Damian Lewis is BACK on TV – Hallelujah!
Now that Showtime has kindly offered us a “sneak peek” to Billions pilot, we are very tempted to kick off the Year of the King with our first impressions of the show in a collective blog and add a little spice with favorite character (except for Axe who will always come on top — guaranteed!), character to watch and best line of the first episode! Just so you know we will start our weekly detailed reviews when Billions premieres on Showtime January 17! And guess what? We just can’t wait!
I am dying to write about the phenomenal acting, all characters, my first impressions of them and their relationships as well as my predictions about what is next for them… But I leave them aside today and focus on one single aspect of Billions that has fascinated me beyond belief… and that is WRITING.
One word: Smart. In fact, two words: Very Smart. I NOW get what Damian Lewis meant in a Billions promo: “Everybody is witty, smart, just a little bit better than the last person… That’s the culture of the show.”
I am a believer that you write the BEST about what you know the MOST and this is exactly what Billions executive producers and co-writers are doing: Andrew Ross Sorkin is a very influential financial journalist who knows the world of NYC high finance inside out. Brian Koppelman and David Levien are New Yorkers who know the city and its suburbs like the back of their hands with its geographical and demographic nuances. Moreover they are experts in developing characters that are driven and risk-taking who enjoy pissing contests and thrive in adrenaline flowing settings! Rounders and Ocean’s Thirteen, anyone?
What is it that impresses me the most about the writing? Well, you know I am a college professor. Yet you don’t know what I teach. I teach game theory, a field in social sciences that, in a nutshell, studies strategic interactions among people in business, politics, law, sports, etc. Believe me, you all use it, even without knowing, in your daily interactions as well as in games like poker, chess or risk! And, if I am correct in my thinking, with Billions, we are in for one of the best cat-and-mouse stories in the history of TV thanks to… game theory! I can easily say I have not seen any show to date in which game theory has played such a central role in developing the plot. I know this is just the pilot; however, if the rest of the show develops similarly, Billions will be one of the most thrilling shows ever!
Here is a great example of how Billions uses game theory. I cannot wait for more!
Suppose you are US Attorney Chuck Rhoades with a score of 81 – 0 in insider trading cases you took on. Your reputation being on the line, you would not open a case file against Bobby “Axe” Axelrod if you were likely to fail — an outcome that ultimately depends on Axe’s dirty laundry. Being a smart US attorney you would want to know more about his dealings.
And this is exactly what Chuck wants; however, he does not have access into Axe’s business except for the suspect trading pattern provided by the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission). Chuck wants to take this “Mike Tyson in his prime” only when he is “gettable.” And he has his opportunity learning Axe may be buying a beach mansion that only the 1% can afford.
We are surprised when Chuck sends Axe a message and tells him not to buy the mansion. If Axe does not buy, it will be politically infeasible for Chuck to go after Axe who has this great public image of “man of the people” thanks to his generosity. So we think Chuck may be trying to avoid a case against Axe because his wife works at Axe Capital. But, in fact, Chuck wants to put Axe in jail if there is a case. And he is smart enough not to make a move until he has some assurance. In fact, he is even smarter. Chuck sets Axe up in order to find out more about his dealings. How? Chuck thinks one step ahead and argues to himself that an innocent Axe would pass on the house and a guilty Axe would buy the house just to signal to Chuck that he has nothing to hide. Perfect textbook “signaling game.” If Bobby passes, he signals he is innocent, and if he buys he signals he is guilty. This is not cheap talk at all. Axe will taint his public image if he buys that ultra-expensive house.
Well… Axe gets the house and soon after gets a call that US Attorney’s Office is opening a case file on him. Hmmm… Is this Rhoades 1 – Axelrod 0?
Not so fast! I am sure Axe is way smarter than Chuck thinks, and unlike Chuck, he may be thinking two steps ahead 🙂 I just can’t stop smiling!
Favorite Character except for Axe: Wendy Rhoades. I love strong female characters and we don’t have many even in this golden age of TV. So here’s to Dr. Mojo!
Character to watch: “Dollar” Bill aka the “cheapest man in America.”
