Billions Brings the Drama

Saw a tweet go by a couple days ago: something to the effect of “Let’s not forget literary fiction is also a genre.” It’s a response by writers and readers of genre fiction to the idea that the stuff they read and write isn’t “serious”, and that it’s unfair to ghetto-ize so-called genre fiction.

One part of me, thinks, sure, I get the argument: there are features common to literary fiction that make it just as much a genre as fantasy, mystery, and romance. Literary fiction often adheres to realism and has a certain quality of angst, dramatic tension, with flawed characters who are presented lots of obstacles that may or may not be resolved. These traits, along with the pursuit a universality, the goal of getting at the heart of the human condition, could be the identifiers for the genre ghetto we know as literary fiction.

A bigger part of me, however, says: Nope, literary fiction is not a genre, it is ALL the genres. The best literary fiction has elements of humor, romance, mystery, and even fantasy. Same applies to drama: it is the umbrella under which live comedy, romance, and even the supernatural. Call me a pretentious throwback, but where art is concerned (even visual art!), all other ways of seeing and being are subservient to drama. Being subservient doesn’t mean inferior! Drama is not better than comedy or romance or thrillers. Drama is simply the limitless space that lets all of the others in. Drama doesn’t refuse any possibility. And, in order to be really really good, comedy can’t divorce itself completely from drama, romance can’t either. Drama is what all other genres need, or at least acknowledge in some way, even ironically or derisively, in order to be totally believable and totally entertaining.

We know that Billions brings the lulz. What Damian (not Bobby) would probably call good old laddy humor (er, humour). It’s got plenty of really fun moments, both words-wise (“Viscosity.”) and scene-wise (fake fight, anyone?). As for romance, it’s a bit lacking in that department only because everyone is already married! There was the bit of cuteness when Mafee swung a date, and then apparently a long-term thing, with Deb using nothing but his self-effacing charm. Absent the romance, there’s still plenty of lust (for power) and longing (for the upper hand). What turns my head and keeps my eyes glued is the drama. In this post I’m going to look back at a couple of scenes that worked very well as great drama. Of course, there are more than these two, but these are the ones I remember most vividly, even now, a couple years after seeing them for the first time.

Bobby’s Therapy Session, Episode 1.11

This wasn’t just one scene, it was a block of scenes, with Bobby flitting around and Wendy chasing him down. Wendy gets Axe for the evening, and the first real therapy session she’s had with him in 3 and a half years.

Wendy has been employed to make sure Axe and his people keep making money. She does an adorable hand motion denoting “the rest” of Bobby, the part she’ll need to work on, the part not about making money.

This is going to take a while.


Since Bobby and Wendy are more than patient and therapist, the conversation goes two ways. Bobby gets to ask how Wendy is too.

We learn that she is hurt and angry about being left out of his big decisions, the ones was ostensibly hired to help him negotiate.


Wendy probes for more about Donny’s death. Bobby gives logical answers that make all kinds of sense yet aren’t the complete story, he launches in flight, unable to sit still, she follows, playing along. She leads him back to focus, he hits the ball to her side, holding back none of his stroke, she flings it right back with equal power. It’s absolutely delicious watching.


At one point, Axe takes the world on his shoulders, poised to fling it away. Let’s run a bit with the metaphor here, shall we? Does Axe really take on the weight of the world? He says he feels responsibility for his people, he takes care of them. He took care of Danzig’s issue with the machine gun on the lawn, he got Donnie the best medical care. Is that what is weighing him down, making him lose focus? No, absolutely not.

source: Showtime
source: Showtime

Axe has obligations and responsibilities, sure, but he’s already translated them mostly into ownership and control. It may not be the world at all, but the sky he’s holding up. Is he Atlas, the god of endurance, condemned to hold up the sky? His obligation is not to the well-being of his people, his obligation is to hold up the goals for all his people to reach. The goal of the money, the houses, the helicopters and cars. His job is to hold up that dream deferred, it’s America, the dream, he’s holding up. And speaking of Atlas, one can’t not go to Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s great treatise against government regulation. No telling if this grand metaphor is what the writers intended, but I wouldn’t put it past them! Does Axe shrug? Hell no, he’ll destroy that thing off the balcony before he’ll ever shrug under the weight of it. Wendy knows all of this. All of this is the reason she’s still around, helping Axe hold up the sky.

Shooters gotta shoot. Unwavering belief in our capabilities, it’s essential, to a point.

But maybe your self-image is creating a blind spot.

Wendy asserts that the same blind spot which allows Axe to be the superhero, be indestructible, is not working for him now.

You need to find out what part of your self-image is false, and you need to either live up to it or lose it.

A line worth writing down somewhere and remembering, folks, not just for the show, but for life in general. Either own your shit or throw it off the balcony. Using it as either a weapon or as a shield does no one any good.

Bobby takes flight from the word “false” and moves the conversation into a bit of a more intimate space, into the falsehoods exchanged between parting lovers.


They walk and talk about the few things that make Bobby cry. Soldiers coming home and surprising their kids top the list.  We learn that Bobby’s own dad never came home. What that means, we may never learn, because Wendy tells us they’ve already resolved a bunch of that. That empty space has already been filled, for the most part. In Bobby’s description of the soldier-son videos, Wendy sees the metaphor of a man taking off a mask, revealing himself for the first time, and still being loved for it. Bobby says:

That guy’s a hero, he deserves the love.

Notable here is how Bobby has put a condition on love. That some things and people deserve love. Bobby being on the money, taking care of his people, his family, all in his mind are the conditions he must meet to be loved. And Bobby is a hero who cannot afford to take off that mask as the provider, the difference maker. He can’t afford to miss or to lose. Wendy brings it all back to Donnie. She knows Bobby used Donnie as a shield and that his family was given an ample reward.

