Fifty Billion Shades of Gray
By Anna KornbluhAugust 24, 2018
Across its three seasons on Showtime, Billions explores the aftermath of Lehman’s and Obama’s 2008 peaks, tracking the waning and waxing faculty of elite professionals to steer their careers and helm the most powerful country in the world. The show is built around an extended parallel between outer-borough upstart Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), principal of the wildly fruitful hedge fund Axe Capital, and Manhattan WASP Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), US Attorney for the New York Southern District and hero of a counterfactual recent past in which 81 bankers and traders were successfully prosecuted for their outlaw engineering of toxic asset slides. Rhoades fancies himself a just warrior, fighting against “[these] Teflon corporations that defraud the American people on a grand scale.” As the series opens he levels his gaze at Axe, the Moby-Dick of parkour finance.
Root for the law, or root for the money? Fortunately, we don’t have to choose, since here both sides equal each other in their maniacal pursuits of professional acme — a steady double date with bent rules, a shared ruthless drive to win. Root for the winners! Both men are game theory geniuses, spooling out scenarios and hedging countermoves with the speed of gigahertz processors. Their sheer effectiveness propels the show’s narrative and renders the difference between good guys and bad guys a mere matter of preference.
The winners run their races in structural parallel, their lines intersected at right angles by mutual ballast: Wendy (Maggie Siff), a psychiatrist whose penetrating understanding of Bobby guides the growth of Axe Cap, and whose lashing crop rouses the vim of her husband, Chuck. The very first shot of the series frames Chuck bound and gagged on the floor, a vinyl stiletto boot pinning him down. (It’s not TV, it’s Showtime.) “You’re in need of correction, aren’t you?” she says, burning his chest with a cigarette and again with urine in the wound. Cut to the Manhattan skyline, that other site of bad boys who will be bad boys even after market corrections, and there we find Wendy’s second sphere: she is lucratively employed as the in-house performance coach at the hedge fund, a high-class fluffer whose flash-sessions amp the traders with dominatrix directives to “get out there and do what needs to be done.” All day long, Wendy dispatches debilitating anxieties and disruptive fetishes at lightning pace, checking in frequently with Axe to save him “from making a huge mistake for dick-measuring purposes.” She takes deep satisfaction in her beneficent effects. On “Comp Day,” when financial firms assign annual bonuses to their employees, she regularly merits $2 million — and that’s not counting spontaneous gifts from Axe like a black Maserati GranTurismo Sport. Her business model is clearly not Jacques Lacan’s.
Chuck’s rewards differ: he can’t help but be bad, even as he draws the compensation of righteousness, and his inner conflict mines much more fodder for repentance under the latex lash. “I work for the public good!” Chuck scolds Wendy in season one. “No, you work for the good of Chuck Rhoades,” she flatlines back. When he initiates an indictment against another giant hedge fish whose political ties will fall out advantageously, Chuck’s deputies repeat the exchange in a later season: “It’s the right thing to do,” Lonnie Watley (Malachi Weir) says. Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad) parries, “It’s what Chuck wants. It doesn’t make it right.” At the end of his righteous road, if Chuck Senior (Jeffrey DeMunn) pulls enough strings from behind the velvet curtains of his Fifth Avenue study, Chuck will be governor, a latter-day Spitzer chasing corporate offenses in between incriminating sexploits, clad in ever-more refined sharkskin grays of power.
Even as Axe, Chuck, and Wendy split repeatedly over the public good, legal technicalities, and codes of honor, they are three peas in a pod, winners united in their incomparable competence, their oft-declared outsized intelligence, their profound professionalism. The show’s creators are also consummate professionals (a team that includes Andrew Ross Sorkin of The New York Times financial pages): the script is exacting, the plot gasping, the performances riveting, the cameos towering, the wardrobe flawless. Not your average workplace drama, Billions is impressively synoptic in its horizontal integration of mental health, financial services, Silicon Valley industries, and law and order, with a little Yonkers-secret-recipe-pizza and private-duty-intravenous-hangover-cure-nurses spicing the mix. Some seek money, some seek glory, some seek power, but everyone wants to win. The show thus poses the question, at the time of writing in 2014, at the time of setting in 2012–2016, and at the time of airing in 2016–2018, of professional potency. What is it about this decade that makes being excellent at your elite job a matter of concern?
The authors of the financial crisis were, on the whole, excellent at their jobs. Inventing asset classes to dissimulate toxicity, booking loans as revenues, hyping instruments to defer reckoning, evangelizing for the equations that discount merely mortal common sense, and evading regulatory oversight with NASCAR agility, the hedgies of the new millennium performed spectacularly. What Axe calls the “unimaginative, do-gooder authorities” — regulators and legislators, Federal Reserve governors and lifetime senators — stood equally spectacular in their unwavering commitment to the upward transfer of wealth.
