From the EP ‘Roll Off’ (1998)
From the EP ‘Roll Off’ (1998)
I’m usually not one to judge, but binge watching TV shows is fucking sad, no matter how good they are. You automatically picture someone sitting at home, alone, in their underwear, lights dimmed, eating a takeaway or fattening snacks, watching episode after episode for hours on end.
Over the past week I’ve become a sad bastard. I’ve been power watching episodes of Billions like Shaun Ryder popped ecstacy and ket back in ‘89: several at a time, several times a day. Binge watching is very unlike me, and now I’m pondering whether this marks the extremely early onset of middle age, or if it’s due to the archetype of Billions’ thematic conceit.
The plot centres on an adversarial battle between Chuck Rhoades’ pious public prosecutor versus hedge fund Billionaire and serial insider trader Bobby Axelrod – think Gordon Gekko spliced with Einstein. But it’s the professional ménage á trois Axelrod, Wendy Rhoades and Chuck occupy that sows the most fertile terrain for Billions’ sumptuously unscrupulous Machiavellianism. Axe and Chuck manipulate Wendy’s trust as though it and she is a pawn in their personal duel. Wendy only finds herself in this ethical bind as she works as a motivational therapist for Axe Capital’s horde of sociopathic traders whilst being married to Chuck.
And, yes, if the above sounds outlandish, it probably is, and partly why Billions is so addictive – it isn’t demanding you take it seriously. It’s a realist abstraction, excessively infused with popular cultural memes, clichés and Easter eggs. Take the scene where Axe’s right hand man, the terrier like mid-life crisis suffering Wags’, who’s adopted the lifestyle excesses of Roy Schneider’s Joe Gideon from All That Jazz, shouts ‘It’s Showtime’ in the mirror. It’s a cool bit of reverence and doubly clever too, as the producing network for Billions is called Showtime. And what other reaction, other than wincing perhaps, is there but to guffaw at the Domination fetish that Wendy and Chuck share?
Recognising this, you can have few gripes, but I do bristle that a show full of very smart characters all use Apple (with its incredulous OS) laptops, desktops and phones (well, maybe they all have shares?). More likely, the network and showrunners have (suitably) taken the money for product placement.
The plot twists and scheming are entertaining but Billions’ magnetism is also procedural. Bobby Axelrod’s love of being ruthlessly right, ‘I love what I do’ he states after flirting with retirement, and Axe Capital’s culture, represent an idealised capitalist vision we can all believe in – where meritocracy reigns. Intelligence, drive and ambition are sacrosanct, and arbitrary measures, such as Axelrod’s gingerness, class, age, sex, race, sexual orientation and where you went to school, are deemed utterly irrelevant in lieu of your profitability. Of course in the real world this is fanciful bollocks, people continue to face superficial forms of discrimination. However, Billions’ cynicism, while selective, is also extended to Rhoades’ public service. Even within a system festooned with cronyism, self-interest, betrayal and lobbying, said realities become malleable to Chuck’s sense of duty synergising with his own ambitions. I’m a huge Paul Giamatti fan and his turn as Chuck, particularly his earnest speeches on the need to punish Axelrod for his ill-gotten gains, could inspire Robespierreist tendencies in even the most hardened Thatcherite.
There are a number of interesting character sub-plots; Chuck’s reluctance, often revulsion at being tethered to his father’s manipulations in helping maintain the family name. The successful manipulations of Axelrod’s wife, largely to protect her husband’s brand, shows she’s just as ruthless as Axe, but she struggles to be accepted as a legitimate business woman in her own right due to her husband’s considerable influence, and to reconcile living a lavish lifestyle with misguided nostalgia for her modest upbringing. The Axe Cap employees are more intriguing than Chuck’s underlings because their wealth allows them to behave in ways most of us cannot afford to. It reveals a ghastly revelation, the wealthier you are, the more liberty you’re afforded.
Bill ‘Dollar’ Stern is an interesting comic aside. He’s a pound shop Axelrod; a conglomeration of testosterone fuelled Trumpian court jesterism, luddite machismo and an admirable honesty that making money sustains him. This is counter-balanced by the stoic and measured Taylor, introduced in season two. Taylor’s a non-binary analyst (preferred pronouns; they, theirs and them. Jordan Peterson dislikes this!) who Axelrod sees as a potential protégé. An intellectual equal to Axelrod in his employ allows the show’s writers to move beyond formulaic insider trades ‘I am not uncertain’ and analyse the disreputable methods rival hedge funds use, directing the businesses they invest in, to trick their competitors into bad ‘shorts’. It shows us behind the curtain of how the world operates at a macro level. What this entails, and the consequences, is unfathomable for us normal folks when we’re preoccupied with managing our budgets, organising holidays, doing the weekly shopping, or going out for a meal.
Smartly, Billions’ places you in an echelon of society few people can inhabit. It’s like discovering what’s at the bottom of the Mariana Trench is what you suspected was there all along. Before the mystique of uncertainty allowed the imagination to run riot, post discovery projection is freed to be applied liberally to suit our confirmation biases. This is how we want Axelrod and Chuck to be, and in particular, Bill Stern – completely unapologetic. Such delineation frees us from ambiguity and hypocrisy at enjoying these characters, and alleviates any jealousy at being subject to them, particularly as most of us lack the stomach or capability to emulate their kind of ‘success’.
And so it’s no surprise my appetite for this show is voracious as Axe’s and Chuck’s motivation to finish on top. I’ll finish the third season off by the end of next week. The downside to binge watching? The episodes will run out and I’ll have to wait until 2019 for more. This is harmless hedonism, but let me say it, like me, once you start you won’t stop. You’ve been warned.
From the album ‘Promise’ (1985)
From the compilation album ‘The Best Of Townes Van Zandt’ (2002)