UK TV review: Billions Season 5, Part 1
Ivan | On 08, Sep 2021
Season 6 premieres on 24th January 2022, with episodes arriving weekly. Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 5, Part 1. Never seen Billions? Read our spoiler-free look at the first season here.
Chuck and Bobby. Bobby and Chuck. Back for its fifth season, you’d be forgiven for getting a bit bored of Billions’ back-and-forth that serves as the cornerstone for the thriller. Two rich white men (Damian Lewis’ hedge fund player Bobby Axelrod and Paul Giamatti’s district attorney Chuck) carrying a grudge against each other? It’s hardly groundbreaking telly. But Billions’ brilliance stems from the way it makes it about more than just their heated rivalry – it’s about what they’re willing to do to get the upper hand. Throughout their one-upmanship, they change, grow, regress and debase themselves, winding their way into an ever-sharpening dissection of privilege and wealth that only becomes more scathing.
It became clear that money, in and of itself, isn’t the end goal: it’s the thrill of crushing an opponent that motivates these men, and that toxic ego is thrown into new light every season by the way the writing team surround them with an ever-diversifying ensemble. The introduction of Taylor Mason (the phenomenal Asia Kate Dillon) has only paid off more with each passing season, as they up-end expectations and presumptions at every turn, while also bringing some sense of moral code to the table. Season 5 builds on Taylor’s presence by doubling down on the idea of people in this world that don’t all want the same thing.
Enter Mike Prince (Corey Stoll, dialling his wonderfully smug presence up to 11), a wealthy player who can give Axe a run for his money in the investment and influence stakes. But he insists to everyone that he’s not about getting rich: he’s about giving back to the world, whether that’s a local community or people in need overseas. It’s a joy to see him and Axe square off against each other, as they’re not quite sure how to read their opposite number. Mike is so busy trying to pay Axe compliments that he apparently stumbles accidentally into his way time and time again, stealing a play or outbidding him to the finish line. Axe, meanwhile, is so full of distrust for everyone around him that he can’t possibly fathom the idea that someone might have noble motivations – and his second-guessing of Mike’s every move means that he’s just as ripe for self-sabotage as he is to be distracted enough to play into any of Mike’s plans.
The season hits new highs early on, with Episode 2 seeing Axe agree to be the star guest at Mike’s annual retreat, humbly named “The Mike”, and their philosophies clash in front of a room of people who are enjoying the sparky tension as much as we are – we even get running commentary through every encounter from their right-hand men, Axe’s amusingly over-the-top Wags (David Costabile) and Mike’s intriguingly understated Scooter (Daniel Breaker).
The fun lies in seeing how this new rivalry impacts, interferes with and is encouraged by Axe’s existing feuds, both with Chuck and Taylor. By the time we hit the halfway point, Taylor is doing business with Mike, much to Axe’s displeasure, and even agreeing to accept some short-term losses in pursuit of a morally noble long-term goal, which Axe is convinced is part of Mike’s plan to get some red on Axe’s ledger. The fact that Taylor is officially now working in tandem with Axe’s fund (albeit with their own team and business brand), initially as a mole planted by Chuck and then as a genuine collaborator is just par for the course for this ever-shifting collage of allegiances.
The more complex that web gets, the more the characters are pushed and pulled in new directions. Chuck, now split from Wendy, is navigating life without anyone to ground him. He starts to target Treasury Secretary Krakow to try and stop Axe’s plans to become a charter bank – and even goes so far as to use his criminal law students to help, much to the surprise and disgust of some of them. Meanwhile, he’s also considering going to similarly shady extremes to try and find a kidney donor for his dad (the always entertaining Jeffrey DeMunn).
There are bright spots amid the gloom, from Julianna Margulies as a sociology professor who has chemistry with him to Condola Rashad’s Kate, Chuck’s number two. She promises to help keep his inner monster in check, but she’s no less ambitious than he is, and both know that he needs that monster to pull off what he wants to – even Taylor can see that, a nice reminder that the show’s got to the stage where all the characters know each other inside out.
The best at seeing through everyone, though, remains Wendy, and Maggie Siff’s performance only gets bolder and more complex. Here, she gets to let her defences down in a whole new way thanks to a burgeoning connection with an artist, Nico (Frank Grilli), whose work becomes the subject of a bidding war between Axe and Mike. Their exchanges give her the option of a life away from the usual macho figures, in the same way that she spies an ally in Lauren (Jade Eshete) from Taylor’s team, as their company and Axe’s company attempt to build bridges and work together.
That warring office space is the source of constant jokes, as the aggressive, old-school Dollar Bill (Kelly AuCoin) and the flexible, softly spoken Mafee (Dan Soder) repeatedly clash – while Stephen Kunken’s amusingly insecure Ari Spyros pretends that he’s part of Mensa. But the simmering pot at the centre of it all is Axe, and there’s little doubt that this season is Damian Lewis’ chance to shine – the more Mike kneads him, the more he’s pushed into new emotional territory. A return to his childhood home of Yonkers to beat Mike to a real estate development prompts nostalgia and resentment in equal measure, with a string of conversations with local teen Savion opens up new depths to Axe’s character.
At the same time, Axe is also becoming closer with Wendy, to an unhealthy degree – the mid season finale sees him spying on her and Nico, after he double-dates them with none other than Maria Sharapova (plus Wags and his new young girlfriend). The result is as self-destructive as we’ve ever seen him – to the point where he’s even tempted to take Limitless-style pills to try and find some focus and get an edge against his competition. He’s still capable of pulling off some inspired double-crosses to avoid prosecution, including turning his apartment into a supposed arrive gallery, but his mental clarity and judgement has never been so questionable. The final shot, in an episode directed by David Costabile, zooms in closely on his face – and while he’s lost of his determination to take down his enemies, for the first time we wonder whether he actually can.