Power and alliances are fluid in Showtime’s Billions, just as in real life. (Be warned: spoilers ahead.) There is a constant tension between whether its main players—New York attorney general Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), Axe Capital CEO Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), Axe Capital performance coach/in-house therapist Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) and Mason Capital founder Taylor Mason (Asia K. Dillon)—are good people driven to do bad things because of their positions or fundamentally bad people who have wound up in positions of power because of their willingness to set ethics and the rule of law aside when it serves them.
One result of this tension, which never truly resolves, is that alliances constantly realign. The season four finale points toward just such a realignment, as Chuck puts Bobby once more in his prosecutorial sights, feeling, perhaps, that he has completely lost not only his wife’s love but also her respect. Bobby, without fulling realizing it, loses Chuck’s goodwill when it is revealed that the hedge fund manager used his millions to pull some strings and prevent Wendy’s medical license from being revoked. This antagonistic relationship between Rhoades and Axelrod was the starting point for the series in season one, when Rhoades sought to take down Axe Capital for insider trading.
Now it seems the transactional assistance rendered by Rhoades and Axelrod to each other during the intervening seasons was more of a truce than a burgeoning friendship. This shift in energy is where Billions shines, and the show thrives on the interplay between finance and law.
While much of the Billions is spent on the triangle between Chuck, Wendy and Bobby, the other key power player is quant investor Taylor Mason. In the finale, after sparring for the entire season with Axelrod, Taylor is forced to surrender. Axelrod presents his former intern with a choice: Be destroyed or come back inside Axe Capital to run his quant unit. Taylor chooses the latter, but it may be a pyrrhic victory for Axelrod. In the course of taking down Taylor, he throws his love interest, and co-investor, Rebecca Cantu (Nina Arianda) under the bus. Although Bobby wins the battle against Taylor, it’s clear that their rivalry will soon transition into a cold war fought within the walls of Axe Capital itself.
Worth caught up with Billions creators and executive producers Brian Koppelman and David Levien at their offices a few days before the season finale to talk about finance, human nature and what it means to be powerful. This is an excerpt of that conversation. For a full feature interview, see Worth’s upcoming Power 100 Issue on newsstands August 27.
Q: Let’s start by talking about power in the world you’ve created.
Brian Koppelman: There are so many different ways in which the pursuit of power manifests, and then there are so many ways that one can use power. One can use power for absolute good or for absolute bad, but most of the people we study and are interested in portraying use it for something in the middle: sometimes for their own uses, sometimes to help other people, sometimes to access that which no one else can access.
David Levien: Chuck Rhoades is a guy who was one of a subset, someone who would want to run for office, or get appointed to an office that gives them great governmental power. We saw in many of these guys a deep-seated belief that they knew what was right, and they planned on doing what was right for the greater good if only they could get to that power of decision. Along the way they reconciled doing things that were not good at all for other people because they knew that once they were there, it was all going to be worth it and be justified.
But then there’s Bobby Axelrod.
Levien: On the other side, there was a guy who accrued this great wealth at a fairly young age and with it all the influence that it brings. He started to feel that these laws of men didn’t apply to him because they were made by political functionaries and people with agendas, and he was in this pure marketplace where these sort of small concerns were beneath him. Now these people got on a collision course.
You’ve very carefully crafted the show so that just when Axelrod or Rhoades thinks he’s winning, there’s someone more powerful around the corner waiting to take them on.
Levien: Our show is about powerful people. But in drama, characters need obstacles and challenges. If our characters were omnipotent, it would be very boring. There would be no issues to overcome, so the challenge for us coming up with this stuff is to make them retain their power in a realistic way by constantly having them butting up against other forces. We don’t believe the world is a place where you can just smoothly sail through once you reach an income level.
Koppelman: There are some investors, hedge fund managers, who, when they’re having a particularly bad period, would be scared that they would lose their position and influence if they owned their mistakes in a letter. There are others who would decide, well, the source of my power comes from people thinking I’m the smartest, most open of the hedge fund managers. In order to deploy what’s considered my power, I have to own and say in a letter to my investors: Here’s the thinking that went into me screwing up. Here’s the way I’m thinking going forward. Here’s why I can’t change my opinions. Stick with me or not, I’m still the same ruthlessly honest, rigorous person…
Levien: Versus the tycoons, who like to do the omniscient thing where they just explain the circumstances and how they’ll just end up being right later. That’s the difference.
It’s two different psychological needs. But beyond Chuck Rhoades and Bobby Axelrod, there’s also Wendy Rhoades and Taylor Mason making a whole different set of plays.
Koppelman: We had this notion that we wanted Wendy to be absolutely as smart, if not smarter, than those two guys in the beginning of this. Our secret plan all along was that Wendy was going to win the first season. Then going forward everybody would understand that it was really the three of them. And then when we got Asia K. Dillon to play Taylor, it became really the four of these incredibly formidable people at the center of the show.
Is it possible for one of them to actually win? Or would that just mean leaving the playing field?
Koppelman: It’s like Gary Cooper in The Gunfighter. You have to really take your gun belt off. You have to really lay it on the sheriff’s desk, and you really have to be able to get out of town and move to some hacienda where there’s no guns and no saloons.
And that requires changing who you are to do that.
Levien: That scenario of retiring to the hacienda and going off the map is very threatening to our characters and to the people that are the population that we based them on. They don’t want to lose that relevance because that’s an energy driver for them. They want to be in the conversation, in the mix, and have the access and be relevant and important. It’s like life blood.