Season 5: Episode 1 of Billions ("The New Decas"), Reviewed by a Finance Guy
A finance world veteran dishes on all the enlightenment seeking and self-styled badassery
Each week, we’ll be diving into the latest episode of Billions — the best finance-driven dramedy on premium cable — with a technical assist from Elliot Grossman, a veteran of the financial services industry. Since Billions is loosely based on real characters, we’ll be homing in on how the show tracks with the real world events and situations that inspire it. But of course, we’ll also be celebrating its wild excesses, shoddy ethics, endless cringes and highly questionable dancing.
We’re beginning with Season Five for a few reasons: First, the end of Season Four gave Billions and its wild cluster-smash of back-stabbing, front-stabbing and shifting alliances an enormous reset. After briefly teaming up to fend off threats from subordinates last season, hedge-fund antihero Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and New York Attorney General Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) renew their god-given place in the natural order as sworn enemies. For everyone else, heartbreak, shameless opportunism, over-the-top conspiring and extremely specific cultural references lie ahead.
In other words, if you haven’t caught on to Billions yet, this is a great time to start. After all, as the Tao of Axe states, “being early is the same as being wrong.” So buckle up.
The New Decas
The episode begins with two characteristically extravagant scenes: a New York wedding scene featuring octogenarian Chuck Rhoades, Sr., marrying his much-younger mistress Roxanne (in the presence of his ex-wife, no less!) and a shaman-guided ayahuasca journey with Axe and Wags out in the Alaskan hinterlands. Chuck Sr. and Roxanne exchange ceremonial baskets at the altar while Axe and Wags, well, both blow chunks outside of a smoke-filled yarnga.
Of course, we love to see these ridiculous scenes play out on screen, in part because it’s easy enough to believe that these tropes — the limited self-awareness, the enlightenment seeking, the fuck-you money, the self-styled badassery — are made-for-TV exaggerations of the truth. Indeed, characters who go home at 7 p.m. and save responsibly for retirement would make for a terrible drama. Sure, there was, according to legend, so much cocaine in Bernie Madoff’s office that it was called the North Pole, but just how real is this?
“I actually think this is accurate,” Elliot explains. “Granted the examples given are just an anecdote. The hedge-fund people, and to some extent wealthy people in general, I know or am aware of, all seem to have a penchant for defiance in their personal life and hobbies. Examples of this are people who embrace alternative medicines and nutrition, all the way to experimenting with drugs, extreme sports, travel, etc. In fact, it actually seems passé that many hedge funders embrace their own ‘tailor-made’ act of defiance.”
Gasping at the Magic
A newcomer to the Billions ecosystem might be surprised to see the positioning of women, gender-nonconforming individuals and people of color in high places of power. In the first episode of Season Five, Wendy (Maggie Siff) keeps the equilibrium of Axe Capital steady while its two leaders are away experimenting with high-octane hallucinogens. She also unilaterally announces her divorce from Chuck and, more amazingly, participates in a fake throwdown with WWE star Becky Lynch in order to create more office cohesion.
The season premiere also casts a light on our favorite high-aspiring Assistant DA, Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad), who, now reunited with Chuck, demands to be part of the brain trust. “I’m not gonna be one of those rubes in the audience gasping at the magic anymore.” Hard not to get giddy at the possibilities here.
Meanwhile, we also witness the return of Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon) to Axe Cap., where, after being ruined and humiliated by the Axe-Chuck dyad last season, they and their team must endure taunts and, apparently, some bathroom pranks. But fear not. From the jump, Mason begins to plot anew on how to emerge from the wreckage of the next Chuck-Axe war of attrition with more power than before.
There’s something in this throughline that strikes at whether Hollywood’s quest for representation matches the reality. That Taylor Mason identifies as they/their in the show has to be one of the reasons that Billions garnered a nomination from GLAAD. But does this reflect reality? Elliot doesn’t quite see it yet.
“Although there are women in hedge funds and finance, little progress has really been made,” he writes. “Part of this is a macro issue because many of the most talented women in business have been drawn to other arenas than finance. There certainly is a visible push to promote women and minorities as well as big initiatives among banks and asset managers, but the reality is that it’s just not that successful. Finance is still largely run by white men between the ages of 40 and 75.”
A Prince Arrives
Speaking of white men aged 40 to 75, one of a handful of new characters slated for Season Five makes a big entrance in the first episode. We eventually learn that the title of the season premiere, “The New Decas,” is the term for the select masters of the universe who have reached the $10 billion threshold. Bobby Axelrod, having just passed the gilded rubicon, believes he is about to be featured on the cover of Vanity Fair for the achievement.
But it’s at the photo shoot that Axe learns he is not alone. Among a dirty dozen set to be on the cover is Mike Prince (Corey Stoll of House of Cards notoriety). Like Axe, he is young-ish, photogenic-ish, also comes from humble roots (a former basketball king of Indiana), and most irritating of all, his work centers on well-intentioned social impact entrepreneurship, generally known as ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance). Eventually, he maneuvers to bump everyone else from the cover and then uses his interview to bash Axe’s profit-and-pillage model as antiquated.
“Hedge funds are not the first or second adopters of ESG,” Elliot notes, “but a couple are starting to recognize that companies and people who do bad things don’t stand to profit forever.”
Odds and Ends
- Who got very nervous when Chuck took the mic at Chuck, Sr.’s wedding?
- The going rate for a signed first edition of the full six-volume, first-edition set of Winston Churchill’s The Second World War ranges from $13,000 to about $35,000. Shop accordingly.
- Elliot had a small quibble with the crypto subplot. I absolutely have to share it:
“The crypto narrative doesn’t hold up and it feels hackneyed.
- Crypto Mining is the domain of very sophisticated engineers and quants and only a few very large hedge funds have even dipped their toes in the water.
- No sophisticated Crypto Miner would ever reside in NY State. The NY Department of Financial Services is the most aggressive regime against crypto currency and it has sweeping power because of the Martin Act.
- They do require from cheap electricity rates, which is why many are in places with subsidized electricity, such as Iceland.”
Like Wags, may you also meet the creator of souls.