clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Billions has turned into one of TV’s most ruthlessly entertaining shows

As other shows slow down their storytelling, Showtime’s corporate thriller just keeps speeding up.

Chuck and Wendy Rhoades have the big fight their marriage has been building to for a while.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for April 7 through 13 is “Overton Window,” the fourth episode of the fourth season of Showtime’s Billions.

In September 2010, shortly before the debut of the HBO mob drama Boardwalk Empire, I talked to the series’ creator and showrunner, Terrence Winter. Winter had cut his teeth on The Sopranos, and when I asked him what he’d learned from that show’s creator, David Chase, about how to run his own TV show, he said something that’s stuck with me ever since:

I guess the biggest lesson that David Chase taught me is always be entertaining. That’s your job. Your job is not to send messages or moralize; it’s to entertain people. Whatever you can do to achieve that end, do it. He tried to jam those episodes with comedy and action and violence and great music and just great character stuff and really threw the kitchen sink in in terms of entertaining people.

The irony of this is that Boardwalk Empire, for as much as I enjoyed it at times, always had a stateliness to it that kept it from being what I would call truly entertaining. Thought-provoking? Unsettling? Fascinating? Sure. But entertaining? Not in the same way as The Sopranos. It was just too slow-moving and methodical for that.

Slow-moving, methodical storytelling plagues far too many TV shows in the streaming era. How many Netflix dramas slow to a crawl in the middle of the season, simply because they’re trying to stretch a single storyline out to more episodes?

Modern TV is skewed toward viewers who will watch everything in one big gulp, in ways that often preclude the pleasures of a single, beautifully constructed episode. But weak episodes all too often create a weak season. You can’t build a great house with crumbling bricks.

Thank God, then, for Showtime’s Billions, in which every episode is a box of chocolates, and some of them are just a little bit poisonous. You never know what you’re going to get, but it will probably be wildly entertaining.

Most TV shows decelerate their storytelling. Billions constantly accelerates it.

Chuck strikes back against those who would sully his good name while running for state Attorney General.

At the end of “Chickentown,” the episode that immediately precedes “Overton Window,” Billions sets up what feels like a new status quo for its fourth season. Enemies turned uneasy allies turned something sort of like friends Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) are bonded more fiercely together, after Bobby agrees to use his billions and considerable influence to help Chuck run for attorney general of New York.

There’s just one thing — if Chuck wins, Bobby’s going to ask Chuck for a favor. And he’s going to expect that favor to be granted, insofar as Chuck is able to grant it.

On a lot of TV shows, this would be the setup for the entire season. Chuck would run for attorney general. Bobby would continue with his main plot (a ruthless corporate battle with his former protege Taylor Mason, played by Asia Kate Dillon — more on this in a second). The promise of that unspoken favor would hang over everything else.

In the end, Chuck would win the election, Bobby would name his price at long last, and that would likely be the season’s cliffhanger. We’d head into season five wondering just how Chuck would be able to give Bobby what he wanted, especially when the initial premise of the show was Chuck trying to put Bobby behind bars.

But here’s what makes Billions such a whip-smart, purely entertaining show: It knows you know Chuck is going to win. The simple fact that Bobby is extracting an unnamed favor from Chuck immediately becomes the most interesting thing about this story, which means that Chuck has to win in order for us to get the maximally entertaining version of the storyline. So that means that if Chuck’s election stretched out over the entire season, it might have entertaining moments, but it would never have any real suspense. We’d be wondering what favor Bobby was going to request.

So instead of stretching the election out over a season, Billions compresses it, in its entirety, into this episode. And in the process of doing so, it upends the series’ status quo in other ways that I never saw coming. By the end, we know what Bobby wanted Chuck to do — kick Russian billionaire Grigor Andolov (a wonderfully campy John Malkovich) out of the country — and we know that Bobby’s true aim was to strike back at Taylor (who counted Grigor as one of their core investors) via Chuck. And we also know that Chuck has perhaps irreparably strained his marriage in the course of running for higher office.

But we don’t know what comes next.

