2:05pm PT by Daniel Fienberg
Critic's Notebook: 'Billions' Caps a Much-Improved Season 2
[This contains spoilers for the second season of Showtime's Billions, including the May 7 season finale.]
As Sunday's second-season finale of Billions reached its conclusion, with emotionally tortured antiheroes Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) returning home, each man wondering what he'd find when he got back, Josh Ritter's "Homecoming" began to blare on the soundtrack.
I laughed, because Billions has never encountered a soundtrack choice that the editors deemed too on-the-nose, and I wrote, "Man, even when this show is hitting on all cylinders, it just can't get out of its own way."
Since this was the ending of the finale, I was able to pause and reconsider.
It's not that Billions can't get out of its own way; it's that the show has no desire to get out of its own way. It wants to be the kind of series where its protagonists face off at the end of the season and explain exactly what each other's motivations were and what the thematic underpinnings were, because even if you don't understand exactly what the plan is for Axe Capital to steer out of a position of potential financial ruin, you're going to understand the show's currents of masculine insecurity.
I know this, in case I didn't know this otherwise, because in Axe and Chuck's most sustained showdown of the season, Axe admitted, "I might have underestimated a part of your character. I didn't realize just how desperate you were to feel like a man."
If this is truly the case, Axe is surely the least perceptive person alive, because Chuck's desperation to feel like a man — and, in that vein, to fulfill traditionally ascribed roles as son, husband and, very rarely, father — has been basically his defining characteristic since the pilot. Like if you asked me to do a casting sheet logline for Chuck, "desperate to feel like a man" would be listed between "attorney" and "goatee." Since Axe has reliably been presented as quite the opposite, as one of the most intuitive people to ever squint and stare down a rival, it's hard to believe that he "didn't realize" it previously, meaning that he's just vocalizing something he already knew to tell Chuck something he already knew to tell the audience something we already knew, which makes it pretty much the most Billions-y line of dialogue ever. This is not a show content to use a ball peen hammer for precision chiseling when a sledgehammer is available to reduce points to a fine powder.
In its first season, this tendency irked me. It took 12 episodes of Axe and Chuck monomaniacally circling each other and metaphorically measuring each other's genitalia for Chuck to announce that he was coming after Axe, which is exactly where he started the series and therefore why on earth was I watching those first 11 episodes? I kept going with Billions because Lewis and Giamatti chewing scenery was never boring, though it was often redundant, and because of my hope that eventually the show might realize that it would be well-served to either focus primarily on Maggie Siff's Wendy, or at least make Wendy into an equal partner, even if that meant breaking up the binary obsession with Chuck and Axe.
Wendy didn't become the hero (or villain) of the second Billions season and the series never stopped being aggressively obvious, and yet this recent run of 12 episodes did see it progress rapidly from guilty pleasure to real pleasure by Sunday's finale.
Since I only sometimes get the chance to walk back from initially negative or ambivalent reactions to praise shows for growth or evolution, this seems like a good place to salute Billions for so much of what it did well in the second season.
I want to start with Asia Kate Dillon's Taylor and the role that character played both literally and metaphorically in this season. Having the first gender non-binary character on a major TV series played by a gender non-binary performer was the juicy publicity hook, but Taylor was fascinatingly awkward and out-of-place for reasons that immediately went beyond just announcing that their pronoun was "they" or "them." Breaking a gender binary border on TV was one thing, but breaking the generally homogenous world of Axe Capital was much more important for dramatic purposes. Taylor didn't immediately seem to belong at AxeCap because of superficial discomfort and maladroit social tendencies. The character's rapid progress from intern to, by the finale, Chief Investment Officer was all about finding their internal confidence and gradually revealing that any sense that Taylor didn't belong was more about our expectations. Axe's recognition of Taylor's genius set in motion an unlikely mentorship and bond that was, again by the finale, impressively emotional.
The first season, everybody at AxeCap responded to each other with the same bluster and machismo, but throwing a Taylor into the mix forced each character in Taylor's sphere to find a different point-of-relation, without resorting to any arc in which Taylor's non-binary status became the subject of bullying or prejudice. This is a world in which the ability to make money is the great equalizer and Taylor was being judged for that attribute and nothing else, or at least that's what writers Brian Koppelman & David Levien would tell you. It's too prettied up for me to believe, but I can accept it because Dillon was so good and did so much from within a performance that was mostly very quiet on a show that's mostly very loud. Perhaps more than anything, the variation in volume and bluster set Taylor and Dillon apart.
