Home Featured TV Shows All TV Shows Movie Reviews Book Reviews Articles Frequently Asked Questions About Us

Billions: Pilot

"What we do has consequences."

Finance. Politics. Law. Crime. Popular opinion.

Welcome to the grey area.

Pilot episodes, as I think I've mentioned elsewhere, have a lot of heavy lifting to do. They have to establish who the characters are, what their relationships are to one another, set the tone for what the series is intending to be, and then – maybe, if there's time – tell an interesting story. That's a pretty full to-do list.

But outside of all that is the pilot's most important job of all. Above all else, it has to get you interested enough to come back and watch the next episode. If they fail at that, none of the rest of it matters. Even if they do everything else well.

So how does Billions: The Pilot episode measure up? Really, really well, is the short answer. If you haven't watched it yet I highly recommend pausing here and going to check it out before reading further, because we're going to dig into it and spoil some of the twists that lie at the heart of why it works. I'll throw a spoiler protection break here with a picture of Damien Lewis. This is partially to give a little gap in the text to protect the unwary from accidentally reading spoilers, but mostly because he's very pretty. You're welcome.

That all established, before we really dig into the discussion, I'm going to need you to indulge me with a brief word about the basic setup of the show. The thing is, this is ostensibly set up to be a cat-and-mouse style series in which we thrill to the struggle between the Attorney General for the Southern District of New York and a flashy hedge fund billionaire who plays by his own rules. Which one will out-scheme, out-think, and out-maneuver the other to come out ahead? That's a solid premise.

Now, traditionally we'd have gone into a show with that premise expecting that the lawman was going to be the 'good guy' and the lawbreaking billionaire was poised to be the 'bad guy.' And that was all well and good. But then Watergate happened, and we thought to ourselves, 'Hey, no reason, but maybe we should start assuming that the government is the "bad guy" and the rebel who refuses to be controlled is the real hero.' And that was fun for a good long while.

Then 9/11 happened and we kind of needed to believe in the government again. At least – potentially – as a force for protection, if not what for we might have once called 'good.' Back when the word held less complicated connotations.

One of the hallmarks of American film and television in the first quarter of the twenty-first century is the collapse of characters that could be neatly sorted into 'good' or 'bad.' And this is where we segue into discussing the first item on my checklist of 'Things the Pilot needs to establish well.' The Characters.

It's worth taking a moment to look at how the individual characters are introduced to us. We first meet Chuck Rhoades, Jr., USDA for SDNY. He would traditionally have been our hero figure. And when we first meet him, he's tied up and engaging in some sort of BDSM activity.

Which is morally neutral, just to be clear, but it's an unexpected first image for the champion of law and order. It's neutral, that is, until we see him back at work the next day and hear a very pointed reference to him having a wife. This is clearly intended to give the impression that the bondage stuff is some sort of illicit affair.

We're led to assume from the beginning that his character is morally compromised because of that. But what it's really doing is making us overlook that the very first thing we hear him do at work. When we first walk into his office, he's straight up offering some influence peddling to get someone appointed to the judicial bench if they do him a favor. It's a brief moment as the last thing he says on a phone call, but it's there, and it's morally compromised as hell. And we're encouraged to not notice it for the moment because we're still thinking about cigarette burns and urine.

Contrast that to our first experiences of Bobby 'Axe' Axelrod, in which he's swooping in to financially save a beleaguered and beloved neighborhood businessman who owns the pizza place that Axe loved as a kid. For apparently completely altruistic reasons. After which he heads out to hand out generous scholorships to kids who lost parents in 9/11. Not exactly your expected 'bad guy' behavior. Chuck, meanwhile, explicitly spells out that his desire to convict Axe for insider trading has nearly nothing to do with justice, and he's instead entirely basing his moves on timing things for the best possible moment to attempt to take Axe down successfully because that's what would be best for his career.

One of these characters is giving back to the community while the other one is acting like a Machiavellian asshole. So does that mean that we know who the good guy is and who the bad guy is?

It does not. Because it's at this point that the subtle twists start to come into play. Lara, Axe's wife, escorts a grieving 9/11 widow out of the scholarship presentation to take her down in the most threatening and cold-blooded way possible in retaliation for spoiling the optics of the event. Then we're treated to an evening at home with the Axelrods where we find them encouraging their two sons to think in terms of out-conning one another, stressing the importance of not-welching on bets, and celebrating watching the family dog piss on the furniture because it underscores how important it is to mark what's yours.

There's some next level messed up parenting going on at the Axelrod house.