I could probably hazard a guess as to what the rest of the season will be about, with the conflict between Taylor and Bobby increasing from a simmer to a full boil, most likely. But I couldn’t lay out for you, beat for beat, the arc of the plot in the way I probably could have with the election storyline taking up a full season.

This kind of hyper-accelerated plotting is dangerous, because it has a tendency to burn up all your storylines and leave you grasping for more. So, yes, there’s a chance Billions now has nowhere else to go. But somehow, I doubt it. After four seasons of story that just kept accelerating and accelerating and accelerating, I trust that this show knows what it’s doing.

Every aspect of Billions is calculated to entertain, which is what makes it so effective at sneaking its true message right by you

Taylor prepares for their next move in the great battle against Bobby Axelrod.

When Billions began, it, too, was a slower-paced drama that took its sweet time getting anywhere. Chuck, then just a US district attorney, wanted to prosecute Bobby for financial crimes, because he thought bringing down some of the titans of finance was the only way to finally start changing a broken, inequitable system. These earlier episodes weren’t bad, but they had the faintest whiff of journalism masquerading as fiction, as though all involved had come up with a message and then awkwardly pinned a show to it.

That’s not really the case any longer, even though Billions is still about what it means to live in a country where some people are obscenely wealthy and lots of other people are not. The show has made Chuck’s co-option by Bobby so entertaining that you almost don’t think about it until the episode is over. The two men, once they stopped hurling barbs at each other, turned out to have plenty in common, and watching Giamatti and Lewis work together is great fun.

But, hey, Bobby did co-opt Chuck. Even if the show eventually pivots back to its original conflict, Chuck will never be able to escape Bobby’s influence over his life. And “Overton Window” also opens up other scars you didn’t realize had been wounds all along.

In particular, the relationship between Chuck and his wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), becomes fodder for a very public outing. The two engage in sadomasochism, with Wendy playing the role of dom to Chuck’s sub, a relationship she’s starting to find a little boring. (It still really does it for him.) When Chuck’s campaign is threatened with this knowledge becoming public, he asks Wendy what to do, and she asks him to bow out. The unspoken subtext: I don’t want this part of our lives becoming public, even if you’re thinking about it.

I’ve already told you that Chuck wins his election, so I probably don’t have to tell you that not only is the couple’s relationship exposed, but that Chuck himself is only too happy to do the exposing at a massive press conference — not only revealing this core truth about himself and Wendy, but leaning in to it, cementing his image as a man you can trust that he now has no secrets. Wendy, needless to say, is furious.

Here, a lot of shows would simply have Wendy fall into the arms of Bobby. After all, the two work together (one of the most ridiculous conceits of the whole series, but one it has somehow earned over time), and there’s an unspoken sexual tension between them. But Billions understands that what is interesting here isn’t sex. It’s power, and money, and how much these characters long for one or the other. Which is why the person who tries to lure Wendy away from the Chuck-Bobby alliance is Taylor, who sees an opportunity to pursue their own money-making goals.

Taylor in and of themselves is a key example of how Billions works to make every element of the show enthralling. They’ve moved beyond being “the non-binary character” or “the undiscovered genius only Bobby can see” to a character who is genuinely, in all moments, unpredictable. They are a legitimate fourth lead of the show now, as interesting and important as Chuck, Bobby, and Wendy, and their non-binaryness throws everything else the series has to say about the intersections of power and gender into a blender.

As the series has built up our affection for Taylor and our fascination with the way they approach business dealings, it’s slowly started to seed in the sorts of explorations of non-binary identity that other shows would have put upfront in clumsy, earnest fashion. (Particularly rewarding have been scenes between Taylor and their dad, played by Kevin Pollak as a guy who can’t quite fathom the person his kid has grown up to be.)

I haven’t even talked about the series’ genuinely wonderful supporting cast, or the way every scene crackles with witty dialogue, or the endless series of plot twists that never feel forced. Billions has more than learned the most important lesson any TV show should pick up on: If you want to say something, say it with pizzazz.

Billions airs Sundays at 9 pm Eastern on Showtime. Previous episodes are available on Showtime’s streaming platforms.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.