**There will be explicit sexual concepts discussed below**
(Proceed only if you’re OK with that!)
Experts on Set:
The writers of Billions have worked hard to get kink correct from the start. I was an extra in the scene where Chuck goes to the Iowa BDSM club in the first season. There was an “expert” present on the set to make sure we all got the fetish details right, in terms of etiquette and comportment. She adjusted my costume, and helped me with my props. The producers clearly wanted to portray the club accurately and with sensitivity. There was also a skilled dominatrix, with great gear, conducting a flogging while they shot the scene. The gentleman she whipped seemed familiar with the routine.
This Vice.com article profiles Olivia Troy, who served as a BDSM consultant to the show. Her approach wasn’t merely technical but also, psychological as she sought to dig into each character’s motivations through the lens of kink. She describes her work with Paul Giamatti and Maggie Siff this way:
So for Paul’s character, there’s that erotic tension between his desires and the risk of getting caught. And there’s an uncertainty there, too. Is his wife doing this for him or because she really wants it, too? And for Maggie Siff, who plays the wife, is a therapist who analyzes Wall Street dudes all day. Is exercising this more explicit control over her husband a sort of therapy for her? What are the other dynamics at play here?
Just as they did with the financial story, the writers consulted and interviewed experts. With the BDSM storyline, there was a similar openness to outside expertise and a curiosity about what drives those characters with the most at stake.
Billions and Humiliation:
The show loves to depict public humiliation. It often shows people in handcuffs, and not always recreationally. Wags, who’s tricked into cross-dressing for the Wall Street fraternity, Kappa Beta Phi, is shown mortified as he staggers down the stairs in heels, while trying to save his dignity.
At the end of Season 1, when Axe believes Wendy has sold him out, he goes nuclear. In his office, he pulls a folder out of his safe, and shows Wendy S&M images, revealing he knows everything. He has her web traffic from the Axe Capital server and from her laptop. “You’ve got quite a dark side, don’t you?” Axe then threatens to tell everyone about her secret life. Like icing on the cake, he has photos of her naked, joining him in the bath. He taunts her. “Such a master of the subconscious. Or is that mistress?”
Public humiliation winds up being Chuck’s happy place. He leans into it, with his BDSM confession speech ahead of the election, where he outs himself as a masochist. The writers recognize this public moment thrills him at the same time it horrifies Wendy, and this divergence cleaves their relationship in a profound way. Chuck is not just fearless when it comes to the potential for a certain kind of mockery, he’s aroused by it. Wendy, however, has a more conventional reaction to public humiliation and afterwards, she eyes her husband warily. Their trust was damaged at the same time Chuck was emboldened.
Even when Wendy is at work, her dresses are body-conscious and sharp. She is in charge. In a fun detail, in the 4th season episode, “Maximum Recreational Depth,” when Wendy is talking to Taylor at the ice cream joint, we see her wearing a Cartier LOVE necklace, with two interlocked circles, bound together, but which also look a bit like little handcuffs. The LOVE series of bracelets are screwed on, and require a special screwdriver to remove, in a decorative bit of bondage. The Cartier website asks, “How far would you go for love?” in describing this collection. It seems sly and fitting that Wendy would wear this kind of piece. It’s quiet, expensive, with a knowing whiff of kink. The necklace was probably a gift from Chuck.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Eric Daman, the Billions costume designer was asked about Wendy’s fondness for necklaces, and how they were selected. He replied:
“The lariat/Y-necklaces have a harness look and a S&M feel, without people really realizing I am doing that. There is a resurgence in the lariat necklace trend right now too, but we turned into a play on the dom world. And it feels like they are a little provocative. A lot of them have sharp edges, but there is also a beautiful femininity to it. It is a dance between being a jagged, sharp object, something that is almost a weapon in a way but it is still very sexy and slinky and just walking that fine balance between sex, edge, power and femininity.”
The professional dominatrixes are portrayed in a highly stylized manner. Their equipment is top notch, their fetishwear is exceptional, and their dungeons are extraordinary. They are savvy professionals at the top of their game. Chuck is an epicure of kink, who isn’t afraid to pay for quality. Troy embodies a refined sensibility, even as she tortures her clients.
While Cassie may seem coarse compared to the Troy, she is nonetheless sensitive to Chuck’s needs and aesthetic preferences. We catch a brief glimpse of her again in the Season 5 premiere, when Chuck has a difficult time dealing with his father’s wedding, so he self-medicates with an overnight session in her dungeon.
The BDSM Gear:
Midori, a BDSM authority and educator, describes kink this way: “BDSM is childhood joyous play, with adult sexual privilege, and cool toys.”
The BDSM equipment used on the show — especially in the professional dungeons — is expensive and deliciously gothic. The cages, harnesses and crosses are very dramatic, but also, typical things found in the best dungeons. The smaller toys, like the crops and canes, are correct, too. There’s a moment where Wendy runs her hands over an assortment of whips, trying to pick one to use on Chuck. There’s no factory cranking out BDSM floggers. The whips shown were hand-crafted and each intended to feel and look a specific way. A bespoke flogger can cost upwards of three or four hundred dollars. To fully outfit a serious dungeon, like those depicted on the show, would cost tens of thousands of dollars, between the heavy-duty furniture and the smaller toys and gadgets.
Cassie’s dungeon offers suspension bondage, which involves a level of technical sophistication and physical complication. To immobilize and elevate a full-sized man requires very specific equipment. Cassie has a metal frame to support the weight and a ratchet to do the lifting. Another smart detail in the show was the way the director lingered on the clicking of the ratchet as Cassie was turning the winch to suspend Chuck. It showed an understanding of the inherent tension and drama of the equipment and of the scene. Moreover, that clicking noise would elicit a Pavlovian response in a guy like Chuck.
