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How ‘Billions’ Went From Goofy to Glorious

Showtime’s high-finance series is as out-there as ever, but a few tweaks have turned it into one of the most consistently fun shows on TV

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

The bar for second-season improvements has been set so high in recent years it’s easy to miss the shows that coast just underneath. Thanks to the likes of The Leftovers and Halt and Catch Fire, which used the hiatus between their freshman and sophomore installments to completely reorient their protagonists, settings, and tones, it’s tougher to notice the subtler retoolings that mark a show figuring itself out and locking into place. Think Parks and Recreation gradually experimenting with character beats (Leslie Knope as hypercharged idealist rather than municipal Michael Scott), not a drama shuffling leads to keep up its momentum.

Billions is one of those shows that’s slipped under the radar. In a TV environment where shows tend to lock in or lose viewers in less than a month, it takes nothing less than a de facto reboot to grab their attention again. The Showtime drama hasn’t reinvented the wheel in its second chapter, now just past its halfway point, but there’s something different about the tale of U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and his great white insider trading whale Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) this year. It’s more fun. It’s more focused. It’s just … better.

Creators Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Andrew Ross Sorkin haven’t rebuilt their show so much as upgraded it to a more effective version of what it was already trying to be. Consequently, we can’t just point to any one new player or spiked subplot as Billions magic ingredient. Instead, we have a few contributing factors to take into account, of varying levels of significance. Together, they make up a playbook for how a show can up its game without doing a complete remodel.

Delay the Inevitable

Billions original mistake was fast-tracking its central conflict. The clash of egos between Chuck, a Preet Bharara–type U.S. attorney who wants to pole vault to higher office over the bodies of vanquished Wall Street fat cats, and Axe, a composite of various finance bigwigs, is the defining struggle of the show. So why did the first season bring things to a boil so quickly, to the point where there was a peacemaking deal in place by Episode 6, only for Chuck to blow it up because the action necessitated he do so? If Chuck ever did catch his prey, there wouldn’t be any show left — which sucked much of the suspense out of the cat-and-mouse game that can’t end until Billions does.

But after last year’s finale saw Chuck’s investigation blow up in his face and destroy his marriage, Billions has smartly simmered down. Sunday’s episode even saw the declaration of a de facto détente: First Axe turned the tables by slapping Chuck with dozens of civil lawsuits; then he declared a cease-fire by dropping them in exchange for rehiring Chuck’s wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), as his firm’s performance coach. Chuck, in turn, has his hands tied. He can’t crack down on his own wife’s employer a second time, especially now that they’re separated. The ulterior motives are just too obvious.

Even before this fragile peace, however, Billions had started occupying both halves of its two-hander with something that wasn’t each other. Chuck is fending off an internal affairs investigation and giving himself political cover by gunning after Goldman Sachs–type Lawrence Boyd (Eric Bogosian). Axe has been attempting to restabilize his workforce in Wendy’s absence, dealing with lackluster earnings and a trusted deputy veering off the rails. In fact, Billions’ two poles have been in the same room only a handful of times this season, a deliciously slow burn on par with a classic will-they-or-won’t-they. This is a well-liked series running on Showtime, a network whose shows run notoriously long; in all likelihood, Billions will end when its creators want it to and not a second before. There’s no need to rush things.

Let Your Assets Be Great

For too long, Wendy Rhoades was stranded on the sidelines, defined by her relationship to the two true leads rather than acting as a lead herself. The frankly ludicrous setup of the first season, in which Wendy simply could not leave her job while her husband simply could not find someone else to be his trophy convict, rendered Wendy little more than a chew toy in a tug-of-war between two male egos, both of whom massively violated her boundaries in the name of scoring points. In the end, she finally, finally left them both in the dust, separating from Chuck and quitting Axe Capital. In this twisted rom-com love triangle, Wendy became the free spirit who chose herself.

