Billions moves fast. Really fast. The Showtime drama about power-hungry hedge fund traders and the power-hungry government officials trying to stop them careens from one storyline to the next at a speed that makes the show deliciously addictive. It also makes it a little tricky to keep up with. I adore the show completely and yet even I, a person who is paid to watch and write about it, sometimes have trouble remembering everything that has happened over its run.
And so, with the fifth season upon us and four seasons of plot in our rearview, a project: A Billions Glossary, with a (somewhat) helpful nugget about the show assigned to each letter of the alphabet. Does it mention Ice Juice? Oh, you know it mentions Ice Juice. Is the entry for P “poop train”? Yup, that’s in here, too. Will there be screencaps of a mostly nude Paul Giamatti strapped into leather contraptions? My friends, you need only wait until the letter B.
Get out your highlighters. We are doing education.
The hedge fund run by Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, an apex predator masquerading as a blue-eyed human, who is constantly under investigation by someone or under attack from a rival billionaire. Usually both. Everyone who works there is a terrible person. Everyone on the show is a terrible person, actually. That’s what makes it fun.
There’s no way around it: if you watch Billions, you’re going to see Chuck Rhoades, the former U.S. Attorney and political candidate and full-time schemer played by Paul Giamatti, shacked into all sorts of leather contraptions. Heck, the whole series opened with him getting humiliated and urinated on by a dominatrix. Like, in the first 90 seconds. It’s part of his personality, exerting dominance and power in his job and seeking submission and pain in his leisure time. In season four, these aspects of his private life were about to be revealed to the public, so he beat everyone to the punch by revealing it all himself in a press conference.
It was kind of like the press conference where Tony Stark reveals that he’s Iron Man, but… different.
There are so many clandestine meetings on Billions. Just an absolute smorgasbord of them. At the docks, on a roof, in the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant, in a park in the middle of the night, really anywhere that two characters can meet in secret to discuss ruining a third character, which happens at least one per episode and is a blast. Clandestine meetings are fun. We should all be having more of them.
A few notes about Dollar Bill Stearn:
- Morally bankrupt trader who will do almost anything to make money
- Has two separate families, which is mentioned very infrequently on the show and is something I would watch an entire episode about
- Played by Kelly AuCoin, who also played Pastor Tim on The Americans, which will mean very little to you if you haven’t seen both shows and will be earth-shattering news if you have
He’s a maniac. It’s great.
As in “childish enthusiasms,” which is what Chuck’s father, Charles Senior, calls his son’s vast array of fetishes. This is one of those terms that really sticks with you, in large part because neither word in the phrase seems to get anywhere near describing what is actually going on.
Lots of great facial hair on Billions, starting with Mike “Wags” Wagner, Axe’s number two at the firm, an unapologetic hedonist and the possessor of a truly magnificent mustache that curls into two evil little points at the ends.
It’s not just mustaches, though. Please also note the luxurious swooping eyebrows sported by Chuck’s father, who is becoming more and more hilariously debaucherous each season and might at any point tell his grown son about things he did in a bathhouse 30 years ago.
Yes, the bondage was already mentioned, but Paul Giamatti gets a second entry on this list. It can’t be avoided. The performance he gives on Billions is masterful, the full Giamatti, rage and embarrassment and dancing and all of it. The man is an icon, as this context-free GIF from the show can confirm.
Note the spittle. Always note the spittle.
The show’s stand-in for Elon Musk, who, in a brief run, seduced Chuck’s wife and then died in a private rocketship explosion that was broadcast on live television. Also, and this is extremely important, he was played by James Wolk, the actor responsible for the roles of Bob Benson on Mad Men and renegade zoologist Jackson Oz on Zoo and for saying the phrase “squid pro quo” on Watchmen. A remarkable career.
Everything happens so much on Billions, to a degree that it could be easy to overlook the names of the companies the characters are investing in. Don’t do that. Never do that. If you do that, you might miss solid gold like Ice Juice (an all-natural energy drink company that Axe ruins by poisoning its supply and tanking its IPO) and SugarVape (a vape company that… actually, you probably get the gist of this one already). Billions does the big things very well, but it might do the small things even better.
Attorney General, big loud Texan, fan of analogies about bulls and other livestock, thorn in the side of Chuck Rhoades, champion in the field of establishing dominance by putting his feet up on someone else’s desk. Gets cussed out in Italian by Chuck in a rant that you can understand completely without translating a single word. Great villain.
The surprising thing isn’t that Billions introduced a mysterious and menacing Russian oligarch played by John Malkovich in a full-on “Teddy KGB from Rounders” accent. The surprising thing is that it took them all the way until season three to introduce a mysterious and menacing oligarch played by John Malkovich in a full-zone Teddy KGB from Rounders” accent. He lost his battle with Axe and retreated to Russia and the possibility of his return at any moment is very exciting.
Everyone on the show is an unrepentant liar who will smile in your face while picking your pocket. Most lines of dialogue involve a scheme or a plot or an ulterior motive. Everyone is playing an angle, all the time. If this seems like a pretty obvious and straightforward entry for the letter L, that’s because the other option here was “Leather” and I’m not sure this article can sustain that much Bondage Giamatti. So, liars it is.