The show doesn’t shy away from depicting BDSM as a type of sexual extreme sport, and it is willing to depict Chuck as a sophisticated connoisseur of deviancy. It’s also clear he spends a lot of money pursuing his passion. At home, Chuck has a serious array of expensive toys. The bigger outlay, however, is paying to play with professionals. At the beginning of Season 5, we see him emerging from an overnight session with Cassie. For a session heavy in bondage and discipline in a private dungeon with excellent, extravagant equipment and a capable dominatrix, there’s typically a two hour session minimum. In NYC, the cost for this would begin at $500. For an overnight session? The cost would range between $1,000-2,000. Chuck prefers gorgeous, serious, well-equipped practitioners, so the cost would be at the top end of the range, although he might get a break, as a frequent customer.
It may seem odd that Chuck would put rubber bands around his thigh and snap them, or that he placed a safety-pin through his nipple. Certainly, his masochism is extreme, but there is a tradition of solo play within the BDSM community. It is rare to find two people whose appetite for kink is at the same level, and whose interests are complementary. When Wendy and Chuck are “on,” their pervy passions mesh. However, Chuck wants/needs this outlet more than Wendy, and this kind of mismatch is quite common. This inequality of supply and demand is one reason there’s an active business for professional dominatrixes like Troy and Cassie. It also means there are “how tos” for the folks who choose to go it alone.
The Politics of Perversion:
Sex researcher, Justin Lehmiller, surveyed 4,175 Americans about their sexual fantasies. Lehmiller found that while Democrats and Republicans fantasized about sex with similar frequencies, the content of their fantasies were different. Republicans fantasized about sex outside the marriage — partying like Roger Stone. Think wife-swapping, threesomes, infidelity, orgies. The preferred form of sexual fantasy on the political right was about violating the marital vow or transgressing mores about monogamy.
When it comes to Democrats, Lehmiller wrote the following for Politico:
By contrast, self-identified Democrats were more likely than Republicans to fantasize about almost the entire spectrum of BDSM activities, from bondage to spanking to dominance-submission play. The largest Democrat-Republican divide on the BDSM spectrum was in masochism, which involves deriving pleasure from the experience of pain.
While we can’t conclude that Chuck’s a Democrat because he’s a masochist, his sexual fantasies would be familiar to many members of that party. Democrats have a heightened concern for questions of inequality, and a professed awareness of discrepancies of power and prestige between men and women. Lehmiller wonders if it is the draw of taboo that turbocharges the appeal of BDSM for members of a party where consent and power differentials are given extra weight. And certainly, in Chuck’s case, he’s witnessed and participated in power plays all his life. To have eroticized power and control would be a very tidy adaptation.
Pervy Reference in Casting:
The casting of Nina Arianda as Rebecca Cantu was a great choice. Certainly, her blonde hair, great body and killer business sense would appeal to a guy like Axe. However, the actress has a past that is thematically appropriate to a kinky show like Billions. Her breakthrough performance occurred only a few months after graduating with an MFA from NYU’s graduate acting program at the Tisch School. She starred in an off-Broadway play, Venus in Fur, opposite Wes Bentley. The play presents an audition between a beautiful young actress (Vanda) and the playwright, who has just created a play based on the 1870 novel, Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, which describes a nobleman’s desire to be enslaved by a woman.
I saw it in 2010, and was intrigued by the strength of Arianda’s performance, and I wasn’t the only one. Charles Isherwood, who isn’t afraid of giving a bad review, wrote this of Arianda in The New York Times:
“Ms. Arianda is sensational as the slippery, multilayered Vanda. She has a great gift for offhand comic line readings, never letting one of Mr. Ives’s jokes slip by without a little goosing, but never tearing the fabric of character to put one across either. The manner in which Vanda leaps into and out of her role as the worshipped goddess is hilarious in itself, but as Vanda burrows more deeply into the play, actor and role begin to blur together. The dominant position she assumes in Thomas’s play inspires Vanda to become more aggressive in her questioning of Thomas’s motives for writing it. Ms. Arianda makes this seductive cipher funny, sexy and scary at the same time.”
While Rebecca is not a dominatrix in bed, she is one in the boardroom. She destroys CEOs, and she takes down bad robots. The only one who can put her in her place is Axe, the ultimate alpha, who cannot stand it when anyone asserts control or dominance in or near his sandbox.
Mindfucking the Audience:
Not every kinky detail in Billions is accurate. For instance, when Wendy is playing with Chuck in Season 1, Episode 3, Chuck can’t get into the moment, even when she runs a violet wand over his body. She later expresses frustration that he’s not more present. She notes that it’s a device “that makes cows concentrate.” A violet wand is no cattle prod. Different electrodes (i.e., the glass ball on the end of the wand in Wendy’s hand) may concentrate or broaden the charge. The sensations can vary, from a tickle to a cut. But having felt the effects of a wand on my skin, it doesn’t come close in intensity to some of the more severe items. A wand may seem daunting the first time it’s waved near someone’s body (making it an excellent “mindfuck,” the term of art for something intended to disorient or perhaps even frighten a play partner), but experienced players like Chuck and Wendy would know better.
Billions likes to challenge its audience with knowing, insider details. The writers’ use of kink adds a further dimension. Every week, they mindfuck the viewers and keep us off-balance. We have to work to make sense of what we just saw, and these efforts are rewarded.