Of all the compelling themes in Billions, perhaps the most compelling is the relationship between Bobby Axelrod and Wendy Rhoades. We’ve all explored it as some point whenever we’ve talked about Billions. Damianista did a two-part treatise on the relationship between Bobby and Wendy: Part I, Part II. Bookworm saw the story of Peter Pan in them: Fly Away, Fly Away. I focused on their revelatory therapy session in “Magical Thinking” and imagined their back story as a fanfic: Rubble. Suffice it to say, the relationship has provoked a lot of thought.
Damian took part in a project that focused on a relationship very similar to Bobby and Wendy’s, many years prior to and a continent away from the world of Billions. That film, BBC’s Friends and Crocodiles, centered on a similarly charged platonic relationship between a vibrant man and the practical hard-working woman who could never leave his side, despite herself. Written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff, Friends and Crocodiles was an ambitious production exploring such lofty themes as class, creativity and navigation of British socioeconomic trends over several decades. It was also primarily focused on the possibilities within the passionately-felt work relationship between Paul Reynolds and Lizzie Thomas. Paul and Lizzie, in a way precursors of Bobby Axelrod and Wendy Rhoades, foretold the intricacies of creating and dramatizing such a relationship on screen. (For an excellent recap of the film, refer to Damianista’s TBT summary.)
I’ve alluded to the analogy of Paul and Lizzie to Bobby and Wendy fleetingly in some of my previous posts on Billions. Now, read on as I venture a bit deeper into the comparison.
Paul Reynolds, like Bobby Axelrod, is a self-made wealthy creative genius with few practical life skills. He’s a maverick free-thinker, a cowboy willing to buck trends to follow his own personal vision. He fancies himself a Don Quixote chasing windmills and he needs Lizzie to take a record of all he has chased, put it down somewhere so that it can be developed into something more real than fleeting brilliance. His ideas range from wind energy and creatively built city centers to the exploration of the reason crocodiles survived extinction and remain unchanged over millennia.
Paul hires Lizzie, played by Jodhi May, to be the yin to his yang. He hires her to catalog the various like-minded freedom-loving people he collects and to catalog all the ideas that cross his mind as he flits through the rapidly changing business culture of the 80’s and 90’s.
In Paul, Lizzie sees a way out of the secretary pool full of numbing boredom and sleazy bosses. Lizzie knows who Paul is before he introduces himself, she’s heard all the stories, knows the rumors. Jodhi May was really the star of this film, I thought, in the way she made Lizzie show, at once fear and trepidation of Paul’s love of chaos while also showing a healthy dose of sheer excitement at all Paul was and what he could accomplish if he only kept his wits about him. Like Wendy, Lizzie derives an ineffable thrill from the work she does. A thrill that frustrates her as much as it excites her.
We’ve seen Bobby and Wendy’s relationship go thru many permutations. We know that their friendship pre-dates all their other relationships. We may not know the backstory completely, but we do know there is one! The relationship changes when Wendy marries Chuck. It changes again when Wendy leaves at the end Season I, and it changes yet again when she comes back. Now, at the end of Season 2, we’ve gotten a sense that it will change again with Bobby having to defend himself to the law. It remains to be seen whether or not Bobby will lean on Wendy’s support or reject her as complicit in his downfall. It also remains to be seen whether Wendy will give Bobby the help he has asked for or side totally with Chuck to make sure he pays for his crimes. One thing we do know for sure: Bobby and Wendy have a volatile connection that defies definition and is impossible to foretell.
Like Bobby and Wendy, Paul and Lizzie go through many incarnations in their relationship. The relationship is shown at various stages over time over the backdrop of sociopolitical changes in Britain. Paul and Lizzie first meet during the days of early Thatcherism (corresponding closely to our days with Reagan) when there were riots over economic disparity in the cities while the posh classes hopped about frivolously in verdant country estates, cushioned within a perpetual bacchanal of excess: creative innovation fueled by sex and drugs. The free-form lifestyle runs its course, and Paul hurts Lizzie deeply by destroying all her work. As Paul stands over the months of work floating in his mansion pool, he mumbles to one of his sycophants ogling the destruction:
It’s only paper, isn’t it? Doesn’t matter in the end.
In destroying Lizzie’s work, Paul damages their relationship, much like Bobby damaged Wendy when he accused her of spying on him. Leading up to her leaving, Lizzie and Paul have the following exchange:
I don’t belong here, do I?
Exactly why I want you here, Lizzie.
To bully me, cause me grief? That’s a great job, Paul. Find someone else to kick your arse.
Harkens back, doesn’t it, to the confrontation between Bobby and Wendy at the end of season one.
Polygraph me, mother fucker.
