**There will be explicit sexual concepts discussed below**
(Proceed only if you’re OK with that!)
“Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.”-Oscar Wilde
The Billions opening scene is unorthodox and memorable. We find Chuck Rhoades lying on the floor, bound, being tormented by a beautiful brunette whose identity is not revealed. She singes him with her cigarette and then, to soothe the burn, she pisses on him. We learn at the end of the episode that Wendy, Chuck’s wife, is the dominatrix who taunted and tortured Chuck.
It was this unexpected approach to kink that cemented my enthusiasm for the show. During my misspent twenties, a girlfriend of mine had much in common with Mistress Troy (the gorgeous professional dominatrix depicted in the show). Sometimes, my friend would let me watch or even assist in her scenes. I’m an engineer and a scientist, so an anthropological sort of voyeurism came to me very naturally. I was rapt by the exchange of power between the dominatrix and her submissive. I saw quite a few “Chucks” on their knees or hog-tied, because her playmates hewed professional and powerful. It seemed like these men adored the opportunity to check their tendencies towards command and control, preferring instead to submit and serve.
Many years later, that fascination led to my being cast as a domme in the FOX show Gotham (an extraordinary day which got me a line and an IMDB credit). I’d taken some improv classes that led to costume work as a background actor. In September 2015, I wound up working as an extra in fetishwear, in the scene in the first season where Chuck visits a kinky club in Iowa. Once again, I had the opportunity to observe experts at work. It was a kick to perform opposite Paul Giamatti (in a scene that was cut), and it was a thrill to be directed by Neil LaBute. And as I stood in the fake fetish club listening to the script, I flashed back to those days in my girlfriend’s dungeon. I was astonished by the sophistication of the scene, and tickled to see the character of a male submissive portrayed by someone with as much personal power and charisma as Paul Giamatti.
Usually, when a prominent character with an important job is introduced, there’s a more heroic edit. In the Billions premiere, we don’t see Chuck sitting in his paneled office or in court, taking down a bad guy. Instead, we see him at his most vulnerable. Abject. His only request, not to leave marks, goes unheeded.
What we’re also seeing is that this is part of a very close and loving relationship. The trust and care between Chuck and Wendy are not depicted in a conventional way, but this is a couple who understands one another, and they are willing to get freaky together. Deviance is integral to their domestic bliss.
As the show progresses, we learn how deep-rooted Chuck’s kinks are. When he discovers that he’s been followed and photographed going in to the BDSM club (BDSM is an acronym that includes most flavors of kinky sex – bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism) he doesn’t curtail his activities. He also finds other outlets for his fetishes, when Wendy balks at playing. At the end of Season 4, he takes a punch to the gut from a new domme, Cassie (he isn’t sure what to call her, if she’s “mistress” or “goddess”, she’s that unfamiliar), even as he has a political future to consider. When Wendy finds him in the bathroom afterwards, applying cream to some of the visible welts and marks criss-crossing his bare torso, he’s apologetic, “It got a little out of hand. It’ll be OK. Barely hurts.” Wendy replies immediately, “I’m not worried about that. People are going to think I did this to you.” Chuck replies, “I’ll tell them I took up jiu jitsu again…Wendy, what I did tonight, I can’t live without. And I won’t.”
While he would prefer to play with his wife Wendy, over the sophisticated Troy or the cruel Cassie, Chuck’s passions and paraphilias are hard-wired in. In Season 2, he can’t take his eyes off of the campaign consultant his father has hired. We can’t help but wonder if the character, George Minchack, knew about his fetish for feet and high heeled shoes before she arrived, because when she takes off her stilettos while interrogating Chuck about any dark secrets that might preclude his becoming governor, he can barely tear his eyes away. That the actress Mary Louise Parker bears a strong resemblance to Maggie Siff was surely not a casting accident.
In the first episode of Season 3, we meet Troy again. She and Wendy are in an elaborate dungeon, where they are tormenting Chuck together. There’s verbal humiliation – Troy calls him a “dog,” and she suggests to Wendy they run off together. Troy then suggests Wendy stay behind, and give Chuck his required correction. Of course, Wendy volunteers to remain with her husband.
Once Troy has left, Wendy asks Chuck, “Have you missed this?” He nods. Then he asks her if she’s missed it as well, and if so, maybe she’d found other outlets while they were apart. Wendy hits him with a leather strap. “How dare you question me. I can take care of my own needs.” He presses, to see if she’s explored other fantasies, like being with other men. She caresses him, as he’s fastened to a cage. “That’s your fantasy. You’re that pathetic, aren’t you?” The combination of the physical kindness of the caress, juxtaposed with the humiliation of the word “pathetic,” makes the moment even more perverse.
