Damian Lewis is BACK on TV: Billions of Morsels in One Bite

Damian Lewis, Billions
source: Showtime

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!

source: Showtime
source: Showtime

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.

source: Showtime
source: Showtime

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.hamptons

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?

source: Showtime
source: Showtime

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.

source: Showtime
source: Showtime

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.

caption: Showtime
caption: Showtime

“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.

source: Billions trailer
source: Billions trailer

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.”

Jania Jania

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.

Damian Lewis, Billions
source: Showtime

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.

imageedit_40_3607775002Or 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.

Damian Lewis, Billions
source: Showtime

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.

PicMonkey Collage

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.

imageedit_38_6352529328Character to watch: Wags, not sure why, just something about him.

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!

Author: Damianista

Academic, Traveler, Blogger, Runner, Theatre Lover, Wine Snob, Part-time New Yorker, and Walking Damian Lewis Encyclopedia :D Procrastinated about a fan's diary on Damian Lewis for a while and the rest is history!

17 thoughts on “Damian Lewis is BACK on TV: Billions of Morsels in One Bite”

  1. yes, the pilot was great, an incredible introduction to the characters and the series! reading this review was equally fun!!! looking forward to a “happy” new year with more billions episodes and more of your billions reviews!!!

  2. Great observations on all fronts! Thank you! So many angles to see everything from.
    The only thing I would add is that I was thinking Chuck was more Elliot Spitzer than Rudy Guiliani. Guliani was a self-made man, while Spitzer was from a very well to do family, always had the specter of his dad hanging over him, always wanted the Wall Street big fish (only to further his political career, even when the case was trash), and I guess we all know about his extra curricular activities!
    Thanks again ladies! Can’t wait to continue to dissect and discuss this great show!

    1. Thanks Lisa! I see what you mean with the Spitzer parallels. I couldn’t help but make the Guiliani reference b/c that’s what I was familiar with during my time in NY…the “war on drugs”, etc. Anyway, lots of things to think about with this show!

      1. Ah I see the connection with Spitzer regarding his background. In defense of Chuck, his extracurricular activities take place in his own household 🙂 I have also read somewhere — in fact, Lisa, you may have sent me that article! — Chuck might be portrayed after the current US attorney Bharara who gave a hard time to Steve Cohen. Thanks to this discussion, I went to US attorney’s office website. This is quite a powerful office and I remember Paul Giamatti saying Chuck is probably the most powerful law enforcement officer in the nation. At the end of the day, Chuck should be a portrayal of several US attorneys merged into one, and so is Bobby! The real life characters, say Giuliani, or Spitzer, or Cohen are all extremely ambitious, larger than life characters which I think will make Axe and Chuck even bigger! We are in for a real treat here!

        1. Re the most powerful law enforcement office in the nation. Absolutely true! Case in point, I’ve been gone from NY for nearly 20 years, but I still seem to know more about NY politics than anywhere else I’ve lived. 🙂 NY seems to be just as influential as DC in terms of how stuff that happens there trickles over into all other parts of the country eventually.

  3. Let’s say I was not very enthusiastic about Billions, I am still so in Homeland,with Brody, I conceived not Damian in another role!
    I just read your review, and I became interested in Bobby!
    Would love him I as much as Brody? I do not know! We’ll see!

    But I know Damian, will force me to love Bobby!!Monique

    1. Hi Monique: I know what you mean! I just think noone can take Brody away from us. Never. Whenever we want, we have S1 and S2, in particular, to see and savor! Damian is such a versatile actor that you cannot see any Brody in Bobby. This is a completely different man, and hey you are right, Monique, that Damian will make you love Bobby! 😀 Bobby is a very complicated character, you see how he is in the middle of his two worlds (neighborhood boy and ruthless billionaire) and he moves from one place to another seamlessly. HE IS AMAZING. But also the show is very smart, very well written. It has sense of humor that Homeland has in fact – due to subject matter maybe – lacked. I see it becoming a hit quickly!I am so glad if we have been able to have you get intrigued about the show – that’s our goal. Much love <3

      1. Hi Monique: I’ve been the opposite i.e. eager to see Bobby on our screens to fill the gap left by the lack of Brody. I think you could love Bobby just as much as Brody, and I am gong to dare to say this, possibly more. The reason being that Bobby will make us laugh more than Brody ever could (because of subject matter) while maintaining his ruthless hedge fund manager image.

