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‘Billions’ and the Beauty of a Midseason Reboot

The delightful Showtime series has figured out how to sustain momentum—by discarding plotlines at a remarkable pace

Showtime/Ringer illustration

For as long as the Billions audience has known him, United States Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) has been scheming to become the governor of New York: courting Albany kingmaker Black Jack Foley (David Strathairn); enduring the unplaceable accent of a woman named George (Mary Louise Parker); stealing a laptop from his own dominatrix to ensure he couldn’t be blackmailed. Many of the indiscretions Chuck and his wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), have committed “for the greater good” were in the name of propelling him to statewide office, where he could theoretically leave underhanded tactics like evidence-planting and record-falsifying behind.

Then Chuck dropped out. (Or more accurately, declined to run; he’d yet to even formally announce his candidacy, because all-consuming ambition loves to put the cart before the horse.) Without warning, Billions took a plot that promised to drive the remainder of the season and unceremoniously cast it aside.

“All the Wilburys” is the second Billions episode in a row to be written by the show’s cocreators and showrunners, Brian Koppelman and David Levien. It’s also the second episode in a row, after the action-packed “Not You, Mr. Dake,” to fundamentally and fearlessly alter the series’ status quo. The only baseline more fundamental to Billions rarefied, testosterone-fueled world than Chuck’s desire to climb the political ladder is his blood feud with Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis), the hedge fund baron and Chuck’s white whale of even whiter-collar crime. But when the federal case against Axe threatens to implicate Wendy—who also happens to be Axe’s in-house psychologist, demanding a Grand Canyon–sized leap of faith from the viewer that quickly pays off—Chuck doesn’t hesitate to forge an alliance with his erstwhile archnemesis.

By eliminating the spy-vs.-spy dynamic that serves as Billions’ core premise, Koppelman and Levien handed themselves a challenge so imposing I assumed they’d use the next episode to start resolving the questions at hand. How long would the uneasy truce between Chuck and Axe last? Now that they’re no longer in a rush to clear Wendy’s name, where exactly do the two men stand? And on an existential note: If Billions is no longer a slow-motion ego clash between power-hungry strivers driven by the narcissism of small differences, what exactly is it?

Instead, Billions has opted to wipe its slate even cleaner than it was before. Chuck’s gubernatorial run is the kind of long-game struggle that could counterbalance Axe’s triumphant, though hardly seamless, return to his fund after a mandated hiatus. But after a hamfisted blackmail attempt by Black Jack and his father, a favor request from Judge DeGiulio (Rob Morrow), and a very convincing pep talk from Wendy, Chuck decides to endorse another candidate and remove himself from the race. By nixing Chuck’s campaign before it could even start in earnest, Billions is doubling down on a tactic that partly explains why this proudly ridiculous high-finance farce remains one of the best dramas on TV: the midseason reset.

Billions unabashedly operates in the tradition of a soap opera, which is what gives the show part of its subversive charge—a saga of masculinity and men shaped into a template typically marketed toward women. Besides the Oedipal struggles and operatic smackdowns, what Billions borrows from this influence is a willingness to burn through stories at a disarming speed, keeping the audience on its toes and invested. Crucially, though, Koppelman and Levien never go so fast that they deprive Billions of meaningful stakes.

The show’s uneven first season included an early version of this narrative strategy. Though we’ve recently learned that Chuck and Axe got along famously when they first met, for as long as Billions has been on the air, they’ve been at each other’s throats. In Season 1, Chuck’s quest to prove Axe guilty of insider trading instantly became the show’s driving mechanism—only for their legal battle to fly off the rails in Episode 6. “The Deal” saw Billions’ antiheroes sit down to negotiate a pact inevitably frustrated by both men’s hubris, instantly turning a direct confrontation into an indirect cold war. The episode’s meeting of the minds had a satisfying flair to it, but Chuck’s frustrated plan also felt a little too inevitable. Of course a show about a rivalry wouldn’t conclusively resolve said rivalry so early in its run; of course Billions had to buy time to develop into a multiseason effort. “The Deal” was entertaining, but it wasn’t exactly surprising.

As Billions has matured, however, so have its pivots. Both the second and third seasons have begun with one set of conflicts we assume will occupy the cast for the next dozen hours only for Billions to move past them once they’ve exhausted their potential. The second season began with Wendy in private practice and Chuck under internal investigation for involving himself in the Axelrod case well after he’d supposedly recused himself. By the halfway point, Wendy had rejoined Axe Capital, Chuck was feeling confident enough to make overtures to Black Jack, and it was Axe’s turn on defense after a disastrous gamble with some municipal debt. Confident and briskly paced as these developments were, the past couple of episodes have upped the ante even further. It’s one thing to cut a detour, like Wendy’s time as a free agent, short before it wears out its welcome. It’s quite another to detonate the show’s underlying foundation without an obvious safety net, even if the Chuck-Axe-Wendy triad proves only temporary.

There’s an admirable lack of sentimentality that unites all these twists. Billions cares deeply about its characters, so much so that the affection is contagious. (I can’t quite believe one of my favorite people on TV is a finance bro with a vindictive streak and a butt tattoo, yet here we are.) What Billions never gets too attached to is the stories its characters find themselves caught up in. Koppelman and Levien consistently nip arcs in the bud before they can wear out their welcome, whether those arcs involve high-level politics or petty personal grievances. These developments tend to cluster at the midseason point, when a show is most in danger of sagging, but they’re not exclusive to it; both of the first two volumes culminated in the collapse of one of the series’ two central marriages. The effect is to preserve Billions’ momentum, the quality that sets it apart most effectively from other hourlong shows on TV.

Most 10-to-13-hour seasons of TV suffer from an inevitable sense of stagnancy. Given that many of these shows arrive as bingeable monoliths, a lack of episodic structure is often to blame, but it isn’t the sole culprit: The Handmaid’s Tale has a relatively conventional structure, yet feels locked into a setup that’s not as effective as it used to be; Westworld draws out mysteries for week after week until impatience starts to outweigh curiosity. Compared to its peers, Billions is lighter in tone, but it’s also lighter on its feet. Dispatching subplots at the halfway point breaks up its seasons into more manageable portions. It also maintains the effervescence that keeps Billions feeling like a treat rather than a chore.

I have no idea where Billions is going without a gubernatorial race in its imminent future, let alone a Chuck-Axe scrimmage. Such a feeling of possibility is part of the thrill. Some great TV—Breaking Bad, Halt and Catch Fire—has come from writers backing themselves into a corner, then maneuvering themselves out. Billions has put itself in the same position with an opposite approach: hurtling into open space, no guiding limits in sight.