Barack Obama, the executive officer with purview over all this excellence — Harvard Law stamped, a 10 million popular vote win span, and cooler than the crispest cucumber — tragically forswore the audacity of power, and instead measured his every move for the middle. Appointing Wall Street alums to the Justice Department, maintaining the GOP Treasury, and utterly staying the course with the boondoggle bailout Hank Paulson and George W. Bush had rushed in late 2008, Obama achieved bipartisan support for the plutocracy. He declined to bail out the people. He announced but never really executed a program to aid homeowners in tiny proportion to the support for banks. He committed to but never delivered a plan for jobs for struggling homeowners, and he oversaw, in the name of Too Big To Fail, outrageous mergers of investment banks with consumer banks destined to risk even bigger failures. Facing the black and white of racist obstruction and class war, he went gray. Professionalism of the middle is not professionalism of the top.
2008’s extreme wreckage couldn’t be answered from the center. Billions endorses excess, and not only through the tops of S&M dens. It meets tremendous deeds with zealous, polarizing professional prowess. All three principals are awesomely effective, getting out there and doing what needs to be done. In supreme-stakes “three-dimensional chess,” as they call it, Axe, Chuck, and Wendy appraise their options with hawkish precision, and much of the viewing pleasure rests in the exertions of keeping up with these darting analysts. If we can hang with these pros, tracking their razor rhetoric, technical argot, nimble abbrevs, and bountiful movie allusions, aren’t we smart too? (I watch the show with my JD/Econ PhD husband, and we need subtitles.)
The power of the spoken smart animates most episodes of Billions. Choice bon mots leaked to the press can trigger shorts and swaps, misdirections planted in the ears of suspected moles confirm corporate espionage, incendiary insults inspire ire, and single syllables can suborn murder. Threats are promises and speeches are deeds; to be effective is to wield the word as cause, spurring domino actions. Fierce oratory anchors the action, accomplished stage actors people the remarkable cast, and the show makes much ado of theater, its narrow focus on the orators predominating over fancy camerawork, set design, or action sequences. Drama is the paramount medium of the act, so Billions deploys its theatricality to foreground its study of agency.
Evoking black box theater in its constrained interiors — the dark kitchen of the Rhoades’s Brooklyn townhouse, the wood paneling of Upper East Side clubs, the utilitarian taupe of federal offices — the show’s aesthetic is a tight frame for the efficacious act. It makes virtually no use of exterior settings, establishing shots, panoramas, or montage, only occasionally inserts drone footage of the Manhattan skyline between scenes, and is almost exclusively low-lit, faces half in shadow. Even the gleaming white of the Axelrod Westport headquarters (a conspicuous post-9/11 relocation for many such firms) reflects the light of scrutiny, transparent office walls and centered communal trader table exposing and circumscribing power plays. Chess moves within close squares, the actions anyone takes best be good form, as they’ll ramify into a long tail.
Poor form haunts Axe even as he cuts a precision figure, since his solo firm originated in unsavory transactions around 2001, a second world-historical juxtaposition alongside 2008. The destruction of the World Trade Center created all kinds of opportunities for financial crimes and shady gains, from insufficient health care for widows and first-responders, to the war-profiteering that drove the stock market up after the fraudulent invasion of Iraq. Axe, we learn late in season one, owes no small segment of his empire to 9/11. A stroke of luck kept him out of the office that morning, and a stroke of evil genius netted him nearly a billion dollars by shorting airline and hotel stocks in the very hours during which his colleagues perished.
The line from 9/11 to 2008 to 2018 spun by Billions is the problematic of professional power, from W’s amateur incompetence to O’s centrist impotence to HRC’s unshakable taint. Does power rest with the mighty rulers of imperialism, or with the few who seek retribution? When the elites peddle business as usual amid crises of their own making, how do they get away with it? Can a woman maintain the same middling charade as her male predecessor? Billions merges these elite domains of the political, the legal, and the financial with the baser registers of the professional, the sexual, and the criminal. Absolute effectiveness requires relative tactics in different domains, but the strategy remains the same.
Luxely compensated black-clad Wendy is the cold, beating heart of the show. Her impeccable professionalism carves out an admirable Obama middle way between justice and money. The creative choice to foreground a woman in a genre usually defined by its abundant big swinging dicks comprises the show’s sizable allure. Beautifully loyal to both Axe and Chuck, Wendy’s actions are not quite as determining as theirs, and indeed several of the plot trajectories involve elaborate maneuvers by both men to protect her from implication in their misdoings. But she is fiercely dignified in her right to a career unhampered by her husband’s, hungry at every moment for a harder puzzle. Her work acumen shines as a real point of identification.
