Showtime's 12 episode series, Billions, is the Iliad of extortion. The program's paradigm scene involves someone grotesquely wealthy or powerful arrogantly exercising influence only to be brought down by blackmail of one kind or another. The wealthy or powerful person is humiliated, sometimes publicly shamed, other times merely privately disgraced. This incessant motif makes the show addictive -- it's human nature, an outgrowth of our intrinsic resentment of those superior to us to desire to see our betters chastened at the very height of their pride, brought down by their overweening hubris.. But the flagrancy of this plot device, and its ubiquity in the program, also brings Billions close to pornography. There's something more than a little disreputable about a program that entertains us so effectively with what are, after all, impulses of Schadenfreude that are, perhaps, more than a little shameful themselves. Billions declares a simple, dispiriting thesis: everyone has dirty little secrets and those secrets can be used to wield power over others. The show's objective correlative to this premise is surveillance, spying, industrial espionage -- to the hammering sound of music that simulates the rotor noise of a hovering aircraft, each episode begins with a sinister shot of downtown Manhattan, the skyscrapers gleaming in a purplish dawn while ferries inscribe white wakes on the harbor, the image of an exotic fortress under siege by an implacable eye in the sky.
This theme the rich and powerful are always subject to blackmail is exemplified in the figure of Chuck Rhoades, one of the show's two protagonists. Rhoades is a government lawyer, the chief prosecutor and United States Attorney for the Federal Courts in the Southern District of New York -- in other words, the guy who is supposed to police the crooks on Wall Street. Rhoades is played by Paul Giamatti displaying a perversely charismatic mix of sulking self-pity and righteous indignation -- he is the kind of person who hectors his fellow citizens about dog shit left on the public sidewalk: "if everyone let their dogs shit wherever they wanted, we would be up to our eyeballs in the stuff," Rhoades bellows, his own huge wet and morose eyes rolling in their sockets. Rhoades is a practicing bondage enthusiast and masochist, not really a problem for him because his wife, Wendy, is a sadistic dominatrix who likes to loll around in leather corsets and helpfully tortures Chuck more or less on demand. (The eye-opening first scene in the series features Wendy stubbing out a cigarette of Chuck's hairy torso and, then, cooling the wound by urinating on him -- this is a completely meretricious scene characteristic of Cable TV in general: seize the audience's attention by something so over-the-top that the viewer will return for more.) Of course, Chuck's sexual enthusiasms make him subject to blackmail. Similarly, Wendy's enthusiastic participation in those activities exposes her to extortion as well. Just about everyone in this show is motivated by either extravagant greed, or it's opposite, some kind of economic or personal duress constituting blackmail in one form or another. Chuck's nemesis is Danny Axelrod, a fit and ruthless hedge-fund manager as wealthy as Croesus. Axelrod made his first fortune with a series of lightning trades implemented between the first jet crashing into the World Trade Center and the second impact -- in the disaster, Axelrod lost most of his friends (and his wife's brother, a firefighter), but made millions. (For much of the first series, Axelrod's secret as to the source of the seed money for his fortune remains carefully guarded -- this is so that he can be threatened with black mail.) Wendy, Chuck's wife, a psychological therapist, works as a highly compensated counselor and "success coach" for Axelrod's team of semi-psychotic "assassin" traders -- these people go to strip clubs for "body sushi" and fire machine guns at deer munching on the shrubbery on their multi-million dollar Long Island estates. Chuck, the prosecutor, disdains his wife's complicity in the highly profitable Axelrod Capitol enterprise and engages in a personal, obsessive vendetta to destroy the trader. It appears that everything that Axelrod does is corrupt -- he apparently trades on insider information (this part of the show, although probably scrupulously researched is a little arcane for most viewers). Accordingly, Chuck is desperate to chasten the arrogant hedge fund manager and personally motivated in this feud because of his wife's close and, even, intimate relationship with her boss -- Axelrod has Wendy swim naked with him as a test of her honesty. Axelrod is played by the British actor, Damian Lewis, a handsome wiry fellow with a perpetual smirk on his face -- he is the opposite of the plump, rather doughy and