The following contains light spoilers for Billions Season 3.
On Showtime’s popular drama Billions, every episode further complicates things for both U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and billionaire hedge fund manager Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis). The two have been at each other’s throats since the first season, and with season three past the halfway mark, things haven’t changed all that much. Sure, they’re currently working together to save themselves (and Rhoades’ wife Wendy, played by Maggie Siff) from others, but this loose truce won’t last very long.
To the uninitiated, the above paragraph is undoubtedly a mouthful of plot. Yet creators Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Andrew Ross Sorkin have made plenty of extra room for other stories. Like comedian Mike Birbiglia’s recurring character Oscar Langstraat, a self-described “venture philanthropist” who made his first appearance in season three’s “Hell of a Ride” and returned for two more installments. Aside from his boardroom banter with Axelrod, Langstraat’s arrival in Billions has less to do with its penchant for backstabbing and more to do with injecting a little sweetness into the story.
Also, he is a massive nerd from Silicon Valley (as opposed to Silicon Valley) who cannot speak without referencing science fiction and fantasy lore. When we first meet Langstraat in episode four, he introduces himself to Axelrod at a foundation benefit. Viewers familiar with Birbiglia’s comedy were probably shocked. But instead of the joke-telling variety, this version of Birbiglia is the more like his serious roles in Sleepwalk with Me and Don’t Think Twice, comedic films that also count as dramas. He’s funny as Langstraat, but with a straight face. And did we already say how geeky he is?
“You’re not as bad at this as the articles say,” says Axelrod, complimenting Langstraat on his smalltalk. When he drops a reference to Viktor Tikhonov, the late Soviet hockey team coach, however, the real nerd reveals himself. “That’s a sportball analogy, right?” he asks before trying his own comparison. “The future hurts, but only once. Denying it stings forever, like Shelob in Cirith Ungol.” Amused, Axelrod rhetorically quips, “That’s a Middle Earth fantasy analogy, right?” (Shelob is the great spider encountered by Frodo and Sam at Cirith Ungol, a hidden passage into Mordor, in The Two Towers. So yes, it’s a “Middle Earth fantasy analogy.”)
Obviously, that Langstraat (1) jokes about not understanding sports references and (2) uses J. R. R. Tolkien’sThe Lord of the Rings mythology to explain himself isn’t enough to adequately characterize him as a nerd, geek, dork or dweeb. If it was, then he would be better suited for The Big Bang Theory. But Billions is not that kind of show, and Koppelman and company are not that lazy. The series elevates and celebrates Langstraat in a way that is not only authentic, but advantageous to the story.
For example, during a Netrunner tournament competition in episode five, he and Axe Capital CIO Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon) compete against, and flirt with, one another. Meanwhile, dozens of extras play the Android universe-based game in the background, and it turns out they’re all professional players. So instead of resting on Mason’s single reference to the game, or having the pair absentmindedly play it without knowing (or at least acting like they know) what’s happening, Billions took steps to ensure its authenticity. They actually cast pros to play the game in the background, and wrote legitimate gameplay into Birbiglia and Dillon’s scene.
As for how the authenticity is advantageous to the story, it helps lay the groundwork for Langstraat and Mason’s romantic odysseyin this episode and the next. The fifth one, titled “Flaw in the Death Star,” sees Mason fly out to California to investigate possible investment opportunities with Langstraat’s company. They ultimately get into a detailed discussion — nay, a friendly debate — about Star Wars after Mason describes one of Langstraat’s people’s pitches as having a “strong concept,” but suffering from a “thermal exhaust port.” The pair, who first eyeballed each other at the end of “Hell of a Ride,” are further drawn to one another, resulting in a rebuffed dinner date-turned-Netrunner tournament.
They play, they flirt and ultimately wind up at Langstraat’s place. Mason returns to the east coast the morning after, but as soon as the sixth episode, “The Third Ortolan” kicks off, it becomes quite clear that Koppelman and company want Birbiglia’s sweet tech nerd to stick around. He gifts Mason with mathematically inclined delphiniums (because of the flower’s connection to the Fibonacci sequence) instead of roses, and video chats to dispense work advice. Langstraat even flies across the country to offer Mason moral support.
“There were nights I’d be in my cube, the only one around,” he recalls of his first Silicon Valley job. “I remember feeling like it would have been nice to have someone around to play Dragon Quest with.” It’s all very endearing, ever so geeky and wonderfully authentic. It’s also one of the only positive things among the show’s many plot-induced negatives. Birbiglia is subtly fantastic as Langstraat, and the writing for the character demonstrates a high attention to detail. Hopefully, he will appear more often throughout the rest of the season.
New episodes of Billions air Sundays at 9 pm ET/PT on Showtime.