When Showtime’s Billions began its first episode with Paul Giamatti getting peed on by his dominatrix wife, it made a clear statement about the kind of show it was setting out to be. As Season 1 unfolded, it followed through: Damian Lewis’s character has the name of a porn star (Bobby Axelrod, nicknamed Axe) and the swagger of a modern day cowboy. The dialogue is peppered with characters making analogies to popping prom queen’s cherries or having wet panties during work meetings. It dripped with operatic masculinity, scenery-chewing performances, dirty money, dirty sex, and the occasional, random Metallica cameo. And yet, as Season 2 has begun, something surprising has happened. The show that opened with a golden shower has developed into one of the more nuanced and mature workplace dramas on television.
It hasn’t entirely remade itself; it’s still brimming with classic Billions dialogue like “China’s not just cooking the books, they’re going full Iron Chef with that shit!” or, “your expense accounts don’t entitle you to fuck his art up the ass!” But it has synthesized its off the wall absurdity and prestige-TV aspiration into a more evenhanded story.
Take Season 2’s Taylor for example, a new non-binary character who goes by they/them pronouns.
It would be easy for Billions to go for a cringeworthy joke — either by attempting to prove itself as woke or attempting to continue asserting itself as smugly un-PC. After all, this is a show that has previously featured the line, “What is it about a woman taking it into her mouth after a little raw-dogging that just seems so right?” But Billions dodges both easy avenues and instead presents a surprisingly sensitive scene between Taylor and Axe.
As Axe tries to persuade Taylor to work for him instead of departing for grad school, Taylor says, “I don’t know if you can understand just me being the way I am, just breathing the air here can be…discomfiting.” Axe simply nods and in his straight-shooting way, responds, “The air is thinner.” One of the most difficult parts of making a show about morally dubious, rich white dudes having rich white dude problems is that it’s hard for the viewer to be sympathetic. That works if the show is merely wealth porn — but Billions clearly aspired to have more depth. Now it’s finally succeeding.
Similarly, as Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades and his wife Wendy (Maggie Siff) struggle through a separation, it’s a more human problem than Season 1’s improbable scenario of Wendy working for his rival Axe. The intrigue of their professional rift remains, but the focus has pivoted. Even minor characters are soul-searching in Season 2, as work colleagues muse about the difficulty of forging real relationships in cold environments. The momentum of the plot keeps propelling forward, but Season 2 is spending more time on character development rather than relying on its stellar cast to shoulder it all themselves.
Season 2 still brims with the glossy wealth porn and sleaze viewers have come to expect as part of Billions’s oily charm, but it’s also a mature and nuanced workplace drama.
Billions Season 2 is currently airing on Sunday nights on Showtime.
Photos via Showtime, Showtime