UK TV review: Billions Season 5, Part 2
James R | On 07, Oct 2021
Season 6 premieres on 24th January 2022, with episodes arriving weekly. Warning: This contains spoilers for Billions Season 5, including its finale. Not caught up? Read our review of Season 5, Part 1 here.
“So, this is what it is to lose.” Those were the words of Axe (Damian Lewis) in the finale of Billions Season 5, words that we never thought we would hear. Brian Koppelman and David Levien financial thriller is built on the unstoppable force of the male ego – specifically, two male egos, that of hedge fund power-player Axe and ruthless district attorney Chuck (Paul Giamatti). Both as immovable and ruthless as each other, their head-on collision has been an entertaining spectacle for the best part of six years.
Season 5, however, emerged as a farewell to arms for Axe, and a fitting one at that, as Koppelman and Levien pushed him to emotional extremes that we’ve never seen him face before. It began with him going back to his hometown to compete with new business rival Mike Prince (Corey Stoll), a move that led him to both appreciate and exploit his roots for his own gains – a step towards vulnerability that was then amplified by his budding relationship with Wendy Rhodes (Maggie Siff).
Axe has always been at his best when reacting to someone else, whether that’s Chuck’s goading enemy or, in one of the show’s best moves, Asia Kate Dillon’s prodigy-turned-nemesis Taylor Mason. The addition of Corey Stoll this season, though, has been one of the show’s smartest plays yet, as Prince’s do-gooder schtick has not only got under Axe’s skin but also led him to try and work out how to fit in with the changing world of modern finance – a place where being the relentless shark is now less fashionable than being a CEO with an eco-friendly heart and a moral conscience to boot.
It’s only apt that Prince should be the one to ultimately beat Axe, after working with Chuck and Taylor to get Axe’s company – hastily reworked into a bank – to get into business with a marijuana start-up with both legal and illegal drug dealings, landing him with a money laundering charge that he can’t escape. Except, of course, he can – a last-minute move by Prince saw Stoll’s cunning operator buy Axe’s assets for pennies on the dollar, giving him the run of his rival’s play set and Axe enough capital to secretly fly out to Switzerland and live his days free from extradition.
The idea of Axe in exile has already been seeded throughout the season, which brings in the coronavirus pandemic as a background force for the characters to reckon with – but smartly uses it not as a plot-driver, which would then dominate the whole narrative, but as something to tie in with the show’s themes: when Axe tests positive, he ends up communicating with the other characters remotely, via a computer screen. The feeling that he’s already adrift and out of step with what was once his natural environment is in our heads long before the finale lands. (In real life, Lewis’ wife, the phenomenal Helen McCrory, tragically passed away earlier this year, which was another reason for Lewis to film the majority of his scenes remotely.)
He returns in person, though, for his last moments, which give him and Wendy a chance to part ways properly. “If we can’t finish it, we can’t start it,” he decides, after he invites her to flee with him but she says he wouldn’t the version of her who would have to go with him. It’s a poignant, downbeat end to their will-they-won’t-they chemistry, and an effective comedown after his heights of angry jealousy mid-season, due to Wendy’s relationship with Frank Grillo’s brooding artist, paid by Axe to make paintings for him.
Damian Lewis, it goes without saying, is as brilliant as he’s ever been in the role – any fears that he might be typecast forever as Brody from Homeland have long been left behind. His cool, steely deadpan delivery, capable of dropping fast-talking pop culture references like they’re steel-capped bullets, has gradually slipped away this season, the unthinking precision of his every movement becoming just that little bit more visibly conscious. He’s more like the blustering, verbose Chuck by the time he departs – and yet it’s only as he steps off the plane in Switzerland that he silently smiles for the first time possibly this whole season.
While it’s surprisingly emotional to see the “Axe Cap” sign chiselled off his office walls, though, it’s easy to forget that Billions Season 5 also does excellent with the non-Axe characters. When negotiating with Prince at the end, Axe tries to persuade him to let Taylor’s company go free from its Axe Cap constraints, but Prince refuses, which puts added pressure on to Taylor’s slowly crescendoing moral dilemma – they’ve always been a fascinating character in terms of what they don’t stand for, but they’ve increasingly found themselves having to work out what they do stand for. It’s an existential crisis that’s riveting to watch simmer, especially with the addition of Eva Victor to the cast as Rian, a similarly naive new employee whose idealism reminds Taylor of just how much they’ve started to change.
Can someone remain themselves when billions of money is on the table? That’s the underlying question in the whole show, and Prince is a logical evolution for that philosophical debate, as he tries to be ethical and do the right thing. Stoll’s smug arrogance is worn lightly, but in a different way to Lewis’ Axe, and the two men are deceptively different under the bonnet – when Axe attempts to burn Prince with the scandal of how he betrayed his best friend and business partner when younger, Prince actually attempts to make amends with his partner’s mother, and is hurt by his failure to do so. He’s corruptible, of course, and is persuaded by Chuck to bring his daughters in to sweet-talk a potential client, but is also concerned about the impact it will have on them – there’s more to him than just image and, while he can act like a shark, he’s no killer, something that his right-hand-man Scooter (the brilliant Daniel Breaker – also bringing a different energy to Axe’s number two, Wags) knows all too well.
As for Chuck, with his prey getting away just the jaws of justice were closing, he’s got a new place to direct his rage twice-over, and he and Prince already have a healthy dynamic that can oscillate between alliance and all-out war. With Mafee and Dollar Bill also quietly ducking out to set up their own company, saying goodbye to Axe at a point where his character has been fully explored isn’t just a huge gamble by Billions – it might be its best investment so far. (For more on Season 6, which arrives in January 2022, click here.)