The middle imagines itself as noble, going high when they go low, but it often requires a certain prostitution, and Wendy finally sells herself to protect both her men. Having quit Axe Cap and left her marriage at the end of season one, over the course of season two she eventually negotiates a deal to recenter herself and buffer her men from one another: she’ll return to the firm, and Bobby will drop the hundreds of malicious prosecution lawsuits he is funding against Chuck; she’ll return to the marriage, and Chuck will hunt other whales. A potent broker like the rest of them, she exudes Swiss neutrality even as the show centers her decisive seat of power.
Combining the financial and legal expertise of her two men with her own primary expertise in psychic motivation, Wendy’s control is dazzling to behold, her deeds superseding those of both men. It comes as a hard gut-punch when the third season’s decisive misdeed is her own: she violates her patient Mafee, a likable every-bro with just enough “Navy SEAL” to thrive at Axe Cap, trading on her insider knowledge of his infatuation with her to seduce him, persuading him to lie to federal investigators on her behalf. Axe, Chuck, and Wendy are all facing jail time for their vertiginous triple crossing at season two’s climax, in which Chuck raids the personal trust he had sequestered when taking public office to overinvest in his friend’s juice company, but really to bait Axe into sabotaging the company to score on a big short of the IPO. Wendy, learning of the sabotage, does not warn Chuck, but joins the short. Her hedge is financially savvy though legally and maritally unsound, a middle ground between competing value systems, but no longer innocent. It primes her to shrewdly cross lines in season three, colluding with Axe and Chuck to pin the sabotage wholly on a fourth party, and to mine the exculpating falsehood from Mafee’s affections. As her black vixen sheaths foretell, the gray is untenable. There’s no credible integrity in the middle.
Wendy’s highly calculated betrayal of Mafee, and her betrayal of us for rooting for her, gets repaid in a patient’s betrayal of her. Taylor Mason is introduced in the second season as Mafee’s intern analyst, bound for the U Chicago MBA. Axe demands to be introduced to the young temp who makes Mafee millions, and on walks Taylor: “My pronouns are they, their, them.” Played by Asia Kate Dillon and earning Billions the Outstanding Drama Series award from GLAAD, Taylor is often celebrated as the first major gender nonconfirming character on a television series, but their drive is all too binary. “It’s not just about numbers and decimal points,” Wendy warns them. “No, I’m pretty sure there is only money,” comes their icy retort.
Where others want the good or the might, Taylor’s want is the machine. A stony quant, their grad school plans dissipate in the sway of one of Bobby’s trademark virile speeches: “You retreat behind your aquarium walls. What you don’t realize, Taylor, is that glass — it’s not a barrier, it’s a lens. It’s an asset. It’s what makes you good. You see things differently. That’s an edge.” The ensuing comp bargaining, rapid-fire and cut-throat, is equally signature. If there is someone who can rival Bobby, it is Taylor — not Chuck, poor analog soul. Where Chuck tries and fails to use Wendy to beat Axe, Taylor wins, optimizing their private sessions with Wendy to ultimately manipulate Axe.
Heeding Wendy and trusting their judgment, Bobby gives Taylor the reins at Axe Capital after one of Chuck’s contortions at last ensnares him in enough legal trouble to warrant a trading suspension. After crushing the capital raise by garnering $6 billion in new investments from a single speech, Taylor abruptly launches a solo firm, breaking Bobby’s bank and Wendy’s heart. All along, we’ve watched Wendy’s dual loyalties reap uneven returns: Axe tells her almost everything, leaving little plausible deniability (thank god for Doctor-Patient privilege), but Chuck tells her lies, and profanes patient confidentiality to steal fuel for his cases against Axe. With Taylor, she finds a relationship more complicated and intriguing than those with the male traders — an arc of actualization for both, a hint of the psychiatrist’s vocation beyond fluffing. But she also finds out that her most genuinely gratifying work can be someone else’s chess move; Taylor uses Wendy’s empathy for their experience in the über-male workplace to spur Wendy to advise Axe to offer Taylor more money, more prominence, more “forward momentum.” In a gray garage, in the most stabbing exchange of all the show’s Shakespearean duels, Wendy spits, “What do you want?”:
Wendy: You think … I’ll actually come with you? Haven’t you done enough damage?
T: I’m building not destroying. That’s where you come in …
W: Nice ideas. You are no moral fucking compass. For a moment, I thought you might be because you needed me to think that. But you used me. … You preyed on me and my empathy for you, preyed on me to get what you wanted from Axe — being part of the raise — so fuck you.
T: Oh, you don’t seem to understand. I’m not just offering you a job for my sake. I’m offering you a fresh start for yours. A restart for your slew of fuckups. You let things devolve at Axe Capital. You didn’t see me being pushed out the door. You couldn’t stop Axe from succumbing to his own worst nature. Instead, you succumbed to it. And who knows what other fallout you’ve created or at least allowed elsewhere in your life.