Best Line: “What’s the point of having Fuck You Money if you never say Fuck You?” I know this one is so obvious but it is very personal for me so I need to go with this. “How so?” you ask? Oh I’ll tell you all about it in a few weeks 🙂
Billions may run the risk of being too smart for its own good, but it has been made clear this show is about risk. So, excuse me, but fuck it! We’re ready.
There is so much going on all over this pilot, I am in awe that they managed to fit it all in the one episode and I’m going to share some observations.
Brian, played by Toby Moore tells us that there is image and there is truth. When people see Bobby Axelrod with his new beach house at $63 million, do you think they will care what the truth about how he got it is?
Billions is just full of layers of information. Within the layers there are important relationships.
“You picked it up. So, I suppose that is something, but you’re looking at it backwards.”
Bobby tells two of his employees before they can make a mistake that will cost him millions. This line prompted me to take another look at everything.
Bobby buys that beach house despite earlier recognising that it may be a “dick swinging” exercise. Wendy pointed out to him that knowing isn’t enough, you have to exercise control. Bobby apparently loses control…or does he? The scene with Bobby and Wendy in his office reveals a lot about both of them. Specifically, it reveals they know each other very well and that Bobby pays a lot of attention.
When meeting with the journalist Bobby gets touchy and refuses to speak about his 9/11 project. He makes it clear he doesn’t speak about it publically. He wants that kept image free…if someone else, like Chuck Rhoades or June talks, it will go viral.
Bobby has 3 phones in his office safe and what appears to be bonds.
Chuck is touchy about his father. Whenever someone mentions his father he cuts them off, even Wendy. When we see them together they seem to have a good relationship so what is Chuck so afraid of? Why does he need his father exited from a conversation post haste?
When we first see Bobby, we arrive smack bang in the middle of both sides of his life. The yonkers boy sitting in his local Pizzeria devouring a Pizza, looking for all the world like the average customer. Bruno, the owner is having trouble with his new landlord who is putting the squeeze on him and Bobby wants in to help Bruno out and go into partnership with him. Bobby received a call about this.
Chuck says (later on) “Towns fire managers, owners just give them the bad news.”
I want to link this scene in the Pizzeria to two others: the beach house and the family/dog scene (which I will come to next). I have emboldened some bits that I think are interesting links.
Firstly, the beach house is all about image and Bobby recognised himself that he probably shouldn’t buy it. Whatever Bobby’s motivations may be, he ended up buying this house by a series of phone calls/information passed on by Chuck and apparently being “squeezed”.
Secondly, I think the family/dog scene is possibly my favourite of the pilot.
Bobby tells Chef Ryan who is trying to restrain Elmo, the dog, to let him “run free”. Bobby likes this dog and in fact Bobby is the (Alpha) dog.
Having been allowed to run free Elmo decides to piss on the furniture. Bobby doesn’t seem bothered and I don’t think it is because he’s rich. Damian pulls a wonderful face which emphasises Bobby’s empathy/sympathy with Elmo after Lara declares Elmo is going to the vet to get ‘fixed’. Bobby hilariously explains to his sons the definition of a “pissing contest” and then playfully manipulates them into one. It is clear that Gordie has been paying attention to his dad as he suckers his brother.
“He knows his customer and he sets you up. He is willing to look stupid short term for long term gain”.
While Bobby is impressed Gordie has been paying attention, he makes it clear he is not to sucker his brother. Loyalty is the word. When Dean loses his bet with his brother he has to do 10 push ups. So, one wonders if Bobby loses, how will he cope with having to pay his dues since it is clearly something he believes in teaching.
One more thought. When Bobby gets the call telling him a case file has been opened on him, he says “I’m ready”. Read in to that what you will.
Favorite Character except for Axe: It has to be Wendy Rhoades who deserves a few thousand words just to herself. I already like her very much and I’m looking forward to seeing Dr. Mojo flexing her muscles during the next 11 episodes.
Character to watch: I’m going to go for the new kid on the block in Axe Capital, Ben Kim. He’s tagging around with Dansig who has been having issues.
