Although a timely retreat is always the most honorable option, I confess a personal weakness for any series that strives to discover fresh avenues to explore once its original premise has been exhausted. ‘The Affair’ went from bad to worse, but it knew how to transcend the central adulterous love story to map out, we can all agree with mixed results, other areas of conflicting desire. ‘Billions‘, new episodes of which have been released recently on Movistar +, is another prime example from the forward retreat playbook.
When the show first appeared on our screens it debuted as a game of cat and mouse between Bobby Axelrod, a cynical über-capitalist destroying anything in his path as long as those whimsical spreadsheet figures ever-increase, and Chuck Rhoades, the prosecutor who reveled in foul play and extortion. In season two, the cat turned into the mouse, and vice versa only for both to end up playing the cat, driven by the need to join forces despite their mutual disgust for one another.
So, where do we go from here?
Well then, it’s onto redemption. The post-party mayhem. Although the emotional toll from leading the pack has always been present – it’s no coincidence that our third protagonist is a psychologist – it’s only now that we witness both financier Axelrod and legal-eagle Rhoades make an unprecedented shift: giving up the pleasure derived from bloodletting. In this sense, the incorporation of the character Michael Thomas Aquinius Prince (played by the ever-magnificent Corey Stoll) raises the question for audiences of whether it’s possible to obtain deca billionaire success without selling your soul to the devil, or his earthly representative Wall Street, into the bargain. This same conflict also raises its head in the storyline involving the artist, who Axelrod takes under his wily financial wing: can he create art with the same freedom now that he’s working on commission?
Something has changed definitively in the series since filming on this season was suspended back in June 2020 due to COVID-19, after only seven episodes had aired. The health crisis, together with the ensuing financial impact thereof, has yet to feature directly in the storyline. However, what is discernable is a discrete distancing from the lurid pornography of money we saw in far more graphic terms at the beginning of the series. That fascination for obscene excess (all that was missing was someone chanting, ‘Long live evil, long live capitalism’,) has given way to a more in-depth look at the characters’ psyche. The Machiavellian struggle is still there, but the stress is no longer on the rock and roll vibe of dizzying economic transactions, but instead focuses now on a more personal toll.
Another significant novelty is the appearance of Paul Giamatti, unmistakably aged, while Damian Lewis conserves his spotless and youthful looks. Be that as it may, both characters are marked by loneliness. The masochistic prosecutor Rhoades already feels his ex-wife (non-other than the psychologist hired by Axelrod’s emporium) has gone for good, while his newly-found romantic entanglement crashed and burned in record time. Meanwhile, and for some time now, our financial shark hasn’t quite found a partner who can meet the mark and the sexual tension between him and the character of psychologist Wendy Rhoades we’ve been tracking since episode one, remains deeply buried, without even so much of a hint (at present) of whether or not this is going to heading anywhere serious soon. As such, we’re left with some pretty successful characters in their professional lives who seem condemned to lives of profound loneliness.
While waiting for the return of ‘Succession’ this October, ‘Billions’ would appear to attest to a certain change of era in the world of series. Cynicism, which has dominated the tone in recent years, has now lost momentum in favor of more direct and emotional titles. ‘Ted Lasso‘ is probably the best example of this ‘feel-good’ series boom. Even the king of blunt and biting satire Ricky Gervais has sweetened his offer of late, to the point that his last project, ‘After Life’, revolves entirely around being able to express feelings. ‘Billions’ has shed a few layers of its original identity throughout this journey. The interpretive duel between Lewis and Giamatti may no longer be as central as it was four seasons ago, but along the way we are witnessing an impressive troupe of supporting actors fleshing out the show as a whole.