Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1, 2 and 3 of Billions. Never seen the show? Read our spoiler-free review here.
“If I give up my ability to trade, I might as well give up my license to breathe.” That’s Axe (Damian Lewis) at the start of Billions Season 3 – and that sound you can hear is one of TV’s slickest dramas executing a perfect handbrake turn. On paper, Showtime’s financial drama has the potential to be the driest thing on the televisual menu, charting the cat-and-mouse ego-collision between trading guru Bobby Axelrod and prosecutor Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti). A non-stop deluge of legal and financial technicalities in one-hour chunks, all carried out by wealthy men? It should, by all rights, be dull. But creator Brian Koppelman has made the whole thing for two seasons on the trot, ramping up the testosterone, the stakes and the witty verbal sparring like a man who’s invested his life savings in a thesaurus start-up. So much of this series boils down to giving two actors at the top of their game deliciously over-the-top dialogue to bellow at each other and simply watching them go, and it’s a formula that never fails.
Why? Because like a stock broker scoping out the next play, Billions keeps finding a new angle to cut into its characters. Wendy (Maggie Siff) is a large part of that, as Chuck’s wife continues to balance her loyalty to her husband with her fondness for Axe and her position as Axe Capital’s in-house staff psychologist. Chuck’s marriage, and previous failure of that marriage, makes him more vulnerable, but also makes the moments when they are united all the more effective. Axe, meanwhile, has seen his own relationship to Lara (Malin Akerman) break down. But nothing cuts into these men like their rival, and so Season 2 closed with Chuck scoring a major victory over his nemesis, as his double-double bluff on the Ice Juice short left Axe up the creek and in the sight of the law – even if it meant hurting his father, Charles (Jeffrey DeMunn), to do it.
Season 3, then, deliberately pushes Axe into an uncomfortable situation as it starts on its twisting, surprising path. Lewis, who delivers his lines like a knife slicing butter, is effortlessly cool and confident; he’s got the detached cool of a ruthless shark down to a tee. But what happens when a shark can no longer swim forward? It’s fascinating to see him frozen in limbo, unable to do what he does best. In another show’s hands, it would be hard to feel sorry for a rich man being unable to get richer, and it’s to Lewis’ credit that he can drum up some sympathy – for him, it’s less about the money and more about the winning, about beating the odds. Trading, for him, is a compulsion, a chance to make sure everyone knows Axe Capital, and fears and respects his name.
Chuck, though, is in equally awkward water, as he finds himself with a new boss: Waylon “Jock” Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown), a right-wing Attorney General with a taste for supporting the current US administration. Rhoades may have a thing for subordination in the bedroom, but he hates not having control in his professional life – Billions brilliantly takes it away from him, just as he seems to have succeeded in his ultimate goal. Brown is delightfully despicable, chatting like a redneck ranch owner and dismissing moral duty like, well, a redneck ranch owner. Giammatti’s a master of awkward stammers, sweaty fidgeting and stressful glaring; anyone with shares in hair loss cream are likely to start seeing some massive gains this season.
After watching these two titans clash into each other for 20 odd episodes, it’s a delight to see them have to stand back – Axe from trading, Chuck from Axe’s case. Of course, neither can do so, which only sabotages their own lives further.
Chuck finds himself navigating the tricky waters of keeping Dake and Connerty in check, the former more successfully than the latter; Dake is already under his thumb, but Connerty is out for revenge, and is determined to get Chuck’s dad to testify against him. The result balances political manoeuvring with a surprisingly sweet exploration of Chuck and Charles’ relationship – one that’s less about mutual affection, and more about mutual respect for how horrible the other one is. A fake reunion between the pair at an awards season is worth tuning in for alone, as the artificial emotions are turned up to 11 by both shrewd operators.
Axe, meanwhile, is navigating the even trickier waters of investing without being detected, using proxies, puppets and old favours to stay at arm’s length from any actual involvement. The always-fun Spyros starts following him around whenever he enters the Axe Cap building, live-streaming his interactions on his phone to prove compliance to the FBI. His attempts to stop the tragically pathetic Ira (now poor, but hoping to keep his would-be-fiancee, who’s only interested in him for his dosh) from snitching make for some wonderfully enjoyable TV (two words: white truffles).
But while there’s excellent mileage in seeing these big fish yanked out of their ponds, the best thing about Season 3 is that it opens up new waters for another fish to shine: Taylor. After stealing scenes in Season 2, Asia Kate Dillon’s Chief Investment Officer deservedly takes centre stage, grabbing the reins at Axe Cap and taking no prisoners. Dillon is, without a doubt, the best character on the show; they combine financial nous and intimidating intellect with a uniquely human quality, one that manages to be logical and calculating but also fragile and confused, often at the same time and always without seeming anything but fiercely strong.
Taylor has already shown they can handle the pressure of the trading world, but Koppelman puts them through the moral wringer this season, as the best opportunities to make money come courtesy of a Brazilian tsunami and the death of a national hero. Taylor can face the challenge of impressing an elite dinner of hedge fund managers, with a swaggering authority that’s magnetic, but profiting at the expense of tangible loss? That’s a new challenge.