One of the best things about Billions. Often happens at the clandestine meetings. A surprising number of them start with an interesting fact about nature or wildlife and then slowly wind and twist their way to making a point about the events on the show through that illustration. It’s kind of like how supervillains in comic book movies explain their motives with a speech that opens with “When I was a boy…” but instead it gives you a cool fact from National Geographic. It’s awesome. Everyone should talk like this all the time. Like, the next time a waiter asks you if you want an appetizer, start your reply with a long pause and then say “Anteaters, on average, consume over 30,000 ants a day” and keep talking for 90 seconds. Then order the bruschetta.
One of the show’s main characters, Taylor Mason, a brilliant trader and burgeoning rival for Axe, identifies as non-binary, using they/them pronouns instead of he/him or she/her. Taylor is a great character, perhaps the most interesting on the show, and a refreshing addition to the Swaggering Dude Energy you see at Axe Capital (and at most real-life hedge funds). At one point they had a fling with a character played by Mike Birbiglia, because Billions is tremendous at rolling notable guest stars in and out of the series.
A substantial number of scenes in Billions happen during meals, and many of those meals probably cost as much as your lawnmower. It’s borderline food porn in places, with slow-motion shots of truffle-shaving and long lingering looks at primo cuts of steak. The best example of this was the time Axe and Wags got together to eat ortolans, small birds you consume whole in a cult-like ceremony that involves draping a cloth over about 70 percent of your face. If this does not make you hungry (no thanks!), just wait. Wags will shove a cheeseburger into his mouth at some point and get the train back on the track. Speaking of trains…
In season four, as part of a plot to get revenge on Jock Jeffcoat, Chuck Rhoades was able to stall a train near his Texas home, which would not have been a big deal had the train not been filled with human waste from New York construction site Port-a-Pottys that smelled so rancid it cause multiple people in its downwind path to vomit immediately. It was an important plot point. Serious consequences were felt by many. Because of the Poop Train. Your favorite show could never pull this off.
Quants are the math whizzes who use cold logic and many computers to identify potentially profitable trades. The old school traders like Dollar Bill hate them. Most of them are hopeless nerds, except for this guy, who looks like he’s about to explain The Matrix to you. The movie and the general concept.
Quite possibly the most conflicted character on a show filled with conflicted characters. Brilliant psychologist, masterful performance coach, part-time dominatrix, also both married to Chuck and employed by Axe, two cobras who are circling each other at all times unless they are working together. Sometimes seems like the only character on the show with a conscience and then suuuurprise she’ll support a plan that involves seducing a heartsick puppy dog trader or ruining an oncologist who is in the way. Might be the smartest character on the show.
Attorney who once worked for Chuck in the Eastern District, stayed there after he left, and is proving to be incredibly formidable. Does this thing when some guy is saying something dumb where she blinks her eyes long and slow and then, when her eyelids rise back up, reveals two lasers that are slicing that guy into pieces right where he stands. This is a metaphor. Barely.
Billions is chockablock with delightful words and phrases. In a single conversation, the show dropped “financial trickitude” and “trifecta of chicanery” as characters discussed how to bury “a patsy.” The show can be a real treat for the ears sometimes.
“I am not uncertain.” This is a phrase that is used frequently around Axe Capital, often by Dollar Bill. What it really means is something along the lines of “I know this for a fact but can’t say that because doing so would be an admission of guilt involving fraud or insider trading or both, so I’ll say this instead to give us the thinnest and flimsiest cover possible in case anyone is ever asked about it under oath by a government official.”
Nothing on this show is more accurate than the staggering number of fleece Patagonia vests worn by people in the finance industry. Vests galore. Vests as far as the eye can see. Not a sleeve in sight.
Mentioned yet again because Wags is the best. Sometime the show will have very little for him to do besides yell profanities at his underlings. Other times he’ll get kidnapped by foreign nationals or find himself mustache-deep in a multi-season ruse that involves wearing makeup and a dress to a prestigious event only to find out he’s been fooled by an attorney whose high-status burial plot he swiped using subterfuge. Wags is a terrible man who would leave you penniless in a heartbeat if it earned him a single dollar and yet he is still a joy in every way. It might be the show’s greatest trick.
There is, at present, no character named Xavier on the show, although it would be nice if one is introduced soon, both because Xavier is a cool name and because it would help writers who pitch something like “what about a Billions Glossary?” to their editors without considering how tough it will be to find an entry for X.
Bryan Connerty is the Charlie Brown of Billions, an attorney who worked for Chuck before becoming hellbent on taking him down, to the degree he created a conspiracy board in his home. You know the ones, with pictures of the conspirators arranged in a triangle and pieces of string or lines of marker connecting them as the plot is uncovered, the kind usually created in mob or cartel investigators and/or by law enforcement types who are getting in way too deep and are slowly becoming unhinged. It feels like Connerty has had Chuck cornered at least three different times, only to watch him wriggle free at the last moment.
The whole series might end with everyone still rich and powerful and blessedly free of lessons learned except for Connerty, who will be penniless and sleeping on a park bench and mumbling about Ice Juice to a group of pigeons he feeds and created names and backstories for. This poor man.
The number of these people you’d want to know personally, despite them making for beautiful television.