Culture

I can’t stop watching “Billions”

How a show about the most unrelatable lives on earth sucked me in.
Culture

I can’t stop watching “Billions”

How a show about the most unrelatable lives on earth sucked me in.

Let me be clear: I love Billions. I have watched and re-watched; I have texts in my phone like “Mafee! My sweet boy!!!”; I have dropped phrases like “well, the market can’t find its feet lately” into casual conversation (I have a degree in art history.) I have discovered that expensive watches have fandoms and huge boats have “drafts”; I have learned what Netrunner is (a cyberpunk-themed collectible card game that debuted in 1996.)

How can this have happened to me? How can a show about a hedge-fund titan pursued by a grim, often-humiliated U.S. attorney have sucked me in? Is it just, as our antihero says, that everyone actually — secretly — wants to be a lion?

Billions premiered on Showtime on January 16, 2016, and when Damian Lewis as hedge-fund titan Bobby Axelrod asked in that episode “When did it become a crime to succeed in this country?” maybe it seemed like a reasonable question. Twenty months after the election of another self-described “success” who seems much less adept at covering his tracks, the script, as everyone writing about Billions loves to say, appears to have flipped: the billionaires are not exactly being persecuted and the FBI has shifted its focus from improper server use to election tampering.

This season of Billions, now nine episodes in, opens on Chuck Rhoades, a perpetually sweaty Paul Giamatti wielding extra jowl as our S&M practicing anti-anti-hero, headed to a sit-down with the Lucchese boot-wearing “new sheriff in town,” Attorney General Waylon “Jock” Jeffcoat (!). Jeffcoat’s enthusiasm for animal husbandry analogies establish him as representing the new “populist” but pro-business regime, a cultural sea change from the previous administration, which shielded its own billionaire friends until it became impractical.

How can a show about a hedge-fund titan pursued by a grim, often-humiliated U.S. attorney have sucked me in?

Cornered by Chuck after two seasons of pursuit, Axelrod has been forced to relinquish his license to trade, and his icy but formidable wife, Lara (Malin Akerman) has announced that she and their two boys will be staying in their fortressy Connecticut house even if he flees the country. Luckily, he still has Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff), Axe Capital’s in-house psychiatrist and Chuck’s wife, by his side as his improbably unromantic business associate.

Spaces are great signifiers on Billions, a show that loves signifiers. Newly single and barred from trading, Bobby broods in a double-height apartment overlooking his lower Manhattan fiefdom. The decor is comically expensive if impersonal; a Motherwell ‘Elegy’ painting on one wall and a John Baldessari looming over the couch. Wendy, the first visitor other than his kids, points out that billionaires move to Manhattan when they’re single like birds migrating to stay warm: “it’s in the genetic code.”

Chuck and Wendy and their two children, meanwhile, live in the kind of warmly lit, books-and-good-wood Brooklyn brownstone that conveys tasteful family money. The closed-concept layout of a vintage rowhome also provides plenty of safe spaces in which the couple can enact their incongruous S&M fantasies without bothering their rarely seen children.

A new Manhattan location of Bobby’s firm is convenient for him as well as for the new CIO, Taylor, seen buying a sleek Manhattan apartment with their bonus last season. It’s easy to root for Taylor (the wonderful Asia Kate Dillon), by definition an outsider because they’re gender nonbinary. The show has done a fine job of toning down its “look what we’re doing!!!” tone when Taylor is onscreen: last season Bobby named them CIO; this season he dispatches them to the hedge-funders “idea dinner” in his stead. Taylor may become the last sympathetic lead character standing, now that Bobby has taken up with a cartoonish Russian investor-villain (John Malkovich, not here to supporting-actor.)

I love this show, but it has some glaring issues that go frustratingly unaddressed. The writers have spent two-and-a- half seasons convincing us that Wendy’s loyalties were evenly divided between Chuck and Bobby, only to show us how easy it is for her to manipulate her winded Basset Hound of a husband as he considers whether to drop out of the governor’s race. “What about passion?” asks Wendy, and there’s Chuck realizing that his destiny lies in the courtroom, not Albany.