Meanwhile, Chuck and his wife, Wendy, seem to be amazing parents when we catch up with them at dinner. There's some tension between them but they do their best to be a united front for the kids and not make them part of the argument. The argument, once they're alone and can get into it, gets very heated and could clearly explode into something much larger. But both of them call for, and demonstrate the ability, to take an emotional step back, really hear what the other one is saying, and move forward with the discussion in a healthy way.

These two are couple goals. They're human, and messy, and full of their own perspectives, but they also know how to set that aside for the sake of their relationship and work through things together. Of course, we're still left with the lingering knowledge that Chuck is apparently seeing a dominatrix on the side, but hang on to that thought for just a moment, because I deliberately skipped over a couple of important details there.

Before we see Chuck get home for dinner with his wife, we've already met her. At Axe's office. Because she's both Chuck Rhoades' wife and Bobby Axelrod's company therapist and performance coach. And both Chuck and Axe obviously think she's worth the sun and the moon. Not romantically, on Axe's part, which I really appreciate. That would have been the easy direction for the show to go, and I'm glad they didn't. It's obvious that she's his dear friend, trusted employee, and that he'd move Heaven and Earth to have her back. But it's also just as obvious that he's happily married and isn't remotely interested in her romantically. I love that dynamic for them.

Wendy Rhoades is, in almost every meaningful way, the lynchpin of this show. Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti are electric together as adversaries, but the common bond they share with Wendy makes the whole thing dynamic and fascinating. And then, to cap it all off, we get that very last moment reveal that it was Wendy all along, engaging in consensual bondage-play with Chuck in the opening scene. He isn't cheating on her, it's just something they enjoy together. It doesn't retroactively make him the 'good guy' of the show, but it does confirm that he's a good husband. And quite possibly also a corrupt DA. And he's intent on taking down his wife's best friend who's probably insider trading and who gives out scholarships and saves local businesses from getting squeezed out.

Yeah, this one got me to come back for more.

Bits and Pieces:

-- There are so many more great characters in this show that I haven't even touched on yet, but I want to give special mention to Jeffrey DeMunn, who you might know as 'Hey, there's that guy who was in all those Steven Spielberg/Stephen King movies.' He proves himself to be a special kind of manipulative bastard in this one as Charles Rhoades, Sr., but I promise you he's only just begun.

-- Even here, in the pilot episode, it feels like they're already struggling to find something to do with Lara Axelrod, played by the always wonderful Malin Ackerman.

-- I mentioned in my checklist that a pilot should ideally tell a story of its own if it has time amongst all the setups. That's really the weakest point of this episode. The plot, such as it is, concerns whether or not Axe will buy an ultra-expensive house along a prestigious bit of coastline (next to where Chuck's dad lives as it happens just to underscore the hypocrisy). You can see that they're setting up the entire cat/mouse aesthetic by having Axe get played at multiple points during the episode via subtle pushes from Chuck to buy it and from Wendy to not buy it. Eventually he's pushed to do what Chuck wanted him to do by seeing Elmo, the aforementioned urinating dog after he's been 'fixed.' Yup, it's the idea of having his balls cut off that pushes him to buy the place despite being cautioned not to. It's not terrible, but it's all predicated on Chuck's belief that if the public sees Axe spending that much on a house that they'll stop looking up to him as a 'Robin Hood Billionaire' and then he'll be more vulnerable to prosecution, and I just never bought that. I might be wrong, but I can't imagine people caring that much about 'Guy you knew was super rich buying super expensive house.' It feels like a manufactured plot point.

-- It does, however, lead to a blurred-through-water image of naked Damian Lewis, so... you know. It's fine.

-- They do a nicely sinister job of establishing Hall as Axe's mysterious wet work guy who gets all the shady stuff done. Again, that's not something your 'good guy' should be up to.

-- Look, there's at least a doctoral thesis worth of things to say on the interrelationship between the embrace of moral ambiguity in popular fiction and the rise of global terrorism with a focus on 9/11 and American television tropes in specific. In the interest of full disclosure, I totally got into a groove and wrote about five paragraphs about that before I was forced to admit that I'd gotten completely off track and deleted them so that I could get back to talking about Billions. All I can say is that if any of you are doing your PhD in media studies, I freely offer you up the topic and expect to be thanked in the footnotes. And also, I can't wait to read it.

