Sometimes a pilot episode is the chore you have to grin and bear through in order to get to the good stuff, and such is the case with Billions, which didn’t put its best foot forward in its inaugural hour. “Naming Rights” isn’t good enough to invert my initial lukewarm response to Billions, but it looks much more like the show Showtime has been advertising, and feels more like an episode the audience can use as an example of what to expect from the show. Billions could get better going forward, but it isn’t likely to get much different. This is still ultimately a show about a power struggle between two men on opposite sides of the haphazardly regulated financial services industry, and it may sprawl out from there, but not by much.

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The most interesting thing about “Naming Rights” is how it defines Billions’ moral outlook, which is crucial to building this world. Financial crimes can seem completely abstract to a layperson, so in a world where trading based on an illegal tip is as extreme as the transgressions get, it’s up to the storytellers to set the moral parameters within the show and hope the audience can get onboard with them. Despite its au courant subject matter and Andrew Ross Sorkin’s imprimatur, Billions doesn’t seem terribly interested in accurately rendering the world in which it’s set. For example, one of the false notes from the pilot is the notion that enough people are absorbed in the lives of hedge fund managers that Axe could invite widespread public scrutiny by buying an enormous oceanfront estate. It certainly isn’t the sort of thing that earns a punny headline on one of New York City’s tabloid dailies, but the storytellers can make it so, and don’t appear to mind doing so if a little creative license will pump some warmth into this world of cold, hard numbers.

In Billions, the true crimes aren’t insider trading or mail fraud, they’re hubris, greed, and unchecked ego, and Axe and Rhoades are almost equally guilty of them. Axe isn’t the antagonist of Billions, he’s one of two morally compromised, macho-to-a-fault characters, and the show is written so as to support the audience regardless of which man gets their support. “Naming Rights” reinforces the ideas put forth in the pilot: Axe is ambitious and observes no boundaries when dealing with his foes, but he’s also a guy from small means who achieved great things by being smarter and more cunning than his opponents. He’s also been supremely lucky, which is why he was spared on 9/11, and he generously shares his great fortune with the little people around him. Axe’s fatal error wasn’t necessarily buying a house with an eight-figure asking price, it was doing so without having fostered enough goodwill through his charitable deeds to justify such a splurge.

“Naming Rights” grants Axe an opportunity to balance the scales of public perception and vanquish an old foe in one fell swoop. Axe and Lara attend a charity event to benefit the local symphony, and Axe bristles about the Eads name on the venue as he and Lara draw from a weed vaporizer. In her latest thankless task, Lara spends the rest of the episode hammering out a deal in which Axe donates $100 million to the symphony and kicks out an extra $25 million to the Eads family to have their name removed from the hall and replaced with his. Axe doesn’t care much about the symphony, which is unsubtly indicated by putting him in a Metallica t-shirt. This is about screwing over the trust fund babies living a carefree life after inheriting a windfall from the cantankerous fat cat that fired a young Axe from his caddy gig after missing an ill-advised putt. In this setup, Axe is the antihero who makes himself palatable to the audience by outsmarting and humiliating a more distasteful, more crudely drawn redshirt.

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But Axe is still more black hat than white hat, and if hubris is the biggest sin one can have in the Billions world, he’s quickly earning his future comeuppance. After confiding in Hall about how his biggest fear is a swarm of g-men in windbreakers, Axe wields that fear as a weapon against his traders in an SEC drill designed to see who would crack if Axe’s nightmare were to come true. Everybody passes the test except for Victor, whose reckless trading on a tech stock is egregious enough to get him fired in front of his colleagues. There’s also, of course, the little matter of Axe exposing Steven Birch to scrutiny just to keep Rhoades busy feeding on a carcass other than his own. Just as co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien made the Eads family insufferable pricks, they could have made Birch an asshole with a well-earned target on his back. Instead, they make him kind of a mensch and cast the role with the charming, babyfaced Jerry O’Connell.

Birch is exactly the type of guy neither Axe nor Rhoades should be going after, according to the logic of Billions. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s that you always punch upward. Rhoades has been incredibly successful at prosecuting cases, but he fears the reason he’s been so successful is that he’s spent his career gorging himself on low-hanging fruit. Again, ego is the crime here, not necessarily the financial crime someone may have committed. Like the man who confronts Rhoades in the park during his last moments of freedom, Birch is a “good guy” who got caught up in some misdeeds but redeems himself through outright contrition. Rhoades picks up on this pretty quickly, and coupled with the fact that the Birch case is another slam-dunk prosecution that doesn’t remotely challenge him, Rhoades grants Birch mercy and refocuses his attention on Axe.

“Naming Rights” is a stronger hour of television than the Billions pilot, but suffers from the same bluntness and puerile sense of humor. The subplot with Hall blackmailing Tara into becoming Axe’s mole inside the U.S. Attorney’s office is offensively stupid, and like the dominatrix scenes in the pilot, it feels like another flimsy excuse to sex up a sterile story. Hall shows Tara a videotape of her lesbian tryst, and when Tara isn’t effectively cowed by his threat to make the video “go viral,” he threatens to have strands of her hair delivered to Rhoades to prove she’s been doing cocaine. Nothing can convince me that Tara would have fallen victim to this scheme.

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In order for the story to make sense, the consequences Tara is facing don’t have to be real, they only have to feel real to her so that it makes sense for her to capitulate to him. But there’s no way someone who works in the U.S. Attorney’s office, who regularly sees people being pardoned for smaller crimes in exchange for information about larger ones, would be convinced she couldn’t immediately tell Rhoades exactly what happened. Rhoades wouldn’t fixate on Tara’s minor recreational drug offense, he would go apeshit on the person trying to infiltrate his office, and it doesn’t make sense that Tara would believe otherwise. But the Tara subplot, as clumsy as it is, is at least indicative of Billions moving in the direction a potentially entertaining, if not groundbreaking nighttime soap. That’s a considerable improvement over the shapeless story presented in the pilot.

Stray observations

  • Wendy gets tasked with soothing Victor’s ego lest the man, who is psychologically prone to vengeance, come gunning for Axe.
  • I’m intrigued by the Wendy character, in part because I know that what she does is an actual job, but I don’t get the impression the show is portraying it accurately. I find it hard to believe that someone like Wendy gets paid so much money to give pithy pep talks all day.
  • Again with the weird, juvenile use of sexuality. The Tara scene is superfluous, considering it’s the drugs that ultimately get her in pseudo-trouble, not the lesbian sex. Hall says that what he’s into would scar her, so naturally there’s a scene of a scantily clad little person coming into a locker room presumably to service him. That’s a bad and borderline offensive joke.

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