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Super Antiheroes

"Billions" reckons with the inflated egos and muddled ethics of Wall Street.

Jeff Neumann/Showtime

The first season of Billions premiered in January 2016— eight years after the collapse of the subprime mortgage market and eleven months before a self-proclaimed billionaire was elected president. This was the sweet spot, timingwise, for a bombastic prestige drama about the world of money. In 2011, the sharp and enraging documentary Inside Job, which charted the corruption that led to the financial crisis, won an Oscar. In the winter of 2016, The Big Short—a sermonizing, big-budget Hollywood comedy about reckless bankers—was nominated for Best Picture. The mea culpas had been issued, the bad actors identified, and although only one person officially went to jail, the coast looked clear for new stories of Wall Street and wealth.

Of course, in the wake of the crisis, a showrunner could not simply rehash the old Gordon Gekko formula for a modern audience. Slickness was no longer glamorous but gross; very few Americans had an appetite for captains of industry slurping down midday martinis at the Capital Grille. Instead, the three creators of Billions—the longtime writing team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien, along with The New York Times’ financial reporter, Andrew Ross Sorkin—took a populist genre and grafted it onto the honeyed, moneyed lives of the rich and infamous: They made a superhero show about finance.

Billions has much more in common with a classic DC movie than it does with Boiler Room. It features two outsize, magniloquent protagonists who are constant foils to one another: light and dark, good and evil, both cut from the same ambitious cloth and therefore destined to lock in an endless pas de deux of power. The show is forever switching which of these two men has the upper hand, on both a moral and tactical level, so that rigid definitions of right and wrong no longer apply. In the high-stakes world of big business and its regulation, you are only as good as your last deal or as the last dealmaker you put in jail. In the pursuit of those enormous goals, ethics can easily get muddled.

On the surface, Chuck Rhoades Jr. (Paul Giamatti)—the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York—should have the noble advantage over Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), a billionaire hedge-fund mogul who made a fortune on September 11 by shorting aviation and shipping stocks between the two tower hits. Axelrod’s bet, while technically legal, seemed all the more dishonorable since he was himself working out of the World Trade Center at the time. He didn’t show up the morning of the attacks only because he was being let go, after his shady investment strategies had been discovered. And yet, in the world of Billions, things are never exactly what they seem. Axelrod also uses his fortune to provide for the families of his dead colleagues (without granting even one interview about this to the press), to form philanthropic foundations, to dole out thick donations to the NYPD and FDNY.

Axe (the show often shortens his name) is pure new money, having grown up poor in Yonkers, taking on a paper route at eleven years old. Chuck, on the other hand, is part of a New York dynasty, a Yalie with a power-player dad and a blind trust fund. He commands the strong arm of the law, backed by every advantage in life. His privilege has meant he is accustomed to victory, so he does whatever it takes to maintain his winning hand, including orchestrating illegal machinations from behind the scenes. His dream is to become the governor of New York and also to put Bobby Axelrod in jail. One achievement will clinch the other, or so he thinks, and he pursues both with a ruthlessness that only Lady Macbeth could comprehend.

So who wins? The blue-collar hustler who made good in a shady way? Or the blue-blood lawyer who injects shady dealings into the halls of justice? It’s a fight fit for pages of a comic book, but weighted down with oodles of money. Billions is what would happen if Superman and Lex Luthor haggled over insider trading; if Batman and the Joker were really obsessed with capitalism.

Of course, no tale of two warring Goliaths is complete without a woman who comes between them, and Billions has that, too. Chuck’s wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff), is a steely psychotherapist who wears sculptural sheath dresses by day and dominatrix leather by night. She also just happens to work for Axe Capital (and has since September 11) as an in-house performance coach. Her job is to amp up the foot soldiers at the firm, to arm the analysts with confidence and ice-cool reasoning skills. A soothsayer when it comes to masculinity, she knows how to prop it up and how to tell when it becomes too toxic. She is Axe’s most trusted confidante, the only person who can help him navigate vulnerability.

