[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Billions” Season 5, Episode 1, “The New Decas.”]
The markets may be in free fall, but the gains on “Billions” are flowing with abandon. Showtime’s rip-roaring financial drama has, over the course of four successful seasons, devilishly skirted the line between Shakespearian epic and billionaire fantasy soap opera. At a time when TV’s baser purpose as a tool for escapism couldn’t be more needed, watching fictional billionaires jockeying for power is a welcome relief from the actual news. Arriving in the nick of time, the show’s Season 5 premiere delivers on that promise, making all those viewing hours sunken into “Billions” a very solid investment indeed.
While no one likes seeing Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) on his knees more than his wife Wendy (Maggie Siff), creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien have a sadistic streak of their own when it comes to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. The episode opens with the wedding of Chuck Rhoades, Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn) to a much younger woman, as the imminent failure of Chuck’s own marriage stares him in the face. While not exactly having the time of her life, Wendy takes the family event as an opportunity to reassess her feelings about her estranged husband. “Maybe it’s time we stop listening to what Rhoades men say,” she tells her former mother-in-law stonily. (And we know as well as Chuck does that Wendy always means what she says.)
Meanwhile, our favorite redheaded multi-billionaire Bobby Axelrod (Damien Lewis) is withering away in an Ayahuasca sweat lodge somewhere in Canada, accompanied by his trusty (and very sweaty) righthand dog Wags (David Costabile). Both sporting shaggy haircuts that rival the best quarantine ‘dos, the eccentric duo are there to celebrate Axe hitting $10 billion in personal net worth. The last time Axe was in Canada he got a private Metallica concert and a very enticing offer from an erudite singer/songwriter, before he returning happily to his then-wife (Malin Akerman). Having chipped away at any glimmers of his goodly nature over the last four seasons, we are reminded that this Axe is a much different man. As he huffs maniacally about “heads will roll,” looking like a King Lear who traded his flower crown for a motorcycle helmet, the benevolent emperor act is stretching thin.
Caught in the middle between the former rivals (who became friends last season, but are now rivals again) is Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon), a calculated numbers genius who rose quickly through the ranks of Axe Capital before starting their own firm and eventually coming back into the fold. Like Cordelia cast asunder, Taylor has a long road ahead towards regaining Axe’s trust. Now positioned as the third major player in the Axe/Rhoades axiom, Taylor’s true aims remain opaque underneath their coldly aloof veneer.
As Taylor acolyte Lauren (Jade Eshete) reminds Wendy, Axe Capital used to be fun — the kind of place that surprised its employees with body sushi in the middle of the work day. While “Billions” has rarely strayed too far from its billionaire fantasy soap opera roots — Koppelman and Levien seem to be signaling they won’t forget to bring the funk. The Ayahuasca trip, Chuck’s unhinged best man toast, the introduction of a new rival for Axe in the form of a brazenly confident Corey Stoll, are all signs pointing to letting the good times roll.
So when pro wrestler Becky Lynch shows up for a dramatic demonstration, letting Wendy take her out handily in her impeccable business attire, it doesn’t even matter that her pep talk about being “all in this together” is so full of empty platitudes. That’s the kind of gut-punch, schmaltz double whammy “Billions” has always been selling. So far, we’re still on the hook.
Showtime airs new episodes of “Billions” on Sundays at 9 pm ET, beginning May 3.