You should feel great, you saved your kingdom, and rewarded richly the knight who fell on his sword so you could do it.

He responds:

A king who does not mourn that knight? And who goes on building his own castle?

Axe confesses he’s guilty of letting Donnie die when he could have lived for a bit longer, long enough to see Christmas. What a beautiful job Maggie Siff does at registering this revelation. As a human being, Wendy is shocked, but, as a therapist she’s mostly relieved that it’s finally out. And she expertly deconstructs it, going deeper:

You’re punishing yourself because you’re understanding that you didn’t care about Donnie. Not really.

Despite what Wendy says later, there is a brief flicker of disgust on her face as she says this. As a therapist she can’t pass judgment, but again, the morality of it all is inescapable. Whatever the case, she’s gotten Bobby to go deeper and address the question of whether he may be a sociopath. According to the great Hermoine Granger, “fear of a name only increases fear of the thing itself.” And it’s true here as well: putting the title of “sociopath” out there has taken power away from the word. A true sociopath would never question himself on whether he’s a sociopath, he would just happily go on being one.

A normal person wouldn’t engage in the behavior. A sociopath wouldn’t give a shit. You’re somewhere in between.


And now it’s about choice. Wendy urges Bobby to choose between fixing the fact that he can’t feel things normal people feel or shut it back down and see how that works for him. Wendy has put the possibility of that choice in Axe’s head, but will he make the choice? That middle ground, we could all live there a really long time, right? Nevermind that not making the choice amounts to pretty much the same thing as shutting down anyway?

Every therapy session should end with a shared doobie on a cool balcony. Wendy affirms that when it comes to Bobby, disgust is just “not on the table.”

This scene departed from a lot of drama in that some semblance of a resolution was reached. A resolution of sorts, but still hella open-ended.

The Rhoades Break-Up, Episode 1.12

Wendy confronts Chuck. They finally lay out everything that’s been pent up between them all season. Chuck says she works for criminals and must accept the consequences. Wendy says the info from her computer cannot be used in court and that she will testify against him should it come to that. Chuck brings up the scene he observed on the balcony, what he saw as Bobby and Wendy “cozy as a couple of teenagers sharing a cigarette after a backseat fuck.” And here’s where the tears leak from both their eyes, and, we, the audience, cannot look away from the train wreck:

I wasn’t up there because of the case, it was personal. This man, this motherfucker, is destroying our lives, he’s driving us apart, and he’s doing it deliberately.

Wendy holds up the option Chuck always had of stepped away, letting it go. Chuck makes the valid point that the only reason they’re having this conversation now is because Axe has heard about the bribery charges before anyone possibly could have and is closing ranks. So, Chuck is right, even in this private space between husband and wife, Axe is already in the room. How can he not take it personally if his own wife is in the thick of it?

HE will not let ME just walk away.

Chuck thinks Axe was behind the camera man at the BDSM place. Wendy is wounded that he went to the place without telling her. He says nothing happened and nothing could have happened because Wendy wasn’t there. Paul Giamatti in all Chuck’s creepiness is breaking hearts in this scene. He loves his wife, or, at least, he believes he does, which, ultimately, amounts to the same thing. He wants her and he wants to do his job. He’s lost over his inability to do both at the same time. He cries:

You prop it up. You suck in all it gives you: power, money, control.

True, true, and true. Wendy retorts:

It gives me a lot more than you do, including honesty.

Not really, Wendy.

You can lie to me about how it makes you feel, but you can’t lie to yourself.

Chuck is kicked to the curb, first to a night in his office, then to a noisy single room at the Yale Club. He cancels the investigation. Suffice it to say, it was a really powerful scene. Amends were made in Season 2, but this one scene will stand out I think as a defining one in this relationship.

6 thoughts on “Billions Brings the Drama”

  1. Nice work comparing these two episodes. The therapy session was such a great episode. You’re spot on highlighting some of the more memorable moments. I remember a lot of the “conversation” was going on through facial expression, allowing insight for both Wendy and Axe. Can’t beat the chemistry between those two.

    I was on the edge of my seat during Wendy and Chuck’s confrontation. I’m on the edge of my seat often watching Billions.

    What impressive actors we get to experience. And what impressive writers we get to read with FanFun. Closes the end of my work day with a smile.

    1. Responses like this make it all worth while!! 🙂 Thank you!!

      Yep, that feeling of “edge of seat” is what drama gives us.

      Meant to mention Homeland in this post too, but couldn’t fit it in. Like, who ever expected something in the spy thriller genre to land so beautifully into romance too? And that happened because of the writing commitment to great drama. 🙂

  2. What a well written piece! Are you sure you’re not a therapist? 🙂

    I always appreciate other’s points of view, and their analysis of scenes and characters. Reading your description and analysis of both of these scenes was like watching them for the first time, and I saw each totally differently!

    And you are right – you picked two scenes, but honestly, with this show, you have so many to choose from!!

  3. Bravo! And if you are a pretentious throwback, you are our pretentious throwback! 😀 See what I am doing here? 😀 I’m of course kidding.

    I really REALLY wish you had had more time (with Billions S3 approaching you won’t in the near future) to dissect more scenes like these two. Totally worth it. Yes! When drama works, it really works. And this post just makes me crave for more Billions – March 25 cannot come fast enough!

    1. That I am! All yours! Until someone comes along and decides to pay me to write, in which case, I’ll still stay and do both!! 🙂

      I was thinking that same thing: that I could take a couple of scenes like I did here and connect them sort of thematically for future posts. But, yes, this idea will have to wait till after S3! Funny, while thinking this up, I found that I have a better memory of S1 than of S2. Maybe that’ll change once we get to S3! (takes me a year to catch up to what they do with this show!)

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