Billions: Tale of Two Marriages

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!

8 thoughts on “Billions: Tale of Two Marriages”

  1. Love this blog for today’s. But above all I loved your ending paragraph…which actually summarizes what I think.
    Very thorough dissection of the psyche of each couple. Though what you mention is true , Lara and Bobby are fighting lately more than having happier times, I still like them together as a team. Maybe it is time for Bobby to get that however smart he might be, he is not a master in all games….
    The part of Chuck and Wendy together I find it quite real, as he is so under the shadow of being right, good son, perfect attorney and so on, he definitely gets turned on by being dominated by this all 😉

    Happy Valentine’s Day.

    1. If Bobby and Lara had even an iota of chemistry, I’d root for them as a team too! It’s just unfortunate, acting-wise, I think, that it’s just not there.

      For Bobby to get to the self-knowledge he needs, he seems to need Wendy’s help, not Lara’s. I want Bobby to explore all that stuff too, but I’m afraid his wife is not where he’ll get any insights. Really dislike seeing it as so black and white, I wish there was something to root for with them, but, alas….

      I sense something unconditional about Wendy’s affection for Chuck. That no matter what shenanigans he pulls, she wants the best for him always. Sort of enviable how she reserves judgement on everyone actually, and especially on her husband. She’s such a strong character (and so engaging to watch!) that I don’t envision her ever on the losing end of any scenario, single or married.

  2. Hallo JaniaJania,

    einfach nur brilliant !! Wie macht Ihr das nur ?!!
    Stimme Dir vom Gefühl her in allen Punkten zu. Bin mal gespannt, ob sich die Ehen der beiden Paare wirklich so weiter entwickeln, wie es sich in der letzten Staffel abgezeichnet hat.
    Jetzt ist es ja bald wieder soweit und es wird auch höchste Zeit, dass wir wieder etwas von
    Damian zu sehen bekommen. Er war nun lange genug vom Bildschirm verschwunden.
    Herzlichste Grüße aus Deutschland. Eure Lucky Fellow.

    1. Yes! The development of the marriage relationships is just as integral, if not more so, than other twisty plot developments. So many shows dismiss such things as background to the “real action”, but, not so for Billions, thankfully.

  3. Thank you for this Valentine’s Edition. It’s GREAT! It’s a post that I nod and nod and nod once more as I read it! We are so on the same page about Axe as a husband. And I have to say I cannot understand anyone that says they could marry Bobby. I certainly would not.

    I certainly agree Wendy and Chuck have a much better relationship. I admit there have been lies and some big lies among them but those two CAN TALK — probably the real key to a long marriage, at least in my own experience and the experiences I have seen around me over the years.

    Do we ever see Bobby and Lara talk? The gif new you have made speaks volumes. That said, and I know I may be totally off the mark, I believe Axe and Lara will get out of this mess together because, after all, they do not have anyone else but each other to trust more in their lives. And I think whatever they do in terms of splitting the assets, or separating their ways, this season could be just a strategy they wanna take so Lara and the kids are not very much the spotlight as Axe is saving his ass (fingers crossed for that!) So it is not that I am rooting for the couple, I just think they are rational agents that will maximize their payoffs.

    All in all, giving us real and complex marriages is yet another accomplishment of the show.

    Roll on March 25! 🙂

    1. Yes, this new season can’t start soon enough!

      I guess that having no one else in the world could work to keep Bobby and Lara together. I like the idea of the separation being temporary. That said, Bobby may be a very cut and dry rational numbers guy, but I’d still like to see a little bit of passion in his life. You’re right, Lara is driven by practical concerns too. But if she could exhibit just a smidge of passion and chemistry towards her husband, then, of course, bring it on!

      1. I guess I see their relationship more of a business partnership that would stay strong since there is so much at stake! 🙂

        1. A lot of money is at stake. Both of them will do anything to keep the money, true. I just don’t think a priority like that is sustainable. I wrote up a bit for this post that didn’t make it in about how I don’t see Bobby really taking much pleasure in the fruits of his wealth. He’s got fuck you money for sure, but the main enjoyment he gets out of it is the ability to say fuck you. And, in the end, what he values the most from all the wealth is the freedom it gives him. So the question becomes, isn’t freedom priceless? And does Lara share Bobby’s lust for freedom? Maybe a future post, after we’ve seen some of it unfold. Believe me, I resist putting my own moral judgment on these people: if I saw Bobby really engaging with his wealth deeper than just riding around in helicopters, maybe giving away way more to things he believes in, I’d totally buy his attachment to the money and to the stability that Lara and his family bring. Instead, I see what Bobby desires most, what he’s motivated most by, is the idea of Freedom. And that has nothing to do with Lara.

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