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‘Billions’ vs. Real Life

Can the Showtime drama outdo the bankers who inspired it? Maybe it doesn’t have to.

(Showtime/Ringer illustration)
(Showtime/Ringer illustration)

The Francis Bacon painting that Steve Cohen loves is a ghastly sight: It looks like a melting Joker, like a zombie, like Dr. Claw fan art, like a man possessed. “It’s just a pope,” Cohen, the hedge fund magnate, told Vanity Fair in 2010 about one of his favorite works of art, “with his mouth wide open, sitting behind these screens, screaming.” This depiction of the angsty man of God hung inside Cohen’s sprawling Greenwich mansion, outside his bedroom door. In a way, it maybe resembled the financier himself, reigning testily from the trading desk at his empire. “It’s a bizarre picture, but I love it,” he told the magazine.

Cohen rose to uneasy fame because of a keen eye for making fortunes, and, despite a legendary trading career that long ago set him up financially many thousands of times over, he was never able to sit back and relax. Instead, Cohen’s market bets grew more enormous and ostentatious. His desk, with its blinking Bloomberg terminals, resembled a NASA control room. His personal real estate involved tens of thousands of square feet (with zoning applications to add more) and glass atriums and a bespoke home for a Zamboni in his backyard. His appetite for money was never satiated, not even by his many billions.

He had a gift for poker and a chip on his shoulder. He half-assed nothing. His art collection, with its Koons and de Kooning and its creepy, screaming pontiffs, earned him status and grudging respect — and also totally pissed off the Feds who were forever on his case. At his office at SAC Capital, the firm he founded in 1992 that would grow to manage some $14 billion, was a “Steve Cam” that broadcast his every move to his minions, except for whenever he turned it off to make an unrecorded call. His need for nonstop wins landed him at the center of a major insider-trading investigation by a crusading U.S. attorney. And his scheming, savvy foresight kept him, in 2014, from going down with the ship.

Cohen is the overt subject of a newly released book, Black Edge: Inside Information, Dirty Money, and the Quest to Bring Down the Most Wanted Man on Wall Street, by New Yorker writer Sheelah Kolhatkar. And he is one of several more implicit influences for Bobby Axelrod, the main character played by Damian Lewis in Showtime’s Billions, which begins its second season Sunday night. Billions is about what makes people like Axelrod — or his U.S. attorney nemesis Chuck Rhoades, played by Paul Giamatti — tick. “As writers, as observers, we’re super animated by the question of: Why can’t people like Bobby Axelrod stop?” Brian Koppelman, one of the show’s creators, told The Ringer. “Like, why do they have to keep capturing more terrain?”

Just as it’s tempting to relate all real-life instances of hapless political scheming to an episode of Veep, or to call every scary new bit of internet ephemera “something straight out of Black Mirror,” Billions has turned into a “this-reminds-me-of” cultural avatar for current events. (Silicon Valley and House of Cards fit into this category too.) What these shows have in common is that they’re designed to be tonally over the top, yet have had to fight to remain one step ahead of the real world.

The public’s sudden fascination with the inner workings of the various branches of government? Billions is based around the inherent tension between selflessness and opportunism in public service positions. That Russian dossier? Billions was on the guys-in-power-love-golden-showers beat all the way back in the series pilot.

Further blurring the lines between inspiration and fiction has been the release of Black Edge just days before the return of Billions. The two treatments of early-21st-century high finance aren’t expressly related, and yet they feel like companion pieces on a syllabus, or like a museum exhibit and its commemorative coffee table book. (Adding to the overlap is the fact that Andrew Ross Sorkin, who reviewed the book for The New York Times, is the cocreator and executive producer of the show.)

(Penguin Random House)
(Penguin Random House)

Koppelman and David Levien, the longtime pals (since high school!) and creative partners who created Billions along with Sorkin, have a precise eye for detail — from the skull artwork on the walls of Axe Capital to the omnipresent fleece vests — and a broad network of creative and professional sources. They’ve borrowed tiny bits of trading lingo here and broader narrative arcs there, and they’ve huddled up with hedge funders and financial journalists to ask for advice. They’ve picked up ideas at cocktail parties and from porn stars: On Bill Simmons’s recent podcast, Koppelman said that the idea for an S&M plot came after they worked on the show The Girlfriend Experience and were told repeatedly by the sex workers on set about all the powerful men who liked to be dominated.

