With a fifth season streaming on Neon from May 4, Adam Fresco shares his top insider trades on the drama series that dips into big money, being non-binary, Metallica, Malkovich, and sado-masochism. With that in mind, prepare to encounter the odd spoiler ahead…
Billions first burst onto the screen back in 2016, with a scintillating mix of unscrupulous, rich and powerful characters competing against one another in the heady and often nefarious worlds of high finance and New York politics.
Led by two powerhouse performances from Sideways star Paul Giamatti (as US Attorney Charles “Chuck” Rhoades), and former Homeland lead Damien Lewis (as hedge-fund supremo, Bobby “Axe” Axelrod). The show focuses on the two main characters as they vie for power, position and prestige, crushing their opponents, colleagues and families beneath the steel wheels of their ambitions.
But beneath the tangled web of deceit, dodgy manoeuvres and downright tragedy, what sets Billions apart is its whip-smart dialogue, cracking actors, twisted plotting and wicked sense of humour.
So, hold on to your hedge-funds and take a trip through the billion reasons highlighting the bonkers brilliance of Billions.
ONE: Chuck and Wendy: Money, Marriage, and Masochism
Paul Giamatti and Maggie Siff are the power-couple at the heart of the series, which kicks off with S&M right from scene one, episode one, series one. As Wendy, Siff is Chuck’s dominatrix in the bedroom, but things get more complicated at work where she is team psychoanalyst for Axe Capital, the firm run by Chuck’s arch rival, Bobby Axelrod (Damien Lewis).
Outwardly an odd couple, Chuck and Wendy form a powerful marriage of two intelligent, manipulative and powerful people, literally and metaphorically tied to one another by marriage, kids and a mutual love of kinky roleplay.
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With two actors at the top of their game, a wardrobe full of leather and chains, and two characters simultaneously pitted against and powerfully attracted to one another, Wendy and Chuck’s dysfunctional on-again/off-again relationship delivers some of the series’ most scintillating scenes.
TWO: Murder, the Russian Mob, and Malkovich
Halfway through season three, John Malkovich bizarrely shows up at a professional hockey match, chewing the scenery as Russian oligarch Grigor Andalov—a man with an accent so heavy it’s a wonder Malkovich can lift it out of his throat. A shark circling Axelrod’s investment account, Andalov trusts huge sums of cash with Bobby on the understanding that if he loses any, there will be repercussions of the bone-snapping and eye-gouging kind. Not that all his threats are that obvious. In fact most seem to involve long, rambling anecdotes set in a frozen Moscow of old, that end with Malkovich saying lines so ridiculous you’re never quite sure if his character is intentional comic relief. Take his description of Bobby as being “naked as Paris Hilton and twice as fucked”.
But in the end, Malkovich’s over-the-top bad guy performance, bonkers one-liners, zany accent and his character’s seeming omnipotence make him instantly appealing, hilarious and about as meta an experience as watching John Malkovich watch Being John Malkovich as part of a competition to do the best John Malkovich impression.
Did I mention John Malkovich guest stars in Billions?
THREE: Testosterone, Taylor and High Tech
In the traditionally male-dominated, chauvinistic world of high finance and New York politics, Billions introduced North American TV’s first major non-binary character. Taylor, played by Asia Kate Dillon, entered season two as an Axe Capital intern. With a highly developed intellect, a keen interest in computer technology as a new way to manipulate the market, and a knack for making money, Taylor quickly drew the attention of Bobby Axelrod. It’s not long before Axe marks Taylor out as his right hand, only to have it bitten off.
Taylor’s non-binary character, casually addressed by all as “they”, normalises a refusal to be categorised by gender identity, acting as an effective anecdote to the macho rivalry between Axelrod and Chuck Rhodes. Plus, Asia Kate Dillon is perfectly cast in a role that launched a movie career that kicked off in kick-ass style with Dillon playing the Adjudicator opposite Keanu Reeves in 2019s John Wick: Chapter 3: Parabellum.
FOUR: Rich, Rock and Ulrich
One of the perks of being richer than Denmark is going to see your favourite band on a whim. In season four, billionaire financial whizz, Bobby Axelrod, flies his buddies to Quebec, Canada, just to see Metallica.
Cue the band rehearsing backstage with Billions star Damian Lewis and frontman Lars Ulrich awkwardly winking as he reveals his secret to feeling free. Which, turns out to be, um—playing with Metallica.
