If you’ve been following the world of TV Twitter this spring, you probably know that a certain subset of this nation’s great, professionally paid TV viewers has gone a little goofy for Showtime’s Billions. Observe!
Ah yes time to check in on what critics think of the latest Billions episode pic.twitter.com/aweskbW1GK— Miles Surrey (@HKSurrey) May 14, 2018
BILLIONS— Nicole Cliffe (@Nicole_Cliffe) April 28, 2018
Your occasional reminder that Billions is really good, even if it’s not about a crime-solving business tycoon named Jack Billions.— Todd VanDerWerff (@tvoti) June 4, 2018
I could go on. But my larger point is this: Billions is a show that a lot of critics wrote off somewhere in early season one, and while it got the typical, “Hey, this show has gotten a lot better” write-ups late in that first season and (especially) in season two, the recently concluded third season seems to have crossed some sort of threshold in terms of its popularity and the willingness of its fans to bug you about it nonstop on various social media platforms.
Billions has managed this rise in its fortunes despite being a show about white-guy antiheroes — a type of series many critics have cut less slack in recent years — and despite being about the mega-rich and the lawyers who fail to prosecute them at a time when nobody’s particularly enthused about either of those things.
It’s managed this rise in its fortunes despite the fact that its entire premise, involving one of said lawyers deciding to make an example of one of those billionaires, was basically torpedoed by reality, where the Trump administration has been, let’s say, much friendlier to the mega-rich.
And it’s managed this rise in its fortunes despite the fact that its storytelling is frequently completely ridiculous, often predicated on its characters hiding incredibly elaborate strategic gambits from each other, to the degree that it’s hard to imagine how they kept something so skillfully from seemingly everybody they knew.
That makes it a fun show to goof on, only helped by just how funny the show has become, thanks to its deep bench of actors who are incredibly agile with a one-liner. From jokes about the show’s potential for a crossover with The Americans to “FUCK ‘EM UP, BILLIONS!” this is a series that can handle a solid bit of snark — a must for social media takeoff.
But Billions is really good and sometimes great TV (in its third season, especially). It’s one of the rare shows that has genuinely been bolstered by the times: In an era of very dour shows about the dark times we live in, sometimes great (The Handmaid’s Tale) and sometimes mixed (Westworld), Billions is pure pulp thriller, but in a way that never loses sight of how poisonous all the vipers within it are. Here are three ways Billions overcame its early shakiness to become its best self.
1) It completely overhauled its premise, but in ways that aren’t particularly noticeable
The original premise of Billions was probably unsustainable. It centered on Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), a US attorney for the Southern District of New York, who grew tired of prosecuting small-time crimes and decided to take down Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), a titan of finance he knew was crooked. Chuck’s wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), worked for Bobby and thus became an unlikely figure in both men’s games.
In the early going, it wasn’t always clear what the show was, beyond an excuse to watch its two big-name stars snarl at each other. My review of the first half-season liked some aspects of the show (particularly the acting) but found its attempts to dig into the world of high finance too surface-level and obvious. It was clear the show was interested in income inequality and the corruption of US systems that led to the wealthy abusing them endlessly, but it also flirted frequently with lapsing into straight-up lifestyle porn about how cool it was to be rich.
Slowly but surely, the series corrected some of these flaws in season one, but then the question became what the show would even be once Chuck put Bobby behind bars, or Bobby somehow triumphed over Chuck. On a network that had already had a show that centered on an investigation of Damian Lewis that lasted at least one season past its welcome, Billions felt caught in a trap.
And then somewhere in early season two, Billions started overhauling itself for the long haul. You wouldn’t know it to look at the surface of the series, where Chuck and Bobby were still launching long-range attacks at each other (remarkably, it took until mid-season three for the two to share significant screen time). But underneath that surface, the show’s writers, led by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, were focusing more on other cases that fell under Chuck’s jurisdiction, as well as stories about how the corruption of the mega-rich had so infected the entire system that to try to defeat that corruption meant becoming corrupt yourself.
The second season concluded with a series of revelations that showed just how long of a game the series could play and substantially muddied its ethical waters. The question wasn’t whether to root for Chuck or Bobby; instead, the question was figuring out a way to tear down the entire system they existed within. The show still had the gleam associated with wealth and power, but it was interested in questions beyond its central battle. When it finally moved past it in the middle of season three, there was a wealth of other stories waiting to be told, including...
