In an episode toward the end of the second season of Billions, one — yes — billionaire isn’t sure if his wife has left him, or if she’s just off hanging out at one of their half-dozen homes. It’s broadly representative of the series: Showtime’s high-finance drama is a show of excess, one where possessions, emotions, and stock positions all commingle for attention and screen time. Billions is all about who has the most money, whose car is the fastest, who’s the most ambitious, whose reach exceeds their grasp. In its second season, which concludes Sunday, the show has adopted that ethos of its characters, taking everything that made it appealing in Season 1 — the egos, the plot twists, the vests — and turning up the volume. So ahead of the Season 2 finale, it only made sense to give out awards to who was the most, the best, and, just as important, the worst. Here are your Billions superlatives.
Best Long Con
As in Season 1, Season 2 of Billions focuses on the feud between hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti). Last year, their battle played out mostly in courtrooms and offices, as Chuck tried to ensnare Axe for insider trading, while Axe lobbed a grip of lawsuits at Chuck. This year, things have gotten…baroque. Forget courtroom justice; this year, the two have engaged in Ocean’s Eleven–style long cons against each other. On this past Sunday’s “Golden Frog Time,” Axe worked to submarine the IPO for Ice Juice, a juice company with a multimillion-dollar investment from Chuck’s blind trust, by staging a number of Ice Juice–caused illnesses on IPO day. It looks bad for Chuck — until, that is, it’s revealed that Chuck knew that Axelrod would try to bone him and used the IPO as bait.
Here’s the thing, though: Both of these cons are bad. Axe’s con, while successful on the day, will lead him into the legal trap set by Chuck. And Chuck’s con, though it will result in some seriously hairy business for Axe, means that he had to incur a multimillion-dollar loss just to entrap his frenemy.
So the only plausible winner for Best Long Con is something else entirely: Chuck’s Monthslong Plot to Rob His Dominatrix. Chuck, who is running for governor of New York, knows that his interest in S&M can’t be made public. The state of New York is progressive but not that progressive. So he paid a guy to become a regular client of his longtime dominatrix — and then, after months, steal her laptop.
As Jeff Gordinier points out, the frequency with which character development on Billions occurs over an expensive meal suggests “a nuanced understanding of power gestures in New York City in 2017.” Sunday’s episode, for example, ends with Bobby and his wife, Lara (Malin Akerman), enjoying pizza topped with the finest caviar. It’s a sweet moment, and also a little gross: These people are in love, and they articulate that love by eating $400 slices of pizza. Unfortunately, Damian Lewis is from England, and Malin Akerman is from Sweden; consequently, neither of them knows how to eat pizza.
So the award here goes to the mutton chop at Keens Steakhouse, which Chuck insists on ordering for Assistant U.S. Attorney Bryan Connerty while shaming him for insufficient loyalty. Second place is Wags’s (David Costabile) tantrum at Sushi Nakazawa; last place is the sad deli sandwich Chuck buys for his dominatrix.
Best Performance in a David Lynch Movie
This one goes to Eric Bogosian, whose Lawrence Boyd has spent what feels like six consecutive months standing in a lonely hallway while on work-release for his own financial scandal.
Chuck’s lawyer buddy Ira (Ben Shenkman) is a strikingly well-sketched minor character: We don’t see him too often, but we understand him as someone who’s made peace with his lot in life (which is: to date younger women, go to fancy restaurants, and bemoan life post-divorce while also loving it). Chuck’s dad, Chuck Senior (Jeffrey DeMunn), is comparatively one-note, if more satisfying in his obnoxiousness. Together, these two will ruin Chuck’s life — whether it’s with the disastrous Ice Juice IPO or some other well-meaning but inevitably selfish caper — and he will thank them for it.
There are plenty of geniuses at Axe Cap, but Asia Kate Dillon’s Taylor Mason stands buzzed-head-and-shoulders above the rest. (They’re also the first gender-nonconforming character on TV.) Similarly: Axe Cap isn’t short on charming knuckleheads, but Dan Soder’s Mafee — Taylor’s boss, somehow — is the goofiest. Together, Taylor and Mafee have a lovely, stilted chemistry. Mafee confides in Taylor; Taylor learns office camaraderie by buying Mafee a wrestling poster. Give these two a spinoff.