The fact that she is married to his nemesis only makes him more reliant on her skills as a professional tamer of egos. Chuck tries to nail Axe by placing a mole inside the firm, Axe catches on and volleys back with a devious riposte, Chuck steals Wendy’s session notes to gain secrets, Axe strikes back with threats, and so on and so on. The superhero and the supervillain fight, scheme, and bluster, and one gains dominance while the other slinks away, thwarted again. The trick to Billions, and the aspect that makes it one of the most compulsively watchable dramas on cable right now, is that you never know, going into an episode, which man is going to play the hero.

The last half of season two, which aired in 2017, featured an intricate cat-and-mouse plot, in which Chuck attempts to bait Axe into sabotaging a juice company going public, so that the former can catch the latter in the act. In order to achieve this, Chuck secretly moves trust money into his father’s accounts and convinces his father to take a huge position in Ice Juice so that Axe will want to sour the deal. Axe takes the bait and further muddies the waters to ensure that his short bet will pay out: He pays a doctor to create a toxin that will taint the juice on the day of the IPO, and he hires people to drink the contaminated batches and vomit all over the stock’s potential earnings. Chuck exposes Axe plotting the whole evil plan, and the season ends with the villain—temporarily—vanquished. Axe is arrested, Chuck is ecstatic. Of course, in order to capture his foe, Chuck had to ruin his father and best friend and stomp all over the boundaries of his marriage. No one gets out clean; no one gets out happy.

When I first started watching Billions, I worried that it might be another high-gloss, high-budget excuse to show the trappings of wealth on screen. But as its third season airs, I have come to appreciate the purposefulness of its exaggerations. Billions is written in extended metaphors, strings of expletives, grandiloquent monologues, fire and brimstone soliloquies. The season opens on Chuck meeting with a new attorney general—a brash West Texan, meant to imply a Trump appointee—who tells a long-winded story about horse-breeding as an intimidation tactic. “We use teasers, those are stallions you put into the stall with the sole purpose of making sure the mares are in heat,” he says, and then proceeds to expound on equine erections. He compares Chuck, who has been taken off the Axelrod case due to a conflict of interest, to a horse “back in the barn, nursing your rager with a bucket of oats.”

The crude dialogue is typical of Billions, where everyone speaks as if they are auditioning for David Mamet one moment and Shakespeare in the Park the next. If the monologues feel epic and overdetermined, it is because they are meant to highlight the farcical, barbaric aspects of the entire Wall Street apparatus. We are supposed to cringe when Chuck and Axe collide and speak to each other like cocksure generals preparing for battle; their swagger and hyperbole are meant to be comical. Billions is a melodrama, a gleeful jab at the men who think they are kings.

It was the introduction of a new character, however, that made me love Billions. In season two, Axe hires a new analyst named Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), who throws the two lumbering leads into relief. Besides being the first gender-nonbinary character on television, Taylor is a true outlier, a person who sees the entire landscape of the financial crowd from a slightly tilted angle. Axe comes to find Taylor invaluable and seems to take the position that gender doesn’t factor so much as how brilliant someone is at seeing minute fluctuations in the markets. When Axe is deposed from his own company after the Ice Juice scandal, it is Taylor who steps in to steer the ship—thrilled, at first, to be in charge and even willing to fudge the law to allow Axe to continue to trade through a shadow arrangement. But as the third season progresses, Taylor begins to have doubts. Axe now looks fallible, vengeful, impetuous. A more benevolent Silicon Valley tycoon appears on the scene, and they begin a romance.

Wendy, too, begins to see the cracks in both Chuck’s and Axe’s veneer in the third season. Her life, shuttling between two obstinate men, starts to seem unsustainable. She starts drinking bourbon during the workday. When she mediates a sophomoric conflict between two Axe employees (a brash trader called “Dollar Bill” and the firm’s persnickety head of compliance, Ari Spyros), she realizes how familiar the feud feels. Over a drink, a colleague advises her that Chuck and Axe are like “nitrate and glycerol, you combine those ... I really don’t want you burning up with them.” As strong as she is, even Wendy sees that she can only hold back the dams for so long.

In the end, Billions is about men who think they have superpowers and the people in their lives who know they do not. Chuck and Axe share a tragic flaw: They think power makes them holy; they think money makes them good. When Billions debuted, the world was ready for a story that refuted these beliefs. In turning its two characters into caricatures, the show does its part to undercut the 1 percent: The characters may have full accounts, but, spiritually, they keep coming up empty.