Best Line: so many to choose from, but I’m going to go with one that maybe isn’t as obvious as others.
“People are saying if I do it will unleash the hounds which makes me want it even more.”
Oh, the euphoria of having Damian Lewis back on our screens on a regular basis: Dear Sir, you have been missed!
Where shall I start? With the fact that there isn’t a smidge of Nicholas Brody in Bobby Axelrod? That more than any other character, Bobby is closest to Charlie Crews in his ready smile and sparkle, but, even then…Who Bobby is, who Damian Lewis has embodied this time around, is completely different from anyone he’s embodied before.
Witness the never-before-seen boyishness as he’s trying to help a friend who watched him grow up.
Then the concentrated calculation as he’s schooling his minions on the fact that playing the game effectively requires knowing the players. Indeed a deep understanding of motivation and ability to manipulate events is the “three-dimensional chess” played by all players in Billions.
Or shall we talk about how Paul Giamatti is channeling Rudy Guiliani in his days as state’s attorney: standing before seized drugs and readily taking credit for a cleaned up city, while Rome burns in other unseen ways. Or in the “leniency” hearing when Chuck proclaims that his predecessors may have given in to corruption, but damned if he’s going to. We see him going after the weak, and we wonder, by what fresh new methods will he be confronting the strong, aka Axe?
What about arguably the most intriguing character in the mix, Wendy Rhoades, a doctor for Pete’s sake, working as a performance coach for an old friend, while her husband seems to think what she does is equivalent to running an HR department? Witness the way she firmly asserts her position when arguing with Chuck and then hammers it home with a totally sincere “You’re a super hero.”
And witness the ways Bobby wears his feelings for Wendy (a respected friendship) on his sleeve.
There’s the Sopranos-esque pacing and dialogue. Not to mention the black bags of bills wrapped in a Rolex. The scene at Superior Auto harkened back to scenes of hijacked trucks in the Sopranos, and, at first, I thought the same kind of intimidation tactics were being used by Axe’s people. But, no, heads are not going to roll in this series, at least not in the literal way.
What is quite literal though in this series is the dick-wagging. Literal pissing contests. Mild and somewhat less sinister because they are so literal. The internal contradictions are also quite literal. Can we get any more literal than Chuck with the BDSM? Bobby refusing to speak publically of his charitable contributions to 9/11 survivors and Lara reminding her kids “we don’t Welsh” (interesting choice of derogatory language there, writers!), both denoting their honor code. Yet, witness how expertly Bobby subverts the shark at his door by manipulating a reporter into going after the scuba diver sitting on stage next to him.
Also playing a big role in the literal is poor Elmo. Bobby frowns over his once cheery dog sporting the cone of shame after he’s been emasculated. What’s his first impulse? To express his own very much intact cajones by buying the grand mansion on the beach, thereby putting the conspicuous smack dab in front of all his consumption.
I’m willing to let the shallowness of the conceit slide….at least until we get a feeling for what is really at stake. Except for the soft spot Bobby has for Wendy and their friendship, we didn’t really get to see any stakes in this first episode. Also, I wouldn’t exactly call the writing in Billions one-liners: they’re more like thoughtful aphorisms. In reference to Bobby’s house purchase, can any of what Chuck says be considered one-liners? Words like these work the brain in the best way a TV show can.
If he’s innocent, he passes…that’s the disciplined move. But a guilty man, he buys…just to show me he’s got nothing to hide.
Note, when I say literal, I don’t mean obvious. There’s nothing obvious about the machinations of gaming the stock market. It’s all quite obtuse actually and the show thankfully won’t spoon-feed us into understanding it. And all craving for metaphor aside, Billions has the advantage over past grand-scale male-centered cable shows in that the story, the players, the setting are all something real and current. No, nothing about this show is obvious, yet it is familiar in the sense that these play like real conflicts among real people, engaged in a very real game.
Favorite Character after Axe: Wendy Rhoades. Hands down.
Best Line: Chuck re the house purchase, see above.
Here’s to looking forward to seeing the real stakes in the Billions game as the season progresses, and, of course, working through it all here with you!