The Showtime drama gets its groove back with an Axe/Chuck showdown that flows from art forgeries to decriminalizing sex work.
Maybe it’s more apparent since Julianna Margulies joined the cast, but “Billions” has always been most successful when copying the kind of ripped-from-the-headlines drama that “The Good Wife” did so perfectly. While early seasons relied on co-creator Andrew Ross Sorkin’s nonfiction bestseller “Too Big to Fail,” the show has expanded its purview, filling out its character roster and diversifying its plot as one would any well-balanced portfolio. While certainly a necessary move on behalf of any long-running show, “Billions” has both stumbled and thrived in its efforts. Both are evident in the season’s sixth episode, “The Nordic Model” — Taylor’s adventures in impact investing strategies may be mind-numbingly dry; but an impromptu lesson in sex work decriminalization feels downright radical.
Halfway through its fifth season, “Billions” has finally kicked into high gear, or at least a higher one, and delivered some of the high-stakes drama and witty repartee it once made it less guilty pleasure and more worthy one. While it remains to be seen if the show can maintain this momentum through the second half of the season, some of the pieces could certainly pay entertaining dividends, though we’ve taken our sweet time getting there.
Wendy’s (Maggie Siff) well-earned affair with beefcake Jackson Pollock is heating up, the opening scene shows. Their morning-after dialogue is wincingly cheesy. (“Feels like I’m the one who’s naked under the covers,” he says after sketching her like one of his French girls.) Still, Wendy spent so long being bounced between Chuck and Axe, two mean who will never be worthy of her. Though she never had trouble holding her own, it’s nice to see her get hers for once — even if it is from a hot dumb artist. Of course, as with all matters even tangentially related to Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), things won’t stay between the two of them for long.
Adding much-needed fuel to the fire is an early scene between Chuck (Paul Giamatti) and Axe, the first in the entire season. Their heated rivalry has propelled every season so far, so why should the fifth be any different? That becomes obvious when seeing them onscreen together again, during Chuck’s surprise visit to Bobby’s apartment to see his Van Gogh “replica.” It’s an invigorating scene, full of subtle shifts in power that make this such a fruitful conflict. First Chuck ingratiates himself to Axe, begging him to open a valuable bottle of wine, before boastfully splashing it on the painting. The secondary characters are all well and good, but it’s these these two guys, played by heavyweight actors who delight in their characters’ wells of creativity for exacting the most pain on the other, that drives the drama on “Billions.”
“Billions” is also at its best when it uses its despicable characters as unlikely mouthpieces to increase awareness around important issues, such as the whole ensemble’s quick and respectful adaptation using they/them pronouns when introduced to Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon). “The Nordic Model” takes its title from one way of decriminalizing sex work, used by much of Scandinavia, which punishes clients over sex workers. (While still imperfect, the Nordic model protects sex workers more than outright criminalization.)
Chuck (and, by extension, “Billions” viewers who probably never think about sex workers) gets a much-needed lesson in proper terminology and alternative models to regulating sex work from his new girlfriend, Cat (Julianna Margulies), who has written a book on the subject. And while he’s outwardly on the wrong side of the debate, using the threat of legal action to strong-arm a rival, watching even a fictional U.S. Attorney grapple with sex work decriminalization is kind of extraordinary. It’s fascinating to watch his manipulative arguments that mirror exactly the kind of rhetoric that led to FOSTA/SESTA, the harmful 2018 sex-trafficking law that shut down vital safety nets for sex workers as well as Craigslist personals.
While Cat and Chuck don’t get too far into the weeds (there’s no mention of FOSTA/SESTA), the show’s approach to a tricky topic is reminiscent of its progressive representation of BDSM. With that level of sex positive credentials, “Billions” is putting its money where its mouth is in supporting sex workers. Like Bobby Axelrod, it’s found yet another untapped market.
Showtime airs new episodes of “Billions” on Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.