A while back they promoted TV shows with the words “ripped from the headlines” as a draw. The phrase was often used for shows in the Law & Order franchise, when a crime featured on the show sort of mirrored something that had happened in real life. The link between fiction and reality was direct and overt. Seeing the promos for season 2 of Billions, I couldn’t help but to think of that phrase again. No, there isn’t a direct and overt link from the political discourse of the day to the plot lines and character development of Billions. The link is more metaphysical, it runs deeper, and, thus, may be even more telling and informative. Art, when it’s done right, can show us things about our world and ourselves that we wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. I have a sneaking suspicious that Billions is going to take us there in Season 2.
We know from last season that Billions is a story about two men on opposite sides of the ethical concerns of capitalism. Regulation vs. deregulation, greater good vs. individual success. We learn from the preview that Bobby will no longer only be playing defense. He’ll be going after Chuck with the same fervor the district attorney showed towards the hedge fund manager last season. Bobby, as the hedge fund manager, has not been caught in a lie as such. But, he is very guilty of using loopholes, using language, to his advantage. Chuck and his team of like-minded public servants are tasked with coming up with a “smarter game”, a new strategy, to defeat the big bad inside trader. It’s a continuation of the game of riveting three dimensional chess, where language provides the propulsive force behind every move.
Now, we here at FanFun know that Damian Lewis has fans from both sides of the political divide. And, forgive me, both red and blue, as I talk a bit about this election we just had and how it all relates back to this art that Damian as one of a cracking group of filmmakers is making right now.
So far, metaphorically speaking, Billions has shown us Ayn Rand’s beautiful Hampton’s parlor with a clueless pitbull liberal clod barging in. It seems to be picking apart some of the fallacies of conventional liberalism. That is, as per Lonnie, maybe the entire liberal conceit IS Chinatown. Yet, much like anything on our television, it embodies a certain liberalism too, not with polemics about gender and race, but, still, with the themes there, and not just as tokens. The overarching conflict has been the disconnect between what is legal and what is the right thing to do. A conflict between the law and the law-averse with both sides equally ambivalent about their respective good to society.
So how will Bobby play offense this season? How does a civilian go after an elected official? How do you work against a man of the law, without becoming lawless? Is he going to run for office? Highly unlikely. Maybe he’s going to go looking for more skeletons, more seediness than that already found via Wendy’s Cyber Monday shopping. Or are they going to surprise us with something totally unexpected? My bet is on option three.
The thing is, as much as Bobby loves his power and his freedom he doesn’t appear to be a driven by it to a maniacally evil level. For the bad juju, you have to look to Wags, the evil angel on Bobby’s left shoulder, whispering in his ear. Wags is the guy given to aphorisms, but never the folksy sort, the guy capable of being vile just because he can. Bobby is not driven by the same nihilism. Nor is he driven by the lust for power in the same way Chuck is. Bobby’s sole raison d’etre seems to be FREEDOM. Bobby personifies freedom in a way few characters have. It’s not freedom to be an asshole and try to get away with murder nor is it freedom to be righteously good and save the world from itself. It’s simply freedom, period. Freedom, simply, to be. What a challenging thing to personify in a single man! Yet the creators of this show have done just that.
So, even as Bobby embodies, at least, the fiscally conservative ethos, he doesn’t really fit the present day mold we see of conservativism. We have the minute by minute updates on the sensational spectacle unfolding daily in real life. I don’t think the creators of this show would go there and they probably shouldn’t. We don’t need artist depictions of that spectacle. What we need is artist depictions of how we got here, what are the forces at work, how do we transform this experience into something usable in our future growth and progress, how do we not get mired in the ugliness of it all. And, how do we fight, legitimately. So, on that tip, I think Bobby may be more of the Clintonian/Randian brand of demagogue. More mainstream capitalist, steeped in hawkish self-interest, ever cognizant of and striving towards power, while still maintaining a functioning heart and ability to self-reflect, even if he’s flighty Peter Pan needing Wendy’s grounding influence to muster those skills at self-reflection.
We saw a bit of Bobby pulling out some Howard Hughes brand of maniacal paranoia when he destroyed Axe Capital all the way to the beams, and stuck his head out of his office like a lunatic turtle: “…go deeper, all the way down.” Now that Bobby is on the offense against the law, we kind of want him to lose his mind a little..become more of a jerk. It’d be nice to see Bobby just a touch more extreme in his propensity to take it all for granted. Lara blocking him as she does in the promo bodes well for that wish to come true.
This season, will we see him utter Hughes-ian lines like “I’m not a paranoid deranged millionaire. Goddamit, I’m a billionaire?” And are the show creators gearing up to show us his fall from the eagle’s nest down to the bunker? Truth be told, we’d rather Bobby Axelrod not devolve into some Trumpian archetype, we already have plenty of that in our faces. After this year, fiction doesn’t even need to go there anymore. It can afford to be more subtle, more layered, give us more to think about and negotiate vs. eliciting our blind rage. Indeed, we must count on art to give us that food for progressive thought that the politics of our day no longer seems capable of.
Having said all that, on the other hand, just as Sir Anthony Hopkins played the most convincing Hitler on screen without normalizing him or garnering any sympathy towards him, Sir-to-Be Damian Lewis, in the guise of Bobby Axelrod, may deliver a comparably convincing Trumpian, albeit a visually idealized, much more fit, version. We’ll just have to see where the show-creators take us, now won’t we.
What Chuck in the final episode of last season derided as Ayn Rand “bullshit” should be at the heart of any democratic election and it usually is. We usually have the Republican/Randian side making a case for individual and states rights vs. the Democratic side touting regulation by an over-arching government. Usually, we have the folks admonishing the government to get out of their business, labeling the other as “socialist” like its the ugliest of curse words to describe their opponents, even as they call for the building of infrastructure, and gladly eat up all the help they can get during times they need it. On the other side, we have folks who want to keep playing brother’s keeper, even when our brothers may be way out of our reach and no longer served well by our “keeping”. Such positions in battle would be the normal talking points in a normal presidential election. We all know there was nothing normal about this year.
To end on a high note, the graphic at the end of the Billions promo begs some mention. We see Manhattan with signal specks all over it, then a rapid rise of signal over downtown, the financial center, and midtown, the center for the “common man”. Manhattan itself as metaphor. How can you not love that?