It’s here that Season 3 finds its most compelling quality: the ability to show us, perhaps for the first time, the collateral damage of this world, collateral that involves normal humans who aren’t made of dollars. Kelly AuCoin’s Dollar Bill and the other traders may be likeable, but they’re not salt of the earth people; here, we see everyone from illegal immigrant cleaners and prison inmates to personal friends suffer from the actions of Axe, Chuck and the rest. Even Wendy gets a welcome extra share of screentime to explore her feelings independently of Chuck and Axe, with a moving subplot involving Craig Heidecker.
Why should these wealthy few care about such normal people? It’s less about guilt and more about legacy – a by-product of ego that runs rife in the background of every scene. Hell, Axe Cap even invented its own charitable foundation to allow its employees to shrug off any ethical dilemmas and reassure themselves they’re making the world a better place for generations to come. It’s legacy that sees both Chuck and Charles collide so often, struggling to make sure the family name isn’t tarnished but prospers. As for Axe, he and Taylor both balance out beautifully, allowing each one to act as the other’s hedge to keep them safely in check – so does that mean both of them are in charge? Or neither of them?
Power balances, status, snappy banter. Billions has rarely been so invested in shades of grey, or so full of laugh-out-loud putdowns. Most of those, of course, come courtesy of Wags, David Costabile’s irascible, immature, irresistible number two at Axe Cap. Costabile relishes the chance to get more to do – and say – in this season, and it’s exhilarating just to see him in action. It’s a treat to see him snort drugs and shout in restaurants. It’s a delight to see him interview quants with zero charity or understanding. It’s a joy to see him talk to literally anyone else on-screen, whether that’s Axe (straight-talking friendship) or Taylor (grudging respect). And yet, even he’s susceptible to the fear of legacy, taking over half of an entire episode just so he can buy a burial plot in the middle of the city.
With Taylor coming into their own, Wags refusing to be anything less than himself, and Axe and Chuck fighting to get back on sure footing, Season 3 of Billions sees the show more entertaining than ever, precisely because it doesn’t ever let its characters get comfortable for long. This is a show that’s never met a double-cross it doesn’t like, and Season 3’s real triumph is that emerges not as a show solely about Chuck and Axe, but about its two best supporting characters: Wendy and Taylor.
The legal tussles in the first half of the season are ultimately brushed under the carpet, thanks to the combined efforts of Axe, Wendy and Chuck. That leaves Axe trying to rebuild his authority at the head of the company, and Chuck trying to find a way to get out from under Jock’s bootstraps. But both are their own worst enemies: Axe essentially shunts Taylor to the side, dismissing their work in favour of his own schemes and ideas; Chuck, meanwhile, has annoyed and manipulated his staff one too many times. The result is a thrilling final few episodes, which see Jock out-manoeuvre Chuck, after he tries to get the attorney general caught on tape doing a dodgy deal – only to be stabbed in the back by his team and ousted from his own desk. Axe, on the other hand, is shafted by Taylor, after they wriggle their way into a major capital raise at Citi Field – and then they disappear with half of the $6 million raised to start their own business: Taylor Mason Capital.
It’s a deliciously shrewd move, one that leaves us enjoying the shock of the betrayal, rooting for the new underdog and yet sympathising with Lewis’ stunned boss, who trusted Taylor more than he’s trusted almost anyone in the series so far. It’s not just the money – although Taylor promises to surpass Axe Cap in three to eight years – but the shame and reputation too: for Axe, winning has always been about being smarter than everyone else. Here, we see him considering something as dark as having Taylor killed (the offer of John Malkovich’s scene-stealing Russian oligarchy, Grigor Andolov) before ultimately deciding he can’t cross that line – their relationship remains wonderfully complex, and still capable of evolving so much.
If their showdown is one to savour, though, it’s tellingly trumped by the face-off between Wendy and Taylor. Taylor offers her a job at their new firm, but Wendy refuses, raging on at Taylor about the importance of loyalty and trust. It’s a rant made even more enjoyable by the duplicitous behaviour she showed towards Mafee this season – even the best people in this show are brilliantly complex and conflicted. Taylor, then, hits back twice as hard when they point out that trust doesn’t matter, because money can by it – and, after seeing the way that Axe and Wendy have treated people, it’s hard not to disagree. No wonder Wendy is so angry.
Taylor has a less explosive, but equally powerful, exchange with Oscar (Mike Birbiglia), whose venture capitalist promises $500 million to invest in Taylor’s company, but, at the same time, says he can’t trust Taylor emotionally ever again – the brief glimpse of Taylor’s connection with him gives their character a wonderful shade of humanity, just enough to show us that they can bleed and be vulnerable. That proves crucial come the closing moments of Season 3, which find Taylor on their own and Wendy, Chuck and Axe gathering at the Rhoades’ dinner table to talk about working together to exact revenge on their respective enemies.
The only way to beat two actors at the top of their game delivering over-the-top dialogue for an hour? Add new voices. Season 4 promises a veritable shouting match between them all, and the prospect is hugely exciting. Whether you understand trading or not, Billions remains breathlessly slick telly.
Billions Season 1 to 3 are available to watch on-demand through Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. The contract-free service includes access to a range of Sky channels, from Sky Atlantic (Save Me) and Sky 1 (Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash) to FOX UK (The Walking Dead, Legion). A 7-day free trial is available for new subscribers.