Did you ever read a book or watch a TV series, thinking it was about a certain thing, only to find out at the very end that it was really about something else? That can be quite a jarring reversal, and it happened in the 12th episode of the third season of Billions, my favorite show. Since the main character is a ruthless billionaire hedge fund manager, most of the other characters either work for him or are trying to bring him down, and the lifestyles celebrated are mostly wretched excess, you would expect the show to be about money, growing it, spending it, worshipping it. For the first 35 episodes, it mostly was. But oh, the 36th!
I will assume you aren’t familiar with the show, so let’s start with the main characters. Bobby Axelrod, the main man, grew up poor in Brooklyn, but ascended the money managing ladder to become the superstar in that world. Axe Capital excels in money management. Really, what the heck is “money management”? In this case, buying and selling stocks mostly. The more often you buy low and sell high, the more profit. Knowing what and when to buy or sell successfully can be genius, manipulation, insider information, exceptional algorithms, and lucky timing. Bobby excels in the first three, his protege Taylor Mason excels in one and four, and together they are practically unstoppable.
Bobby’s main antagonist is Chuck Rhoades, a New York district attorney, whose upbringing was as silver spoon as Bobby’s was hard scrabble. Bobby is his “white whale” and Chuck is more than happy to be captain Ahab. But wait, another pivotal character is Chuck’s wife Wendy, who is an integral part of the team. Whose team? Bobby’s! She works for Axe Capital, and her job is to….actually, what it appears to be and what it really is may represent the height of Wendy’s self deception, which becomes a central pivot of episode 36. Chuck justifies his shady methods in pursuit of harpooning Bobby as necessary evils. Bobby justifies his shady practices in pursuit of wealth and status the same way. Wendy soothes Chuck whenever Bobby wins a round while coaching Bobby and his colleagues to be more effective at whatever it is they do, and she benefits in both directions without ever noticing the slightest conflict of interest, or maybe she does, since discernment is her stock-in-trade. Then again, when benefits and conscience collide, the latter is almost always the movable object.
Along the way, these characters betray trust, trample relationships, and justify it all, smug in their righteousness…or at least their right to win. Somehow, they each manage to score enough victories to ascend to greater heights in their arena….until brought to earth in….you guessed it, episode 36. Okay you say, “What The Heck Happened in episode 36???” Well, just two more characters to introduce, to get more to savor. I mentioned Taylor, Bobby’s resident genius. She is androgynous and insists on being referred to as “they” rather than she, yet falls in love with a man, whose trust she betrayed…or did she/they? That is never entirely clear. Her lover thinks she/they betrayed him, she/they thinks Bobby betrayed him, and in so doing betrayed her/they also. Betrayal is the critical component, since Bobby justified what he did because he could, because his name, not hers/their’s(?), was on the door of the firm. He unwittingly taught her (I’ve had enough with the plural pronouns) that ownership alone, not genius, is power.
Chuck also has a major antagonist, truly a white whale, his boss, the attorney general of the U.S. This guy is a tall Texas shitkicker redneck who makes Chuck prosecute cases that are often unjust, but that serve the A.G.’s political agenda. Chuck sets in motion an elaborate scheme to trap the A.G. into obstructing justice, and enlists the “squeaky clean/ scandal free” A.G. of New York to help him. The scheme would have worked too, but someone whom Chuck once betrayed–that theme again–leaks the game to the A.G. of the U.S., and then Chuck himself is betrayed by his co-conspirator, who trades his integrity for the mess of pottage called Deputy A.G.U.S. Is there no integrity in this show?
Bobby is eventually betrayed by Taylor, who shows him how well she’s absorbed the lessons his actions taught her, by setting up her own firm surreptitiously, while taking with her most of his assets under management and some important staff. He doesn’t catch on until it’s too late. Perhaps the most important scene in this episode, maybe the whole series, is Taylor’s attempt to woo Wendy to her firm. When Wendy rebuffs her, due to her extreme loyalty to Bobby, Taylor calls her on the hypocrisy of the work she does for Axe Capital. Oops, that’s Wendy’s one major Achilles heel, and it unleashes a hidden Wendy. Gone in an instant is her wealth guilt (Bobby once bought her a Maserati as a reward for her work, but she sold it due to wealth guilt), gone is her pretense of New Agey people-builder, replaced by a thirst for revenge against Taylor (or against the truth?)! The last, most guiltily pleasure scene of the episode is now upon us. Wendy invites Bobby to dinner with her and Chuck, for the purpose of these three master manipulators crafting a brutally delicious revenge on the temporary victors. I can’t wait for season 4!!!
So I said in the beginning, the show seemed to be about money, and now it seems to be about revenge. The truth is, it’s really about trust and betrayal! The main characters could have had very good lives, if they were content and valued trust and relationships. Instead, by modeling betrayal, and not being able to see themselves clearly, nor repenting, their only satisfaction left is contemplating revenge. What could be emptier? But then again, it makes for great entertainment. My dominant thought at the end of season three is how glad I am that I resisted my own temptations to betray for short term gain, having been in the “financial services” industry (where temptation to betray is practically baked in to the system).