You can’t see his face at first. All you see is the gag stuffed in his mouth, his bare chest and the trusses spread-eagling his arms.
We soon realize he’s waiting for his dominatrix. By the time she arrives, we know our trussed-up bondage kinko waiting for discipline is played by Paul Giamatti. He plays obsessed U.S. attorney Chuck Rhodes, who’s out to get Wall Street’s hedge fund Maharajah Bobby “Axe” Axelrod.
Rhodes’ masked dominatrix arrives in stiletto heels and black leather. She observes that he’s been bad and must be punished. Before the camera goes elsewhere, she advises him “I might leave marks.” He’s cool with it, it seems, so she stubs a cigarette out on his chest. “That’s got to burn” she observes, lest we less adventurous types back home haven’t been paying rapt attention.
I was hooked already by the blatant perversity of the thing. At the end of the first episode of Sunday’s “Billions” making its debut on Showtime, we get a nice little chuckle when we find out who is inside the stiletto-heeled dominatrix’ leather mufti and wielding the whip.
We quickly are brought up to speed about the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan. Besides being played by Giamatti, whose sinuous way of playing worms and weasels, smart guys and snobs is practically Shakespearean, Chuck also “comes from money.” Big money. His Daddy is played by long ago Nichols School student Jeffrey DeMunn. He’s another Wall Street big shot. Not only, then, does Rhodes come from money, he comes from deep in the lap of entitlement along with it.
His prey, “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis of “Wolf Hall” and “Homeland”), “comes from nothing” as “Billions” observes. He may have made all the money in the world, but though he’s a trader so “inside” that his actions are impenetrable, his background is pure prole. And he’s doing battle with a U.S. Attorney’s office whose way of serving the “people” is to routinely sneer among themselves at “guys who went to Hofstra.”
At the end of episode two, “Axe” performs a million-pound karmic ego-crush which is likely to have you on the side of the hedge fund swashbuckler for the duration of the show. “Billions” is a wildly entertaining new offering in the very busy Hollywood world of “toxic testosterone” braggadocio.
One more juicy complication I haven’t told you: Rhodes’ wife is the resident psychotherapist of Axelrod’s investment firm. She’s the one who helps them all get ready to treat every investor on Wall Street as a “client” awaiting “discipline” and with no “safe word” to call on.
So our superkink U.S. attorney has a wealthy powerful Wall Street father and a wife who just so happens to be the major enabler in the hedge fund her husband is trying to take down, the one run by Axelrod, who is Wall Street’s equivalent of “Mike Tyson in his prime” and is, consequently, richer than Croesus.
The testosterone rhetoric of all this flies sky-high in “Billions.” The show’s set-up in its first season is to leave you wondering which guy is worse, the mysteriously omniscient insider trader or the U. S. Attorney who sweetly informs his own father “I love you Dad. But if you ever walk into this office again and try to use your influence [with me], you’re going to walk out of here in handcuffs.”
He’s an SOB so pure, very few are the people who could have whelped him – certainly not the Rhodes mother we meet who seems like a sweetly clueless aristocrat. His war against Axe – either despite (or because) his wife works for him – is total. And as the show says quoting Buffalo News owner Warren Buffett “Like Warren Buffett says, you put a police car on anyone’s tail for 500 miles, he’s gonna get a ticket.” That’s Rhodes’ hope anyway.
I wish I could tell you something juicily wrong about “Billions,” but I can’t. Unlike “The Big Short,” this Showtime miniseries pretends to be nothing other than brilliantly acted and bruising verbal sword-fighting. It’s the most entertaining and guiltiest pleasure I’ve seen on premium TV in a long while.
Watch this show carefully. Listen to the throat slicing repartee. Consider how good are Maggie Siff and Malin Akerman playing the wives of Rhodes and Axe, respectively.
Take a look at the tiniest details – the glassware, for instance, used by billionaires drinking rare scotch and the glasses used by an Iowa farmer and his wife as they drink orange juice in their kitchen. This “status detailing” is as acute and as cunning as it was on “The Sopranos.” When you get to the end of episode six, you’ll note that a truly sinister narrative opportunity was missed in this manhood mano-a-man. Otherwise the ending is perfect for the tale of a Fed Prince of The Establishment and the “guy from nothing” who “moves more money than the GDP of a European nation.”
Pay no attention to the moment in the plot where the U.S. Attorney’s kinky sexual preferences turn a wee bit gratuitous to everything else.
It’s the hormones, says Rhodes’ world-weary mother. “It makes their brains seem small.”
Not those of the writers here, or the actors and directors either. All the “Bigger Than Thou” dialogue in “Billions” and performance panache are jolly bad fun.