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“We All Need Something”: The Oral History of Chuck’s BDSM Reveal on ‘Billions’

In advance of the new season, Paul Giamatti, Maggie Siff, and the creators of ‘Billions’ look back at the making of the show’s most shocking moment yet

Showtime/Ringer illustration

While writing the script of The Girlfriend Experience, director Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 film about a high-end sex worker, Brian Koppelman and David Levien spoke to almost 20 top escorts. In nearly all of the interviews, the women volunteered that the vast majority of their wealthiest, most influential clients shared the same bedroom desire: to relinquish the power that they wielded during their daily lives.

A half decade later, Koppelman and Levien were developing Billions—suddenly, they’d stumbled upon an opportunity to use that tidbit of information. It seemed natural that Chuck Rhoades, the hyper-calculating prosecutor at the center of the Showtime series, would be the submissive to his wife Wendy’s domme. Just like the domineering they’d been told about, Chuck would be the type to want the power dynamics flipped behind closed doors. And because that piece of character development was based in reality, Chuck’s BDSM preferences never felt like just a punch line on the show.

Still, in the cutthroat world of Billions, Chuck’s sexual practices are a liability—a sex scandal spelling the end of a politician’s career is a time-honored tradition in the United States. Since the series premiered in 2016, it was just a matter of time before one of his enemies learned of Chuck’s proclivities and used them against him. “We had this opportunity to set off this bomb,” Levien says. Then, early last season, it detonated.

After rival Black Jack Foley threatens to derail Chuck’s New York attorney general campaign by leaking the taboo details of his personal life, Chuck decides to reveal them to the public himself. His tell-all speech, given during the fourth episode of Season 4, is the most satisfyingly shocking moment in the history of the proudly twisty show. This is the story of how one desperate man saved his political career, possibly destroyed his marriage, and slammed open the “Overton Window.”

Part I: “I’m in for This Ride”

When it came time to cast Chuck in the mid-2010s, Koppelman and Levien had one man in mind. They’d worked with Paul Giamatti on The Illusionist and thought the Academy Award nominee would be bold enough to portray someone in a more nontraditional marriage. The equally fearless Maggie Siff, who had played department store executive Rachel Menken on Mad Men and Tara Knowles on Sons of Anarchy, signed on as Wendy, a hyper-driven psychiatrist who also happens to work for Chuck’s hedge fund manager rival Bobby Axelrod.

Brian Koppelman (cocreator): We felt—and feel—that Paul can do anything. He’s the greatest collaborator you could ever want to have.

David Levien (cocreator): The idea that [Chuck] was this super powerful guy that brought law and order and justice in his waking life, we just felt was a really good fit for the character to have that proclivity.

Koppelman: That was in the pilot script.

Levien: I do remember at the time [Giamatti] read the pilot, he really loved that it was his wife that he was doing this stuff with. That was a real difference-maker. It wasn’t a guy being unfaithful.

Koppelman: I remember saying to him, “Please read the whole thing. There’s a scene at the beginning that might scare you, but please read the whole thing.” He read the whole thing and he called us and he said, “I get it. I get why the guy’s that way. I get the whole thing.”

Paul Giamatti (Chuck Rhoades): I think I was mostly concerned that it [would] be deployed just for shocking sight gag value. But it actually was something interesting about the characters and their relationship.

Koppelman: We flew to L.A. the next day and had dinner with him the next night. And really, he started talking about the character and, on his own, understood that aspect of the character and why that guy was like that. He shook our hands at the end of the dinner and was like, “I’m in. I’m in for this ride with this guy.”

Maggie Siff (Wendy Rhoades): I was pretty nervous about it. Before I accepted the role, the conversation that was had was between my people and Showtime—I don’t believe it was directly had between me and Brian and David. I didn’t want [BDSM] to be used in a sordid, salacious way. I was sort of given assurances that it would be used sparingly and to really investigate the questions of this marriage and who these people were.

