Showtime's ‘Billions’ is a Fascinating Take on Power, Greed and Corruption

"Billions" ensemble cast features a killer lineup of talent and is like the sadistic lovechild of "House of Cards" and "Entourage"

May 6, 2019 at 2:35 pm
click to enlarge The cast of "Billions" - Courtesy of Showtime
Courtesy of Showtime
The cast of "Billions"

Like an investment compounding interest year after year, Wall Street drama Billions (9 p.m. Sundays, Showtime) improves season after season. Now in its fourth, it’s a wonder the series hasn’t garnered more attention, particularly in the awards circuit. The writing and acting elevate two topics I don’t find particularly compelling (but are handled very well) — New York politics and high finance — into a fascinating take on power, greed and corruption at the highest levels. Balanced by comedic sidekicks and expertly employed pop culture references and cameos, Billions is like the sadistic lovechild of House of Cards and Entourage.

If the subject matter doesn’t entice you, the cast certainly will. Billions features a killer lineup of talent you’ve likely seen elsewhere — Paul Giamatti (duh), Damian Lewis (Homeland), Maggie Siff (Tara, Sons of Anarchy), Jeffrey DeMunn (Dale, The Walking Dead), David Costabile (Gale, Breaking Bad) — and some you likely haven’t yet, like Asia Kate Dillon, Toby Leonard Moore and Condola Rashad. Just seeing the lot interact onscreen is entertaining, as so many of them have taken on truly despicable roles. Unsurprisingly, in the underbelly of politics and wealth live some dastardly bastards.

For years, at the heart of the story was the unrelenting rivalry between hedge fund manager and billionaire bad boy Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Lewis) and the undefeated U.S. attorney intent on taking him down, Chuck Rhoades (Giamatti). This season they’ve finally leveraged their mutual interests — one of many being Chuck’s wife Wendy (Siff), Bobby’s secret weapon and in-house psychiatrist at his firm Axe Capital — and teamed up to become what looks to be an unstoppable duo.

Axe has a new enemy this season — former mentee and wunderkind Taylor Mason (Dillon, considered the first actor to play a nonbinary character on mainstream TV), who left Axe Cap to start their own firm. It’s a perfect example of not knowing who to root for on this show. Loyalties are constantly changing and everyone is primarily motivated by self-interest. Viewers also get to know Taylor a bit more when they begin working with their father (Kevin Pollak), who provides insight to the background of a character that’s still mysterious three seasons into their run. Working with family is always risky, and it’s interesting to see how someone as unemotional and calculated as Taylor navigates that dynamic, particularly with someone who shares their brilliance yet struggles to accept their identity, down to basic pronouns.

Chuck has his own adversaries, which seem to multiply during his run for attorney general of New York. The measures he’s willing to take to secure the office are shocking to audiences and the other characters alike, particularly as they pertain to a damning blackmail situation. Then there’s his father, Chuck Rhoades, Sr. (DeMunn), a constant force of antagonism. Come to think of it, all the dads in this show kind of suck. But watching Giamatti and DeMunn go toe to toe is an utter delight — a scene where the junior briefly impersonates his father is alone Emmy worthy. (Seriously, where are the nominations for this show?)

For Chuck and Axe, along with all their underlings, deals and favors mount in a high-stakes game of “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.” This builds these characters, their bank accounts and their influence up and up — until, just as swiftly, they fall like dominoes. Double-crossing, sabotage and manipulation abound. 

Somehow the narrative isn’t bogged down by all the bad guys, perhaps because they have so much fun doing it. For all the insider talk and takedowns, there is some necessary levity and great comedy elicited from fleece vest-clad finance bros. And a new partner — in more ways than one — for Axe is a breath of fresh air.

If you’re watching TV this Sunday, odds are you’re tuning into a different drama on another premium cable outlet. But if you like following power-hungry leaders eliminating their enemies on the quest for dominance, DVR Billions, too.

Contact Jac Kern: @jackern