The following review contains no spoilers.
Three seasons in, Showtime’s popular drama series Billions tends to operate in one of two ways. Either the main characters finally put their grandiose plans for revenge into action and achieve the desired results, or these heavily-plotted exercises in vengeance quickly transform into egregious self-owns perpetrated by the very people they were trying to put one over. This is precisely what happened to longtime rivals Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and billionaire hedge fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) at the end of season three, and they’re both furious about it.
Cue Billions season four, which sees the ex-U.S. Attorney and the billionaire hedge fund manager casting their animosity for one another aside in order to seek revenge against the very people they were initially trying to destroy (but who ultimately destroyed them instead). In Rhoades’ case, it’s U.S. Attorney General Waylon “Jock” Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown) and Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), who turned his plot to oust Jock against him. As for Axelrod, it’s all about beating former employee-turned-competitor Taylor Amber Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), whose alliance with the Russian oligarch Grigor Andolov (John Malkovich) is causing problems.
Before going any further, we should acknowledge that yes, everything described in the previous two paragraphs constitutes “a lot.” Billions consists of dozens of characters participating in (or being totally unaware of) numerous plots to make money, steal money and generally ruin the lives of one’s enemies. It’s basically a premium cable-sized television soap opera designed to let some very, very good actors chew on every available piece of scenery. And you know what? This is totally fine! In fact, it may very well be why audiences and critics alike have flocked to the show for the past three seasons.
However, the first four episodes of the latest Billions season (which were made available to critics for review) implicitly pose a new set of questions. Or, at least they seem to be adding more vigor to questions that viewers may have been wondering about for the past few years. Questions like, “How can I possibly relate to a bunch of powerful bureaucrats and billionaires?” or “Why should I even care about what happens to any of these people?”
The federal deficit, which was already over $4 trillion in 2018, has ballooned in the first few months of 2019. Meanwhile, many are reporting significantly lower (or no) tax refunds following President Donald Trump and Congressional Republicans’ recent tax overhaul. So in an age when money is becoming even tighter than it was before, and power even moreso, how the hell are we supposed to relate to, or identify with, the trials and tribulations of Rhoades, Axelrod and the rest of the Billions gang? Why should we even care?
The obvious answers to these questions are “good writing,” “good acting” and so on. Co-creators and executive producers Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin’s story is as expansive and convoluted as it is engrossing. Giamatti and Lewis are truly one of television’s most fun-to-watch odd couples at the moment, while practically everyone else on the cast is just as entertaining — especially Maggie Siff, who plays Wendy Rhoades, Chuck’s wife and Axe Capital’s in-house counselor.
Beyond these simple answers, however, is the striking observation that, for a show that’s all about wealthy and powerful people trying to accumulate more of each at the expense of everyone else, Billions has heart. Not the kind of “heart” that typically baits the Emmys and the Oscars for attention, mind you, but the kind that’s powerful enough to overcome anything that might alienate viewers.
Rhoades frequently endures the verbally abusive meddling of his father, Charles Rhoades Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn), and now that he’s no longer a powerful U.S. Attorney, these personal attacks are on the rise. Axelrod, meanwhile, is becoming more and more consumed with the idea of pummeling Mason and Andolov. The former feels like a failure, has been made to feel like one repeatedly and is struggling to establish himself once again. The latter finds himself outmatched in practically every way and unsure of himself.
The circumstances notwithstanding, these are decidedly basic human conundrums that, even if you aren’t a government power player or a stupidly rich financial guru, everyone can relate to. Koppelman, Levien and the Billions writer’s room knows precisely how to leverage these emotions. Giamatti, Lewis, Siff and company are experts at translating these emotions from the page to the screen. They’ve been doing it in concert for three seasons running, and judging by the first four episodes of season four, they’re still pretty good at it.
So yes, the current political and financial climate in America isn’t all that great right now. Escapism in entertainment is in high demand, be it via cinematic superhero showdowns or new treks across the stars on television. But the fact that Billions manages to successfully help audiences momentarily escape from it all by dropping them into the middle of these real world shenanigans is a laudatory feat of creativity.
Plus, the show really knows precisely how to punctuate its most dramatic moments with just the right number of f-bombs.
Billions season 4 premieres Sunday, March 17th at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.