Koppelman: We didn’t know that we had a show until we had Maggie signed on for it. Wendy, from the beginning, was the linchpin for us. It was obviously marketed at the beginning as this titanic battle between these two dudes. But for us, Wendy Rhoades is the secret female centerpiece of the first season, and really of the whole series, right? Because the two guys, their souls aren’t in the balance so much. But her soul’s in the balance.

Giamatti: She’s spot on. She always is.

Siff: I actually think at the end of the day that [the BDSM] scenes are a lot more challenging for Paul than they are for me, who is literally the one in control. And I think they’ve always ended up being very interesting and complicated. So I think that that aspect of the story has really served a very interesting purpose in investigating a marriage.

Levien: We did go ahead and hire, as a consultant, somebody’s who’s prominent in that world. She would come in and talk to the actors and talk to the production and some of that stuff that’s in the set is from her place. She would sort of represent the mind-set in ways so we had a fuller understanding of it.

Koppelman: The first couple seasons we heard from the [BDSM community] online all the time. They were so happy that there was a representation of them that wasn’t tongue-in-cheek, that wasn’t sending them up. Taking their thing seriously and as another expression of a relationship between people. Whatever world we’re depicting, Dave and I want to get it right. And we want the people in that world to recognize themselves in it.

Siff: I always joke that Chuck and Wendy are DIY BDSM. They’re figuring it out. He has his domme and that all is very professional. And they got some help. But for the most part, what they do and how they do it, it’s sort of their own thing that they’re sort of figuring out as they go along.

Showtime

Part II: “Is This Jumping the Shark?”

Long before Season 4, the concept of the Overton Windowthe spectrum of behaviors and policies that the public considers to be acceptable—was brought up in the writers’ room. Being a masochist appeared to fall outside that range. That’s what made Chuck’s disclosure such an interesting narrative possibility.

Levien: It was written on a card, “The Overton Window.” It was put on a board and then weeks and weeks went by. And it was just up there and it started to get buried by the other cards, with potential ideas and potential episode titles on it. And somehow [the twist] just rose out of that and announced itself at the right time.

Koppelman: The room was talking about this information coming out and then how would Chuck deal with it once it came out.

Levien: Obviously the most inflammatory and dangerous thing to a guy in the public eye would be that side of himself.

Koppelman: Dave and I, the two of us, realized in a blink, “No, no, no, Chuck’s gonna do it.” And that was the big moment. He’s gonna out himself.

Levien: We realized we had this great chance to really do something inventive with the storytelling by letting the guy seize control of it and putting it out there. Like taking away that secret pressure point from the series forever.

Koppelman: That’s how the thing on the board came into play. We were like, “He’s gonna move the Overton Window.” He’s gonna take ownership of this.

Ben Shenkman (Ira Schirmer): Chekov talks about the unfired gun and anyone who knows that show, it’s just too good not to blow up that bomb at some point.

Koppelman: We just decided, “Well, we’re just gonna write this episode.” Because we knew it was a turning point in the season and in the series.

Shenkman: It wasn’t a total shock. But it packed the punch it was intended to, even to me, the reader. But my next response was, “Of course, that’s what has to happen.” It’s both surprising but it’s completely supported by everything we know about the character.

Siff: When I read it, I was like, “Is this jumping the shark?” I really was like, “How will this work? And will we believe it?” And it is set up to do all of this work, in the storytelling and in the plotting of the show. But then of course Paul is so brilliant. Of course it worked.

Giamatti: That kind of thing happens, like every episode. There’s some crazy thing somebody does. It’s definitely in the DNA of the show.

Part III: “Fuck It, Why Not Go Out Punching Somebody in the Face?”

The big reveal of “Overton Window,” which Clement Virgo directed, took place at an iconic New York City location. Chuck’s speech, given despite the fact that Wendy objected to him going public about their sex life, is only about three minutes. But it packs a punch.

Giamatti: It’s one of the best things that [Koppelman and Levien] have done. There’s a lot of real oratorical stuff on the show. I thought this was really, really well-written. I remember that just being my initial reaction. It really flows and plays itself. I just need to sort of get out of the way of it.

Koppelman: He understood how to play it.

