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Billions Season 2

May 17, 2017

After a much-hyped but tepidly-received first season last year, Billionssnuck up on me for its second go around. One more TV obligation. Sort of a thing to do after Homeland. But it turns out I’m quite happy I made sure to watch season 2. It was a lot of fun, and quite a bit more thoughtful than it had to be in a lot of ways.

The best word I can think of to describe the plot is operatic. Not only are the stakes and the consequences exaggeratedly dramatic, but every episode has scenes that legitimately make me feel like I’m listening to an aria. Just like in the first season, the final episode culminates in a big, brash duet between Bobby Axelrod (Damien Lewis) and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti). One person expressively lays out what’s happening while the other looks on, emotionally, waiting for his own turn to wax eloquent.

All season, we’ve  got Axe and Chuck playing against each other at the metaphorical chess board, able to pull the strings guiding everyone and everything around them. As fun as it is most of the time, though, well . . . imagine if every single episode of Mad Men were like the Sterling Cooper Draper Price heist episode, where they thread the needle perfectly and deviously and amazingly. That’s kinda what Billions is like. A moonshot pretty much every week. And because of that it loses a little of the effect. But certainly not all.

But there’s more than just the juicy plot. When I wrote about This Is Us, I said it reminded me a lot of Parenthood with its overt yet effective sentimentality. Billions actually reminds me of the same series, but in a different way: in the nuance and contour of the marriages. This show might not quite be the reigning champion in that arena, but it’s close. (In my opinion, The Americans currently wears the belt, wrested from Parenthood, which inherited it from Friday Night Lights. If you’re keeping score.) Both Bobby and Lara and Chuck and Wendy have fascinating, complicated, real-feeling relationships. A disappointment in that regard, though, is that in the first season the Rhoades’s BDSM lifestyle proclivities were the best I’d ever seen on a prestige TV show, and highly relevant to their relationship. That component isn’t entirely abandoned here in season two, but it’s an afterthought just tacked on.

And that’s not all the depth there is, either. We get to see some of the upside of Axe’s and Chuck’s huge swinging dick personalities. They really are excellent leaders–capable of inspiring people, able to hone in on what’s important, and, a lot of the time, they even do things the right way and do them that way well. Would they be as successful if they only did things the right way? Maybe the only way someone can get that good at the above-board stuff is to be willing to go outside the lines too when necessary. Who’s to say. Actually, I probably don’t agree with that. But it’s a great question to explore. An odd feeling I had more than once was a yearning to be in that world, to play to win, to bend some rules, and just to crush my worthy opponents–the only kind of adversaries worth crushing.

And oh yeah. There’s even a transgender character. I slide in that tidbit here at the end not to downplay it, but because it’s included seamlessly and without a ton of patting themselves on the back. It just’s one more piece of development for an important character, which makes it just one more thing Billions does as well as any show out there.

If you’re not on the Billions train, go back, watch the first season, then keep going and hit this second one too. I think there might be critics who remember it at year-end-lists time. I probably will.

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