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We’re Still Long on ‘Billions’

The finale flirted with character development, but abandoned it for the ego-boosting we know and love

(Showtime)
(Showtime)

“I am not uncertain.” Strictly speaking, that’s what employees of the hedge fund Axe Capital say to their boss, Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), when they’ve got potentially incriminating inside information: the goods on a scandal about to topple a car company, or a tip that the Nigerian currency is weak. The dimly hilarious phrase is said winkingly, like a spell. Framing this assertion in the negative insulates whoever’s saying it from liability, which seems unimaginable, from a legal point of view. But that’s the point that Billions has hammered from day one: The rules that govern the world of big money are strange and easily sidestepped, provided you know the script.

But hear it a hundred times, and it becomes clear that “I am not uncertain” isn’t just a well-researched bit of real-life trader lingo. It is the skeleton key to Billions, Showtime’s cat-and-mouse financial drama. This is a show that’s best when it’s most sure of what it’s doing, whether brilliant or dumb. And while Sunday’s finale saw Billions begin to reconsider its values and characters, the show pulled back from the edge just in time.

In the season’s penultimate episode, Billions put all the pieces on the board: U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades had baited Axelrod into tampering with the IPO for Ice Juice, a company in which Rhoades’s father and best pal were heavily invested. Sunday’s finale tracked the results of Chuck’s biggest, craziest, most short-sighted, and most successful play yet. Basically, Chuck spent $27 million of his own money to set up a wide-reaching investigation, the probable collapse of Axe Capital, and the almost certain imprisonment of Axe himself. And here is the wild thing: Chuck thinks it was a good idea. Or at least he spends the final moments of the finale trying to convince himself it was, as he visits Axe in an Eastern District holding cell and repeats the phrase “Worth it,” tight-lipped, until he believes it. This — Chuck’s hardening resolve in the face of all available evidence; Axe’s certainty that he’ll get out of this; the two of them in a jail screaming at each other about the toll derivatives trading takes on your soul — is extremely Billions.

How we got there was extremely Billions, too: an interconnecting web of legal statutes and conspicuous consumption that involved one fleece vest, a “bullshit marina,” and a series of burner phones. On the law side: Freshly minted U.S. Attorney Oliver Dake wears the heck out of his new tie pin, and also compromises whatever annoying integrity he had to get Chuck’s assist with the arrest. Dake isn’t just a useful rule-follower anymore. He’s set up to follow something like Chuck’s own path to moral compromise in Season 3. Assistant attorneys Kate Sacker and Bryan Connerty, both criminally underused this season, get promotions in what feels like atonement for a year of three-line scenes. Campaign vetter George Minchak takes her shoes off, spends three minutes in Paul Giamatti’s kitchen, yells, “KNOW WHO YOU’RE FUCKING,” and leaves. On the money side: Axe hits the road, trying to stay a step ahead of the feds prepping for his arrest, and screams at someone via a phone in his lawyer’s breast pocket. Analyst Taylor Mason prepares to assume the controls at Axe Cap, while Wags panics about being a leader and demands a full needle of Toradol. Basically: Chuck and Axe are calling all the shots, and everyone in their orbit spins helplessly, prisoner to these two giant weiners fighting each other. The hour was pacy, the insults tart, the Giamatti Face bold. It was great.

And then things got a little weird. Chuck visits his dad, Chuck Sr., to explain that, while he got his white whale, Senior has to sit back and take his loss quietly, lest his son lose the governorship dad’s always wanted for him. For a brief moment, Chuck has to reckon with having let his father down — for having committed the reckless acts of greed and selfishness that his dad is usually the one committing. Some of this is just standard finale storytelling: toss in some character development, add stakes, make it so that finding success will cost the main characters something meaningful. But on Billions, even basic character evolution feels weird. If it’s not about power or ambition, we’re not buying it.

Something similar happens to Bobby, played this season by Damian Lewis with a level of emotional hollowness that is simultaneously inspiring and terrifying. Axe spends much of the hour on the run from the FBI, trying to figure out how to tell his kids that he’s being arrested. This is peak Axe: He keeps asking other people what he should tell his sons, as if there’s a correct answer, a smart play. When the time comes, he tries to summon his best government-blaming Axely bluster, but even that fails him. So he gives as close to a heartfelt speech as he’s ever given on this show, and echoes Chuck Sr.: “I’m still your dad,” he says. His kids pout, they all hug, and Bobby seems to struggle with the idea that he might not actually be a golden god placed on this earth to short-squeeze medical stocks. After a season of isolating decisions (lying to Lara, insulting her business, wearing cutoff sweats), the self-awareness feels unearned.

Hedge funders have families, too; there certainly could be a good show about the toll insider trading takes on families. Billions is not that show, and Chuck and Axe’s twinned gestures at remorse don’t fit the bill. They’re showing the kind of “personal growth” Axe would laugh off at work, or making the kinds of observations that led Chuck to give up on marriage therapy. Lord knows it’s important for people to work on their relationships with their parents. But on this show? One whose main characters teach us time and again that your enemy, shown a moment’s weakness, will bilk you out of literally everything you’ve got? These twinned dark afternoons of the soul felt imported from some other, less pyrotechnic series.

Thank goodness, then, that in its final moments Billions returned to its crotch-grabbing self. Axe is in a jail cell, instructed to look at the wall. Someone enters; the camera pans to reveal Chuck.

(Showtime)
(Showtime)

In an instant, the episode’s half-hearted gestures at ideas like “change” and “empathy” melted away. Forget Lara bailing on Bobby, and Bobby doing the same. Forget Chuck having Bobby arrested, and looking on as Bobby embraces his wife. Forget Chuck Sr. and Ira, forget Taylor’s slide into well-compensated moral bankruptcy. All that mattered in this moment was that these two schmucks Spy vs. Spy–ed each other until they were sitting in a jail cell, hurling insults while their families and friends worried, or made plans to skip town.

In its second season, Billions went from good to great by adjusting its focus, adding new characters, and dialing back on some old ones. But mostly, it got better by betting the farm on itself — by doubling, and then tripling, and then quadrupling down on what made this show so weird and funny and specific. (And then leveraging that position against the currency of Nigeria.) For a moment there during “Ball in Hand,” Billions felt tentative, traditional, and unsure of itself. That last duel, though? That was Billions pissing into the wind off the back of Bobby Axelrod’s boat. That was Billions landing a rear naked choke in Chuck’s Brazilian jiujitsu class. That was Billions grabbing a megaphone, disrobing, mounting the bull statue down on Wall Street, and bellowing for all the world to hear those four magical words: “I AM NOT UNCERTAIN.”