Giamatti: It was more sort of plain than a lot of stuff tends to be on the show. I thought it was an interesting speech for that reason. It was less florid than a lot of the stuff on the show. I thought, in a way, this is the most honest this guy has been up until this point. And I thought that seemed to be the driving principle of the thing; that he’s being utterly honest for the first time. Not that he hadn’t been at other times, but this was really kind of just all the cards on the table.

Levien: We had known about Fraunces Tavern and the significance of Washington’s farewell to his troops there. It’s such an incredible New York location. We’d wanted to use it for a long time and we weren’t sure how to deploy it. But we thought it was the perfect place for Chuck to have decided to have that press conference.

Koppelman: There’s all sorts of ways people, especially background performers, could get uncomfortable with that stuff. It was really important for us on the day to make sure that the whole thing was treated as a serious, somber, real thing that was happening. Nobody was going to let their uncomfortableness with the subject matter make them giggle, or laugh, or roll their eyes.

Giamatti: Those people playing the reporters were really great. It’s nice when you have a kind of engaged and responsive bunch of extras to talk to like that. A couple of them were actual New York 1 reporters.

Shenkman: The very first time they did it, in the wide shot, for the whole room, he was fully in command of the speech even in those wide shots where it was unlikely to play. I’m sure it was in part because that was the closest to the character’s actual experience.

Without telling anyone, Chuck improvises. Instead of conceding the AG race, he goes all in. “I am a masochist,” he admits. “In order to achieve sexual gratification, I need to be tied up, punched, pinched, whipped, kicked, or otherwise tortured. By my loving wife. And here’s the bigger truth. All of us need something, right?”

Giamatti: The most important part of it, to me, seemed to be the kind of personal defiance of saying, “I don’t know if I’m gonna win. I’m probably not gonna win, so fuck it. At least I’m gonna be honest about myself and cut these guys off at the knees for trying to screw me over.” And living honestly.

Siff: The thing that I was struck by: The characters have a conversation about this before he does it. They have that conversation about the Overton Window, and I’m like, “Well, that would be all right for you because you like to be humiliated.” She’s basically like, “You live for this pain. But I don’t.” And I feel like that’s the thing that you actually see, and he sets out to do it, and he has the determination, and he’s laying it out, and then there’s something very subtle that happens.

Koppelman: He can feel his shoulders drop as he’s speaking. Paul just understood the whole thing. If you think about it, he’d been carrying this secret. You know what it’s like in life when you finally get to unburden yourself, no matter what the secret is?

Siff: You see the infusion of energy and the way that he’s getting off on it. Not in sexual terms. But it fills him up. It excites him. It feels so humiliating. It feels so good. To him. He somehow manages to capture that in a very nuanced way, in his performance.

Shenkman: If a politician were, in real life, to reveal something as personal and as potentially scandalous as this, they could hardly do better than what this character does, which is to say, “Hey look, I’m about to tell you something, and my opponents are trying to use it against me because they think you can’t handle it. They’re in effect manipulating you by manipulating me.” The way for me to turn that around is to say, “Hey, we’re all adults here.”

Koppelman: I gotta give a quick shout-out to the John Mellencamp song in that scene, “Troubled Man.” Just because for Dave and me, when a scene like that shows up, a song shows up at the same time. And that song showed up for us at the same time. And I think to be able to play that music over that moment leading up to it and coming out of it, this song that feels like it’s ageless, timeless, this late-period song that mixes all the iconography Mellencamp brings about being a guy who gives a fuck about no one but Mellencamp. But then somehow he’s able to really touch you.

Shenkman: In the end, he really will put himself first. And he’ll do it with a lot of balls and courage and a lot of intellectual fire. So you admire it in a way. You admire the audacity of it. And you admire the chess game of it. But you’re also chilled by the calculation there.

Giamatti: It’s this reckless, impulsive thing this character’s always doing. He’s not thinking about his wife.

Siff: It’s not just that when he gives that speech it’s humiliating to Wendy, which it is, but it’s also a breach of something sacred at the heart of their relationship.

Giamatti: I suppose it’s cynical, too. In some ways he figures he’s screwed, so fuck it, why not go out punching somebody in the face?