Next, the film takes us to the venture capitalist years, to a time when open offices are all the rage, young folks with fresh MBAs file in to tell the older folks what to do, and ideas run rampant as money flows for dreams to come true. Lizzie passes Paul in the street one day and remembers his genius. She forgives and forgets and takes Paul by the hand into the world of investment. Not a surprise when he can’t quite fit this mold either. He’s too much of an independent thinker. Where others see a future in e-books, Paul sees a future in bookshops with coffee. (Of course, he was right at the time, in those pre-Internet pre-Kindle, Barnes & Noble/Starbucks days.)
Eventually, when Lizzie goes deep within corporate culture (a “hippo” of a company, akin to many conglomerates of the 90’s) and Paul goes all greasy-haired farmer polygamist, we see how such rapid cultural changes can only lead to more extremes in the way humans choose to live.
When her corporate job crashes, Lizzie gets a call from Paul. Lizzie’s remark that choosing the hippie lifestyle is too easy has cut deep, and Paul has left that bucolic lifestyle, has pursued the bookshop idea and made money from it, and is on to a new adventure, moving into an old school, “doing it up.” If you can watch just one scene of the film, this one should be it. Lizzie is distraught that the company for which she worked never listened to her voice and fell apart because of it. (Actually, she does that particularly female thing of blaming herself for the company’s failure.) She’s distraught over the possibility that Paul will now be able to say “I told you so.” And she’s distraught that the thought of Paul has never left her mind, even when she has a perfectly good and supportive husband who she loves completely sitting right in front of her. It was an poignant speech and the part of the film where I saw the most connection between Paul and Lizzie and Bobby and Wendy. You know all those “when it comes to you Bobby…” statements that Wendy has made these past two seasons? Well, this scene in Friends and Crocodiles was sort of a heightened version of that sentiment. With also a bit of a role reversal, because in Billions, it’s Wendy who has all the insights and knows what their relationship is and isn’t.
I don’t want to have to think about you every day for the rest of my life, saying, ‘I got it right, didn’t I, Lizzie’
Well I could think of worse punishments.
And what is this Paul? You and me? I just don’t understand. I love my husband…I really love him, and I don’t love you. Not in that way. I’ve never loved you in that way.
Then, why is it that I think about you so much? Why is it that often, you’re the first thing I think of in the morning? ..you know…what would Paul say about this…what would Paul feel about that? What’s that called, Paul? Why is it happening?
Because we were born to work together and we couldn’t manage it. And we can’t stop thinking about it…People need to work with other people that challenge them, that threaten them, but they’ll never ever let themselves work with such people. It was me who didn’t let that happen. You stayed as long as you could.
So, yeah, even though there is a bit of Bobby and Wendy in this cathartic scene, Wendy is a lot more world-wise than Lizzie. And Paul is not nearly as smart as Bobby. Unlike Paul and Lizzie, Bobby and Wendy have always seen the world through similar lenses. Neither of them hold onto any illusions. To both, the world embodies opportunity. To Bobby, it’s the opportunity to make vast amounts of money, to win at that skill, even as it’s not about the money at all. And for Wendy, it’s the opportunity for connection, for optimization, for insights she can provide to all those folks wanting to be rich. Her biggest desire is that while everyone gets rich, they all become better human beings too.
Both couples exhibit an intimacy that defies cinematic logic. Conventional wisdom of every script ever written dictates that boy gets fired up over girl, girl gets fired up over boy, bam, love happens. Both Paul and Lizzie and Bobby and Wendy show us another viable option for a male-female dynamic.
On the DVD interview, Stephen Poliakoff says:
Riskiest thing I’ve ever done…very rarely dramatized and difficult to do when all the marketplace wants is love story, love story, love story…most relationships in work are not love stories but they can be as all-consuming, can be…something you think about far more because you’re having to deal with change and experience and power shifts within the workplace in a more dramatic way than you do in a marriage.
Thus in Friends and Crocodiles, he created:
A surprising sort of love story…about work and how relationships at work can be so much more powerful sometimes than one’s romantic relationships, which if they’re successful, remain fairly static in life…Work relationships can be combustible and obsessive and possessive.
Truly, the most successful work relationships absolutely must have this element of recurring fire and unpredictability to them, qualities that are absolute anathema to stable romantic relationships. Sure, romance starts with that stuff in the beginning, that infernal ploy to get us all to procreate, but rarely is it sustainable. Rather, the fire you need at work is different from the fire you need at home. One is the flame lit under your feet to get you to move and the other is the warm comfort of a home and hearth.
Food for thought as we await Bobby and Wendy and the rest to return to our screens for Billions Season 3 in 2018.