Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod: Part I

Billions Season 4 gave us a lot to talk about. Not least of which is Bobby Axelrod’s progression as a character. Join me as I look at some ways that Damian has left his unique mark on this character.

Damian has said more than once that when he plays a role he considers it his duty to advocate for his character. His thinking is that if he, the actor, doesn’t empathize with the character, how can an audience be expected to? He also has to find something in that character he personally likes. One can imagine that liking your character is all the more difficult when given the task of playing ruthless sociopaths. As far as we know, Damian hasn’t killed anyone or robbed anyone or tried to blow up a basement full of government officials. Yet, he’s had to play men who’ve done all those things and more. And, by his criteria, he’s had to “like” them as they do their horrendous deeds. He’s not interested in cartoon villainy where a character is pure evil.

Haven’t heard any other actor comment on the specifics of how they play evil, but, I have a strong feeling that this requirement for “liking” the bad guy he plays is yet another thing that sets Damian apart from other actors. Did Anthony Hopkins strive to “like” Hannibal Lecter? Did Ralph Fiennes “like” Voldemort or the Nazi he played in Schindler’s List? Both actors clearly did fantastic work making those characters believably evil. But did the actors set the requirement for themselves to “like” the men they played? Who knows.

Showtime has done the research, they’ve asked the focus groups, and everyone agrees: audiences love bad guys. Bobby is a bad guy, it’s okay to play him as written, the powers that be say: don’t be shy about it, just play him straight-up bad. Bad guys on screen give audiences a vicarious thrill, allow us the catharsis of being bad thru the character without doing any of the evil ourselves. Thus, Damian is given the script and the direction that Bobby is ruthless and selfish.

Alas, Damian doesn’t take direction lying down. He’s got that nettling need to think about it and wonder about it and question it. He’s got the pesky need to “like.” So, in the absence of seeing any likeable characteristics on paper, he uncovers them on his own. The characters created on paper are alive, after all. The script created them and tells them what to do, but, being alive, they’ve got more than one thing to say for themselves. He seeks to find the thing they have to say that the script doesn’t let them say.

For Bobby, Damian uncovered a lot.

Brilliant investor, emotional turnip

The show wrote Axe as a brilliant investor, able to see things steps ahead of the other guy, know who to butter up and who to get out of the way. Yet despite his business smarts, he has the emotional intelligence of a turnip.

Best example of this was when Bruno wanted to sell the pizza place and Axe wouldn’t let him. Bruno made his wishes known, in a polite way, without causing offense, and Axe had absolutely no insight into what was really going on, despite knowing the man his entire life. He didn’t have the empathy to hear the words behind the words. It took Rebecca telling him for Axe to see the light. Yes, all of that was in the script. But how did Damian show it all? Remember that genuinely perplexed look when Rebecca told him what Bruno was really trying to say? In that look, we can see that what Rebecca told him was totally new information. Bruno’s real desires would never have occurred to Axe on his own.

This lack of emotional intelligence, inserted by Damian into Axe, is something that lends the character sympathy. How can you hate a guy who sometimes just doesn’t know any better? Cluelessness in endearing.

Warmth of a halibut on ice

Axe knows who his friends are and he sure as heck knows his enemies. Still, Axe is ambivalent about human intimacy. When it comes to real human connection, like the kind romantic partners have, he can take it or leave it. He married his sweetheart, stayed faithful, gave her all the material wealth she needed to make a comfortable home for their family, but was he ever passionately in love with her? I never saw it. Frankly, whatever intimate times together read like Axe was doing her a favor and there was usually a tit for tat exchange going on, so to speak. Yes, they looked good together, but, did Axe, on his own, for no ulterior motive, ever go out of his way for Lara? Did he ever sacrifice anything he really cared about for her? Again, their relationship is in the script. But, it’s Damian who made the passion tepid. Lord knows he can play as hot as hell fire when he wants, the script may have even called for it, yet the thermometer never budged with Lara. That was the choice Damian made.

When Rebecca came along, Axe found a business equal. And it helped that she was attracted to him. So there they went, off to bed. Axe was faithful, but, again, did Axe woo her in any romantic way? He sparkled a bit that first date with Rebecca, but after that, it was all just prim pecks on the cheek. They were like middle school kids, passing each other in the hallways, intersecting only wherever their business interests were aligned. Rebecca liked Bobby, but she always seemed to have other places to be too, other things to do. I’m willing to bet the script directed: “Axe and Rebecca kiss.” It was Damian who decided to make that kiss a peck.

This show clearly doesn’t want to show run-of-the-mill sex, and that’s fine. Actors probably don’t want to do it either, it’s gross and awkward. But no one has to get naked to show passion or desire. And we know Damian’s got the skills to show those things. So it has to be that he has chosen for Axe to be indifferent to sex. Which comes back to a defect in emotional intelligence. Like much of the rest of Damian’s demeanor as Axe, his interest in women sexually is boyish. Which again serves to endear Bobby to us.

Damian shows the absence of romance by never lingering with the eye contact. More true this season than ever before. It was almost as if his eyes never fully dilated this season, never warmed up. And how can you hate a guy who just can’t let himself warm up?