  4. After reading all of the above fascinating analysis I will go back and watch it the 7th time trying to find more that I like in the pilot. It obviously will be a great hit, at least 20 million Americans will quote Billions-speak. Such a well crafted money
    drama and the writing is amazing. The characters are more in the superhero to super villain continuum / and vice versa/ than on a human scale. Throwing the obligatory cute kids into the mix did not fix that for me. Of course the pilot is full of possible clues for the denuement of the of the plot, I wish I would like a “who done it” better.
    Damian really shined in the dog scene, sheepishly accepting the alpha-bitches decision about Elmo and silently crying about his and the dogs fate. What does she have over him? See, I might already be trapped into watching all of it.

    1. Thank you Agnes for your feedback and for your very kind words! 7th time??? OMG!!! 🙂 Believe me, because we wrote it altogether, we limited ourselves to 750 words each and hey that was a challenge! I think we’ll write about the rest of what we liked and observed in episode 1 highlights when the show airs! And this is just the first episode!!! Layers. Metaphors. Games. All mingled with each other. Amazing writing. Phenomenal acting. Even side characters are very remarkable and there are a number of people to keep an eye on! I agree it will be a HIT! I see your point about the super hero characters — we have in fact discussed a little bit above for Lisa’s feedback on the post that these characters are (understandably) built on real life characters who are bigger than life themselves (think of Spitzer, or Guiliani or Steve Cohen as a hedge-fund king, etc) which I think make Axe and Chuck even BIGGER. I believe we are in for a real treat here! I think all relationships, Axe and Lara, Axe and Chuck, Chuck and Wendy and Axe and Wendy are very very complex and there will be tensions rising in all pairings in different ways. Can’t wait for more!!!!! And let us know what you think after the 7th viewing! <3

      1. I’m already anxious about my favourite relationship and the show hasn’t even officially kicked off yet…and we haven’t even seen much of them together either. This is what months of build up does to you!

    2. I find this interesting because I thought they laid some groundwork in the pilot for the more human side of our characters…not that they aren’t in the superhero/villain continuum. “Alpha bitch” love that description. Oh, I think you’re trapped. How could you possibly not tune in if there is even the slightest chance of seeing Bobby and Elmo cuddled up together on the couch at some point? 🙂

    3. Great comment Agnes, and thanks for reading!
      I know what you mean about the super hero archetypes ruling the show. I think the human element stems not from the family or the kids, per se, but from each character’s connection to how they were raised…their own personal histories. We saw a bit of Bobby’s history with the pizza shop scene, and we heard a little bit about Lara (Irish from Inwood, 5 sibs, etc) as she was spouting off her “hood” ethics. And we got Chuck’s background too with his very wealthy and well-established father. Wendy’s history remains an intriguing enigma to all of us, though! I think we’ll see much more insights into all of these histories as the show progresses, allowing the depth to see these characters as more than good and evil archetypes. Chances are high that the very idea of good and evil will be twisted later on too!

  5. Yes I have finally seen and HEARD the pilot. Having suffered with deafness for the past 3 years, it was his voice that was all important to me. As a New Yorker/Jersey he was spot on with his accent!! Then I hear his British accent on the late show clip!! When I heard his native voice, I was on Cloud 9, elated, floating on the ceiling!!
    Such an amazing man to be able to change his voice to meet the criteria. I never knew just how amazing until I was able hear his voice for the first time!!!

    1. So happy for you, Cindee! <3 Yep, he goes back and forth between British and American accents so smoothly - amazing indeed!

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