One of the most underrated virtues of Billions is predictability. The Showtime drama has followed a familiar pattern each season, with longtime rivals Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) finding new ways to screw each other over in the overlapping spheres of finance and politics. Billions might throw in the occasional wrinkle—there was a brief period in Season 4 when Chuck and Axe became unlikely allies—but the cyclical nature of the characters’ squabbles was a feature, not a bug, elevated by the show’s scenery-chewing performances and colorful dialogue. Showtime has a tendency to run series into the ground, but Billions has always felt like it could eternally depict Chuck and Axe’s dick-swinging contest.
That’s why the buildup to the Season 5 finale, in which Chuck pinned Axe into a corner over Axe Capital’s involvement with a cannabis company connected to the black market, didn’t seem like it would stick. After all, Axe would sooner gnaw off his own limb than let Chuck get the better of him. (Side note: I would absolutely watch a Saw spinoff with Axe and Chuck trapped in a basement together.) But with the walls closing in on Axe, he made a move that nobody saw coming: He accepted defeat. Rival billionaire Mike Prince (Corey Stoll, introduced in Season 5), who helped Chuck implicate Axe, offered to seize control of Axe’s empire for $2 billion. In exchange, Axe avoided jail time by running off to Switzerland before the authorities could reach him. In a way, it’s the ideal end to the Chuck-Axe feud: Axe lost, but Chuck didn’t get the satisfaction of putting him behind bars.
Outside of Billions, Axe’s departure was a matter of circumstance. Given his contract is up after five years—and the death of his wife, actress Helen McCrory—Lewis told The New York Times that wanted to remain in his native England and be closer to his family. But he also believed that his journey with Axe had run its course. “It’s difficult to keep mining, creatively,” Lewis said. “We know who he is.”
Now, the show goes on, without one of its lead characters. The sixth season, premiering on Sunday, picks up with Prince as the new ruler of Axe Cap—sorry, Michael Prince Capital. A couple of Axe loyalists have decided to start up their own company—best of luck to Dollar Bill and Mafee—but the rest of the ensemble has been left to adjust to their new normal. That includes Chuck. Chuck isn’t one to pass up an opportunity to trade blows with a billionaire, and he lets Prince know that taking Axe’s place (as well as his literal company) gave him a target on his back. Axe may have been his white whale—you never forget your first, uh, archenemy—but Chuck will gladly set his sights on another member of New York City’s billionaire class. We are all Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff), who communicates an exasperated “Ah shit, here we go again” with a single blink after Chuck and Prince trade barbs:
Of course, taking Prince down is easier said than done. Lewis is right: After five seasons, Billions viewers knew the ins and outs of Axe’s comically overinflated ego. Prince is a different beast, one who’s more understated in his maneuvering and trickier to decipher. Prince imagines himself as an ethical billionaire, someone who plays the game the right way and leaves a positive imprint on the world. It’s a philosophy Prince expects the financial foot soldiers he inherited from Axe to follow. The old ways with Axe—a.k.a. it’s totally cool to do something illegal to make a profit, just don’t get caught—won’t fly with him. In the perfect metaphor for the mood change at the company, Prince has replaced Axe’s eerie paintings—provided last season by David Lynch—with inspirational artwork of Nelson Mandela and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar mid-skyhook. (Another thing about Prince: He’s a former basketball prodigy, and will unironically leave John Wooden’s Pyramid of Success printed out in the break room.)
Compared to Axe, who at times was so conniving that all he was missing was a mustache to twirl, Prince comes across as downright decent. But as is true to real life, even billionaires with a history of goodwill can have skeletons in their closet. As revealed last season, Prince had a business partner whom he fleeced out of a multimillion-dollar payday and who later died in a car accident. (The former partner’s mother still blames Prince for her son’s death.) And as part of the Axe takedown, Prince used his own daughters as collateral by convincing them to take an interest in the shady cannabis company, which, naturally, made Axe only more determined to do business with them. Prince spins the moment as a lesson about the cutthroat nature of the industry, but what kind of “ethical” billionaire throws his own children under the bus to take down a rival?
But as the cannabis scheme underlined, even if Prince plays a little dirty, he’s not likely to get caught red-handed. To use a metaphor Prince would appreciate, he’ll throw the occasional elbow in the paint, but only when the refs aren’t paying attention. That means Chuck has his work cut out if he wants to stop Prince from achieving his big goal of Season 6: making New York the host of the 2028 Olympic Games. It’s the most on-brand move Prince could make: It can be construed as a social good for a city that’s fallen on hard times since the pandemic, yet one that is also colored by shady dealings with the International Olympic Committee and the long economic complications that come from hosting Olympics. Perhaps most tellingly, though, Prince seems to primarily want to be the face of New York’s Olympics bid out of sheer vanity.
There’s no replacing Bobby Axelrod, an antihero whose uniquely frantic energy made him seem more like a cult leader who has a tasteful collection of hoodies and the temperament of an overtired toddler—someone who could probably convince his employees to jump off a cliff if it meant a strong return on investment. But the good news is that Billions hasn’t really tried to fill the void in Season 6. Creating Axe 2.0 would’ve been a losing battle for both the series and any actor tasked with living up to Lewis’s engrossing performance. Instead, Billions has swung in a different direction by setting up an aspirational billionaire whose more subdued brand of narcissism blinds him from his own shortcomings. We knew who Axe was. The intrigue of Billions going forward is that we don’t quite know who Mike Prince is—and neither does Chuck. The Axe era is over, but a worthy Prince has taken his throne.