Every era has their Hollywood good guys and their Hollywood bad guys. Back in the early days we had Nazis to pit against our heroes. When they didn’t quite fit the bill, we had the Japanese. For much of the Cold War, we had great Russian villains to test the mettle of our heroes. Terrorists fit the bill a lot today, but perhaps the only group hated by large segments of American audiences more are the 1%ers. Anyone who makes an obscene amount of money must have cheated to get there. It doesn’t hurt that financial power companies have been immersed in the last couple of economic disasters. Michael Douglas taught us that greed is good, and while every single one of us wants to be at the top, it’s not quite the politically correct thing to express… at least out loud. Billions gives us the kind of power broker who is just too much fun to hate. It’s the classic struggle of good guys versus bad guys. Of white hats versus black hats. But nothing is that simple in Billions, and if you haven’t yet spent some time with the likes of Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis as Chuck Rhoades and Bobby “Axe” Axelrod you’re missing one of the more compelling dramas on television right now. Get yourself caught up and join us for Billions: The Complete Fourth Season out now on DVD from CBS Home Entertainment.
Meet Chuck Rhoades, played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti. When we first met Chuck, he was the US Attorney for the southern district of New York State. In that position he loved to take down the arrogant, rich power brokers who scoffed at the laws and made their fortunes any way they could. His white whale has been Bobby Axelrod, played by Damien Lewis. He runs one of the most powerful firms in the world and makes deals of hundreds of millions of dollars like he was ordering a Whopper from Burger King. For the first three years of the series we watched this cat-and-mouse game unfold. The obsession of these two men toward hurting each other drove the drama. Stuck in the middle of all of this contempt has been Chuck’s wife, Wendy, played by Sons Of Anarchy veteran Maggie Siff. She’s a therapist who complicates the whole thing, because she works for Axelrod as his sales team inspirational coach and his own father confessor. She’s known Axelrod longer than her husband, and she’s being forced into the middle of this brewing confrontation. I have to say, I never liked Siff in Sons Of Anarchy. I always thought she was a weak character. This time I found she provides a crucial voice here that allows the show to move so effortlessly between these two worlds. This is the kind of role I wish I had seen in Sons. It’s been rather delightful watching these two powerhouses fight until it nearly destroyed them both. But now things are different.
Both men faced huge defeats by the end of the third season. Chuck attempted a coup against the new Attorney General Waylon “Jock” Jeffcoat, played wonderfully by Clancy Brown. Thanks to a disloyal underling who wanted his job, the coup failed, and Chuck starts the season pretty much unemployed and trying to get himself a new power base while that underling Bryan Connerty (Moore) is rewarded by getting Chuck’s job.
Axelrod’s situation didn’t end the season any better. He had taken in a smart young player named Taylor, played by Asia Kate Dillon, a gender-neutral genius, and entrusted her with some of his shady projects. She ended up pulling off a little coup of her own and took a large chunk of his business and some of his best earners and started her own firm. With both men somewhat defeated, they end up forming a rather uneasy alliance. The result of these unexpected defeats has expanded the battlefield from two to four combatants now, and it only makes the series all the more compelling.
It starts with Brian and the Attorney General who decides that it wasn’t enough to take Chuck’s job. They want to destroy him and engage in a campaign to take him down. Meanwhile Chuck has decided to run for State Attorney for New York and get back in the saddle once again. What develops here is some of the best stuff of the season. Both play out elaborate stings that you won’t even see coming yourself, at least not completely, until the season finale.
The same turns out true for Taylor, who isn’t satisfied with pulling off her own victory. Instead she engages Axelrod in a war that almost takes them all down. Here it’s this narrow focus that each has for the other. They both make decisions that hurt themselves just to score points against the other. Of course all of this, at least at this level, isn’t sustainable, and by the final episode the entire field changes yet again, and I can’t wait to go through it all over again. The high level of writing and performances this series delivers in 12 episodes is staggering.
The performances of the two leads set a high bar for the rest of the cast. The chemistry and dynamic between Lewis and Giamatti is some of the best on television today. The sheer force of their wills can drive the story beyond anything any writer could put on paper. It also helps that the supporting cast contains some near-equally-great performances.
At the top of the list has to be David Costabile as Wags, Axelrod’s most trusted confidant. Wags lives in the moment. He’s irreverent and thrives in his second to Axelrod. He’s the perfect second. He has no desire to be the top dog and has almost all of the perks. He’s the kind of weapon you point and shoot. He’s hands down my favorite actor/character after the top dynamic duo. Running a close second is Axelrod’s financial hit-man, Dollar Bill, played by Kelly AuCoin. He’s like a savant. He’s woefully ignorant of most of life, but he can put together a deal and fix the real-world problems with surgical precision.
New to this season is Nina Arianda as Rebecca Cantu. She’s a female version of Axelrod, but not near as manic or narrow in focus. Her specialty is taking over companies and turning them over for a big return. She becomes something of an ally to Axelrod this season and a romantic interest, with his wife only making a single appearance this season, and that was just to pretty much get the character out of the way. It’s an interesting dynamic, and it’s one of those things that I found hit-or-miss. Sometimes it worked very well, but too often I found she served as some kind of a contrivance, and it blows up a bit by the end of the season.
It’s a solid season, and it’s one of the easiest shows, at least for me, to binge-watch. It’s very difficult to turn this one off and forced a couple of long nights from me to bring you this review. You get all 12 episodes on four discs with four very brief behind-the-scenes features. I’m surprised at how many people I run into who haven’t even heard of this show. “What the hell is wrong with you people?”