2) Taylor Mason gave the show an instant jolt of something new and different
Much has been made of how Asia Kate Dillon’s Taylor Mason, a promising new employee of Bobby Axelrod’s company, Axelrod Capital, is almost certainly the first nonbinary regular character on a major American TV show. (Both Taylor and Dillon use they/them pronouns.)
Dillon is one of TV’s most electric performers, and they’ve made Taylor into a force within the show, to the degree that almost all of the third-season finale revolves around major decisions they make. The show even subtly codes which characters are not to be trusted based on whether they use Taylor’s preferred pronouns — and the fact that Bobby and his various cohorts take no time in adjusting to using “they” and “them,” despite being scoundrels in countless other ways, is meant to convey the immense respect they have for Taylor, even when they’re incredibly mad at them.
But Taylor’s nonbinary identity and Dillon’s performance don’t explain, in and of themselves, why the show seemed to take off almost immediately after it introduced Taylor in its season two premiere. Instead, I would argue, the presence of Taylor has immediately pried apart some of the show’s most rigid elements, in a way that has benefited both it and almost every character within its world.
Somewhere near its core, Billions is an exploration of toxic masculinity, of the ways that codes of behavior between men can sometimes curdle and go wrong, most obviously affecting the women around those men but also hurting the men themselves. Billions’ most obvious example of this is in the relationship between Chuck and his father, Charles (Jeffrey DeMunn), a ruthless legal shark who abhorred any signs of weakness in his son and seems most at ease when the two are trying to kill each other.
But it’s also present in the constant dick-measuring at Axe Cap, or the scenes where Chuck and Wendy’s love of BDSM threatens his burgeoning political career. Nothing is more important in the world of Billions than the appearance of raw, masculine strength, but that raw, masculine strength is strangling everybody near it.
In the first season, this resulted in a lot of scenes of guys competing to see who could be the most macho, while Wendy and the handful of other women on the show tried to find places to fit amid the swagger. Simply by their mere existence, Taylor stands out as a rejection of this fruitless binary — a one-character expression of the idea that some of the systems we’ve come to rely upon were rotten to begin with.
If the larger idea of Billions is that a failure to seriously question the status quo will destroy the world, Taylor immediately makes viewers question many things the other characters accept as simply the way their lives are. And that extends to other aspects of the series, where Taylor (who is, after all, really, really good at playing the markets to make lots of money and, thus, part of the same corrupt economic system as everybody else) might not have as much immediate bearing.
3) By embracing pulp, the series has been better able to tell stories about the destructiveness of unchecked capitalism
If toxic masculinity is near the center of Billions, then the show’s absolute core is the idea that while unchecked capitalism might be fun to watch a TV show about, it’s destroying the world all the same. The more the characters maneuver to hang on to their power, the more entrenched the horrible systems that need to change become.
Chuck goes from trying to bring down Bobby to more or less propping up the whole system Bobby used and abused to become as rich as he is, and in the third season, the government (a not-that-fictional spin on the Trump administration full of fire-breathing evangelicals and grifters in greasy suits) is only too happy to let him do the propping. In the process, innocent lives are destroyed, a woman who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time is deported to Guatemala, and the titans at the top of the credits don’t even blink.
Billions was still interested in these ideas back in its first season, but it kept shifting awkwardly between the modes of “Chuck and Bobby snarl and hurl invective at each other” and “Unchecked capitalism is destroying everything.” One of the show’s co-creators is journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, and in season one, certain storylines in the series felt more reported than they did written, like the show was trying to get across a point but hadn’t quite settled on what that point was or the best way to sell it.
In season two, however, the series simply shifted all of its eggs into the “pulpy business thriller” basket, and trusted that audiences would notice all the horrible venality that happened in proximity to the long war between Chuck and Bobby. When watching people do very bad things is as fun as it can be on Billions, it makes viewers feel all the more complicit in those bad things — and helps increase the sense that we’re just as complicit in the bad things happening in our own reality.
By wedding its larger concerns to the sheer, propulsive fun of the business thriller, Billions found a way to serve the audience its cake, then keep serving them so much cake they wondered where all the cake came from and desperately wanted to stop eating it. That makes Billions, at times, a show where it’s hard to find someone to “root” for, but the series is canny enough to know that’s the whole point.
We’re not damned; we’re already in hell, and we need to find a way to pull it down around our ears to make something better. But good fucking luck with that.
All three seasons of Billions are available on Showtime’s streaming apps. Season four will arrive in 2019.