On the surface, “Billions” is about elite finance and its policing. The newest Showtime drama is hardly the first to examine tropes like nepotism and conflicts of interest. It is among the first to prioritize realism…to an extent.
Don’t expect any story arcs about incompetent family members receiving preference. Do expect complex social layering. Obligations routinely clash with personal interests and personality. In fact, this ambivalent conflict is what defines the show.
“Billions” is primarily about two different characters butting heads. On one hand, we have Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti). Born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he’s now a U.S. Attorney who finds financial crime particularly reprehensible. On the other, we have successful hedge fund manager Axe Axelrod (Damien Lewis). Coming from nothing, he’s worked his way to the top through questionable methods. Complicating matters is Chuck Rhoade’s wife, Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff). She serves as Axe Capital’s performance coach. The Rhoade’s lifestyle is a direct result of Axe’s illegal trading.
There are machinations within machinations. Axe’s illegal trading blows up into a scandal involving profiteering from 9/11. Shady financiers tapped by Chuck Rhoade’s office kick and cry. A corrupt judge accepts kickbacks for sending ethnic minorities to privatized prisons.
“Billions” has a progressive agenda. After all, it is the brainchild of Andrew Sorkin. Axe’s humanization is also to the show’s credit. His portrayal is superior to characters we see in Wall Street and “Damages.” Lewis already carved himself a niche for playing enlightened autocrats. His portrayal of Axe echoes earlier performances. Soams from “The Forsyte Saga” and Henry VIIIth from “Wolf Hall” most come to mind.
There is lost potential for all the show’s fair mindedness. It’s quite biblical to place a female in the role of therapist. Such gender norms are since before X-Men. If “Billions” made the choice on purpose is anyone’s guess. It’s unfortunate. Making Wendy the lawyer would have set the show apart.
Giamatti has the stuff to play a shrink. Siff has the stuff to play an attorney. That decision would overlook men’s reactions to being outearned by female partners, sure. Small potatoes, though, compared to what we could see. A female U.S. Attorney battling financial crime while beset by sexism and chauvinism? Sounds good to me.
More so, generic power dynamics are far more pertinent and unsettling. Don’t get me wrong. Chuck flipping out in an S&M dungeon makes for great TV. Having Wendy present instead would make for great art.
Further, there are the dynamics between Wendy and Axe. They have closeness that transcends therapy. Replacing her with Chuck would offer great insight. For instance, we could observe the narcissistic/homoerotic undertones of chauvinistic bonding.
Then there is also the plausibility of the scenario. Wendy’s drive is fascination with the elite. That’s interesting, but overdone. Chuck’s background would investigate tendencies of preference or rejection, depending on portrayal. Giamatti is an excellent actor. No matter what, he also still looks like himself.
“Billions” is still one of the best shows of winter/spring. Placing Siff in the same…positions as Giamatti would generate blowback. Whatever critics say, those scenes would be far from gratuitous. It would force viewers to confront the extreme of normative relationships. The “Billions” team entertain us with tabloid spectacle for now. Maybe next season they’ll actually probe beyond the politically correct.