FIVE: A Dish Best Served Rich
Most of Billions‘ storylines payoff in revenge of one sort or another. It’s kind of like wish fulfilment soap opera for geeky, gawky kids made good by mountains of cash. So, what better way to use your dough than to crush, dominate and wreak bloodless revenge on former enemies? It’s a scene often repeated but always relished, and Billions does it brilliantly through anti-hero Bobby Axelrod, a man who it is revealed made his initial millions as a result of canny investments made during the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, cleverly placing him in the dubious amoral swamp between callous indifference and money-making genius.
Billions is never short of quotable lines, zingers and put-downs, and a veritable cornucopia of Trumpian advise on how to screw the other guy and stay on top in the cut and thrust world of business. Basically, it’s Sun Tzu’s The Art of War for Wall Street financiers. Take this scene from season four, in which Bobby Axelrod teaches a would-be student (and could-be threat) a lesson titled: “Never give the money back, kid.”
SIX: Dollar Bill
One of the most reliably unscrupulous characters amongst a metric ton of ruthless sharks is Axe Capital’s “Dollar” Bill Stern. Played with sleazy charm and greedy confidence by Kelly AuCoin, Dollar Bill is a cut-throat Wall Street trader and mass chicken murderer, (seriously, watch the show, but remember it’s all fiction and no actual chickens were harmed. Probably.)
Arrogant, amoral, hateful and yet often hilarious, Bill is bald, bad and insatiably greedy. Described by the actor himself as “the cheapest millionaire in America”, dodgy Dollar Bill is a recurring character that you love to hate. But, mean as he is, Bill’s always generous when it comes to serving up solidly entertaining comic relief.
SEVEN: Like Father, Like Son
When it comes to unscrupulous, covetous and mean-spirited, the apple did not fall far from the tree in Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades and his father. Played with palpable glee by actor Jeffrey DeMunn, Chuck Senior is either on his son’s side, teaching him the rules in a crooked game completely devoid of rules, or pitted against him in service of his own interests or purely out of paternal rivalry. Either way, the wily New York power-broker and horny old goat is never far from his son’s wheeler-dealing, plotting and power plays, offering up yet another highly entertaining pairing in a show full of great double acts.
EIGHT: The Idiot Is…
Okay, so this one might be considered a bit of a spoiler, so don’t say you haven’t been warned. After almost an entire season of Chuck Rhodes’ former assistant and now rival, Bryan Connerty (played with a credible mix of naiveté and ambition by Toby Leonard Moore) trying to work out who the idiot is referred to by Chuck Junior and Senior, he finally finds out in a scene brimming with Billions‘ trademark mix of high stakes drama and wantonly silly situation comedy.
NINE: Eating Ortolan
So, as every good gourmand and excellent eater knows (and as I just looked up), the ortolan is a bird savoured in French cuisine as a delicacy so delicate (and seriously endangered) that diners cover their heads whilst eating it. So, what better metaphor for the rich than a season three scene in which Bobby Axelrod and his trusted colleague, Wags, are served up the near-extinct delicacy by a private chef? Gross, grandiose and full of giggles, this is Billions doing its thing—wagging a disapproving finger at the rich, whilst simultaneously relishing their luxurious lives from afar. Satirical comedy drama that’s often up there with the best of fellow Neon show Succession.
TEN: Wags the Dog
My favourite character by far is Bobby Axelrod’s right-hand man, Mike “Wags” Wagner. Chief Operating Officer of Axe Capital, the drug and sex-addicted Wags is played with gleeful aplomb by Breaking Bad actor David Costabile. His performance as a money-minded man-child who gets his fix from living life to the full and revelling in his riches is infectiously fun. Wags is what happens when you remove the constraints of morality, conscience and playing it safe, and add endless supplies of cash, cocaine and high end clubbing.
Fiercely loyal to his boss and featuring the best swearing on television since Malcolm Tucker in BBC’s The Thick Of It, Wags is the hilarious, high octane highlight of every scene in which he appears. Being bad hasn’t been this much fun since Larry Hagman donned JR’s Stetson in Dallas.
ELEVEN TO ONE BILLION
Sorry reader, these entries don’t exist. But what else should you realistically expect from coverage of a show that trades in double-cross and deceit? We’ll hang our head under the anonymity of a napkin and eat our ortolan in shame.