“Billions” could conceivably go on forever. As long as there are people pulling down huge profits on asset manipulation, hostile corporate takeovers, and land grabs, there will be an opposite reaction, however equal. It’s the dynamic set up in the show’s early going, when Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) fancied himself a crusader against the excess and greed of the billionaire class. Back then, he had one particular wealth management operator in his sights, leading to a drawn-out psychological battle with Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) marked by uneasy alliances and scorched-earth tactics.
However primal that feud between money and the law might seem, though, the Chuck/Axe rivalry had reached a breaking point leading up to Season 6. The show had double-crossed and head-faked enough times that, even while still retaining its particular over-the-top joys, the well was beginning to run dry. So rather than try to retool the same dynamic yet again, the show took a different tack and removed Axe and Lewis from the board entirely, putting in his place the man who was introduced as merely a temporary adversary. For whatever reason the show shuffled its above-the-title strategy, the infusion of Mike Prince (Corey Stoll) into the feds vs. funds drama has given “Billions” something of a second life.
Season 6 underlines that reset in its opening episode, a return that blends the familiar (the coveted in media res opening) with the not. (Chuck is far from Manhattan, instead finding a peculiar new foe upstate.) Once that diversion sets up some of the thematic ground for what’s to come, Season 6 settles in for the Chuck/Prince proxy war promised when last we left what used to be AxeCap HQ.
On both sides of this tussle, “Billions” Season 6 is focused on what it means to go about things “the right way.” Chuck is set on finding avenues that don’t involve the preferred methods of Senior (Jeffrey DeMunn), ones that treated federal law more like suggestions to be discarded whenever they proved inconvenient. For a man whose greatest heartbreak over the course of the show might be losing a priceless set of first edition Winston Churchill books, Chuck also looks for a fresher way to position himself as the Attorney General for the common man of New York. “Billions” has flirted plenty of times with the idea of whether a truly ethical strategy in this ongoing fight could be a winning one. Now Chuck has a sparring partner in Prince who can claim to cloak himself in righteousness and not get laughed out of the building.
Swapping out Axe for Prince is what really distinguishes this season. It’s a professed culture change that brings an entirely different tenor to the office environment. (“We used to work for a killer,” one of his employees laments. “Now he wants to know how we feel.”) Giant seven-figure modern art canvasses come down to make way for Stacey Abrams portraits. Wags (David Costabile) is adrift in the new logistical order where he’s no one’s second-in-command. Even Brendan Angelides’ score changes, sanding off its aggressive industrial edge for something more in line with Prince’s less-confrontational approach.
Those atmospheric shifts also come with some extra, freed-up narrative room. With Wendy (Maggie Siff) no longer having to be stuck in the middle of Chuck and Axe’s tug-of-war, her marital troubles and her latent feelings for her former boss are swept away, too. That frees her up to be someone whose professional work gets the most attention. Other folks at the newly organized Michael Prince Capital also benefit from some extra consideration. Ben Kim (Daniel K. Isaac), whose style always seemed at odds with Axe’s cutthroat demeanor, makes more sense in this new financial setup. Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), still trying to figure out their place under a larger umbrella, is still managing a leadership tightrope where they don’t always have the final say. And their protege Rian (Eva Victor) lets “Billions” best understand how the show’s newest wave of employees is after something different than their predecessors.
Even with this refresh, all the familiar “Billions” trappings are still here. The first episode of Season 6 alone has the parade of references to Roman history, old cartoons, and college basketball that its characters rattle off as if they were reciting days of the week. For however much this show might be grappling with the over-indulgences endemic to these social circles — one episode gives each character their own rundown of their outfit prices and expenditures — “Billions” has its own stylistic ostentation that it won’t soon give up, for better or worse.
Having a deep bench of actors who understand the show’s cadences and interests, in whatever season the show happens to be in, always helps. (The same can’t be said for the steady stream of celebrity cameos, but even their awkwardness has become part of the “Billions” charm over the years.) Maybe the best indication of “Billions” having the narrative freedom to do something else with its time this year is how it considers the lieutenants. The dynamic between Wags and chief Prince fixer Scooter Dunbar (Daniel Breaker) shows that in this world of massive dollar figures, it all comes down to how comfortable you are in your own sense of self-worth. The same is true for Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad), who after years of biding her time gets her own new chances to assert her value.
The tight Season 6 turnaround (coming a mere three-and-a-half months after Lewis’ departure) means that the show can also position itself as a little more timely than usual. Aside from taking a few chances to look at how the Robin Hood wings of market trading are cutting into the practices of places like MPC, there’s one nod to a certain HBO Max original tucked away into an early-season pep talk. Even the reveal of Season 6’s chosen battlefield seems like it was done with certain upcoming developments in mind. “Billions” was never content to rest on its heels. Now, with a few well-targeted adjustments, it won’t have to.
The first episode of “Billions” Season 6 is now available to stream on YouTube and the Showtime app. New episodes will air Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.
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