Showtime’s timely new drama Billions taps into current concerns about income inequality and the tendency of some in the financial sector to not play completely by the rules when it comes to acquiring their fortunes. The fact that the series is cowritten and -executive produced by Too Big to Fail author Andrew Ross Sorkin probably plays a part in this. The show also focuses heavily on the tendency of many, especially men, in this sector to be obsessed with macho posturing and a desire to remain an “alpha,” a phrase that is uttered a number of times in the pilot alone.
Paul Giamatti as U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades and Damian Lewis as Bobby “Axe” Axelrod exemplify this dynamic, with Rhoades determined to bring down billionaire hedge fund king Axelrod, who has his share of shady dealings. Aside from his business activities, other shadiness surrounding him includes some suspicions of how he managed to be one of the few to survive when his building went down on 9/11.
The first episode has a heavy amount of testosterone, with references to not only “alphas,” but also a predator-versus-prey, survival-of-the-fittest mentality; a desire to be in control; macho standoffs; and the concept of being or feeling neutered in some way (figuratively and literally; Bobby has a look of disappointment, loss and even fear when his wife simply has their dog fixed). Rhoades and Bobby meet in a great face-to-face payoff at the end of the episode, where Bobby delivers the memorable quote, “What’s the point of having ‘fuck-you money’ if you never say ‘fuck you’?”
But the testosterone-fueled moments in Billions do not only come from the men. While this high-flying world of New York City power politics and finance might be seen as primarily a male domain, the women alongside the men in the series are every bit as strong, motivated and potentially shady.
Maggie Siff plays Chuck’s wife Wendy, who finds herself in somewhat of a dilemma when Chuck decides to bring an action against Bobby. Wendy has known Bobby even longer than she has known her husband, being a psychiatrist at his hedge fund company for many years. She is smart and strong both in her dealings with her patients, and with her husband.
“She’s almost a little bit macho, which I was intrigued by,” Siff told us. “When I say [that], I guess I mean that she sort of has to swim the waters that she’s swimming in. She enjoys it; she enjoys coaching these guys. She enjoys that sort of fiercely competitive environment.
“I think, as an actress, I’m constantly on the lookout for roles that are sort of stronger, less conventional, smarter,” Siff continued. “I think Wendy’s a very interesting character because she figures prominently in both [Chuck’s and Bobby’s] worlds. She wields a lot of power and influence in those separate spheres.”
Lara Axelrod, as played by Malin Akerman, also knows what it takes to survive there.
“Instead of standing behind her man, she stands beside him,” Akerman said of her character’s relationship with her husband. “They’re both self-made, they both come from a blue-collar background. … She knows everything [about Bobby’s shady dealings]. That’s the thing about their relationship; it’s completely transparent, completely honest. She knows how he got his initial money.
“I just love the fact that we see strong female characters living in this man’s world,” Akerman added, “and it is fun to play. Because, I mean, let’s face it, women are strong in real life; we just never are depicted that way on the screen, [though] I feel like we are more and more so now.”
You would expect these two women, who have a long history together based on their relationships with Bobby, to come into conflict, especially once Chuck brings an action against Bobby. But aside from a brief but fairly tense meeting early in the season, Siff says that Wendy and Lara don’t have a scene together until the back half of the season. But the payoff sounds like it’s worth the wait.
“It was fun,” Siff said. “It was fun to have a couple of scenes with Malin. [We] spent a lot of the season off on our own planets. It was really great to have them converge.”
Akerman agreed. “When everything is starting to come to a head with Chuck Rhoades versus Bobby, and our life is starting to fall apart a little bit, Lara does take it into her own hands and goes and confronts Wendy to try to get to Chuck. It’s a really great scene, let me just say that! [Laughs] It was so much fun to play.”
It sounds like Lara versus Wendy could rival the Bobby versus Chuck faceoff we see in the first episode, and is part of why we like it, and what could make Billions the “alpha” show of the midseason.
Billions airs Sundays at 10pm ET/PT on Showtime beginning Jan. 17.
Billions cast shot: James Minchin/Showtime
Episodic shots: Jeff Neumann/Showtime