May 8, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Finale Review: “Billions”


The lesson of the 2d season of Showtime’s BILLIONS is that a show doesn’t have to dramatically reboot itself in order to improve.  Billions Season 2 had the same premise and core characters as Season 1:  hedge fund billionaire Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and US Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) remained ruthless adversaries, each manipulating all those around them to bring the other down.  But showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who co-created the series with financial reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin) made shrewd adjustments throughout, streamlining the storytelling, shifting the balances, and sanding down the excesses of the first season.  Their efforts turned a moderately entertaining drama into one of the most compelling serials around.

The next-to-last episode of Season 2 typified what Billions had figured out about itself.  It was a complex piece of narrative in which Axe believed he had the drop on Chuck when he learned that the prosecutor’s personal fortune, and those of his father (Jeffrey DeMunn) and close friend (Ben Shenkman), were sunk into a company about to go public.  Axe destroyed the company to break Chuck… but Chuck was one step ahead the whole time, and had leaked the information to Axe so that Axe would act illegally, even though Chuck knew that as a result, he, his father and friend would lose fortunes.  This was basically a replay/reversal of a story arc from Season 1, where a dying ex-employee of Axe’s had seemed to be Chuck’s informant, but it turned out he and Axe were running a long con.  That storyline took up half the season, and had serious, even soapy overtones because of the man’s illness.  This time, Billions disposed of the scheme and counter-scheme in a single episode, with style and an Ocean’s Eleven-esque relish for the switcheroo.

Billions also made good decisions regarding its supporting cast  The invaluable David Costabile, as Axe’s must trusted associate Wags, was given latitude to be the show’s most raucous joker, but one with his own deep insecurities.  Wendy (Maggie Siff) at the center of things as Chuck’s wife and a high-ranking Axe employee, had always been a well-developed character, but this season Axe’s wife Lara (Malin Akerman) was given more dimension and a more complicated relationship with her husband, who loved her but also lied to her and took her for granted.  The major newcomer to the cast was Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor, a supernova analyst in the world of Axe Capital; both performer and role are nonbinary, and provide an arrestingly unusual presence (Taylor will be a series regular in Season 3), but the show was smart enough not to make that fact the focus of their character.  The show was also wise to tone down its rich-person porn (not to mention Chuck’s S&M proclivities), and to softpedal its seriousness as social commentary.

Tonight’s season finale, written by Koppelman and Levien with Producer Adam R. Perlman, and directed by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (who have just been announced as the directors of the upcoming Captain Marvel), put an intense cap on the season.  It all took place on the day leading up to Axe’s arrest for his actions in the previous episode, as Chuck’s plan unfolded perfectly, up to and including his ability to make some personnel adjustments in the US Attorney’s office, while Axe improvised frantically.  It all led to a jailhouse one-on-one confrontation between Chuck and Axe (relatively infrequent this season), where both men declared vengeance on the other.  Here, as was the case all season, Giamatti and Lewis were superbly all-in.

As Homeland has subsided, Billions has become the class act of Showtime’s line-up.  (The underrated Shameless works in a more downscale territory.)  It’s already renewed for Season 3, and if Koppelman and Levien can keep the show on track, there’s no reason to think it won’t last for years to come.  It’s always a pleasure to see a series find its groove, and Billions is as smooth these days as a limo ride.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."