Showtime's Billions came onto the scene last year as a reaction to the topsy-turvy world of power finance that spun out of control into one of the worst monetary disasters the United States ever saw. Wrists were slapped and we recovered, sort of, but the high-wire act of hedge funds continues to threaten to topple over on the middle and lower classes at any moment while the money bags pile up precariously.
But Billions' Wall Street backdrop is really just a setting for what the show is actually about: a pair of grade-A A-holes going after each other until one cries "uncle" or is dead -- preferably both, in their eyes. And Wall Street is also just an avenue for some incredible acting. Damian Lewis plays Bobby "Axe" Axelrod, an arrogant CEO of a hedge-fund management company who dabbles in less-than-legal ways to get an edge and make an extra billion. Paul Giamatti plays Chuck Rhoades, a curmudgeonly U.S. Attorney who gets off on crushing finance playboys (and S&M play, as we learned early on in the series).
These two titans battled in Season 1 like Godzilla and Rodan, leaving reputations in ruins and turning relationships into rubble as they stopped at nothing to take each other down. Ostensibly, Chuck is supposed to be the "good" guy taking down the criminal, but in the world of Billions, winners and losers aren't made through their moral choices, they're made by their tenacity and willingness to lose everything just to be the "winner." In either case, the real winner of Season 1 was Maggie Siff's Wendy Rhoades -- Billions' best character -- who ended up leaving both of these men behind.
Season 1 had its moments, but rarely succeeded in being something other than an elaborate pissing contest full of heavy-handed metaphors, schoolyard taunts crafted by Ivy League graduates with oversized sex drives and Showtime's typical style of pushing the macho envelope -- Sex! Drugs! Rock 'n' Roll (via a Metallica cameo)! -- until it's shredded to pieces. The cautionary message of Billions was the dangers of power on both sides of the law, but it got buried beneath showmanship. Who knows, maybe that was the actual message.
Nevertheless, Billions was still compelling television that looked at the Alpha Male phenomenon, particularly in the business sector, which has new meaning in 2017. And the series clearly improved as it went on.
So what's ahead for Billions? Mostly more of the same, as you'll see in this primer.
Where we left off: The Season 1 finale didn't finish with an explosion, but rather smoldering rubble and some snarls from our two heavyweights. Chuck knew he had a mole in his midst and fed him false information about having Axe's office bugged, forcing Axe to strip down his office "to the rivets" to find them. But obviously they weren't there. It set the stage for Chuck to stroll in and laugh about it, and the two had it out with one of their verbal wars where Chuck proclaimed that he was more dangerous than a man with unlimited resources because he was a man with nothing to lose.
Both men ended the season more losers than winners, especially since they both lost Wendy. She separated from Chuck after he broke into her computer to get info on Axe and used it against him, and she quit her job as Axe's in-house performance coach (i.e. shrink) after he gave her a $5 million buckaroo bonus (plus a hot new Maserati) for getting his mojo back and she realized she was working for a criminal.
What's coming up: Season 2 begins mostly as a reset. Most of the effort Chuck put in to get Axe in Season 1 is lost and the power dynamic has shifted back in Axe's favor. That makes sense, since the uphill climb is Chuck's curse and wily crook Axe needs to stay steps ahead in order to survive; the dynamic wouldn't work the other way around, otherwise Axe would be in jail. As Axe points out early, he's also not just out to hurt Chuck, he's out to finish him, and Axe organizes a coordinated attack against Chuck that uses everyone Chuck slighted in the past into a 10-ton weight of legal papers.
Meanwhile, Wendy is mostly off on her own; however, she's still "nesting" at Chuck's house for the sake of the kids (and for the sake of drama), meaning she and Chuck will have plenty of interactions -- and she's scoring similar jobs at other firms. Much to the chagrin of Axe, naturally, who considers her his lucky charm.
Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), Chuck's right-hand man, gets into a bind and finds himself questioning his loyalty to Team Chuck anymore, which could be particularly damaging to Chuck since he needs all the help he can get. Mike "Wags" Wagner (David Costabile), the underrated MVP of Billions, finds himself questioning his place in Axe's firm, and may seek to set out on his own. Lara (Malin Akerman), Axe's wife, is still pretty much on an island trying to find a story that works, and she's toying with the idea of starting a business.
New blood: There are three new characters who help energize Season 2; one who helps out Axe, one who is a real splinter in Chuck's bottom and another who is just plain fun.
Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) is a gender-neutral intern working at Axe Capital who rises up the ranks on account of their (preferred pronoun) smarts and ability to see things others, including Axe, don't see. They're also a breath of fresh air in the office because of Taylor's lack of bravado and blustery aggression. Taylor just wants to be right.
Oliver Dake (Manhattan's Christopher Denham) is a special investigator looking into Chuck's work to make sure he's on the up and up, and it won't be easy for Chuck because Oliver is a bulldog. Using background information, expect Oliver to chip away at Chuck's team to get what he needs.
Dr. Gus (Marc Kudisch) will be the fan favorite, though. Gus is Wendy's replacement at Axe Capital, pumping up Axe's employees to be killers on the floor, and he's as amped up as anyone the show has ever seen. His puffed chest and antics make for some great comedic asides as he whips everyone into shape.
Guest stars and directors: Billions will beef up its star power with Rob Morrow, James Wolk, Mary-Louise Parker, Danny Strong and Eric Bogosian as guest stars, and The Americans' Noah Emmerich and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney will pitch in as directors.
Outlook: Billions appears to be reenergized as it heads into Season 2 with more House of Cards-style twists on motivation and shocking character decisions. Power seems to be up for grabs for more people, meaning the web of influence will be stretched further, and the new characters are fantastic additions. There's still not enough Lewis/Giamatti scenes for my taste, but that's also what makes their rare meet-ups so riveting.
Bonus viewing: Not a Showtime subscriber? Not a problem. The Season 2 premiere is currently available on YouTube, and Showtime is hosting a free preview weekend until Feb. 20 for people to check out its wares.
Billions returns for Season 2 on Sunday, Feb. 19 at 10/9c.