“I take care of my earners”

Speaking of eyes, cue the eye rolls. Damian pulled Gandolfini level eye rolls this season. Despite being a murderous sociopath, Tony Soprano was watchable for so long mostly due to his ability and sensitivity to keeping everyone in the organization happy. He was a consummate people manager, with his family and with his work. It started with the impossible task of keeping his mother happy, then we saw him do whatever it took to keep his kids provided for, Carmella happy enough to keep the frig stocked with gabagool, Uncle Junior supplied with nurses, and his crazy hippie sister from getting hurt by any of his sociopathic friends. It was Tony who got his nephew, Christopher, a job, something for him to do besides drugs. How can we hate a man who did so much for so many?

I can’t say if this was purposeful, but Damian seems to have adopted for Axe some of that filial concern for his people. And the ability to maneuver them in ways that turn out to be mutually beneficial, with no one the wiser. Again, stuff that was obviously in the script. I just think Damian extemporaneously added the Gandolfini-esque “whaddya guys want from me, I’m doing all I can here” eye roll and frustration. So it goes with Axe, how can we hate a guy who takes care of his earners so well?

Given that Damian does so well in advocating for Bobby, invoking some sympathy for him, how are we convinced he’s evil? Well, he lets the story take the lead on those bits.

“(Cold, cold) (as, as) (ice)”

No doubt, Bobby did get cruel this season. On the boat with the 9/11 fund kid, John Rice, after Bobby gives him one last chance to not sever ties with Axe Cap and the kid refuses, Axe goes off in true villain style. First, Bobby is disappointed and frustrated that the kid didn’t take him up on his generous offer. The Soprano-esque “I went out of my way to make you happy and you refused, leaving me no choice.” As if totally destroying a person is the only choice that remains. It did for Tony and it did for Axe in this scene. He calls John’s dead father a piker and then reveals that he’s taken all of the kid’s big ticket investors leaving him with nothing. It’s the most straight up take-no-prisoners evil we’ve seen Axe to date.

It’s clear that he harbors no lingering affection or compassion for the 9/11 surviving widows and children of his co-workers. The only reason he gave all the kids scholarships was for the sake of appearance, and, perhaps, to offset any potential litigation from the widows. Most importantly, he invested in the kids to keep them beholden to him, and, in John Rice’s case, to reap the returns from the connection to Axe Cap.

Despite Axe’s choked up tears the day he awarded scholarships back in S1, he plainly does not care that his co-workers in those buildings died that day. As deeply fucked up as that is, his lack of empathy, once it’s been established, has to be complete. I recall tweeting back when the 9/11 connection played out that there’s no way that Bobby does not feel more pain deep down inside. I even wrote a fanfic, Rubble, about that pain. I was wrong. That was a truly fictitious Bobby Axelrod in my hopes and in my fanfic. The real Bobby Axelrod doesn’t feel pain for others (aka empathy) because he simply can’t feel it. Some say he did show a bit of pain on the boat, but, no, on repeated watching, I didn’t see pain. All I saw was regret and sense of time wasted.

Chilly, but with no chill

The second bit of cruelty is what Axe does to Rebecca. But this time Damian dials back the villainy. He decides he can’t play Axe as a selfish bastard with her, so he has to incrementally pull back the suspicious glares and not show too much satisfaction as he destroys her dream. Witness the scene in the board room when he pulls the rug out from under her feet.

Typically, at Axe Cap but also elsewhere, Axe sits at a conference table spread all the way out around him, lording over all he surveys like a king. An arm over a chair, his forearm spread far onto the table. He takes up space to indicate his ownership of that space. Damian could’ve used the same body language in Rebecca’s board room. But he didn’t. Before she enters he’s poised in the familiar cock-suredness. But, look closely and you may notice that he’s visibly working to steel himself up.

When she comes in, he shrinks, sort of caving into himself, and swallows to clear the lump in his throat. And what’s that in his eyes? Could it be…Fear? He knows he’s about to hurt her and he’s afraid. Mind you, this is a feeling quite different from empathy. He’s not afraid to cause her pain because he actually feels that pain himself. He’s simply afraid to be caught doing it. Like a boy with a teacher or mother, when he knows he’s been caught doing something bad, he’s never afraid to give pain but he doesn’t want to have to face any recrimination or consequences of that act.

In Axe’s logical mind, what he’s done is for her own good. He tells her it’s a win for her too. And he seems to genuinely think it will be. He can’t imagine Rebecca’s personal feelings for Saler’s because he’s never felt anything that personal himself. He tells her the facts of what he’s done for the sake of everyone else in the room, but when she speaks, he winces a bit and his eyes are sort of asking her, is this okay? When the rest of the board members leave the room, Bobby’s goes on to justify his actions more, his mouth obviously saying whatever is written for him to say, yet, all the while, in some minute way, his face and breath is still silently asking, we’ll be okay after this, right?