Taylor’s present for Mafee is sweet, but it’s got nothing on Wags’s purchase of a berth in a postapocalyptic luxury bunker for Axe’s birthday. There’s no gift quite like a reminder that eventually the world will collapse into chaos, presumably thanks to Axe shorting the sun.
We’ve got a tie. David Strathairn’s “Black” Jack Foley, the New York power broker working to install Chuck in the governor’s mansion, is a little Roosevelt-style semi-British, and a little bit British actor playing a Southerner. (Strathairn, oddly, is from San Francisco.) Then there’s Mary-Louise Parker’s George Minchak, who’s vetting Chuck for the campaign and sounds full-on Southern, but also like she’s sucking on a dozen caramels. Two great guest stars; two terrible accents.
Biggest Lapse in Decorum
Rules are rules; Axe not wearing a sportcoat to the Yale Club is an affront to Yale, the Club, and dignity itself. Disgusting.
Easy: Axe’s ever-present chain, peeking out from under one of his cashmere crewnecks.
Worst Phone Usage
Axe, for leaving a series of increasingly unhinged voicemails for Lara when, after a marital dispute, she skips town for a day with their kids. Leaving a voicemail is a pretty weird look in 2017; leaving a series of alternately fawning and borderline abusive voicemails is a horrendous look in any year.
This season we learn that Axe Cap lieutenant “Dollar” Bill Stern has a sideline bankrolling amateur baseball players for a cut of their future earnings, which is downright forensic as a character insight and morally bankrupt as an investment vehicle.
Worst Product Name
Ice Juice is the product at the center of Billions’ late-season drama. It’s a hilarious name — what is better for these rich idiots to fight about than fancy water? — until Ice Juice is revealed to be a Juice Press–style juice company. Ice Juice should’ve just been a water company. Making it a garden-variety $10 green juice firm was a massive missed opportunity.
Best Guest Star
Straithairn brings well-heeled menace to Foley; Parker flirts the doors off while asking Chuck what weird kinds of unelectable sex he’s had. Christopher Denham was great in the first half of the season as Oliver Dake, the avenging angel of internal affairs, but got sidelined once Chuck dispatched him. But in a slight upset, the winner here is Matt Servitto as Bob Sweeney, an upstate mayor and Chuck’s biggest competition for the governorship. Servitto’s Sweeney is a convincing man of the people — and an even more convincing dirtbag. What puts him over the top is the gentle callback to his FBI agent character on The Sopranos.
Best Sex Metaphor
Chuck wins this one in a landslide. This show asks Paul Giamatti to emote until his veins pop perhaps a bit too frequently, but it’s all worth it once in a while, like when he asks a potential witness whose wife and boss are having an affair to imagine said boss “heaving his seed into your bride.” Florid, disgusting, spectacular.
Chuck’s seasonlong flirtation with Brazilian jujitsu is amusing, extremely on-trend, and a clever wink at how Chuck is finding ways to be choked while separated from his wife (and partner in kink), Wendy (Maggie Siff). But the winner here is Dr. Gus, the short-lived performance coach at Axe Cap who wears a cycling jersey while riding the spinning bike in his office.
Billions pretends to be a show about Wall Street, but it’s secretly a show about relationships. Specifically: It’s about how those relationships are tested by a notably broad swath of ambitions and desires — sexual, financial, or otherwise. Wendy and Chuck are in a will-they-won’t-they period, and Axe and Lara have spent much of the season in the same space. Wendy’s tryst with Fake Elon Musk was too short to count, as was Chuck’s kiss with the woman from his jujitsu class. Axelrod family chef Ryan — sorry, that’s Chef Ryan — received fellatio poolside at Bobby’s Hamptons estate, but I think we can assume that Axe showing up and reaming him out ended that relationship. So all we’re left with here is Mafee and Deb (Ilfenesh Hadera), Axe Cap’s class clown and executive assistant, respectively. When Mafee is vaping in a bathroom stall because he’s afraid to tell Axe about a buddy’s idea to short Nigerian currency by destabilizing that country’s oil industry, Deb steps in and does it for him. And if the willingness to help your partner sabotage an entire nation’s economy isn’t true love, I’m not sure what is.