When “Billions” Season 1 ended two things happened: In the narrative, Damian Lewis’ hedge fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod and Paul Giamatti’s U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhodes growled menacingly at each other from the demolished interior of Axe’s formerly luxurious office space. You see, Chuck had convinced Axe there was a bug somewhere on his turf, forcing him to tear it apart himself; wasting time, effort, and anxiety for what amounted to be a decent, if not exceptional, prank.
Jim Harper would be proud, but “Billions” isn’t a comedy. We need to feel the weight of this supposedly high-stakes story, not laugh at it. Once Axe had finished tearing apart his fancy schmancy office, the two started spitting fire at one another, making threats and promises; tossing insults back and forth; exchanging ever-building anger at the very existence of their opponent. But they didn’t say or do anything revelatory. Their best insults were behind them — “Billions” may never top the line, “What’s the point of having fuck you money, if you never get to say, ‘Fuck you.'” — and they’d already declared war six episodes prior, when Chuck baited Axe into tearing up a massive settlement check. The second face-to-face meeting between our two leads only amounted to a hollow recreation of the first.
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Such backwards dramatic trajectory represented an issue heading into Season 2: If no one was going to jail or losing significant amounts of money, what were we waiting to see happen in TV’s biggest pissing contest? Axe had made it evident he wasn’t going to change when he tore up that check, and Chuck clearly isn’t going to stop hounding Axe. Such resistance to development is damaging to narratives, and it’s still holding “Billions” back in Season 2.
With a few new characters of mixed importance and a lower ratio of fresh-to-good storylines, “Billions” hasn’t advanced in its second season. It’s just provided more toys for Chuck and Axe to fight over. In the first four episodes, little progress is made in illustrating why we should care about two rich white dudes fighting over power and pride. Even when the writers try to comment on the despicable nature of stereotypical Wall Street-types, there’s too much admiration infused for their leaders, Chuck and Axe.
…which leads us to the second thing that happened at the end of “Billions” Season 1: nothing. Nothing happened when something big should have gone down. “Billions” did well in the ratings (nearly doubling “The Affair” in live viewers, and coming close to “Homeland”-level numbers), but it came up empty on the awards circuit and critical praise was severely limited. It came in 93rd of 103 total shows in UpROXX’s annual critics’ poll – tying for last place, if you take out alphabetical sorting — right in line with CBS’ “Blue Bloods” at one point a piece and falling a point shy of the SeeSo sitcom “Take My Wife.” Worse yet, the series was blanked at the Emmys and Golden Globes despite Showtime’s heavy campaigning for both.
And earning nothing during awards season for a show like “Billions” means a lot to Showtime. With a cast of this pedigree (and what has to be a sizable budget), gold is expected — not just dollars. So one might think Season 2 would see some major changes; or, at least a few significant shake-ups to get voters (and critics) to reconsider the big ticket drama.
What little has changed isn’t significant so much as superficial. “Billions” keeps its macho energy alive, focusing on a poker tournament in Episode 3 and featuring an ongoing storyline where Axe tries to buy an NFL team. (The opening scene even takes place in a stadium; though, notably, it’s not an NFL stadium, and the scene isn’t part of that storyline.) Chuck is busy trying to save his marriage, but only half-heartedly. He remains transfixed by Axe, and though “Billions” earns points for not turning into a predictably soapy love triangle, Chuck acts like he’s in one, and this does his character no favors.
Perhaps the most interesting change is the addition of Taylor, an intern at Axe Capital who goes by the pronouns “they” and “them.” That’s right: “Billions” has added a character in Season 2 who ascribes to a non-binary gender, and better yet, they hired Asia Kate Dillon to play Taylor, making them the first non-binary-gender actor to play a non-binary role on TV. In the season, they’re thrown into a business environment dominated by the most proudly heteronormative men imaginable. Conflict is on the horizon.
Well, it should be. Taylor, thankfully, doesn’t conform to their culture or even assuage the guilt of their peers’ aggressively masculine behavior. But Taylor doesn’t have much of an effect on them either. Even when they start working closely with Axe, the businessman paints such issues in terms of money and nothing else. Taylor complains how it’s “uncomfortable breathing the air” at Axe Capital, but such observations don’t actually go anywhere — not yet, anyway. What Taylor’s larger purpose becomes could make “Billions” more compelling down the line, but there’s little evidence to suggest their presence will incite actual change in Axe, Axe Capital, or the show itself.
But I do have a proposed switch-up that would garner attention for the right reasons: Make Maggie Siff’s smart, adaptive, and exciting character, Wendy, the lead. Not a lead, mind you, but the lead of “Billions.” It’s been obvious she should be the focus and story-driver since Season 1, but it became painfully clear in the finale.
Before Chuck and Axe cooked up their showy shouting match in the finale, Wendy provided the first season with its true climax. After discovering her husband violated her trust by snooping through her computer for dirt on Axe, she systematically proved she had nothing to do with it to her former boss. She reacted professionally to a personal situation when both her husband and Axe (who fired her the second he suspected she was ratting him out to Chuck) reacted like children.
But it wasn’t her maturity that sealed up her case for leading lady: It was how she went back to Axe, proved she was innocent, made him beg her to come back, earned an on-the-spot bonus for his betrayal, and then left both him and Chuck in the dust, quitting Axe and speeding off into the sunset with $5 million padding her unemployment status.
Now that’s what we call an ending! What will Wendy do next? What job will she take? How will she get sucked back into Axe’s world, and what’s she going to do about Chuck? We’d be happy to let her kick both of them to the curb, but a) he’s still the father of her children, and b) Lewis and Giamatti would make for compelling characters if they were supporting her story instead of the other way around. Wendy is an excellent protagonist, and a pure one to boot. She’s not like the antiheroes making up every other role. She has questions we want to see answered and actually moves toward resolution regularly. If she and Malin Akerman’s Lara — who’s great, but needs more to do — teamed up to fight back against the Wall Street boys’ club that screwed them over, well, there’s a series worth watching.
Instead, “Billions” remains tied to the traditional mentality of premium cable dramas: White, male leads sell more subscriptions because white, male viewers are the ones paying for them. We can’t speak to the business sense in choosing between Chuck and Axe as leads vs. Wendy and Lara, but artistically the latter is clearly more appealing. It may sound like sacrilege, but a show built around Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis needs new leads. And if money drives the argument, as it fittingly would for a show titles “Billions,” may we point to some good advice from a white, male mogul: “Adapt or die.”
“Billions” Season 2 premieres Sunday, February 19 at 10 p.m. on Showtime. Episode 1, “Risk Management,” is available for free right now.