From Damian’s face and body language, you can sense a boy not wanting to get caught doing something bad. The word “love” out of Axe’s mouth has to be the most offensive four letter word we’ve ever heard him use; he recognizes the word as a part of human language, nothing more. Sure, he’ll “love” you, if that’s what you need, but don’t expect him to expend any emotional energy for that feeling. He doesn’t need love, and he thinks people who do things for love or honor or anything else not materially definable are, in his words, “lame.”

When she gets the “why” from him, he tells her that he asked himself the same question and found that the truth was in the cold. That cold is revenge. It’s how he renders the score even, Rebecca’s practical decision to team up with Taylor equal in this mind to his practical decision to plunder her company. And in that cold is where he wants to stay, take it or leave it. He wants her to take it. He’s not rejecting her or leaving her, just doling out some logic and pain with the hope and expectation that she shakes it all off and stays with him. (akin to Tony Soprano’s “Come on Carmella, you knew what you signed up for.”) But, yeah, most people don’t want to live in the cold all the time, so, justifiably, she shuts him down.

Cruelty as a gradient

Have I adequately conveyed the overt similarities and the subtle differences is these two events where Axe is the most cruel? The script contained the same degree of jerk behavior in both. John Rice, the boy who lost his father to violence got “Your dad was a piker.” Rebecca, a badass business woman able to hold her own and then some, got “Your ideas were naive. I saved you.” A lot of guys would have played both sets of words the same. On the page, Axe is very clearly an ass in both instances. But, it’s the subtlety Damian brought to the two scenes that made all the difference. Axe is still an ass, mind you, but one that will keep us watching and trying to figure it all out.

Come back next week for Part II!

10 thoughts on “Damian Lewis as Bobby Axelrod: Part I”

  1. I will come back for PT 2! So good to read your analysis is true JJ style. Your respect and insights into Damian’s work are a pleasure to read.

      1. I think Axe really does care about the 9/11 survivors,I mean why else would he work for 3 weeks non-stop after that, so that the firm can survive and he can pay them back. And when they called him a thief at one of the funerals, he couldn’t reply,cause deep down he felt guilty and was traumatized.In my opinion,in John rice’s case what the kid did, felt like disloyalty to Axe.And we all know how he acts after that.

        1. Point taken. I do believe Axe feels guilt. I don’t believe he feels affection or any sense of duty. He believes he did his duty to them to balance out the guilt he felt. And he believes they should be thankful and beholden to him. He doesn’t empathize with them as people with their own needs and desires, different and maybe in conflict with his own needs and desires. He wants loyalty at all costs. And that’s just who he is, good or bad. As bad as it sounds, I’m sure many would be able to justify his actions. But, neither justifying nor condemning is as interesting to me as how the story is told, the techniques used, particularly the techniques used by Damian as he tells this story.

  2. Fabulous post – spot on observations about Bobby Axelrod and the ways you think Damian has chosen to portray him. I think this is your personal “Damian Lewis FYC Emmys 2019” promotion – LOVE IT! I love your “brilliant investor, emotional turnip” and “warmth of a halibut on ice” subtitles. That scene where Bobby finally understands Bruno with a little help from Rebecca speaks volumes to me, too. I think the character has very little empathy — reserved only for those that have been loyal forever. But did we ever hear him say “I love you” to anyone? He showed some love to some people but did we ever hear him use the words?

    I agree with you about his relationship with Lara, too. While people loved their marriage in the first few seasons I always thought Wendy and Chuck had the better marriage — they at least talk to each other! Maybe Bobby Axelrod should stay single so he cannot hurt other women. What he did to Rebecca — however justified in his mind — was terrible. And while I did not see them as middle school kids, there were things that I did not like in Bobby and Rebecca relationship – I thought Bobby was possessive and a bit too macho for my taste. I wanna put my thought together to write about Bobby Axelrod the boyfriend at some point this summer 😉

    The show creators themselves are surprised but how people wanna be the characters that do outrageous things — I see a lot of posts on social media where people want to be Bobby Axelrod — maybe they just mean the money, I don’t know. But then Damian says while people stop him on the street in the US to tell him they love Bobby in Billions, people stop him on the street in the UK to tell him Bobby is an asshole. Fascinating, isn’t it?

    Can’t wait for Part 2!

    1. Thanks D!

      The thing about the Axe Rebecca coupling was that they were equals in business, something new for him. She was just as macho as he was. 🙂 And he proceeded to ruin it by undermining her, not recognizing that she knew what she was doing and had her own personal reasons for doing it. The use of “love” by him that I found obscene was when he was recalling his thought process to Rebecca. I don’t think he has any idea what love is, so the word even spoken by him is just gross and icky.

      Americans want to be winners, always, no matter what the expense. And Axe is a winner. Not surprising at all that Americans love him. Men like him is what sets this country apart from everyone else. It is an idea worth exploring more deeply for sure. But I think the showrunners for this show take it as a given that a story with a bad guy as lead just makes good business sense in American entertainment.

        1. Hehe. I’m an American too. 🙂 I say “Americans” as more of a general national ethos than personal opinion of all Americans. It’d be ridiculous to speak for personal feelings of all Americans! Let’s just say he embodies an American ideal. An ideal that some portion of individuals in this country aspire towards.

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