Around Taylor, the second season also saw other pieces of the AxeCap ensemble finally become compelling. David Costabile's Wags was always entertaining, but his downward spiral and then leadership resurrection this season was the juiciest material the Breaking Bad and Suits veteran has ever been given. Taylor brought out new sides of Axe and, for the first time, made me really interested in Kelly AuCoin's "Dollar" Bill, a character whose first-season hook was, for me, limited to "I can't believe he's Pastor Tim on The Americans, too." One or two of the moving pieces at AxeCap also had good scenes or episodic arcs, not that I remember most of their names. The season was structured so that when AxeCap was left in the hands of Wags, Maggie, Dollar Bill and Taylor in the finale, we were supposed to find that promising. And I did.
Perhaps having a gender non-binary actor forced the writers to think in generally narratively non-binary terms as well. The first season was so much about Chuck eyeing Axe and Axe eyeing Chuck and their dance that nothing ever felt like it was moving forward. If you just looked at the finale, which was Chuck busting Axe, you might have thought this season didn't move forward, but I liked so many of the narrative epicycles within the big arcs much more. Keeping Axe busy with the Sandicott casino play and with his rivalry with Danny Strong's character and even with the play to undermine the Nigerian currency paid dividends throughout. The world of AxeCap felt like it grew organically.
The contrast, I guess, would be that I found Chuck's office life much less interesting in the second season. I never bought the threat from Christopher Denham's Oliver Dake, and I enjoy that character's potential as an uneasy ally much more. And I can't say I care all that much about who gets to be Chuck's Head of Crim, after a season in which Toby Leonard Moore's Connerty, Condola Rash?d's Sacker and Malachi Weir's Watley all felt less interesting because so much of the time they were getting actively squeezed out or underserved by Chuck himself. On one hand, that's a narrative choice and Chuck's political aspirations brought in well-played turns by David Strathairn, Mary-Louise Parker and especially Jeffrey DeMunn, but something being intentional doesn't mean it was always good. Next season could ditch the U.S. Attorney's office entirely and I wouldn't care.
I also went back and forth on whether I thought Billions was using its female characters well this season. Lara's (Malin Akerman) random business venture never stuck for me, and Axe's condescension became frustrating when her relationship breaking point was a dumb lie he told about Wendy and not being a dickhead about her not taking her business seriously. Ackerman was very good in the finale when she locked into looking out for her family and we were reminded, again, that she has the backstory of a badass. The writers have generally done a better job of remembering that Wendy is a badass, but for me they made a mistake in making her a clueless victim (albeit a money-making victim) in Chuck's Ice Juice scheme.
Chuck leaving Wendy out underlined further how he chose his cold revenge against Axe over money, blood and his family. He chose revenge over everything and the finale wanted to make sure you knew several times that this was a bad thing, that the ostensible hero let himself be blinded by revenge, so now he and Axe might be ships passing in the ethical night if Axe follows through on his pledge to let Wendy steer him back onto the path of righteousness. Wendy made the right play in shorting Ice Juice and it means that the Rhoades family will still be financially strong. She just made the wrong read of Chuck and his intentions. We don't think of Wendy as being a businesswoman. She's a reader of men. So she was right in dollars and cents but wrong in her core competency, undermining the character's strength for me. Also, the one-off affair with James Wolk's Elon Musk clone was poorly motivated, and also it's a thing that the show left dangling for next season, even though Wendy had no reasonably way to believe the fling — Ross and Rachel style, they were definitely "on a break" — would remain a secret, an out-of-character choice as well.
Sticking with points of disappointment, the Axe/Chuck expositional showdown in the end was a well-acted conversation about thuddingly obvious things. If these two characters are going to remain apart, you've got to make the most of their interactions when they happen.
Eventually, Billions is going to give in and introduce a third big bad awful enough to justify forcing Axe and Chuck to work together for some extended period. A Russian industrialist who is funneling money into the coffers of Chuck's gubernatorial rival, money earned stabbing Axe in the back somehow? Or do we get some kind of Hannibal/Clarice situation first with Chuck successfully putting Axe behind bars and then having to humble himself to visiting Axe in his white collar prison because only Axe can help him take down the worst corporate criminal Wall Street has ever seen? You know something along those lines is coming, whether it's sooner or later.
If you'd ask me a year ago, I'd have told you I didn't care enough to await that plotline with any enthusiasm, but after a fun, profane and nicely twisty season, my opinion has changed a lot. And if this were Billions, the credits would roll with David Bowie's "Changes" playing on the soundtrack.