What the Rest of TV Can Learn from ‘Billions’
This column contains SPOILERS for all of Billions Season 3, which aired its finale earlier this week.
The midpoint of Billions Season 3 featured a huge moment for the series to date: the Showtime drama’s arch-rivals, U.S. attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and hedge fund mogul Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis), facing each other across a dining room table and, with the help of Chuck’s wife/Axe’s therapist Wendy (Maggie Siff), acknowledging that they needed to join forces against a common enemy.
In today’s ultra-serialized drama landscape, it’s the kind of scene that almost any other show would have saved for the very end of its season finale, or the penultimate episode at the latest. Billions actually repeated this dynamic in its own finale, which we’ll get back to, but that it happened as early as Episode 6 was striking. Too many other shows that consider each season “a 13-hour movie” would have built the whole thing around that meeting, throwing complication after complication at Chuck, Wendy and Axe so that it would happen as close to the end of the year as possible, and that sense of wheel-spinning would have been palpable.
That’s not how Billions rolls, though. It’s not the best drama on TV right now, nor the deepest, but it may be unmatched in how confidently and entertainingly – a not incidental thing for the medium (especially when a lot of recent dramas, while terrific, can be emotionally draining, or like a chore to sit through) – it churns through story. To make a pop culture reference like at least one character drops in every scene of Billions (*), the show is like the shark in Jaws (or maybe the one from Deep Blue Sea): If it stops moving, it dies(**).
(*) In one early episode this season, Eric Bogosian in successive scenes quoted Floyd Gondolli’s “Butter in my ass” speech from Boogie Nights, the chorus of Van Halen’s “Jump,” and a climactic exchange from L.A. Confidential. The relentless quoting – often with characters one-upping each other by pointing out that a line has been mistakenly phrased or attributed, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the references spell things out quickly and cleanly for a show that has little use for subtext and makes it easier to focus on the many things that are happening simultaneously. On the other, the sheer tonnage of it – it’s the Billions equivalent of all the Family Guy cutaway gags –and the fact that every single character, regardless of demographic background, has the exact same taste in movies and TV can become a distraction.
(**) This applies just as well to the ideal way to watch it as it does to how it’s structured. Though it’s not made for Netflix or Amazon, it’s perhaps the most bingeworthy drama airing today, and loses a good chunk of its appeal if viewed in weekly installments. I waited for the whole season to be done, then watched the whole thing over two days. Much more fun that way.
If Billions ever paused for breath in the way that so many of its contemporaries do, viewers might have an opportunity to ask some basic, potentially series-harming questions, like, Wait, why is Axe doing this latest move?, or, How did Spyros turn into a harmless comic relief character when a key plot point in Season One was about him having raped a woman in the past?, or, most importantly, Why should I care about any of this?
You care and you don’t ask questions because Billions never stops long enough for you to hop off the narrative train. One damn thing happens, and then another, and then another, bouncing from one moment to the next where these terrific, largely overqualified actors are giving it their all. There’s a transparently puppeteered nature to a lot of the ebbs and flows of loyalty on the show, but things change so quickly and frequently, and are played with such gusto by the cast, that there’s no real choice but to go with it. Chuck has a falling out with protege Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) this season, and a lot of Chuck’s decision-making leading up to it is sketchy at best, but that doesn’t matter, because the payoff is this scene, with Paul Giamatti’s magnificent, scenery-swallowing delivery of the line, “And GET. THE FUCK. OUTTA HERE!!!!!”
Similarly, Axe winds up chasing away his own protege, Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), for reasons that only sometimes make sense for both parties, but the promise of Axe vs. Taylor – or, really, Wendy vs. Taylor(*) – is so strong, and the dominoes topple so briskly, that motivation becomes a minor worry at best.
(*) It’s fascinating that on a show set in such a testosterone-heavy world, and that takes such pleasure in the many dick-measuring contests waged by Axe, Wags (the perpetually delightful David Costabile) and the other guys at Axe Capital, the two most complex characters – and the two for whom the show genuinely exhibits the most sympathy –are a woman and a gender non-binary person. In a lot of similar antihero dramas, Wendy would be the nagging obstacle, and Taylor a colorful minor figure at best, but Billions treats them as narrative equals to the ostensible leads. They’re the two who best understand how this game is played, and who so far have done a better job than most in hanging onto their humanity in the process. (This is why it was so upsetting to see Wendy take advantage of sweet lacrosse bro Mafee’s crush on her to get out of a legal jam, but it was also a reminder that no one leaves this arena with their soul unscathed.)
There are downsides to the perpetual sprint mode that Billions is in. Because Chuck and Axe teamed up and resolved their mutual problem around the season’s midpoint, the remaining episodes didn’t have as potent a core conflict, despite some juicy guest turns by Clancy Brown (as Chuck’s new Trump-appointed boss) and John Malkovich (in a Rounders reunion with Billions co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, although his Russian crook this time did not eat Oreos). As that central tension leaked away for a while, it was easy to understand why so many Netflix (and Netflix-influenced) dramas would postpone such a climactic moment for, well, the climax of a season, even if those shows often drag terribly along the way to such a thing.
In the season’s penultimate episode, Taylor expresses their own preference for forward momentum above all else, even money. But relentless forward momentum isn’t a cure-all for everything, from personal satisfaction to plot fatigue, and as each season brings with it a half-dozen significant shifts in alliance, each new one feels slightly less surprising and emotionally impactful than the one before it.
The season does end with Chuck and Wendy and Axe at a dinner table again, not even with a shared enemy to discuss, but the opportunity for Chuck (who gets fired after a predictably failed putsch against the new boss) and Axe to finally treat each other as allies, if not friends, now that they’ve ceased to be professional adversaries. Like the mid-season detente, this was probably necessary at some point, since even this show couldn’t keep Chuck vs. Axe as its primary focus for so many years in a row. Like Justified with Raylan and Boyd, the central conflict will surely return after a while, but it’s time to explore other conflicts, and the one involving Taylor looks like a good one.
My guess, though, is that Chuck and Axe will be at odds again sooner rather than later, no matter how much the plot will have to contort itself to make that happen. With Billions, it’s go fast or go home. Thank goodness.