For industry viewers, figuring out small references to real-life events is a fun parlor game, and there’s plenty of material to choose from. A Season 1 spat between Axelrod and a rival investor was reminiscent of the longtime feud between Bill Ackman and Carl Icahn. (In addition to having a similar name to Ackman, Axelrod also sort of looks like he could be his brother.) Like the multibillionaire David Tepper, Axe comes from blue-collar roots. Lewis apparently read a book written by outspoken investor David Einhorn to prepare for the role. The backstory in Billions about Axe Capital’s massive losses on 9/11 portray just a small bit of the tragedies that actually befell firms like Alger and Cantor Fitzgerald. And, in so many ways, there are parallels between the show, where some of the silliest-seeming details are based in reality, and the story told in Black Edge, where so many of the facts read like fiction.

“These characters look around at the landscape,” Levien said about the types of people who populate Billions, “to see what’s available to them to augment their power — either by buying something, or climbing into something, or getting elected to something. They’re always looking for ways to build out.” As Kolhatkar describes in Black Edge, this was also true of Cohen, whose interest in things like art was a way to expand his social influence beyond the realm of finance dweeb. It also led to one of the all-time great moments in rich people problems.

In 2006, the Las Vegas hotelier Steve Wynn was showing off his prize Picasso, Le Reve, one last time before selling it to Cohen for a reported nine figures. He gestured a little too proudly and put his elbow right through the canvas. The canceled sale was the latest art-world oddity involving Cohen, whose obsession with building a fine art portfolio was rivaled only by his love for trading stocks. In 2004, he had famously purchased the husk of a dead shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde from the advertising visionary and art benefactor Charles Saatchi for either $8 million or $12 million, depending on whose account you believe.

The Damien Hirst work, named The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Something Living, rotted and had to be drained, dismantled, and reassembled by 2006. A replacement shark was shipped in from Australia in a special 20-foot freezer, launching a spirited art-nerd debate on whether this now still counted as the same piece. (Larry Gagosian weighed in that it should, comparing the procurement of a new shark to the routine replacement of florescent light tubes in installation pieces.) A 2006 New York Times article noted that Cohen also owned Hirst’s Away From the Flock, “a whole lamb floating in formaldehyde solution” that Hirst has said was influenced by Francis Bacon.

While all this was happening, according to Kolhatkar’s Black Edge, Wynn eventually found a specialist who was able to repair the ripped Picasso using acupuncture pins as sewing needles, work that “required a jeweler’s eye and the steady hand of a vascular surgeon.” In 2013, nearly seven years after the reckless elbow, he sold Le Reve for $155 million to Cohen. By then, Cohen was under federal investigation for insider trading, the culmination of years of knowing whispers and jealous conjecture from all levels of the financial industry.

Federal investigators had enough material on which to convict some of Cohen’s underlings on charges of trading on material, nonpublic information. But they struggled to find a smoking gun that would implicate Cohen. His enormous Picasso transaction was a brazen fuck-you to “the prosecutors, FBI agents, and SEC attorneys who were still trying to assemble cases against Cohen” but failed to effectively nail him down, Kolhatkar wrote. One of them, a deputy to U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara named Richard Zabel, used Cohen’s collection as a semi-joking motivation. “I want his pickled shark,” he said. “I want to put his shark up in the office.”

