March 18, 2019

SHOWBUZZDAILY Season Premiere Review: “Billions”


BILLIONS:  Sunday 9PM on Showtime

The fourth season of a successful series can be an inflection point.  By the time Season 4 begins, the show’s makers know what works, but it’s still early enough that the talent isn’t beginning to itch for their next big things.  It’s easy enough to glide along the path set by the previous seasons, and the result for viewers can be a pleasurable sense of assurance.  The risk is that the show can lean into its own mannerisms and tropes, setting the stage for what becomes a sense of repetition.  The season 4 premiere of Showtime’s BILLIONS was as enjoyable as the series almost invariably is, guided by a script from co-creators David Levien and Brian Koppelman, and directed by Billions veteran Colin Bucksey.  It also may have raised a few early danger signals.

Billions tends to ease in to what becomes a season’s increasingly complex storyline, and that was true of the premiere, which was more a table-setter than a full meal.  The episode followed on the heels of the events in the Season 3 finale, but surprisingly barely spent any time at all on the finale’s promise of a full-scale alliance between our antiheroes, hedge fund magnate Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and now-former US Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti).  The two of them shared only a brief phone conversation in the course of the hour, so it remains to be seen how much Levien and Koppelman plan to use the Axe/Chuck pairing as a key to the season.

Instead, the premiere followed each man down a largely separate plotline.  Axe remained locked in competition with his former protege Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), who’s started their own firm.  In particular, the episode had them both jockeying for an investment by the Sheikh of a fictionalized Middle Eastern nation.  The punchline of that narrative was that the temporary kidnapping of Axe’s blood brother Wags (David Constabile) at the nation’s embassy, while seemingly an echo of the Adnan Khashoggi killing, was actually engineered by Taylor’s backer Grigor Andolov (John Malkovich), whose warning to stay away from Taylor fell on Axe’s deaf ears.  Unfortunately, the nature of this story kept Wags off-screen for much of the hour, but it did feature an intriguing scene where Taylor met with the Sheikh in “drag” as a traditionally feminine woman, in order to satisfy the Sheikh’s expectations of how a woman should look and act.  It’s literally a look we haven’t seen before from Taylor, who’s been uncompromising in their identity.

The Chuck narrative was a lighter affair, basically a rundown of how he regained his mojo by working a series of favors to one NY heavy-hitter after another, all with the goal of scoring a carry gun permit for a client, something seemingly impossible to obtain, and thus something that would prove that he was back in the big leagues.  By the end of the episode, he was, and the most interesting note of the story was the strong suggestion that Chuck’s season arc will have him running for office as NY’s Attorney General, all with the aim of getting his revenge on US Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown), and Chuck’s newly-minted replacement as US Attorney, Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore).

It was all expertly written and performed, but the premiere also felt a bit like a Billions greatest hits tape.  Each meeting Chuck had took him on a veritable tour of NY’s celebrated restaurants (with cameos from the restaurateurs), and the pop culture references were thick on the ground, from Rollerball (the original) to Total Recall to Chaka Khan to John Gotti’s hit on Paul Castellano.  Billions traffics in walking the edge of self-parody–both its protagonists are well aware of the image they present to the world–but there’s a difference between being in on the joke and being the joke.

It’s far too early to worry about Billions, which usually saves its WTF artillery for later in the season.  It does, however, need to avoid becoming its own meme.

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."