‘Billions’ Season 5 Gets More Introspective as It Delivers Another Round of Great Thrills
In Showtime’s “Billions” it’s never about the money itself but about the personalities fueled by it. The numbers are but a mere tool for characters to fire up their obsessions and vendettas. This is what keeps the show entertaining even going into the half-decade mark. The dialogue still tends to slide into melodrama and by now the original confrontation at the center of the plot keeps being relegated more and more to the sidelines. This season has everything typical of the show, but something new: A deeper exploration of how money doesn’t always translate to happiness, even for the man for whom it means everything.
As the season opens state attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) finds himself attending the most uncomfortable of weddings. His father Chuck Sr. (Jeffrey DeMunn) is getting married again, this time to Roxanne (Lily Gladstone). It’s Chuck’s luck that his soon-to-be ex Wendy (Maggie Siff) also attends the wedding and isn’t in the mood for any extended talks, even “just as friends.” The only part of life where Chuck seems to be having success is with his new prosecutor, Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad), a cutthroat eager to learn from the master. Their first big case for the season is busting a Cryptomine operation that leads back to Chuck’s great nemesis, billionaire Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis). Having smashed Taylor Mason Capital last season and now officially hitting the $10 billion club, Axelrod tries to take some time off by going into the Canadian wilderness with acolyte Mike Wagner (David Costabile) to get high on ayahuasca. While pondering how to turn the drug into a new business venture, it also dawns on Axelrod that making ten billion hasn’t made him any happier, just more driven. When he returns to New York he also finds another billionaire encroaching into his territory, Mike Prince (Corey Stoll). Not only does Prince start buying up items and properties coveted by Axelrod, he also tries to publicly shame him for not being humanist enough. Meanwhile Wendy is trying to merge what’s left of Taylor Mason Capital into Axe Capital, and will need the help of Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon) to smooth out the rocky transition.
“Billions” started off as a thriller that somehow turned cryptic financial language into something as riveting as shootouts in other shows. That vein continues in the fifth season, but now it isn’t just about Chuck trying to nab Axelrod. The first four episodes of season five made available for review move away from this central theme and stays in the separate lanes of the two characters. Chuck is processing the loss of his marriage to Wendy and while he’s still a determined hound who wants Kate to become a killer prosecutor, he is also contemplating new moves in his life to find a better balance. By the third episode he’s back at Yale interviewing to teach. Axelrod seems more and more pulled between his ambitions and the way money provides him momentary escapes. He wants to expand his cryptocurrency operation to generate millions more through a digital black market, while ripping out a model’s photo from Vanity Fair and telling Mike, “I would like to try this.” But after riding his BMW motorcycle with his only real companion he turns to Mike, gazing out at the Canadian wilderness, and admits he feels little emotional change after learning he has hit $10 billion. What drives this man or any person of this kind? We get a hint of it during a public Q&A session with Prince where he admits he’s a “monster,” a power player who started with nothing except the drive to consume and take over. This statement slightly takes Prince aback. He’s just as ruthless but hides it behind the veneer of a philanthropist promoting social projects (he challenges Axelrod to join him in air dropping aid to Honduras).
This new season of “Billions” is not all introspection. There is still much of the charming, wicked flourishes that make it a more melodramatic, even wacky entertainment when compared to more serious reflections on the rich like HBO’s “Succession.” Even when the elite try to show off their perks it’s in a less darker mode than in other shows. When Chuck arrests crypto hackers associated with Axelrod, the billionaire makes a peace offering by bringing Chuck back his original, signed editions of Winston Churchill’s World War II history. Later Axelrod tries to purchase a painting from a painter currently in vogue only to find that Prince already bought the collection. Axelrod’s solution is to simply hire the painter himself to make something new. The two tycoons are also featured in a Vanity Fair photo shoot, but Axelrod explodes when he discovers it’s Prince who makes the cover. Mike is always standing nearby with quick solutions, like buying every printed copy to save face for his boss. Later Mike will go to a strip club to close a deal with a business partner, only to make a personally devastating discovery on the dance platform. Wendy faces dissent at the Axe Capital ranks from former Taylor Mason employees who feel slighted or looked down upon by their new co-workers. To bring some more enthusiasm to the office she stages an appearance by WWE wrestler Becky Lynch, who really does make a spirited cameo. There’s always scheming going on in every corner of this however. Mason, now a more broken specter of their former player self, soon walks into Wendy’s office offering a truce to collaborate.
Because the show remains confined to what would be possible if billionaires went to war with each other, with a state attorney hovering in the background, “Billions” hasn’t crossed into the kind of storytelling tricks where the plot becomes completely bonkers and unbelievable. Sure these characters are exaggerations, not everyone who’s made millions has a super-charged brain and rapid fire genius like Axelrod. But great entertainments are supposed to go beyond real life, “Billions” does it in a way where even as we’re having a good time there’s a hint it’s points about greed and obsession are not off the mark.
“Billions” season five premieres May 3 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.