When Showtime’s finance drama Billions premiered in early 2016, it seemed like a bombastic redux of The Wolf of Wall Street, in which a crooked hedge-fund titan (Damian Lewis) squares off against a morally compromised federal attorney (Paul Giamatti) in a season-long “Who’s Is Bigger?” contest. The dialogue, peppered with violently sexual metaphors and retrograde schoolyard taunts, was both quotable and gross. (“My father always told me that ‘mercy’ was a word pussies used when they couldn’t take the pain.”) And then there was that crazy subplot about Giamatti’s character being into S&M, introduced in the pilot with a throw-down-the-gauntlet opening scene in which a dominatrix urinates on Giamatti’s chest.
Even though I loved Billions, it seemed pretty exaggerated. There was no way men this powerful and brilliant could also be this weak and stupid in real life. Oh, we were so innocent back then, weren’t we? Now, it’s a year later, and there’s a billionaire in the White House who favors sexual metaphors and schoolyard taunts (particularly “pussy”), and is also allegedly into water sports.
I’m not saying that Billions — one of TV’s most addictive shows, and certainly among its most underrated — necessarily predicted the rise of Donald Trump. But Billions does help to explain the culture from whence he came, and the epidemic of toxic masculinity that emboldens and then destroys world-conquering blowhards (and, unfortunately, everything else in their vicinity). Billions reminds me of HBO’s similarly misunderstood Vice Principals, which depicts white-male resentment from the bottom-up perspective of the middle-American Trump voter. The guys on Billions, meanwhile, could actually be Trump.
While Billions got a lot of its mojo in season one from the contact high that inevitably accompanies depictions of great wealth and power, it was always trending toward oblivion. It finally arrived in Billions’ season finale in the form of a riff on The Conversation, in which antihero Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Lewis) is driven to tear apart his luxury office complex in a paranoia-driven fury stoked by the machinations of his antagonist, Chuck Rhoades (Giamatti), who may or may not have put Axe under surveillance in the wake of Axe indirectly torpedoing Rhoades’ marriage to Wendy (Maggie Siff), Axe’s former performance coach.
Like everything about Billions, season one’s closing image of Axe and Rhoades taunting each other amid the rubble of Axe’s office was not subtle. But it was effective — and in retrospect, sort of profound. The men of Billions are absurdly confident, endlessly competitive, and doubtlessly resourceful master-of-the-universe types who are sorely lacking in self-awareness. They sacrifice their ethics, their co-workers, and even their loved ones in order to come out ahead in a never-ending game of one-upsmanship. Even in the midst of mass annihilation, these guys can’t quit the macho B.S.
A year ago, it was a fabulously pulpy cliffhanger. Now, the season one finale of Billions registers as yet another terrifying reminder of what’s at stake each time our president decides to take on the media or the judiciary or Nordstrom’s over some perceived slight. That sort of posturing only leads in one direction, and it’s not pretty.