Season 2 keeps Wendy in both men’s orbit, attending couples therapy with Chuck while entertaining repeated overtures from Axe. But she’s also having her own adventures in private practice, giving her the crucial opportunity to do something the entire first season denied her: behave as her own person. When she finally makes the decision to return to Axe Capital, it’s to bail out her own family from the financial threat of Axe’s lawsuits, and with the firm condition that Axe himself can no longer take advantage of her services. The legal, ethical, and marital mess here is still as improbable and intractable as ever, but at least Wendy’s motives are slightly more clear.

Besides, Siff has always given a markedly different performance from either Giamatti or Lewis. Where her costars go for gnashing, maximalist camp, Siff has shaped Wendy into a believable, life-size person, the grounded realist to Chuck and Axe’s rage-blind egos. By giving her the space to cultivate that relative Zen, Billions has created a respite from its otherwise unrelenting onslaught of masculine insecurity. The result is a cast that lets all its members play to their strengths.

Cultivate a Deep Bench

Beyond its central trio, Billions has also brought in a flotilla of new players, most of whom can go toe-to-toe with Chuck and Axe when it comes to unintentionally revealing displays of overcompensation. There’s Todd Krakow (Danny Strong), the walking Napoleon complex who enlists Wendy’s help in a high-flying charity poker tournament; Oliver Dake (Christopher Denham), the tremulous Justice Department enforcer who fancies himself an avenging angel; and the aforementioned Boyd, a genteel type who doesn’t have Axe’s taste for all-out warfare. Collectively, these men sharpen Billions bona fides as a portrait of an entire social milieu.

Best of all, though, is Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon), the nonbinary intern who Axe persuades to ditch an economics Ph.D. for a more lucrative full-time job. Taylor is unsentimental and detached, a temperament that gives them insight not just into the machinations of various markets but also their colleagues. Axe admiringly describes this remove as a “lens,” a way for Taylor to see how their cis male coworkers’ adrenaline blinds them and use that fact to their advantage. They’re also something of an audience surrogate, as bemused and mildly disgusted by their surroundings as we are. And like the best audience surrogates, Taylor acts as both a perspective check and a way in, important functions when it comes to portraying a world as insular and detached from reality as Billions is.

Stunt Cast Your Heart Out

All of this doesn’t even take into account Billions’ revolving door of stunt cameos, picking up where last season’s Metallica appearance left off. We’ve had Mark Cuban drop by Marea to give Axe advice on the politics of sports franchise ownership; we’ve had David Chang cook him a private meal on the condition he be supportive “when Momofuku goes public.” The blink-and-you’ll-miss-them spots are preposterous, and on a more somber show they’d jerk us out of the action. (Can you imagine if Marissa Mayer made a cameo on Big Little Lies right after Nicole Kidman’s therapy scene?) On Billions, though, they fit right in — which brings us to what might be its most important adjustment.

Play to Your (Cheesy) Strengths

In its first season, Billions struggled to balance its campier impulses with an attempt to seriously grapple with what high finance says about America. But as Veep and Silicon Valley show, humor is an effective — and definitely the most subversive — means of portraying power that fancies itself the center of the universe.

Fortunately, though, Billions has been tilting heavily toward its sillier side as of late. I don’t necessarily enjoy watching Paul Giamatti utter the phrase “heaving his seed” with a straight face, but it makes me laugh — certainly more than Chuck and Wendy’s BDSM relationship, with its obvious symbolism and awkwardly sensitive portrayal in the midst of an otherwise proudly ridiculous show. This season, though, that subplot’s gone the way of Chuck and Wendy’s marriage.

This year, we’ve gotten a full-body shot of Axe Capital COO Wags’s ass tattoo, that extremely graphic Giamatti monologue, and Axe closing an episode by practically spitting, “Good thing I’m a fuckin’ rich man! In the world Billions depicts, subtlety is for losers. Now that Billions itself is adopting that strategy, it’s become a much more enjoyable watch. TV is full of overly serious hours that value perceived profundity over pure entertainment. It’s entirely to Billions credit that it’s moving in the opposite direction.