When did you realize you were seeing the last of Bobby Axelrod? Was it when the walls started closing in on him, legally, as his various enemies from various pursuits banded together in an unholy alliance to cook him over an open flame? Was it toward the end of the Billions season five finale, as he was having long conversations with each of the show’s other main stars one at a time in a way that screamed “CLOSURE” pretty much right up until he pulled a little private plane misdirection to get himself to Switzerland? Or was it the next morning when the New York Times published a “Why Damian Lewis is leaving Billions” exit interview with quotes from him and the showrunners?
You can be forgiven if it wasn’t until that last one, which I say both because that’s how long it took me and because Billions has a long history of backing its characters deeply into a corner and then having them wiggle out. It’s one of the things that’s made the show such a blast to watch over its run. Everyone on the show is terrible, just the worst people you’ve ever seen — and hope to never meet — all trying to ruin each other through scheming and subterfuge, kind of like a soapier version of Succession, which I say with only love and admiration. It’s one of those things that shouldn’t keep working half a dozen years into a show’s run, and yet, here we are. I’m proud of everyone involved.
Damian Lewis, for his part, has a number of fair reasons for moving on, starting with a desire to play different characters and extending to the thing where his wife — Peaky Blinders star Helen McCrory — recently passed away and he probably wants to spend more time in his native England with his family. (Years of hearing him do the Bobby Axelrod voice might have made you forget, but he is very British.) He’s already landed a role in a new BBC series with Guy Pearce. That’s good news for him and anyone who likes their television shows with a heaping of icy stares.
But the question this all raises is where, exactly, Billions goes from here, post-Axe, minus the character who pushed most of the action forward. The short, obvious answer is “to Corey Stoll,” who was introduced this season as Mike Prince, a nicer and kinder investor who turned (or revealed himself to be) shark-like as the season progressed. He’s already ticked off Paul Giamatti’s character, New York Attorney General Chuck Rhoades, which is a nice start. A perpetually ticked-off Giamatti is a winner for any show, really (and yes this is me backpedaling into a pitch for him to join, oh, let’s say The Righteous Gemstones, maybe just in this same role), but it’s especially important on Billions.
From the start, the thrust of the show has been Axe and Chuck circling each other like cobras. They would spend entire seasons trying to thwart and/or evade each other and it would all build to two or three scenes a year where they ended up in a room together with about four feet and a cloud of contempt between them. It made for pretty incredible television. With the rest of the cast sticking around and Corey Stoll’s character quite literally sitting in Bobby Axelrod’s seat (the finale had a nice little okie-doke with that, playing with the timeline to make viewers think Chuck was looking for Axe when he was really looking for Mike), I’m not super worried about the gears of the show continuing to turn. Some of it can be plug-and-play, especially since it has gotten away from Axe’s family life and was focusing more on him at work. Corey Stoll knows what he’s doing. And Dollar Bill left to open his own shop, which is something I would honestly watch an entire spinoff about. If you work at Showtime and are reading this, please consider.
The bigger thing I worry about is that Axe-Chuck thing. Lewis and Giamatti brought so much to those scenes. A lot of that is Giamatti giving the performance The Full Giamatti, which is always appreciated and probably my favorite part of the show. (I have well over a dozen GIFs of Paul Giamatti from Billions saved on my computer. It’s normal. Don’t worry about it.) But a bigger part, perhaps, was the work Lewis did with what should’ve been an unlikable character. From that New York Times exit interview.
That’s owed largely to Lewis, who from the beginning imbued a character that could have been a sneering caricature with emotional depth and a predatory physicality. (When he was developing the character, his acting exercises included moving about on the ground like a cheetah.) Much as Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston made Don Draper and Walter White irresistible even when they were awful, Lewis made Axe’s financial marauding fun to watch.
“Damian Lewis is not an actor who’s scared the audience is going to dislike him,” said Brian Koppelman, who is a showrunner along with David Levien. “He is willing to play the character in as caustic a manner as the character requires, and he has faith that if he’s true to that, it will connect with the audience.”
The show has a huge hole to fill now. Yes, some of that can be done with Corey Stoll coming at the situation from a new angle, replacing Axe’s cutthroat predator with a more thoughtful, quasi-benevolent figure. There’s fertile soil there to plant seeds in. And the show can lean more on its supporting cast, people like Asia Kate Dillon and Maggie Siff and Condola Rashad my beloved David Costabile as Wags, all of whom have been doing a lot with slightly less for a few seasons now. And Lord in heaven knows I am always at the ready for more Giamatti, even if he’s just cooking breakfast in silence. But it’s going to be weird. I’m going to miss seeing Axe doing Axe things, always in motion for fear slowing down will kill him, somehow vibrating with energy even while sitting in a chair, drinking water like this…
Television shows have survived the loss of the main character before. They will again. Billions has the tools in its shed to do that here, but it’s easier to say things like that than to do it. I’m rooting for the show, though. It’s been one of my favorites since it premiered, even as I sat there watching it hoping each of the characters got kabonged on the head with a frying pan. As long as that doesn’t change, and as long as it keeps giving me a series of the most jaw-dropping twists and diabolical scheming on television, I think there’s a decent shot at success.