I had a strange relationship with Showtime’s Billions in its first season. I admired the craftsmanship of it — the acting by a fine cast led by Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti, the production design, the cleverness of the dialogue — even as I struggled to root for either side in the battle of wits between Lewis’ rogue hedge fund trader Bobby “Axe” Axelrod and Giamatti’s self-righteous prosecutor Chuck Rhoades. But as I kept going through the six screeners Showtime had provided, I found myself experiencing the TV critic version of Stockholm Syndrome, where I cared about what was happening primarily because I had spent so much time with it, and because I could very easily start the next episode to see what happened next. When the screeners ran out and I had to watch one week at a time, the spell was broken and I dropped out after episode seven.
Then a few weeks ago, I began brainstorming a column about waiting for shows to improve, and all the “It got better in season two!” chatter about Billions convinced me to watch that as a sample case for that story. But even though I wound up enjoying the second season much more than the first — I actually finished it this time — it didn’t really fit the thesis of that column, because it wasn’t so much the show that got better, but the way that I watched it.
There are some definite improvements to be found in Billions year two. Asia Kate Dillon joined the cast as Taylor Mason, a brilliant analyst who felt like an outsider at Axe Capital for a variety of reasons, including their gender non-binary identity. Taylor’s a fascinating character — and a rare sympathetic one (mostly) on a show where the “good guys” can be as profoundly compromised and/or selfish as the alleged villains — and Dillon’s performance was terrific, even if the supporting nature of the character meant that all the avenues couldn’t be fully explored(*). And putting Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) on the outs with both husband Chuck and once and future boss Axe only sharpened the points on the not-quite-love triangle between the show’s three main characters. (And good on the show for being smart enough to never make it an actual love triangle; it feels much more interesting, and novel, for the stakes between them to be only emotional, and not sexual.)
(*) Though Taylor confesses to Axe that they don’t feel comfortable in the company’s relentlessly frat boy culture, almost everyone they encounter (with the notable exception of a rival hedge fund manager played by Danny Strong) is briefly thrown but respectful; every difference in this world tends to become fodder for insult, even among friends and co-workers, but that doesn’t happen here. Some of this is Taylor’s obvious value to the company — why mess with someone making everyone richer, and who’s also intensely shy and polite? — and the fact that we meet Taylor after they’ve worked at Axe Capital long enough to demonstrate said value, but it does feel like a highly idealized version of how an outsider would come to be accepted in a place like this.
Mostly, though, I liked it more for two reasons:
1) I binged the whole thing in about a week.
2) I watched it for what it was, and not what I thought it was.
The first one was easy to figure out. I had learned my lesson with the screener mini-binge the year before, and resolved that if I was going to try again, I would do it all at once. I still don’t particularly like most of the characters(*) and have no horse in the Chuck/Axe race, nor the fortunes being gained and lost by various characters — much of it described in jargon so dense it can make the most technobabble-filled Star Trek episode easy to follow in comparison — but my goodness does this show have forward momentum. In an era where too many series drag their feet because they believe they can get away with it, the stories gallop with such swiftness — even as the show deftly uses an Investment of the Week structure to keep individual hours from feeling shapeless or obligatory — that questions of emotional investment are superseded by curiosity about what could possibly happen next.
(*) The show does its best to keep the moral scales balanced between Chuck and Axe, but sometimes has to cheat to do it. One season two arc involves Axe investing heavily in an upstate New York town that’s due to build a casino, and when Chuck’s dad gets the project moved elsewhere, Axe decides to gut the town’s assets and public services in retaliation. It’s a cruel, petty move, but one that exists almost entirely in the abstract, rather than spending much time in the town to see how people are suffering as collateral damage. It’s a bad look for Axe, either way, but he’s protected a lot by keeping it a matter discussed in conference rooms.
It was the second part that took me longer to come around on. Because it was on Showtime, because it starred a pair of Emmy winners, had an impressive trio of creators (screenwriters Brian Koppelman and David Levien, best-selling author Andrew Ross Sorkin), it was hard not to look at it as yet another prestige anti-hero drama — and therefore to fault it when it couldn’t live up to its many predecessors.
Then I started doing a podcast with Brian Grubb, who has written a thing or two about Billions. Brian not only wouldn’t stop trying to convince me to give the show another chance, he completely reframed how I looked at it with this sentence:
“It’s Suits, but better.”
And that did it. When I stopped expecting something profound and watched it as an incredibly high-class laundry-folder, I also stopped being bothered by certain aspects that had previously put me off. Not just my complete lack of emotional investment in the characters and who won or lost a given battle, but things like the relentless pop culture quoting, where every character has a Tarantino-caliber database in their heads and can always cite the scene or famous line of dialogue to match their present circumstance. (In one episode, Taylor gives Chuck’s deputy Brian Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) a hard time because he compares their meeting to a scene from The Firm, but mixes actor names with character names; another features both Chuck citing The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to psyche up a witness, and Axe’s wife Lara (Malin Akerman) quoting The Wire.) The non-stop referencing goes hand in hand with the show’s indifference to subtext, which manifests itself in most scenes as one character making a power move, then a second character — often David Costabile as Axe’s delightfully mustache-twirling (literally!) consiglieri Wags — pausing to explain the motivations and strategy behind said move, usually something like this:
Axe: “I want you to short Shark Cola once it hits 23!”
Wags: “Brilliant! You’ll not only be sidestepping our recent trouble with the SEC, you’ll also be sticking it to Chuck Rhoades and to that shark who ate your mother’s foot when you were in the third grade! You know, this reminds me of Quint’s USS Indianapolis story from Jaws…”
If you’re taking Billions as a spiritual descendant of challenging dramas like The Sopranos or Mad Men, then this constant hand-holding of the audience is annoying. If you’re looking at it as a fun diversion, then the fact that the show pauses to explain every notable event in psychological and/or cinematic terms is actually a help, because it means you never have to worry about feeling lost if you got distracted for a whole scene (or even missed a whole episode). It’s a feature, not a bug.
Billions has its moments of nuance (particularly in dealing with the Rhoades marriage), and if the dialogue spells everything out, it tends to do it in very sharp and creative ways; it’s as pleasurable to hear a cast this good deliver these lines as it is to see how beautiful the show’s directors and production team can make its corridors of wealth and power look. It’s a lot more superficial than it seems at first, but it’s also fun in a way that a lot of wannabe quality dramas — which confuse glumness for greatness — just aren’t. What’s Chuck’s endgame? I’m not entirely sure. Who deserves to win this chess match? Doesn’t matter to me. Am I entertained? Absolutely.
So, no, Billions isn’t your prototypical “It gets much better by episode nine!” show. It’s improved around the margins, as many shows do once they’ve settled in and everyone knows how to work together, but for me the improvement was much more in how I viewed it than in anything Billions itself did.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com