By recognizing that Wendy’s professional power underwrites Axe Cap’s, and thus that Wendy is culpable for its sins, Taylor caresses Wendy’s raw desire in one hand, while bitch-slapping her with the other. Wendy pretends to be in the middle, but is really in charge; by contrast, Taylor intends transparent management, “top down but not imperious or impetuous,” and largely “tech-centric,” employing the team of algo writers Axe Cap only briefly entertained, working as purely as possible. “A place free of arrests, indictments, insinuations,” Mase Cap pledges a Shangri-La of robotic proficiency bulwarked against irrational exuberance and illicit info. Even through the original sin of its founding, it’s a vision that winds Wendy, thudding the sternum of her own illusory virtue. Like Axe before them, Taylor goes solo with filthy lucre, but points out that Wendy, too, is an axe. There is no middling in financial baseball.
Axe vows certain vengeance, while Wendy counsels “looking within, to see what you, what we, may have done to cause this. We rebuild our business as we rebuild ourselves.” As Wendy and Bobby align against Taylor, Wendy and Chuck also realign, finding new thrills in resistance to the noxious anti-black autocrat Jock Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown), the new Attorney General after national regime change. A gruesome fusion of Sessions and Trump, Jeffcoat’s racism is matched only by his corruption. (He even gets to shout, “You’re fired!”) Chuck spends the second half of season three working with his two black Assistant US Attorneys and a black New York State Attorney General to build an obstruction case against Jeffcoat, renewing his commitment to justice after a détente with Axe Cap, but applying all the brinksmanship lessons learned to goad Jock into exposure. Jock is a better target than Axe, for it is easier to believe in preserving the neutrality of political institutions than in revealing the open truth of the rigged market. Sacker assures: “He’s finally doing it right, the right thing […] He’s doing that Chuck thing, but for the right fucking reasons this time.”
The final sequence of season three distills all these tactical realignments. In companionable silence with Chuck, Wendy takes a call from Axe. “I saw Taylor,” she says. “Fuck them. No, I mean fuck them over. You have to. We do.” “Well, that’s different from look inward,” Axe reproves. “Yeah, well, you know what, I’m different.” A different Wendy invites Bobby into the Rhoades dining room, mutually funding a new rapprochement. The closing lines over flowing wine put the long play for season four: “So you know how you’re gonna go after Jock?” Bobby asks. “Some ideas floating around my head. And, uh, Taylor?” Chuck reciprocates. “Yeah, yeah, got a plan that’s starting to form.” Wendy, wronged by both Taylor’s treachery and Jock’s tyranny, husbands the partnership: “Tell him about it. There’s no one better at breaking down a strategy.” From above, the camera’s final shot captures the tops of three heads harmoniously leaning in, readying for “a real good time together” (The Velvet Underground trills us), for staking out different fights.
From Wall Street to The Big Short, the financial malfeasance genre is often marked by its gray regard for greedy elites, and Billions doesn’t quite crack this ambivalent mold. It offers charismatic winners at many chosen professions, unencumbered by constructs like ethics or law, and we want to be on their teams. But the insistent connections it draws among its principals, their common core of intrinsic drive, provokes not so much the guilty pleasure of cheering guilty heroes, as the savory systematic reflection on the diversified ends of powerful means. Use your might for the middle, or go one better?
A hedge offsets risk by playing both sides, rapacious plunder in middle-ground clothing. Billions deftly explores these faux middles via elite power struggles, elite deeds, and the tactics of elite war. Strikingly, though, its insights catapult beyond elites, whose monopoly can’t be trusted, who shouldn’t be the winners all the time. Everyone needs tactics, everyone needs strategy. Even we the writers and readers of literary magazines amid the ruins of the university, we the taxi drivers and lawyers at LaGuardia, we the marchers for climate science and gun regulation and feminism, we the teachers on strike, we the candidates with “impossible” platforms, we the servers in restaurants, we the occupiers outside baby jails, we too with power. The middle cannot hold. Get out there and do what needs to be done.
Anna Kornbluh teaches literature and literary theory at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Anna Kornbluh teaches literature and literary theory at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Her writing focuses on the Victorian novel, marxism, psychoanalysis, and formalism; her book Realizing Capital: Financial and Libidinal Economies in Victorian Form was published with Fordham in 2014, and she is currently finishing a manuscript titled The Order of Forms: Realism, Mathematics, and the Space of the Political. She coordinates InterCcECT, the Inter Chicago Circle for Experimental Critical Theory, and is a founding member of the V21 Collective (Victorian studies for the 21st century).
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