unattractive Giamatti. (We see Giamatti creeping around on his knees in a Des Moines bondage and discipline dungeon; in another scene, Giamatti sullenly opens a can of cat food for his pet. We are told his salary: the poor guy only pulls down $180,000 a year, probably a quarter of his wife's compensation. By contrast, Axelrod lives in billion dollar beach front compound, roams acres of his glittering office in a Westchester County forest, the walls of the place decorated with spectacular modern art, and flies in his private jet to Montreal to attend a Metallica concert where he hobnobs with the band backstage.) The heart of the show is the conflict between Giamatti and Lewis, a sort of duel of titans pitting the billions of Wall Street against the full, unleashed power of the Federal government. At the heart of the conflict is Chuck's resentment as to the fact the Axelrod has bought, and paid for, his wife. Wendy sashays around Axe Capital, always dressed in severe black and wearing high-heeled leather boots -- she describes the strenuous psycho-calisthenics that she uses to keep Axelrod's minions in top fighting spirit as "sessions" and, of course, exudes cool, sadistic mastery over everyone that she encounters. She is the only person in the show unaffected by Axelrod's aura of imperturbable financial and personal infallibility -- she sees through him like she sees through everyone else. Billions has a deep bench -- there are a host of fascinating secondary characters: the U.S. attorney's office is full of scorpions of various kinds, all blackmailing one another and scrambling to climb over the corpses of their competitors: when the team of lawyers are not furiously conspiring to undercut one another, they are sleeping together -- after all, this is Cable, and there has to be one explicit sex scene every two episodes. Chuck's father is vampire who berates his poor son and sets up one of his many mistresses to compromise his enemies. And, of course, Axe Capital is a rogue's gallery of rapacious traders, many of them afflicted with spectacular vices; they are captained by Wags, Axelrod's Mephistophelian factotum -- a cheerful little guy with a goatee who brays "Powerball winner!" when Axe pays someone off with "five sticks", that is five million dollars. Axe has an avuncular, vicious lawyer, a beautiful blonde trophy wife who is every bit as cunning and criminal as her husband, two spoiled kids, a chef, and a terrifying head of security, a man that we see, at one point, apparently enjoying some kind of sexual encounter with a female dwarf in what looks like an abandoned slaughterhouse. There are various informants, snitches, a corrupt Federal Judge that Chuck gleefully blackmails before sending him to prison, nasty pension fund managers, cops-on-the-take etc. All of this would be completely ridiculous but for the fact that the show is very carefully written, well-designed, and brilliantly acted. Indeed, in the season finale, broadcast in second week of April 2016, Billions concludes with two spectacular confrontations -- in the first Wendy denounces Chuck about stealing her personal patient-therapy files and using that information in an attempt to damage Axelrod -- although Chuck has acted badly, even, with criminal intent he refuses to back down, crying out "If you work for a criminal and spend your time helping criminals in their criminal enterprise, what does that make you?" Wendy parlays Chuck's confession as to the theft of her files, recorded on her cell-phone, for five million dollars and, then, quits Axe Capital, throwing Chuck out of their house for a good measure. Axelrod has been tricked into savaging his own offices in search of a listening device allegedly planted by the Feds. After shredding the office walls to the studs and ripping out all ceilings, the computers heaped up in a pile and trashed, Axelrod finds that Chuck has come to see him. The two men's final confrontation is the climax of the 12 hour show and it is thrilling -- further, thrilling in an adult way: there are fisticuffs, no explosions, no car chases. Billions is not without its longuers: like all of these programs, there are detours and subplots introduced into the narrative web for the purpose of padding the plot so that it fits into the time allotted for the series -- probably, the show is about four hours too long. But when Billions cleaves most closely to its central premise -- the perverse triangle between Axelrod, Wendy, and Chuck and the ferocious duel between the two men -- the show is a dirty pleasure. At the end of the show, Chuck declares: "The only enemy worse than someone with unlimited resources is -- " and here he throws out his arms in a gesture suggesting crucifixion --"a man with nothing to lose." This sets up the show for next year and, if I am alive then, I will be tuned-in.