Billions is, at its center, a show about power. And its most impressive flourishes occur when its most powerful players—Chuck Rhoades, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York; Bobby Axelrod, the self-made billionaire who toes the line between legal and illegal practices at his firm, Axe Capital; Wendy Rhoades, the gifted psychiatrist who is married to Chuck and works for Bobby and might be more ferocious than both of them—end up having to (a) bang their sledgehammers over a smaller character’s head, or, better still, (b) bang their sledgehammers into one another’s sledgehammers.
Who could ever forget that scene in Season 1, for example, when Chuck shows up to Bobby’s office building after hours to stick the knife into Bobby’s stomach after Chuck pulls off a master deception? Or that scene in Season 2, for another example, when Bobby shows up at the Yale Club and slices Chuck up into ribbons in front of his dad and friends? Or that scene earlier this season, for a final example, when Chuck and Bobby are sitting at a table in Bobby’s apartment plotting a plan they think is too nefarious for Wendy to stomach, only for Wendy to walk into the room and tell them that she knew what the plan was going to be before Chuck and Bobby even sat down?
But Billions offers another kind of moment, as well. It’s one that, while smaller in scale, is no less vital to the show’s overall brilliance (and is very nearly as delicious): when Ari Spyros, the loathsome former SEC investigator who slithered across the battlefield and wiggled his way into working for Axelrod, does literally anything at all.
Spyros was a bit player early in Billions—and, really, with only a handful of lines each episode, he’s still a bit player now. But where he operated before as a utility to be activated as a way to help move a plotline forward, he exists now, fully fleshed out and materialized, as a preening, extremely moisturized, pointy-faced birdman who is a threat to steal any scene he pirouettes his way into. It’s remarkable, really.
In retrospect, there were certainly hints that he’d become who he is on the show today—there’s a gag in Season 1 where Chuck and his second-in-command, Bryan Connerty, both clearly cool characters, take shots at Spyros for wearing too much cologne to an important meeting, and he has no idea how to handle it—but I don’t think anyone could’ve anticipated how exactly perfect he would be at it.
Watch the scene below. It’s a good Spyros moment. It’s when, after a big dispute, office favorite “Dollar” Bill Stern has to apologize to Spyros in front of everyone by reading off index cards that Spyros has prepared:
We get to see several extremely Spyros-y things here.
There’s Spyros following along behind Wags down the stairs, which makes sense because (1) Spyros desperately wants to hold the same sort of social standing at Axe Capital as Wags (or Bobby or even Bill), and so of course he tries to be near him as a way to make it seem like they’re on equal footing; and (2) Spyros sees himself as above most of the people at Axe Capital, and so of course he would descend upon them for the apology.
There’s Spyros listening intently as Bill reads off the prepared apology notecards, and it’s hard to say if Spyros is doing so because he wants to pretend like he’s surprised by what he’s hearing or if he’s doing so because he’s admiring the idea of his thoughts coming out of someone else’s mouth, but either way it’s annoying.
There’s Spyros writing lines for Bill like “Ari Spyros is a human man” and calling himself “a freeholder,” desperately wanting to sound enlightened but mostly just sounding like a person who desperately wants to sound enlightened. (I’m reminded of that scene in Hannibal, when Mason Verger forges a postcard to Clarice Starling as Hannibal Lecter and he all but falls over himself trying to be clever in it.)
There’s Spyros waiting a full six seconds after Bill extends his hand for a handshake before reaching for it, and for certain Spyros did so as a way to try to make Bill feel even more uncomfortable in front of everyone than he already was.
There’s Spyros grabbing Bill’s hand in the worst, most unlikable, most nauseating way possible.
There’s Spyros loitering around afterward as everyone leaves, smugly celebrating himself, hoping that others will join in with him, and if they won’t do that, hoping that they’ll at least have been moved by the scene that’s just unfolded in front of them.