-- I very much love how resolutely non-kink-shaming this show is, and (mild spoilers) continues to be throughout its entire run. This is something Wendy and Chuck enjoy. They're adults. It's none of our business. I like that. It is a bit of a relief, though, that the show is never again as graphic about it as they are in the opening scene of this episode. There's a difference between not judging them for it and wanting to see it.

-- It's a good choice how tragically casual they all are about Skip's suicide. They're all busy playing games to outmaneuver each other, and he was the human cost.

-- The character of Wags, Axe's factotum, is played by David Costabile, who previously was the ill-fated chemist Gale on Breaking Bad. Which leads us to...

Your moment of Wags:

At twenty-eight minutes and forty seconds into this episode we meet the man who will go on to be the unquestionable MVP of the entire series. Mike 'Wags' Wagner. Gloriously filthy, relentlessly charming, and delightfully hedonistic on a scale rarely before imagined, Wags serves here as Bobby's right hand man, and starting next episode, as a never ending source of wonderful, memeable quotes.

He doesn't really have a good line in this one, beyond a somewhat feisty defense of specific building classification, but from here on out we'll be featuring his best line of the week in this space.

It's worth noting that he appears here clean shaven, not having grown his hereafter trademark look of goatee and waxed mustache. They refer to it as 'growing the beard' for a reason, people.


Bobby: "Yale?"
Ben: "Stanford. Then Wharton."
Bobby: "Okay, Stanford-Wharton."

Bobby: "My cholesterol’s high enough. Don’t butter my ass, Danzig, just get smarter."

Chuck: "A good matador doesn’t try to kill a fresh bull. You wait until he’s been stuck a few times."

Lara: "Certain things you learn in Inwood, they never leave you. You know, like that if someone has a problem with you and they come to you in person, you do what you can to take care of it. But if they take that beef public, the ground just falls out from beneath them where I’m from. You find yourself all alone."
June: "Are you threatening me?"
Lara: "You’re fucking right I am."

Mick: "You’re Mrs. Mojo, so I booked the appointment."
Wendy: "It’s Doctor Mojo."

Chuck: "And, who makes more money? Really? Is this what we’re teaching the kids?"
Wendy: "Oh, are we teaching them that Daddy’s job is always more important that Mommy’s?"
Chuck: "Hey, I work for the public good."
Wendy: "No, you work for the good of Chuck Rhoades. Maybe sometimes they intersect."

Chuck: "My father always told me that ‘mercy’ was a word that pussies used when they couldn’t take the pain. I love you, Dad. But if you walk into my office and try to use your influence again, you are gonna walk out of here in handcuffs."

Wendy: "I’m better paid than anybody in my med school class except the guy who invented the synthetic bladder."
Axe: "I’ll short his company."

So, who won today?

I have to give this episode's win to Chuck. He managed to maneuver Axe into buying the big house, which was his goal. Even if I don't think Axe's buying it is going to matter to anybody the way Chuck's assuming it will. He still made it happen.

Eight out of ten synthetic bladders.

Mikey Heinrich is, among other things, a freelance writer, retired firefighter, and roughly 78% water. You can find more of his work at the 42nd Vizsla. If you'd like to see his raw notes for this and other reviews, you can find them at What Was Mikey Thinking.


  1. I'll always remember David Costabile as Daniel Hardman in Suits rather than from Breaking Bad.

    1. I haven't seen suits yet, but it's on my list of shows to get around to watching. Is he as memorable in that one as he is here?

      Coming back to the pilot after watching the whole series it's really surprising how little he's in this one

  2. So excited to see Billions reviewed here! I loved this series!!

    1. I am really excited to be reviewing it! I hope I do it justice

  3. This is a show that I've always seen on various streaming platforms but never watched. And I always mixed it up with Succession in my head. But very curious to read along.

    I used to really like all of the moral ambiguity, and I probably still do? but nowadays I feel like a lot of shows have traded ambiguity for "everyone here is awful and no one is worth rooting for." Is that what happens here? Is that too much of a spoiler to ask?

    Also, I'm just saying that if you still have those five paragraphs of a thesis somewhere, I'd love to read it... ; )

    1. It's interesting that you should say that about Succession, because that was the show I went to immediately after I finished Billions, and there are a million interesting little comparisons between the two.

      The main difference is that in Succession they're definitely doing that thing you describe where everybody is just loathsome to the core, but I'm happy to report that Billions didn't go that route. I can't think of a single character that doesn't get moments where they're totally wonderful and worth rooting for


We love comments! We moderate because of spam and trolls, but don't let that stop you! It’s never too late to comment on an old show, but please don’t spoil future episodes for newbies.