'Billions' Season 3: TV Review

'Billions' is 'Billions.'
3/25/2018

Showtime's wonderfully acted, frequently repetitive game of Manhattan cat-and-mouse doesn't take another qualitative leap in its third season, but the drama remains high.

Skippable pre-credit filler on many shows, the "Previously on …" recap montage is mandatory viewing for Showtime's Billions. While your typical series might use that clip package just to remind you of the previous episode's cliffhanger, Billions typically jumps around for refreshers on a dozen minor characters, some unseen for 10 episodes or more. Yes, if you have a Marilu Henner memory, it's a guaranteed spoiler for which long-buried plot points are returning, but if you're a more normal viewer, it's practically the only way to resituate yourself in a narrative that remains deliciously twisted but weirdly forgettable.

That gets to the root of my general problem with Billions, which is set to return for its third season. Despite an ensemble cast that ranks among the best on TV playing characters who are usually colorful and quirky and fun, the ponderous repetitiveness of what the series does with them is all-too-frequently mechanical.

For me, Billions made a very large leap forward in quality in its second season, culminating in the magnificently structured and directed (by Karyn Kusama) "Golden Frog Time," one of 2017's best single episodes and one of the rare times in which the show's "Who's bluffing whom?" poker game felt as complex and surprising as creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien generally seem to believe. Through five episodes sent to critics, the third season hasn't approached that "Golden Frog Time" peak, with carefully crafted pleasures and too-entrenched rhythms often falling into conflict.

By way of a "Previously on …" recap, the new season returns basically where it left off, following up on the Ice Juice play that left Paul Giamatti's Chuck Rhoades seemingly in a power position over Damian Lewis' Bobby "Axe" Axelrod — though if you know Billions, you know that any power position is, at best, transitory. Chuck and wife Wendy (Maggie Siff) are in an uncomfortable detente, and if you feel like the show has strayed too far from the kinky BDSM kick of the first season, you're about to get lucky. In contrast, because Billions is nothing if not a show that likes to play off of its parallel relationships, Bobby and wife Lara (Malin Akerman) are in a tentative estrangement.

On the legal side of things, Ollie (Christopher Denham) and Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) are investigating the Ice Juice fallout, forcing each to explore their uncertain ties to Chuck.

On the financial side, Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) is feeling out the new job of CIO at AxeCap, struggling to gain the respect of the variously interchangeable traders.

The most prominent new face in the recurring cast, and a necessary acknowledgment of a current real-world political climate in which "regulation" has gone from government-endorsed policy to a dirty word, is Clancy Brown as the new Attorney General, a no-nonsense Texan with little interest in Chuck's anti-business grandstanding. Early episodes also introduce Mike Birbiglia as a socially uncomfortable billionaire venture philanthropist who enters the AxeCap sphere. Both Brown and Birbiglia are good fits on the show.

I called Billions a poker game earlier — Koppelman and Levien are, after all, the minds behind Rounders — but the series is really much more like an inverted boxing match, with Axe and Chuck as wild-swinging heavyweights who spend the majority of their time posturing in the corner spitting in buckets with their respective teams and then move to the center of the ring for 10 seconds of boxing before retreating for more posturing. So even though Axe and Chuck spent a few minutes head-to-head in the second-season finale, don't expect more of that to start the third.

What you can expect is the continuation of TV's most successful penis-free depiction of nonstop penis-measuring and it has, perhaps, become even less symbolic than in the past. There's a running joke about how Connerty, on Chuck's leash for two seasons, keeps trying to interview men who insist on standing in front of him naked, a spectacle that inevitably leaves him uncomfortable and insecure. The rivalry between ethically suspect "Dollar" Bill (Kelly AuCoin) and compliance weasel Ari Spyros (the great Stephen Kunken) boils over into a confrontation in which Bill finally just says, "You have no balls. You're less than a man." If you took out all of the scenes of dudes whipping out their metaphorical genitals and laying them on boardroom tables, Billions would be nothing but a few shots of the New York City skyline — and, yes, skyscrapers are surely phallic proxies — set to an on-the-nose soundtrack needle drop.

That is, of course, not completely true, and it's not completely true because of Dillon's Taylor, a remarkable season-two addition as the lone non-binary part of the Billions binary world. Everything about Taylor and about Dillon is at odds with the rest of the show in a way that speaks to the best of dramatic writing and acting. Taylor is every bit as brilliant and confident as the other characters on Billions, but every other character on the show acts almost exclusively in the name of masculinization or demasculinization, even Wendy and Lara. Taylor walks into a room and suddenly every single interaction is different, every term we think we understand about success or failure has to be redefined. And on a show of actors performing with a Wall Street operatic largesse, Dillon operates with a unique and halting swagger all their own, a chosen woodenness that can be awkward or cocky or hilarious and an evasion of emotion that Dillon betrays with their eyes. Emmy voters ignored Dillon's performance last year and I hope that was just initial terminology-based confusion — they submitted in the supporting actor field — that can be swiftly overcome, because this is one of TV's most interesting performances.

I can no longer tell if Taylor is being pushed more to the show's forefront or if the character gets more of my attention because on a show in which the same cat-and-mouse beats keep getting played, what Taylor does is generally unexplored territory. It was the break from that familiarity that made what both Lewis and Giamatti got to do in "Golden Frog Time" so exciting, but these latest episodes don't give either actor many moments on that level. The new installments, and the consequences of the Ice Juice betrayal, do give Jeffrey DeMunn and Ben Shenkman more screen time, and they're terrific. Dave Costabile's Wags has one superb episode. Dan Soder, whose Mafee tends to be one of the AxeCap characters whose names I can never remember, has a standout episode and some very good exchanges with Taylor. Siff, who began the show as my favorite piece of the ensemble, remains perpetually welcome, especially in the moments Wendy seems to suggest that she's getting fed up with repetitive elements. A big season-opening concern is how the show has lost track of Akerman's Lara, but it's my hope that she's integral enough in Axe's life that she's heading for a big second half.

The best illustration of my feelings for Billions, as it starts its third season, is this sheepish confession: For review, I settled in to watch an episode and I made it through 40 minutes before realizing that it was an episode I'd already watched before TCA press tour in January. Not a year ago. January. Sure, it seemed like a lot of the legal maneuvers and AxeCap business strategies were similar, but not definitively. I wasn't bored, and I was enjoying the characters and performances enough that I didn't care. I wasn't angry when I realized I'd rewatched an entertaining enough episode, just bemused that the difference between the show's intended wheel-spinning and my accidental loop was so small.

Cast: Damian Lewis, Paul Giamatti, Maggie Siff, Malin Akerman, Toby Leonard Moore, David Costabile, Condola Rashad, Asia Kate Dillon, Jeffrey DeMunn
Creators: Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin
Showrunners: Brian Koppelman and David Levien
Airs: Sundays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (Showtime)