Warning: This contains mild spoilers.
“Am I greatest guy in the world? Hell, no.” That’s Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) in Billions. It’s full of people like that. People who aren’t the greatest in the world. People with names like “Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod”. And people who talk almost exclusively in quotable lines of dialogue. Within minutes, he’s described as “Mike Tyson in his prime” by Charles “Chuck” Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), the US Attorney who keeps an eye on the dodgy deals going on in the financial sector. “And you do not want Mike Tyson in his prime.”
With Axelrod continuing to make waves with his extreme wealth – and equally extreme generosity – Chuck decides he’s had enough. The time has come to bring Bobby down.
That’s the basic premise of Billions – two heavyweights going after each other. And judging by the first episode, it’s going to be one heck of a battle.
When your opponents are actors of such calibre as Lewis and Giamatti, you expect something special – and Billions’ impressive achievement is meeting those expectations without exception. Writers Brian Koppelman, David Levien, who juggled legal complexities neatly in an adaptation of John Grisham’s Runaway Jury, are just as adept when it comes to financial details, swapping jargon at high speed as if it’s going out of fashion. Neil Burger, who brought breathtaking style to Bradley Cooper actioner Limitless, swooshes through the corridors of ill-gotten power with all the gloss of a luxury magazine.
But there’s more to Billions than surface sheen – even though the surface sheen is gorgeous. “When did it become a crime to succeed?” cries Alexrod, bringing to Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko from 1987’s Wall Street. Yet the subject matter could hardly be more topical, trading in issues of justice, corruption, law and insider trading. Even without the Panama Papers leaking ahead of the show’s premiere, this is pertinent stuff, striking right at the heart of that elusive 1 per cent of society whose deeds are conducted behind closed doors. (Co-creator Andrew Ross Sorkin, a journalist who penned Too Big to Fail, a book about the banking crisis, brings insight and immediacy to the table.)
The characters, though, are a marvellous shade of grey: Bobby, as he seems only too keen to remind people, is the sole survivor of his hedge fund during the September 11 attacks. And so he spends a large amount of his fortune on the college tuition for the children of his deceased colleagues – is it an act of guilt, of compassion, or a PR stunt? Damian Lewis is right at home here, revelling in his two-faced enigma, switching from slimy and smug in the office to sincere and smug at home with his kids. After Homeland’s duplicitous Brody, it’s the kind of role Lewis could play in his sleep, but he isn’t phoning it in: even the way he swishes his legs off his shiny desk to walk across the room reeks of magnetic charisma and arrogance.
Giamatti, meanwhile, has just as much ambiguity to play with. He’s a man whose passion for taking down the bad guys almost goes beyond his job description and the writers are sure to surround him with potentially compromising influences: his rich father, with connections to the kind of heads Chuck is hunting, and his wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), who has been a loyal employee (as a therapist and performance coach) for Alexrod’s firm for 14 years. At home, they engage in dominatrix role-play – it’s no mistake that Burger slaps that right up on screen for his cold (heated) open – which raises all kinds of questions about Chuck’s relationship with power, not to mention his wife’s authority in their marriage.
The show doesn’t rush to answer these questions: its opening hour packs in a whole heap of intriguing supporting characters (watch out for Malin Åkerman as Bobby’s wife, Toby Leonard Moore (Daredevil’s Wesley) as Chuck’s right-hand man and Nathan Darrow (House of Cards’ Meechum) as a trader needing a mojo boost from Wendy), but is willing to take its time to apprecaite each person’s impact on the plot. “A good matador doesn’t try and kill a fresh bull,” declares Chuck (Billions has never met a metaphor it doesn’t like). “He waits until he’s back stuck a few times.”
Impact is certainly the word: this feels less like a drama and more a collision course for two unstoppable objects. We get a taste of what the knock will be like – “What’s the point of having f*ck you money if you never say f*ck you?” retorts Axelrod in a thrilling exchange – but our antagonists are largely kept at arm’s reach from each other for this first hour, giving us enough room to savour the eventual crash, and them enough room essentially to dare each other into striking the first blow. Lewis laps up all the snappy quips the script feeds him, but it’s Giamatti who steals the show with a heartfelt speech to rally his troops. “What we do has weight,” he reminds them. Billions is that kind of show. One where actions have consequences – and every word carries real dramatic heft. These aren’t the greatest guys in the world. Do we want to spend more time with them? Hell, yes.
Billions Season 1 is available as a box set on-demand for Sky customers. Don’t have Sky? The series is also available to watch on NOW TV, Sky’s contract-free VOD service, for £6.99 a month.
Photo: © Showtime Networks Inc. All rights reserved.