After four seasons, the task of reinvention can become difficult for even a show as wily and nimble as Billions, the immensely satisfying Showtime series about money and power. Given the combative nature of the plotting, one might worry there are only so many ways to reconfigure the pieces on the chess board; certain acts of narrative deception, like setting up an elaborate business deal only to reveal it’s a con all along, might lose their ability to shock. The foundational dueling protagonists, Paul Giamatti’s tortured Attorney General Chuck Rhodes and Damien Lewis’s vindictive hedge fund guru Bobby Axelrod, eventually must stumble over in exhaustion from all the ethically questionable scheming and word-soupy monologuing, right?
And yet: Over 40 episodes in, Billions remains its best self. On a surface level, this season once again found the series discovering new ways to showcase the concerns, hobbies, and mouth-watering obsessions of the wealthy. At various points, there were pizzas prepared by Una Pizza Napoletana chef Anthony Mangieri, boxing training sessions courtesy of UFC brawler Stipe Miocic, and therapeutic car crushing arranged by Mark Cuban in his third appearance on the show. In addition to these flashy amenities, the show burned through plot like Mason Capital burned through cash, banishing John Malkovich’s villainous Russian billionaire back to where he came from and turning Chuck’s S&M secret into public knowledge. But like Mad Men, the darkly funny workplace drama that Billions occasionally resembles, the focus was always on what makes these gifted people tick.
In Sunday’s finale, both Chuck and Axe temporarily defeated (and humiliated) their former protégés-turned-rivals — Brian Connerty and Taylor Mason, respectively — and, at least on Chuck’s end, reignited the two mensch’s own previously dormant feud. These developments were yet two more chances to hit the show’s reset button. Where last season’s finale found the triumvirate of Chuck, Axe, and Wendy Rhodes, the brilliant-yet-ethically-challenged performance coach at Axe Capital, sharing a bottle of wine together and planning a scorched Earth attack on the younger generation, this season found all the major characters realigned in new, tentatively brokered alliances. As noted Billions fan Mike Francesca said on Twitter, it was “tremendous.”
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The most “tremendous” part was the pleasure of watching all the moving pieces click into place. In the case of Chuck and his dad Chuck Sr. (The Walking Dead’s Jeffrey DeMunn), that meant finally springing a trap on Connerty, who broke the law by listening to a sealed recording that identified him as “the idiot” the father-son duo had been referring to in a conversation with their lawyer. For Connerty, it was the ultimate twist of the knife: All the moral compromises he made and criminal acts he committed were ultimately in pursuit of his own tail. The shady land deal pursued by Chuck Sr. looked fishy all season, particularly in some of the blunt phone conversations the normally circumspect pair shared, but it was still a blast to see the intricacies of how the con played out.
Ever since the Ice Juice-puking highs of Season 2’s similarly twist-filled “Golden Frog Time,” Billions has taught viewers to watch it in a careful manner. You know essential information, like who knows what and why, might be withheld for dramatic purposes. (Unlike the Ice Juice plot, this time Chuck Sr. and Ira were in on the action.) Sensing that a twist might arrive doesn’t diminish the joy of watching it unfold.The show’s creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien wrote the script for Ocean’s 13 and they clearly worship at the altar of David Mamet, the mastermind behind brain-scrambling stories like House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner, and there’s always enough care put into the details of the reveal that you don’t mind being deceived — or even a little baffled. It’s like Jock said to Chuck after being berated in Italian: “I didn’t understand a word you said, but I like it.”
For all the maneuvering and betraying that happened in the finale, the most fascinating scene in the episode was one based around a moment of tender intimacy: Axe and Wendy making the spare bed in Axe’s lush Manhattan apartment together after she packs a bag and leaves Chuck. Again, this moment was carefully built up throughout the season. Chuck’s betrayal of Wendy, disclosing their activities in the bedroom for political gain, has compromised their relationship; Axe’s loyalty to her, which he again proved by essentially paying to get her medical license back, has deepened the bond between the two of them. The curious scene in the extra bedroom, which ended with Axe reminding Wendy he was down the hall if she needed to talk, pointed towards a series of romantic and thematic possibilities in the next season.
The finale did show that Axe is not exactly ready for a conventional relationship, particularly one with someone who might bet against his interests. By destroying his partnership with fellow billionaire Rebecca Cantu (Nina Arianda), Axe once again showed that his self-awareness only goes so far and that his desire to win will always outweigh other competing motives. When it comes to (most of) the people he cares about, he will choose brutal efficiency and financial gain over genuine compassion or a deep understanding. In a chilling speech to Rebecca, where he imagined what a “normal” man would consider and reckoned with the “cold” part of himself, he laid out his thinking and concluded that he “knew the truth was in that cold.” Will he ever turn away from that cold? Or will he let it consume him?
Amidst all its plot twists, celebrity cameos, and reference-packed jokes, these are the questions that keep Billions so engaging. For all the recent discussion of blockbuster television shows like Game of Thrones and contained event mini-series like Chernobyl, Billions is proof that old-fashioned premium cable drama, the lifeblood of prestige TV since the early ’00s, is far from broken. (Clearly, it’s working for Showtime: Koppelman and Levien recently signed a development deal to make more shows for the network.) Billions is operating at such a high level that you don’t even turn it on with the fear that it might fall off or disappoint. You watch it knowing that it will delight and provoke, matching the confidence of its most self-assured characters.