Levien: We realized that we had a built-in opportunity to cut to every character in the entire series, reacting in the way that it affected them personally as far as their plans and agendas went. It was gonna shock some of them, it was gonna undo some of their plans. It was gonna help some of them. The sort of split-up worlds of the show only have limited ways in which they can entirely intersect, and that was one of them.

Showtime

Koppelman: We had lots of choices with the other people reacting.

Levien: This cast knows their characters so well that it didn’t take much by way of explanation. Jeff DeMunn understood the glee that [Charles] Sr. would have at seeing his son sort of living out his power in that way, and Axe would be bemused by this guy making such a strong play. Watching [Bryan] Connerty and [Kate] Sacker, who worked with Chuck, and had no idea, sort of play it like these tumblers clinking, and obviously Maggie ...

Koppelman: Man, it is just crushing to look at Maggie and to understand where Wendy Rhoades fits in this.

Levien: And her strength.

Koppelman: She understands all of that in every way.

Siff: They had already shot the scene with Paul, so they had the footage of him giving the speech. We have all these monitors up at Axe Cap where generally what’s running are financial news reports. And so in that scene, they put on him giving the speech. That was the first time that I saw it. I just got to watch him do what he was doing. It was very easy, partly because I know the character inside out. Our relationship is deep and well-established and my relationship to everybody in that room is well-established. And then I got to see him do that performance, which was so incredible.

Shenkman: The one thing I don’t think the show provokes a lot of is emotion. I think of it as a light show, emotionally. Rarely is the show upsetting, even though there are people in pain and great stakes. I feel it’s designed [that way]. The characters are so invincible that you know even when they take blows, the show is kind of always about surviving. It’s not that people don’t get angry and suffer losses, but I feel that the show rarely puts the audience in the place of somebody being devastated.

Siff: It was an unusual Billions scene because it was so visceral. She was in a state that you don’t generally see the character in. Somebody who’s so used to being in control really had that taken away from her in a way that is just not OK. And doesn’t feel good. And sort of walking into that office with all the knives out. It was ugly.

Showtime

Part IV: “The Ultimate Power Move”

After Chuck’s radical honesty, he wins the election and becomes New York’s AG. But because of what he did to help ensure victory, his once-strong marriage may be irreparably damaged. When it was filmed, Levien and Koppelman had no idea that the twist would seem like it was ripped from the headlines.

Koppelman: We knew that it would be a moment that people watching the series for a long time would feel rewarded for the time they put in. This was switching up the rules in a way that was very true to who this character was. It was something that people wouldn’t expect, but when it happened, they would feel, “Oh, that makes complete sense.” What we could not have counted on, of course, was real life events that happened after we shot this but before it aired, that made it even doubly resonant.

Levien: It was only later when it sort of played out in real life with [Amazon founder Jeff] Bezos outing himself when people were trying to blackmail him about those texts and photos. You could recognize that it’s the ultimate power move in the end.

Siff: What I was most surprised and interested in was that [Wendy] didn’t leave him. I was like, “Well, as soon as that happened, she’s gone.” But she didn’t. The next day happened, and the next day after that happened, and the next day after that happened. And then eventually she leaves him. It takes a minute. And I appreciated that. That feels like real life to me. People betray each other terribly and they don’t walk out the door as soon as it happens.

Showtime

Levien: There was going to be all this reckoning to come with all the characters, including and especially Wendy. So we couldn’t carry that over. We wanted to just make it happen. The counterpunch was as exciting to us as him giving the speech.

Siff: I feel like Brian and Dave do that a lot. They’ll have huge, game-changing set pieces that happen somewhere like a third of the way in or two-thirds of the way in. And it keeps the storytelling unpredictable.

Giamatti: It peaks all the time.

Shenkman: Part of the show’s contract with the audience is that it’s all fun. It’s all for fun. Even though it’s about dark things the headspace of watching the show is not gonna be scary and disturbing and upsetting. It’s gonna be escapism.

Giamatti: It’s the nature of the show. It’s a melodrama. In a good way.

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