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.
Watching the first four episodes of Billions‘ second season — which debuts Sunday Feb. 19 — during the opening weeks of the Trump administration was a strangely sobering experience. Tonally, the outrageousness of season one has been scaled back. (Or does it just seem that way in comparison to the parade of megalomaniacs that dominate the news cycle now?)
A cue that things will be different this season on Billions comes courtesy of the throbbing bassline from Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire,” which sets the scene early in the first episode. “Jump Into the Fire,” of course, is associated with Goodfellas, in which the song is used to score a long and ultimately momentous day when Henry Hill’s life slowly falls apart. Like Henry’s brother Michael stirring the sauce, Billions has turned the heat way down to a low simmer. But gradually, over the course of several episodes, Billions picks back up to an intense boil.
Axe and Rhoades are still trying to claw their eyes out, but they seem a little tired. There’s a slight limp in their respective struts — Axe is trying to rebuild his reputation in the wake of a public criminal investigation, and Rhoades is facing his own inquisition for prosecutorial misconduct. Instead of taking each other on directly, they settle on a proxy battle concerning an embattled banker named Lawrence Boyd (Eric Bogosian), who enlists Axe’s help after Rhoades goes all in on another big fish as a last-stab attempt to save his job.
While Billions sometimes veered in season one from indicting the greed and amorality of its characters to sympathizing with or even glorifying them, season two appears to be more careful about keeping the focus on the rot at the core of self-destructive machismo. Two new characters are vital in that regard — there’s Todd Krakow (Danny Strong), a smug, Napoleonic wannabe-Axe who’s bullying come-ons to newly independent Wendy are transparent attempts to mask raging insecurity. (“The struggle for you is you remember the complaints, don’t you?” Wendy tells one of Krakow’s piggish underlings. “They lodge deep. They haunt you.” Remind you of anyone?)
And then there’s Taylor, an intern who rises fast in the ranks at Axe’s firm due to an uncommon ability to read between the lines, whether it’s on a spreadsheet or with people. Played by non-binary gender identifying actor Asia Kate Dillion, Taylor exists as a vague threat to the bros in the Axe’s office, due to Taylor’s superior smarts and dubiousness about the value of mano-a-mano competition.
Signifiers of this sort of hand-to-hand combat abound in the new season of Billions — horse racing, poker, judo, the NFL, Mark Cuban. But the zest with which Billions once delved into this world of overgrown boys playing real-life war games has been appropriately tempered by a weariness over the damage it causes. Fortunately, Billions remains a fun, addictive show, but the real-life truths it helps to illustrate grow more alarming all of the time.