Highlighting grey areas in morality can be a struggle for a show – let alone doing it successfully. However, Showtime’s Billions joins the slew of its series that excel in this regard. Bobby Axelrod, played by Damien Lewis, runs the titan hedge fund ‘Axe Capital’ with the sole aim of pursuing the worst aspect of capitalism – profit, and lots of it, at all costs. But what fun would it be for a man who has it all without a worthy adversary? The equally ambitious Chuck Rhodes, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, is relentlessly out to sink his teeth into anyone guilty of breaking the law for the sake of greed. The conflicts that ensue throughout the seasons aren’t without their own conflicts of interests, with Chuck’s wife, Wendy, working as a performance coach at the fund, raking in some hefty bonuses to Chuck’s indignation – it all adds further fuel to the fire.
Though the two primary characters are positioned to sit on either side of the fence, with Axelrod embodying greed and Rhodes Justice, they are in more ways than they would perhaps like to admit, similar than unalike. Seen in multiple facets, they both share an unwavering commitment to their work and a calculating nature that informs every decision taken. But most of all, their willingness to play outside the rule book in the name of their own definition of “the good”, using whoever and whatever to reach their ends – it really is a true incarnation of the ends justify the means. In true Machiavellian fashion, no one is safe.
This is where Billions really shines, and Season one’s finale best highlights this. The impassioned exchange between Axe and Rhodes over their worldly impact is one of my favourites throughout the show, as it epitomises the exploration of the grey area in morality. Axelrod, proclaiming his prolific benefits from philanthropy and his job creation, both directly and indirectly have Chuck up against the ropes and is forced to listen to Axe’s self-indulgent monologue stating that only good is left in his wake. The hubris in this scene ceases to fade as each consecutive series plays out. It is as eternal as the conflict between the two ideologies is.
But the dichotomy is dearly mischaracterised. For all of Axe’s good, with it comes a world of hurt. In the game of hedge funds, it’s far from all rainbows and butterflies. Under the table dealings and payoffs are the norm, and seemingly kind acts are driven by the motivation of profit, and the more of it, the better. Axe may have somewhat of a point, but he is forgetting the intangible damage he causes, the damage that is inflicted on the idea of the rule of law. Billions admirably questions the weight we should give to each side in this regard, demonstrating that like most things in life, the answer is not as obvious as it may first seem, and the exploration of this ambiguity is what makes it such an engaging watch.
The show draws inspiration from a plethora of sources, from Kant’s shopkeeper analogy to Game Theory and the prisoner’s dilemma. It is a show that extends far beyond the immediate impression of a further fetishization of the Wolf of Wall Street-esque genre, containing intricacies that become more apparent with each successive series. As season six is hot of the press, and Axelrod is out for the count in Switzerland, you can still expect further clashes between the two bastions of wealth and justice. With the newly introduced Michael Prince, taking over Axe capital, being the latest antagonist for Chuck Rhodes, the latest season sees a breath of fresh air that continues to rekindle the flames of conflict. Whether justice and fairness win out over greed and wealth, season six’s finale is sure to tell, and for those looking to fill the void left by Succession’s latest series finale, this is the place to look.
Image courtesy of Kidfly182 via Wikicommons