Review: Showtime’s ‘Billions’ Premieres Sunday

Damian Lewis as Bobby "Axe" Axelrod and Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades in Billions (Season 1, Episode 1)
Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti in Billions, Photo: JoJo Whilden/SHOWTIME

Showtime’s newest drama series in the network’s vaunted Sunday night lineup, Billions, begins and ends with a dominatrix and her slave doing dirty, dirty things, but this is not a show about sex—not really. Instead, as its title suggests, Billions is about money and the power that comes with having lots and lots of it. The show also seems to ask the question, does attaining great wealth and the quest to be the richest and most powerful come at the price of being an amoral, even bad, person?

Billions‘ antagonist—or protagonist if you tend to root for black hats over white hats, Tom over Jerry, Sylvester over Tweety—Wall Street wunderkind Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, played by Homeland‘s Damian Lewis, doesn’t seem to care. And seemingly squeaky clean and neurotic U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, played by Paul Giamatti (Sideways, John Adams), can’t wait to bust him for it. That’s the basic premise in a nutshell: brilliant, powerful Wall Streeter who cares nothing for the rules tries to outmaneuver brilliant, powerful prosecutor who’s all about justice, following the law and busting those who don’t.

It’s a mano-a-mano clash between rich and powerful men in Wall Street’s world of hedge funds and high finance, led by two of Hollywood’s strongest, multiple award-winning actors, Lewis and Giamatti, who have both earned Emmy Awards and Golden Globes for their excellent chops.

Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod in Billions
Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod, Photo: JoJo Whilden/SHOWTIME

As Axelrod, Lewis is confident, strong and fun to watch. In spite of being an insanely rich one-percenter, the character remains likable, thanks to his blue collar, up-by-your-bootstraps story, his loyalty to those closest to him, and magnanimous gestures that show he’ll put a friend’s needs above money, given the right situation. In one such moment, Axelrod buys his favorite pizza place in order to keep it in business. It’s also revealed that he supports the families of his friends and partners who died in 9-11 and he donated $100 million to the New York City Firefighters Foundation. But he is absolutely ruthless and formidable in business and the shifting world of perceptions, PR and politics around that business.

As Rhoades points out, “Axe is a folk hero in this town,” adding later, “Bobby Axelrod is Mike Tyson in his prime, and you don’t want Mike Tyson in his prime.”

Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades in Billions
Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades, Photo: JoJo Whilden/SHOWTIME

Giamatti’s Rhoades is a complicated man who’s very good at what he does. Since becoming U.S. Attorney, his office is undefeated in financial prosecutions, and Rhoades has no intention of seeing that 81:0 record tarnished. It is only after receiving a credible tip that he even considers taking on Axelrod, and he still struggles with the decision before finally diving in head first. The man seethes with rage and inner turmoil, but he never appears conflicted about the need for justice above everything that serves to derail its ultimate triumph.

Of course, like any good Showtime drama, Billions has more going on than the central, Axelrod/Rhodes conflict. The show has a first-rate supporting cast, including Axelrod’s and Rhoades’ very strong wives. As we all know, behind (or perhaps beside in this case) every great man there’s an equally great, if not greater, woman. And both Wendy Rhoades, played by the endlessly watchable and captivating Maggie Siff (Sons of Anarchy, Mad Men), and Lara Axelrod, played by Malin Åkerman (Watchmen, Trophy Wife), are not to be trifled with.

Maggie Siff as Wendy Rhoades in Billions
Maggie Siff as Wendy Rhoades, Photo: JoJo Whilden/SHOWTIME

Also, as it turns out, Wendy Rhoades is a psychiatrist with a lucrative career as the in-house performance coach for Axelrod’s hedge fund, Axe Capital, and she’s had the job since long before her husband became U.S. Attorney. This, and the fact that she won’t give up her position just because her husband is trying to prosecute her boss (and friend), adds quite a wrinkle to Rhoades’ crusade against Axelrod. Maybe it will end up benefiting him? Only time will tell.

Meanewhile, Lara Axelrod plays the role of dutiful billionaire’s wife and mother, but at heart, the former nurse is still a tough girl from a blue collar, Irish-American family of policemen and firefighters, who grew up in New York City’s Inwood neighborhood. Lara is beautiful and stylish, all smiles and sugar publicly, but she’s not afraid to do whatever it takes to protect Axelrod and their family. Lara demands absolute loyalty from friends and Axe Capital employees (and their wives), and she will turn ugly to get what she wants. After a 9-11 widow of one of Axelrod’s late partners complains openly that the billionaire and Axe Capital are flourishing while her husband is dead, Lara, who’s no longer smiling, tells her privately, “In Inwood growing up, if someone has a problem with you, and they take that beef public, the ground just falls out from beneath them.”

Malin Akerman as Lara Axelrod in Billions
Malin Akerman as Lara Axelrod, Photo: JoJo Whilden/SHOWTIME

Axelrod and Rhoades are Billions‘ main characters, but there’s no doubt their wives will play pivotal roles in their husbands’ cat and mouse game as it intensifies throughout this first season.

The Hamptons features somewhat prominently in the pilot episode, premiering this Sunday, January 17 at 10 p.m., as Axelrod considers, and eventually commits to, purchasing a massive, 17,000-square-foot mansion for $63 million in Southampton that will likely turn public sentiment against him and spark his potential downfall. But, as he so charmingly puts it, “What’s the point of having f__k you money if you never say f__k you.”

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