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Monday 15 Jul 2024

Billions Returns
dr george pollard

Billions returned to Showtime and TMN, in Canada, on Sunday 25 March 2018. This is season three. The story remains the same.

A conniving District Attorney (DA) chases a crafty billionaire. The DA uses the law for personal revenge; the billionaire relies on guile, drawn from his working class background, for defence. Both seek revenge, in their own way.

There’s an evocative twist in Billions. Wendy, wife of DA Chuck Rhoades, works for the billionaire, Bobby Axelrod, as the in-house psychiatrist at his hedge fund. Wendy is the battleground and the prize.

Adding Asia Kate Dillion, as Taylor Mason, in season two, was a huge move for Billions. She gives the show more energy; the effect is similar to Law & Order adding S Epatha Merkerson and Jerry Orbach in 1991. She surely alters how viewers see gender non-binary characters and every day people.

* * * * *

At the end of season two, Chuck wangled a stock manipulation scheme, figuring, correctly, that Bobby would bite. The third season opens with the charges against Bobby in place. Axe Capital is in limbo, its assets frozen. Lara, portrayed by Malin Akerman, is divorcing Bobby, mostly because of his continuing contact with Wendy. Chuck and Wendy reunite.

Wendy, in a long discussion with Bobby, indirectly talks him into giving up his licence to trade stocks, as a way to unfreeze the assets of Axe Capital. Later, in the episode, Wendy and Chuck return to a dominatrix to renew their brand of intimacy. Taylor Mason and Wags, portrayed by David Costabile, take over Axe Capital.

The annual ideas dinner, a meeting of high-powered stock market executives talking strategy, nicely sets the cliffhanger of this episode. Licenced yielded, Bobby can’t attend the meeting, but Taylor can and does, in a spectacular way. She presents her discovery, found through crafty and sure-footed research, as the next sure market winner.

The Wags character mentors Taylor, in his own way. He’s wily and she doesn’t baulk. At the ideas dinner, the winning performance Taylor gives is largely due to Wags understanding how to motivate her.

A moment of guilty pleasure arrives when Chuck meets Ari Spyros, portrayed by Stephen Kunken, in a diner, late at night. In season two, Chuck, to get a leg-up on Bobby, cheated Ari, leaving him broke and out of work. Earlier in the show, we learned Ari is the new head of Compliance at Axe Capital.  

Clancy Brown portrays the new Attorney-General, Waylon “Jock” Jeffcoat; his down-home Texas style annoys Chuck from the start. To realise his goal of becoming Governor of New York State, Chuck needs to saddle up to power broker, Black Jack Foley, portrayed, most adeptly, by the classy David Strathain. The opposing natures of these characters will keep Chuck busy.

As the premier episode, of season three, ends, Chuck is on the outs with family and friends; he does have Wendy back. Bobby has his friends, if not family, stepping up for him; this includes Wendy. For her benefit, Wendy continues to play both sides.

* * * * *

Legal shows, on television, are simple. There’s a crime, an investigation, arrest, trial and conviction. The State prevails.

The deck stacks against the accused. She or he can’t compete with the legions of police and an army of prosecutors. The message is scary: guilty if charged.

Lee Bettis, a former New York City criminal attorney says criminal trails seldom result in a not guilty verdict. * “Too often, those charged, with a criminal offence, lack the money or knowledge to present a reasonable defence.” The prosecution has a huge advantage, from the start.

“After 9/11,” says Bettis, “Law and Order, on which the prosecutor usually, if not always, wins, became the norm …. It also became typical in courtrooms across America. The notion left by this slant is ‘if accused, then guilty, else why accused.’ Less and less, guilt is not a question for testing, but a predetermination.”

Criminal law, in practice, tilts against the accused. “To some extent,” says Bettis, “Law, and Order, is close to the truth, today. The wherewithal and influence of the State … ensures mostly wins. If the accusation, in any way, [is most serious], such as a Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organisations (RICO) charge or a capital crime, the trial steeply tilts to the prosecution.

“On television, Perry Mason, the defence attorney, always won. Mason made the prosecutor look like a buffoon. I don’t think criminal law ever worked that way,” says Bettis, “but viewers got that impression, believed it and acted on it.

Matlock, another television defence attorney, never lost, either. He always had a trick up his sleeve,” says Bettis. “That doesn’t work either [in a courtroom, today], but, as with Perry Mason, left viewers with the impression not guilty until a judge or jury decides otherwise worked.”

Today, simply charged with a crime is too often the same as being guilty. “Guilt by accusation or belief isn’t good for the USA or its citizens,” says Bettis. “Such ideas foreshadow a collapse into totalitarianism. Until balance restores, America moves closer to the abyss.”

