as smart, clear-eyed, lucid as the other two, and every bit as good at game theory and understanding power dynamics, with a different emotional toolkit than them. So it makes Taylor an incredibly formidable opponent.
LEVIEN: Now we just have a better understanding of their characters, we know them so much better after all this time. So invariably it’s going to be much more personal.
Did you always envision bringing Taylor back into the Axe Capital fold?
LEVIEN: We love this relationship between Axe and Taylor. We knew at some point that would blow up and we couldn’t reform it in quite the same way, but we were looking for a way that they could interact a lot more than they had when Taylor had their own shop. So this seemed like a very fertile way to put them back together.
KOPPELMAN: This was the plan all along. When we got the set for Taylor Mason Capital, which was at the end of last season, we said it was for one year. From the first minute we had Taylor leaving Axe Capital, we knew Taylor was going to be forced back in some way.
LEVIEN: The question was just how we were going to do it.
The Brian setup was such a long con by Chuck and by you guys. It reminded me of the Ice Juice twist in season 2. Did being able to so perfectly pull that off give you the confidence to do it again here?
KOPPELMAN: We love this stuff. David and I have been interested in and fascinated with the way long cons are pulled off for our whole lives. We have a lot of practice at this sort of thing, writing Ocean’s Thirteen and studying the way this stuff works. We knew that some segment of the audience would be wondering if it was a con the whole time, which is one of the reasons why in episode 11 we made it really seem like it wasn’t. But it also just seemed to us like what Chuck Rhoades would have to do. And as Chuck said in this episode, he doesn’t really leave anyone standing. We felt it was true to the characters and that it would be really fun for the audience to be guessing and wondering, so that if you believe Connerty almost had them, that was great, and if you were rooting for Chuck to pull off the con in the shadow of Ice Juice, that would be great too.
LEVIEN: It’s always a challenge to do a good con in a movie or show. But now we have this extra challenge because our audience is so smart that, if they’ve watched the show, they’re educated and they know what to look for. So we have to maybe use that to get them leaning in a direction and then do a double fake the other way. It’s a tricky thing, but it’s fun to play, because our main goal is to deliver great stuff for our actors to play and then stuff that is going to be delightful for the audience to experience.
I have to admit that I can’t remember the last time I laughed as hard as I did to Chuck going off in Italian out of nowhere. Where did that idea come from? And it had to have played even better than you could have ever imagined, right?
LEVIEN: Yeah, we were just thrilled with the way it came out. We had this idea in the writers’ room early in the season that Chuck would go on an angry run blasting somebody — probably Jock — with a foreign language. And then because he’s Paul Giamatti, with the Italian background, we landed on Italian, so we just gave that little nod to a backstory in the Rhoades family that there was some Roman ancestry. Then Brian checked with somebody that he has a relationship with online who lives in Rome and is Italian, and we vetted the epithets to be Rome-centric and appropriate. And then Paul took it from there and just crushed it.
KOPPELMAN: You have all these actors that are so just incredibly gifted… [Clancy Brown’s] arc started with him and Paul together in the first scene of season 3, and here we are at the end of season 4, and the story between them is something that we also did map out at the start of season 3, we knew this is where it was going to go. We wanted to give them some really memorable scenes to finish that part of the story, and we just thought it would be hilarious to have it play out this way. I know a journalist who lives in Italy, and I gave her the page of dialogue and said, “What would a Roman say? How would he do it?” She wrote it out and also recorded it so that Paul could listen to the way a Roman would say it. And then Paul just came in and destroyed, he just crushed it. As did Clancy in that laughing reaction. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the whole series.
That may have been the funniest moment in Billions history, but then there’s Axe laying out why he backstabbed Rebecca, which may have been the saddest moment in Billions history. Why was that something that fit Axe, and that he’d be so bothered by?
KOPPELMAN: It just felt to us like what was needed. We agree with you that that scene is one of the most powerful of the series. But it came completely natural to the two of us. It felt like Axe respected Rebecca enough that he was going to tell Rebecca exactly who he was, and he was going to tell Rebecca exactly in his mind what she did, and he was going to do it in an unvarnished way. And we knew we had Damian Lewis. You just can’t overvalue for a writer what it is to be able to write for someone like Damian Lewis. For someone like Paul Giamatti, for someone like Maggie Siff. Dave and I can make it as dark, as brutal, as cold as it needs to be, but Damian Lewis is going to bring the humanity to it. Damian just brought everything to that. It was incredibly magical and compelling.
When Wendy came to stay with Axe after leaving Chuck, it seemed like it was going to go in a romantic direction. It didn’t, but is that something you guys thought about doing?
LEVIEN: We thought that it was a very charged moment, especially for her character to not wanting to be at home and wanting to be with Axe. But we thought that there’s such a rarity to their relationship that it sort of transcends just that sexual piece that’s a little bit more familiar in movies and TV shows. And we understand that people might have been leaning into that, but to us, it just felt right, considering what Axe had been through and what she had been through, that it would play out the way it did.
Billions will return to Showtime for season 5 in 2020.