Watching Billions

I watched Season I of Billions on Showtime, and then downgraded my cable package as I wasn’t watching much TV, so I lost access to Seasons 2 & 3. When I moved to Sara’s house I upgraded again, and after discovering and liking Succession, segued back to catch up on Billions.

Is it our rampant economic inequality that is giving rise to these shows? I have no idea, but they both have extremely good writing about the trials and tribulations of the 1%, and about how people of lesser means can get swept up and spit out as collateral damage in the 1%-er’s machinations. Billions is about an epic clash between uber-wealthy and ruthless hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod, and the nefarious U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Chuck Rhoades. There are complications, of course. Rhoades’ wife, Dr. Wendy Rhoades, works as a psychologist at Axe Capital. Axe and Rhoades are out to get each other, and their no-holds-barred clash is the stuff of tragic drama. Wendy is in the middle, and gradually emerges as every bit as competitive, ambitious and ruthless as her husband and his arch-nemesis.

I marvel at the ability of this show to evoke empathy in me for Bobby Axelrod, and utter disdain for Chuck Rhoades. Is it that we expect hedge fund managers to cut corners, trade on inside information, and manipulate the market — and so cheer when they do it well and run the table on their more conventional peers? Conversely, we expect the U.S. attorney to have some level of moral probity, and we disdain him when he’s right down there in the gutter with Axe.

Season 2 introduces Taylor Mason, a gender non-binary mathematical genius played by actual gender non-binary Asia Kate Dillon. Dillon uses the pronouns “they” and “them” when self-referencing, an adaptation that comes readily to Axe but more slowly to his hyper-masculine team of analysts and stock traders. Taylor is the first gender non-binary character in a major role on American TV, and they acquit themselves masterfully in the role.

This is the world of influence and fabulous wealth and power and privilege to which most of us have no direct access. We see the outcome, as when a Brett Kavanaugh may be allowed to skate on accusations of attempted rape and wind up sitting on the Supreme Court. But we don’t see the behind the scenes money, the influence, the power plays that make it happen. Shows like Succession and Billions offer a fictional window into this world, one that I wish didn’t ring so true.

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