And then there’s Spyros orchestrating the apology in the first place, which, above all else, is a good example of the way that Spyros doesn’t quite understand how one wields power, or cultivates power, or even displays power. This miscalculation of clout, I would argue, is 75 percent of the reason that Spyros as a character works so well. He spends all of his time watching actually powerful people do actually powerful things, and he tries to be like them, but he just never quite can. Everything that he thinks is right is wrong, everything that he thinks is cool is dorky, and everything that he thinks is slick is clunky and uncoordinated. (The remaining 25 percent of the reason he works so well as a character is that, because it was established in Season 1 that he very likely committed date rape in his 20s, the tone was set early on: No matter how oddly interesting his worminess manages to become, he is a person who is rooted in real, actual, legitimate, gross evil.)
Here’s another good Spyros moment. It’s when he believes he’s figured out a way to help Axelrod get out from underneath a 5,000-pound boulder that he’s found himself underneath. In the scene, Spyros does literally everything I just mentioned in the previous paragraph:
The thing that he thinks is right but is actually wrong: Spyros figured out that Wendy had taken advantage of a devious (and illegal) play that Chuck had orchestrated, making a great deal of money for herself by doing so (also illegal). Spyros’s plan, then, was to make the information public so that the people investigating Axelrod would switch their focus from him over to Chuck and Wendy. The problem, though, was that Bobby was, and is, fiercely loyal to Wendy. (“This is the worst fucking idea anyone’s brought me in over a year,” Bobby hisses, upon hearing that it’s Wendy who’d take the hit instead of Axelrod.) Spyros thought it was the right move. It super was not.
The thing that he thinks is cool but is actually dorky: There are a bunch of things here. The three best: First, there’s Spyros, rather than jumping straight into why he’s in Axelrod’s office, beginning the conversation by asking Axelrod if he knows what his favorite Olympic event is. (This is a tactic we see both Bobby and Chuck utilize to great effect. Someone will say something, and then Bobby or Chuck will start telling a story, and as soon as they do you can feel them setting the noose around the person’s neck. It’s great. It doesn’t work when Spyros does it, though, what with Spyros being such a dork. That’s why Bobby rolls his eyes so hard at Spyros when he hears Spyros start off that way.) Second, there’s the part when, after he’s done explaining what his plan is, he says, “chaos grenade,” and then pretends to toss a grenade across the room. And third, there’s the part when, during the flashback scene, we see Spyros talking to Connerty at night, in a discreet area, wearing a fucking trench coat. (The jacket hints at one of my favorite little tricks that the show does with Spyros. He wears the spy trench coat when he’s out on the covert mission to meet Connerty. He wears a leather Ferrari jacket when he’s driving his Ferrari. He has a very expensive coffee maker in his office. On and on. He’s somehow the only person we ever see who covets possessions, which is remarkable when you remember that the title of the show is Billions.)
The thing that he thinks is slick but is actually clunky and uncoordinated: Bobby immediately shuts down Spyros when Spyros presents the Let’s Let Wendy Get Got plan, and had that been the end of it, then it’d have been fine. But Spyros reveals that he’s already fed the information to Connerty. He wanted it to be a slick thing where he presents the idea to Bobby, then Bobby says something like, “That’s a great plan. Let’s do it. When can we get started?” and then Spyros responds with something like, “I already did,” and then everyone lifts up Spyros on their shoulders and celebrates him as the smartest man in America. But that’s very not what happened. Instead, he gets chased out of the room by Wags, sent off to go wait in his office until they can fire him later.
Destruction will come for Spyros eventually. He’s simply put too much bad energy out into the universe for it not to. And when it does, when that ax drops and his head gets lopped off into a basket where it belongs, it will be excellent. But until then, watch him. Watch him work his scenes, and hate him. Watch him snake his way through them, being loud when he should be quiet, being bold when he should be humble, being fluorescent when he should be camouflaged into the background, and hate him. Watch him flaunt things that aren’t worth flaunting and misread social cues that are as big as 18-wheelers, and hate him. It’s wonderful. And awful. In that way that only he can be.