Chuck wonders about this other man, and appears to be alluding to Craig Heidecker. “Would he be handsome, rich?” And then he hits some of the classic tropes of the cuckold fantasy, as he considers this other man’s appearance, mentioning his “washboard abs” (i.e., the kinds of abs Chuck does not possess). Wendy pauses, incredulous. She asks, “That’s how you want to be punished.” Chuck’s face is twisted with anguish but eager to proceed. “Yes. It’s the most excruciating thing that I can think of. I want to know what he does to you. What you do to him.” In this scene, Chuck pursues a form of emotional masochism, in addition to the physical kind that usually turns him on.
Wendy returns to role, and obliquely references her hotel adventure with Craig Heidecker, where we saw the hotel’s white sheets thrown around them. Wendy beats Chuck with the strap some more, and then whispers in his ear, “And I give myself to him, and let him do whatever he wants,” implying there was a breadth of activity, perhaps some kink – possibly even her own submission. Chuck wants to know if it’s good. “No, it’s fucking amazing. He understands me. He knows exactly what I need.” This, of course, was a lie. Craig, like Chuck, wanted more from Wendy than she cared to offer.
Wendy performs a cuckold fantasy for her husband, producing genuine distress in him. Chuck fixates on the physical elements of Wendy’s lover, with his youth and astonishing physique; a way of distancing the lover from himself and indulging his emotional masochism in a way that offers up a carefully calibrated dose of shame and anguish. Wendy, however, in emphasizing this lover’s brilliance, signals that she’s sharing and embellishing actual details from her hotel encounter with Craig, and pointing out characteristics Craig shares with Chuck. This would heighten Chuck’s sense of diminishment and his suffering, and Wendy knows it.
The scene was a fascinating depiction of Chuck’s need to feel the pain of humiliation and a dose of rejection. However, the scene plays out with his knowledge that Wendy is there, cooperating with his request and performing for him, even as she regales him with this tale of sexual underperformance and cuckoldry.
The submissive is really in charge:
If it’s not clear who is in charge during the sessions where Chuck submits, it’s Chuck. While Wendy and Troy and Cassie all call the shots moment to moment during their BDSM scenes, Chuck initiates play, and he also stops it. This is typical in the BDSM community, where the submissive actually wields considerable control and power. It’s often called “topping from below.”
For example, Chuck is unafraid of using his safeword. He cries out “red” when Troy is running metal talons across his nipples while he is fastened to a cross. Troy immediately removes the bondage, and assumes she’s done something wrong, asking him if she didn’t judge his body language correctly, or if she’d messed up. Chuck then reveals that he didn’t have Wendy’s permission to play with her. What’s implied, however, is that Wendy’s permission had been given in the past. All three of them had played together before, where Troy had given Chuck and Wendy a workshop to help Wendy nurture her skills. Chuck also stops things with Wendy in Season 1, Episode 3. He’s tied to the bed, while Wendy slithers up to him ready to play. He can’t get into the scene, and when Wendy leaves the room, he unfastens himself and begins to read. He also calls a halt to things when Cassie has him in suspension in Season 4. She’s winching him up, and he stops the action and leaves.
We can also see Chuck’s influence in the women he chooses and how the women dress. The ladies are all tall, slim brunettes with striking, attractive features. And when they’re dressed in fetish attire, Wendy, Troy and Cassie all wear basically the same thing. They all sport a sexy corset or body suit. They wear exotic stockings, usually held up by garters, and stiletto heeled boots. They display an elegant kind of debauchery. This consistency and specificity of attire doesn’t happen by accident. The writers and costume designers are telling us that Chuck is asking the ladies to dress a certain way, and that the women are complying, which is a common practice for fetishists. Their turn-ons are so specific, that they engineer encounters to hit all the necessary buttons.
Chuck may be sexually submissive, but he is not passive about his kinky pursuits. If Chuck can’t get a woman to punish him, he will do it to himself. In the 4th season, when Wendy and Chuck are sleeping apart, Chuck goes into the bedroom to get a pair of pajamas. He deliberately undresses in the bedroom, and positions himself so that Wendy will see that his upper thigh has been mauled, via rubber bands he has snapped against the skin in a form of self-discipline, reminiscent of the cilice worn by certain religious penitents. Wendy asks, “Chuck, did you do that to yourself?” He shrugs. “OK, Jesus.” He’d asked for permission to play with professional dommes, and viewing the aftermath of his self-harm, Wendy relents. As usual, Chuck succeeds in getting what he wants.