For “the TV show about power in America that we all should be watching right now,” as NPR crowed, and one that, according to The New York Times “belongs in a special class of drama,” it’s quite surprising that the female lead, although a refreshing dynamo, has no interiority or backstory (her male counterparts are afforded copious amounts of both). Or maybe it’s not surprising, considering that when one of the writers, discussing real-world character inspirations, only references men.)

I love this show, but it has some glaring issues.

I want to believe we’re all laughing at Billions’ displays of dumb dick-swinging together — Bobby rides a motorcycle to the Yale Club and yells at the guys in tuxes! Chuck goes berserk at Lonnie for absolutely no good reason! — but it’s getting tougher. I had convinced myself that Wendy’s cipher quality worked because it’s consistent with a patient’s experience of a psychiatrist, but my disbelief has become as un-suspended as an Acme safe about to crush Wile E Coyote. It’s depressing, especially these days, to watch a strong female character dissolve into incoherence. Siff always does terrific work, but Wendy’s been quite voluble on how much her job and her professional integrity mean to her, so why couldn’t she articulate her remorse at taking advantage of Mafee —technically her patient — by exploiting his crush on her?

Taylor reminded her of her Hippocratic oath in a previous episode, but when Bobby reassures her that by finance-world rules she’s hardly transgressed at all, Wendy doesn’t mention her professional transgression, only that her advice will now be “less pure.” Wendy threw Chuck out of their brownstone after he read her session notes (sharing the password to the laptop where you keep your notes is a HIPAA violation, I’m pretty sure?) but now she’s just vaguely depressed after 1) making out with a patient and 2) asking him to sacrifice his reputation by covering for her. The latest episode, which introduced a placeholder of a female trader clearly destined for “love interest,” finds Wendy, again, staring off into space on her couch and Bobby, again, offering advice after learning that she sold the Maserati he gave her as her bonus out of “guilt.” What has she been doing all day? Where did she come from? We may never know.

Music is another signifier on which the writers lavish attention: Taylor’s entrance in season three introduces us to Axe Capital’s new digs, powered by vintage punk rock (NYC’s the Dictators). Someone’s always going to kick down the doors/out the jams/over the wall/something on this show. Bobby gets Metallica (in a cutesy guest-star ep) and the Replacements and a Black Sabbath T-shirt, because he is rebel dad, while Chuck quotes Bob Dylan (“Gotta Serve Somebody”) and Jim Croce, because he is Brooklyn Heights dad. The recent episode “All the Wilburys” may have pushed the dad-rock joke too far, the kind of fan service that’s probably inevitable when a show has a writers’ room Twitter account.

And what about our “strong female character,” again? What did Wendy listen to in her bonus Maserati? Heart? Richard and Linda Thompson? Peaches? She could have gone for a joy ride to PJ Harvey, or cried in a parking lot to Lucinda Williams, but instead we have to watch Siff sit and ruminate on her office couch in silence. It’s disappointing.

When the show premiered, I’m sure the writers thought they were challenging viewers by forcing us to confront dark and terrible things about those we reward and envy the most. Instead, the show communicates an utter lack of discomfort, showing us what it’s like to move through life in a zero-gravity bubble, devoid of friction or glare or even texture. Our real president might be trying to provoke a war to distract from an investigation into criminal activities that will knit his career together with that of his son-in-law in a net of international money-laundering, shell companies, and political enablers, so this is an admirable achievement in fiction.

“Criminal” is a word we hear Chuck say over and over in the first season, but Bobby is right when he complains that the laws are arbitrarily enforced and the fines he pays don’t benefit the poor. We have given up on taxes for the public good, or maybe the concept of a public good. It has become impossible to get around New York unless you can walk or take a helicopter, because our publicly funded underground has been starved of funds and our above-ground transit is immobilized by billionaires disrupting groceries and taxis.

I have never seen anyone take the subway on Billions, not even the noble Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), Chuck’s ex-protege. Billions usually shows us the city from above looking straight down, a grid. I used to think it was a flaw, making it so hard for me to locate myself in this familiar place, and now I think it’s the point.

Amanda Yaggy is a writer in New York.