Billions is a wildly entertaining show about wildly bad men. Hedge fund founder Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) will do any nasty deed to keep his financial edge, from siccing ICE on a domestic worker to letting a colleague die. His (very sweaty) foil, U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), is ostensibly a crusader for moral good but is, in reality, just as power-hungry and manipulative as Axe. Billions often plays like a melodramatic, bombastic clash between villains—the New Republic called it “a superhero show about finance”—but the most conniving, fascinating, and full-on immoral character on the show is Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff), Chuck’s wife and Axe’s in-house “performance coach.” Axe’s tiny, perpetually-smirking mouth and Chuck’s oily handshakes make their deviousness obvious, but they’ve been quietly bested on the Evil O’Meter by their mutual special gal, who peddles a far more subtle brand of bad, one cloaked in killer sheath dresses and an understanding smile.
As Axe Capital’s performance coach, Wendy uses psychiatric tools for a distinct purpose: She is not looking out for the mental well-being of anybody at Axe Capital or trying to make them better, happier, healthier people. Instead, she is coaching them to earn, earn, earn, like a sexy, psycho Tony Robbins. Her job is entirely focused on the company’s bottom line. Instead of analyzing the market and making morality-free judgment calls about how to invest, like Axe Capital analysts, Wendy is analyzing people’s brains and emotionally manipulating them into enriching the company. Wendy’s job is just as unethical as those of other Axe Capital employees, but she works in a more intimate setting.
Wendy is frequently a go-between for Billions’ two male leads. She’s married to one and employed by the other, stuck in what seems like a completely preposterous situation. But this is an ideal arrangement for Wendy: Instead of psychologically steering one of New York’s most powerful men, she gets to psychologically steer two of them, all while making them feel guilty for putting her in a position she is secretly thrilled to inhabit.
At one point in Season 3, Wendy muses that when she started out at Axe Capital, Chuck was in private practice and she never would’ve expected him to one day to try to jail Axe for insider trading. But with all we know about their marriage, this statement makes little sense: While Wendy may not have known that her husband would veer into prosecuting white collar crime, specifically, she also knew from the beginning that she was working with a man with criminal inclinations, while married to another who wanted to ensnare criminals. Axe was comfortable going outside of the law even before he started his own fund, as he was about to get fired from his old firm on 9/11 because of suspicions of shady trading. Wendy knew that she was involved with two men who had diametrically opposed goals from the start.
What’s more, Wendy has convinced both men that she occupies the highest moral ground, while simultaneously helping both fulfill their immoral missions. When she brings Axe and Chuck together to come up with a plan to keep her out of jail for insider trading, the men have a whispered conversation about how to conceal the dirtier aspects of the scheme from Wendy, specifically the fact that they will need a fall guy. She comes back, however, and bluntly asks “Who’s the patsy?” Soon, we see her put on a performance of guilt to Axe, selling her Maserati and donating the proceeds to her company’s philanthropic fund. This might suggest she has a conscience. Or it might suggest that she wants Axe to think she has a conscience, so she can preserve her moral influence.
When it comes to direct bad behavior, Wendy hasn’t done anything herself that is quite as bad as her husband or boss. Yes, she preyed on analyst Mafee (Dan Soder) by leveraging his crush on her to convince him to cover up for her insider trading. Yes, she had an affair with Billions’ fake, hot version of Elon Musk and then seemed to recover from his untimely death in a space explosion in, like, 30 minutes. But she didn’t get innocent people deported, like Axe, or bankrupt her best friend as collateral damage in a revenge scheme, like Chuck. On the surface, that might make Wendy look slightly less despicable than her testosterone-fueled minions. But remember: Wendy controls these men. She isn’t just on board with their power grabs, she is the rudder for both of them, directing them ever upward. Her eyes are wide open and she is privy to the worst of their schemes, and yet she stays, fine-tuning her skill at holding the puppet strings.
It’s not clear whether Axe or Chuck will come out on top on Billions. But mark my words: Wherever they end up, however many times they double-cross and plot and re-double-cross, Wendy will emerge from the wreckage in an immaculate black blouse and a position of enormous power.