Power is sexy:
Chuck is drawn to power. It’s been bred into him by his father. It’s not an accident that he has eroticized power and control, as well. Chuck Sr, however, in addition to being a control freak is an emotional sadist. The story of how he berated and abused his wife over pancakes reveals the depth of his cruelty and indifference towards his family. This lesson was internalized by his son and turned upside down.
Chuck prefers brunettes who are strong, while Chuck Sr. generally prefers blondes he can manipulate. Chuck is turned on by power, but in the bedroom, he’s the one who adopts the role of the powerless. He gets aroused when Wendy refers to the submissive being beaten at the Iowa BDSM club as “pathetic” and being “like a worm.” Being on his hands and knees, looking up in adoration at a powerful woman, is exciting to him. And the prospect of being subject to erotic pain and punishment is incredibly arousing. It may even be a response to the bullying he received in prep school – a way of transforming a trauma and a feeling of helplessness into something pleasurable. Instead of mean boys taunting and belittling him, it’s hot women, doing so to get him off. He’s profoundly damaged, but he’s figured out a way to make it work for him, at least in one very specific way.
Chuck is a lousy submissive:
On the matter of consent, a key aspect of the BDSM scene, Chuck’s behavior is marginal to rotten. He goes to visit Troy, despite the fact he had not obtained prior permission from Wendy — a rule he was supposed to follow. He got pretty far into things before he balks mid-scene and leaves.
Chuck also steals Troy’s laptop, to give to his campaign consultant (George Minchack) so that she has the dirt on him for opposition research, and not some outsider. The laptop is given over, almost like a tribute to a strong woman. Chuck tells Minchack, “My biggest vulnerability. And now it’s in your hands.” Part of the thrill for Chuck is to make himself profoundly vulnerable to powerful women, in a way that tests their commitment to his safety and well-being. Troy, however, did not consent to being used in this way. Troy, unaware that it was Chuck who had arranged to have her laptop stolen, shows her concern for Chuck and informs him that his privacy might be in jeopardy.
He also ignored Wendy’s request that he keep his kinks private. When Chuck needed a Hail Mary for his political campaign, he came forward with a speech where he owns up to being a sexual submissive. Chuck’s speech, an example of art imitating life, echoes Jack Ryan’s withdrawal from the Illinois senate race in 2004, after it was revealed Ryan had gone to swing clubs with his wife.
At the press conference in Season 4, Episode 4, to John Mellencamp’s song, “I am a Troubled Man,” Chuck tosses his prepared comments and instead reveals himself. In a remarkable monologue, the slave becomes emancipated:
“It’s high time for truth, for openness, for unburdening. I’m not here as most politicians, to ask you to trust me. Instead, I am asking if I may trust you with my deepest fear. Which is that you might know me. Who I really am. The job of the prosecutor is to expose that which is hidden away. That evil, the dirty, the crooked, the untruthful, to shine light and reveal what’s under all that darkness. And I have come to realize that in order to do it right, that I must shine light on my own dark parts…I, in my private life, in the confines of my happy marriage with my consenting wife, practice sadomasochism…Bondage, dominance, all the rest. Masks, binds, ropes, fire, wow…even just saying it like that, I can feel my shoulders loosen for the first time in decades. I am a masochist. In order to experience sexual gratification I need to be tied up, punched, pinched, whipped, kicked or otherwise tortured, by my loving wife. And here’s the bigger truth. All of us need something. Right? I don’t know what you do in your bedroom, with your loved one, but I do know this, you’re probably a little embarrassed about it. You probably don’t want the rest of us looking at you while you do it, unless that’s your thing. And if so, great. But wouldn’t we be better off if we didn’t let shame win…if we didn’t have to hide what moves us?”
While Chuck was talking at the televised press conference, Wendy was at Axe Capital, watching with her colleagues. She is appalled, because her privacy has been violated. Chuck’s emancipation comes at her expense, and against her wishes. Everybody who knows them is now privy to their BDSM adventures. In a later episode, Rebecca Cantu tells Wendy that “Most people are self-absorbed narcissistic assholes, so they might revel in your shit for a minute, because it distracts them from theirs, but after that minute, they’re going to forget about you and go back to their own shit pile.” And while Rebecca may be correct in the long run, Wendy worries — correctly — that she is no longer a blank slate (a useful device for a therapist) in the eyes of her colleagues and clients. Chuck’s affinity for humiliation (did he really need to go into such excruciating detail about his kinks at the press conference?), and the collateral damage he knew would follow, has shaken their marriage to the core.
Further posts will touch on the kinks of other Billions characters, and the attention to kinky detail exhibited by the Billions writers and producers.