The Showtime series Billions dealt with quite a bit of adversity throughout its final seasons.
The series had to abandon its 5th season, midstream, in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, returning nearly 18 months later for the season’s second half. In that half-season, star Damien Lewis was largely unable to travel to the U.S., due to the pandemic and the illness and passing of his wife, and Lewis ultimately left the show after that half-season. Lewis would return for about half the episodes in the final season, although the WGA strike would disrupt the filming of the final season, with creators and showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien not able to appear on set for the filming of the series finale.
Beyond all that, in its final season, Billions suddenly became a “Showtime on Paramount+” show instead of a Showtime show, even becoming available to stream on Friday nights instead of its traditional Sunday night slot.
Nevertheless, Billions managed to deliver a satisfying ending, despite a relatively lackluster penultimate season. The final year was densely plotted, and filled with the sort of first-rate character work, witty writing, and plentiful pop culture references that were long the show’s trademark.
The series’ final arc ended up with virtually all of the major characters, including Lewis’ returning Bobby Axelrod, teaming up to defeat the presidential ambitions of Mike Prince (Corey Stoll) who emerged as the series’ primary antagonist once Lewis was no longer available.
Billions was first billed as a war of wills between prosecutor Chuck Rhodes (Paul Giamatti) and Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod, one in which the crusading prosecutor wasn’t always the good guy and the greedy hedge funder wasn’t always the bad guy. The storytelling would expand much further, with the two men sometimes even on the same side.
It was a rare show to depict one of the main characters (Chuck) as a BDSM submissive, and also feature one of TV’s first major nonbinary characters (Asia Kate Dillon’s Taylor Mason), giving that character storylines that went far beyond their gender identity.
Even beyond them, Billions offered a fantastic cast of characters that went dozens deep. In addition to Damien Lewis, the show brought some ringers off the bench the final year, including Danny Strong’s scummy hedge funder-turned Treasury Secretary, John Malkovich’s Russian oligarch, and Rick Hoffman (from Suits) as a creepy Dr. Feelgood type. Ben Shenkman had lots of great scenes over the years as Chuck’s best friend Ira, who keeps coming back for more despite his friend repeatedly ruining his life.
Even Lily Gladstone, likely to win an Oscar this year for Killers of the Flower Moon, had a bit part as the mistress-turned-wife of Charles Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn), Chuck’s Machiavellian dad.
“Golden Frog Time,” also known as the Ice Juice IPO episode, remains the best episode of the series:
There were some things that happened that didn’t quite add up. Would coming out as a BDSM practitioner turn out well for Chuck’s political career? I’m not sure of that. Would everyone in this world always call Taylor by the correct pronoun? Probably not. And is there any way Bobby, who became a fugitive after getting nailed for financial crimes in Season 5, would have his legal jeopardy disappear, and also get to continue working in the securities industry? Probably not.
And of course, the series long walked a fine line, in likely managing to appeal to both people who work in high finance or possibly aspire to do so and those who think those guys are the root of all evil. This was crystalized in the final season, with a guest appearance by author Michael Lewis, appearing for a fete to celebrate the 35th anniversary of his book Liar’s Poker (which, inexplicably, was never made into a movie).
“What a beautiful con you pulled, Lewis,” David Costabile’s Wags tells the real-life author. “They all think that Liar’s Poker was a love letter to them, kudos.”
“It wasn’t a love letter,” Lewis tells him. “I wrote it the way it was, people see it what they want to see.” And you could say the same about Billions itself.
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.