(Showtime)
(Showtime)

If the line sounds like something you might hear in Billions — Season 1, after all, featured a scowling Giamatti snapping: “I want this motherfucker’s genome mapped!” — the similarities only begin there. In the Billions pilot, Axe pays for a similarly pricey Hamptons pad in all cash, infuriating Rhoades. Both Kolhatkar’s book and Billions’ plot include a “performance coach” who is hired by the hedge fund to alternately rattle and motivate employees into doing their best. Both involve a circling U.S. attorney who makes up for a shabby office with the full resources of the state and a striving financier who will always be trying to compensate. Early in the new season of Billions, a character even says the phrase “black edge,” a reference to information of questionable legality but useful trading value. Both mention the escalation of research tactics employed by hedge funds, like monitoring satellite images of truck activity around foreign factories or businesses.

And, in both stories, the cat hasn’t caught up with the mouse just yet, and probably never will.

“How has no one sent me an advance of this book?” Koppelman tweeted when he found out about Black Edge last month, but he says he still hasn’t read it, and asks with the telltale trepidation of the creative mind whether he actually should. (He fears the overlapping subject matter might mess with his head going forward.) But the answer is that there is little in Black Edge that hasn’t already been covered in Billions. It’s what makes the book so eye-opening — man, the nerve of this guy! — and so frustrating: Wait, he went free? (Cohen paid a fine, closed SAC Capital, and was barred from managing other people’s money through 2018, but he now manages his personal fortune through his family office, Point72 Asset Management.)

But it’s also what gives the show freedom and the potential that comes with it. If the first season established the Shakespearean, worthy-adversary element of the drama, the new season can use it to define nuanced characters and allocate the show’s storytelling capital among new tranches and sectors of power. There’s still plenty of Axe vs. Chuck will-they-or-won’t-they drama, but the show can now also toy with the way circles of influence and opportunity overlap: how, for example, the world of professional sports is just politics; and how politics is just money; and how money is just a big game.

We watch as dynamics and alliances shift, as scraps of power are traded like securities and small macho-bullshit battles are won and lost, often in very funny, satisfying ways. (A number of Billions’ most powerful actors are not men, despite existing in a world supposedly dominated by them; in particular, Maggie Siff’s Wendy Rhoades and Asia Kate Dillon as an intern named Taylor both exert influence and leverage over Rhoades and Axe.) The creators mentioned that one thing that intrigued them in Season 1 was how much the audience stuck by Axe. “In Season 1 we really reveal the lengths he’s willing to go to protect himself,” Koppelman said. “That was a challenge, in our mind, to our audience and to us — like, are people still going to root for that guy? And, I guess maybe not surprisingly, they all still love Bobby Axelrod!” (In that way, Axe doesn’t quite channel Cohen.)

“We are starting to hear more claims of ‘That guy is based on me,’ said Levien, laughing. “Before Season 1 came out, there was a lot more caution from people, a lot more ‘Oh, that’s fiction.’ Now, it’s more ‘That’s me!’ or ‘That’s my husband!’ Of course, all those people are completely wrong.”

The best depictions of modern finance — like Margin Call or The Big Short — understand that the source material is right there for the taking and doesn’t need much embellishment. Just Wednesday, after the finance blog Dealbreaker ran satirical, loving fanfic about an imagined restaurant encounter between Ackman and Icahn, Icahn tweeted that he had not been to Marea in 10 years, did not like red wine, and would never be toasted by Ackman. Hedge fund divorces are always epic. Modern-day hedgies are being overshadowed in cachet by their venture capital counterparts in Silicon Valley, and the macro angling for power continues apace. One of Cohen’s former coworkers at the start of his career, Stephen Feinberg, will likely be part of the Trump administration. (If you’re looking for juicy, unhinged, “Wake up, sheeple!” conspiracy theorizing, there is plenty of that out there too.) And for Billions, it doesn’t end there: From Andrew Cuomo to Chris Christie, from Eliot Spitzer to Bharara, the role of U.S. attorney has plenty of embedded characters and conflicts.

“There’s a single-minded focus, and a tunnel vision that these people have,” said Koppelman, “to just keep Pac-Manning the world.” It’s a fitting visual: mouth open in a silent scream, moments of thrilling invincibility yielding all too quickly to the claustrophobia of spooks closing in. The only solution is to keep hustling forward, and to keep eating up.

An earlier version of this piece misspelled the last name of two characters as Rhodes; it is Rhoades.