* * * * *

Billions is different. Bobby Axelrod, portrayed by Damien Lewis, has the means, knowledge and craftiness to neutralise the assaults of DA, Chuck Rhoades, portrayed by Paul Giamatti. Billions is social class warfare. Axelrod earned his way into the upper class; Rhoades fell into it by birth.

Axelrod is JR Ewing on steroids, wealthier and craftier, without a mistress, in the usual sense. A Hofstra graduate, Axelrod survived 9/11; he pays the college tuition for the children of his co-workers that died that day. Still, he resorts to bribery, insider trading and all forms of chicanery to make money; always, he does what he believes he must.

A Yale graduate, Rhoades is rich, but far short of a billionaire. He loves money and hates the rich. Chuck has a colossal hunger for power. He’s a spoilt child-man, with more ego than conscience and deep father issues; he revelled in cheating his father out of the family fortune. In the bedroom, he’s a masochist. In the office, he’s a sadist.

Axelrod versus Rhoades is a fight for territory. The territory is Wendy Rhodes, portrayed by Maggie Siff. She’s a psychiatrist. She earns ten times what her husband earns as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Wendy works for Axe Capital, as its in-house performance coach. Scott Tobias, in the New York Times, called Wendy “Viagra for the psyche.” Wendy enjoys that Bobby and Chuck are waging war for her.

* * * * *

The largely mythical Trojan War is an apt allusion for Billions. Axelrod is Paris. Chuck is Menelaus. Wendy is Helen.

Paris abducts Helen. Menelaus has his brother, Agamemnon, wage war to rescue Helen from Troy. In a sense, Axelrod abducts Wendy from Chuck, who uses his office, a surrogate brother, to wage war for her return.

Billions deals with power and the masculine need to win, at any cost. It resembles the account of the Trojan War in the Iliad, by Homer. The battle is for Wendy; emotional bloodshed is the weapon of choice for both sides.

The tension between Axelrod and Wendy is high, but there’s no carnal contact; Axelrod depends on Wendy for his work-related stability. Husband Chuck distorts the closeness of Axelrod and Wendy; based on the flimsiest evidence, Chuck believes his wife and Axelrod are having an affair. For her part, Wendy, a psychiatrist, further taints a deeply tainted profession.

* * * * *

Bryan Connerty, portrayed by Toby Leonard Moore, is an Assistant US Attorney, in the Southern District of New York. Chuck Rhoades is his boss. Taylor Mason, portrayed by Asia Kate Dillion, rose from intern, at Axe Capital, to Chief Investment Officer, in one season. Bryan and Taylor may be Hector and Ajax, as recorded by Homer.

Hector and Ajax tried to end the Trojan War with a day-long one-on-one fight. It ended in a draw. This seems the standing of Bryan and Taylor, as season three begins.

The future is bleak for Bryan and Taylor, if allusions to the Trojan War hold. Hector gave Ajax his sword, at the end of their fight; Ajax later used the sword to commit suicide. Ajax gave Hector his belt; later, using the belt, Achilles attached a chariot to the corpse of Hector, which he dragged around the walls of Troy, three times.

Another, likely coincidental, link to the Trojan War involves the surname of Wendy and Chuck, Rhoades. Exiled after the death of Menelaus, Helen moved to the island of Rhodes, Rhodos, in Greek, at the time,where a bitter war widow ends her life. Does this foretell the fate of Wendy?

* * * * *

Billions is more than a derivative melodrama focused on law and order. The writers find plot lines far beyond good and bad, black-and-white. Besides, the many subplots help avoid boredom with the main storyline.

The central storyline, which is the war for Wendy, could linger, at any point, but doesn’t. The plot and subplots, such as Chuck wanting to be governor of New York State and Bobby wanting to keep the revenge war going, move nimbly through twists, turns and reversals.

An extra-dramatic concern is a message Billions sends, repeatedly, each episode; that is, anything for money. When Axe Capital assets are unfrozen, for example, Taylor Mason offers the traders a bonus at least equal to last year; everybody lurches into action. Greed, when played to the hilt, makes viewers uneasy; it’s a standard. Is such a crass, utilitarian and selfish end, which makes all tactics okay, acceptable?

There are moments, on Billions, when the writers write like Aaron Sorkin; that is, in a flurry of witticisms, obscure cultural references and quicksilver repartee, which only appears in retrospect. Fortunately, such moments of folly are few. No one speaks as Aaron Sorkin writes and no one writes as Aaron Sorkin writes.

* * * * *

The Trojan War and Billions, roughly 3500 years apart, involve war over a woman and two takes on life. Billions is a series that defines the era of Trump; ethics and morals are mostly absent. The Trojan War defines us through a strong sense of ethics and morals.

* Click here for full interview with Lee Bettis.

dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.

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