What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day on this blog than to do a deep dive into the two marriages at the heart of Billions? You won’t find any hearts and roses here, friends. The Axelrod and Rhoades marriages are drama thru and thru. It’s the lovely messiness of marriage portrayed in often surprising ways. So let’s take a trip back to the story so far of these two relationships, peppered, of course, by a healthy dose of speculation on what’s to come when Season 3 kicks off March 25 on Showtime.
As a drama about the high stakes financial world, Billions already stands apart from other dramas. It has none of the voilence and very little of the sex of its counterparts in so-called “elite” cable. What it has instead is soapy twists and turns and a fair amount of serious relationship ins and outs. As I’ve said before, the show is written by folks who care about portraying marriage in all its complexity. And the Axelrods and Rhoades are both wonderfully complex in totally different ways.
First the Axelrods. We know they both come from humble roots. We know Lara was a nurse with a big family, all working class. We know Axe was a kid who was raised by a hard-working omelette-cooking waitress mom. He didn’t have a dad. We know he went to the races, watched the numbers on the board, developed a skill for picking out winners. He’s a talented gambler with an eye for numbers and an ear for sci-fi thriller dialogue. Bobby and Lara were two kids with their eyes on the prize, both equally willing and able to climb over anyone in the way. They got the prize, won the lottery. So, now what? Ever hear of the curse on lottery winners?
As I wrote back when this episode aired, no where was the relationship between Lara and Bobby more visible than in the episode “With or Without You,” which, ironically, showed little of them on screen together. We learned that Lara and Bobby have that “first love” history, nicely tapped into by one line from the five minutes of a marriage between Michael and Apollonia in The Godfather. Theirs was an old world marriage, both of them incandescently young. Michael was hit by a thunderbolt, and then Apollonia was blown to bits by a car bomb. You can’t really say that she was the love of Michael’s life. (If anyone, that was Kate) The relationship was significant because it was pure, they were each other’s first. We saw them all aglow in the summery Italian countryside, him teaching her how to drive, her adorable attempts at learning English. (To this day, I hear her with the “Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday, Saturday”, so freakin cute)
Sadly, first love doesn’t always mean forever love. Lara flatly states as much when she reminds Bobby how Apollonia died. Clearly Bobby hasn’t imagined, even if Apollonia had lived to come back to America with Michael, and been the traditional Italian wife that his own mother was, what kind of life she would’ve had being married to a mobster, a man pure of heart for sure and wanting to get out, but never able to? Lara seems to have survived a car bomb or two in her day. Maybe this one last bomb, the one of Bobby sent to prison, is the one to kill her? Metaphorically, I mean, kill her love for him. Bobby has chosen not to see this unfold. He’s made up for other slights by charming her back to him. But this time may be different.
Out of all the messages he sent during “With or Without You,” the one where he’s being absolutely awful rings the most true. Let’s just transcribe it here shall we? The rhythm of the words is almost poetic and Damian’s performance, of course….chills.
You’re punishing me. I get it, I get it. I’ve never punished you. Not once. Not once. I’m making one mistake and fine, fine. It’s not a contest.
You think I can’t control this, or you? That you’re teaching me some, some fucking lesson? I teach the fucking lessons, and you are about to get one.
Lar, I will lock you the fuck down and operate you by fucking remote control with a flick of my motherfucking fingers, Lar. You don’t believe me? Try me, goddamn it.
You want to, you want to take this vacation, this, this adventure? Have it, go for it! Get it out. Then come the fuck home!
Bobby loves Lara, but kind of the same way he loves his garage full of cars, as a possession under his control. He’s not an overtly cruel mobster, he doesn’t sleep around or otherwise disrespect her in any obvious way. He’s simply not all there with her. She’s someone he will love for the time they’re together, but whom he thinks he can lock away in his garage until the next time she needs to be taken for a ride. It’s not intentional or malicious, it’s just who he is. And she’s loved him exactly for who he is all these years, but, maybe she needs something else now.
Sure, we’ve seen them in happier times. Beach towels strewn on a lush lawn come to mind.
But even then, didn’t it seem like Bobby has sex with his wife like he’s doing her a favor? Like he’s sealing a deal. And she seems to show intimacy with him as a passing thing on her way to the mall. In fact the few times we’ve seen them together have been make-up sex.
The great irony here is that even as the Rhoades may be the ones buttressing their intimacy with Cyber Monday specials, it’s the Axelrod relationship that truly reads as transactional.
Still, who knows, the show could pull a happy ending for these two yet. I’d love to see it try, that’s for sure. On the other hand, in lieu of a happy ending, we could get Damian having the opportunity to pull faces like this as he does in one of the Season 3 promos, a face that make a viewer’s heart sink and emerse helplessly in the sea of empathy he elicits.
See, this is not the face of Brody, wounded bird pitched out of his nest, into a state of war, inside and out. Nor is it the “but, but, what about duuuuty” face of Soames. It’s not the cold maniacal horror of Henry either. It’s Bobby looking at the wife who is hurting him deeply, even as some part of his brain is saying “Fucking bitch, how dare she do this..she’s NO ONE without me.” A uniquely Bobby face, which I can only hope we get to see more and more of.
Now, for the Rhoades: If we start just with sex, Chuck and Wendy, quite unlike Bobby and Lara, are all in in that department. They have a richly accessorized sex life, all roles and expectations laid out clearly and hung from the walls in fine array.
They lie to each other too. (Who doesn’t, for pete’s sake?) And when push comes to shove, when the damage done is too great (as it was at the end of Season 1) they go and get help. When they start therapy, their body language conveys separation and frustration and overwhelming sadness.
By the time they’re done with therapy, well, let me just reiterate what I wrote about their therapy session in “Dead Cat Bounce”: Upon hearing the therapist start the usual “power of words” lesson, they immediately exchange a look and ask her to leave. The therapist is an intruder interrupting the conversation they were already having, the more direct communication that was already happening between them. They talk! That’s like 80% of marriage right there. And they can talk without talking. Chuck just has to give Wendy a look and she knows, there is no time in their busy shared lives for therapy. Their marriage is stronger than they think it is.
They have an understanding with each other, a shared vision, an egalitarian foundation to their relationship stronger than the bricks of a Brooklyn brownstone.
I’m totally prepared to (and look forward to!) have this all back asswards. Maybe Bobby and Lara are endgame, and it’s Wendy and Chuck who will part ways eventually. Maybe Wendy will move on and realize her full potential away from this guy with lingering daddy issues and only a fair-weather attachment to the law he so self-righteously executes.
Whatever happens, we’ll be watching!
Happy Valentine’s Day!