The key to understanding Billions, and why it’s such an unpleasant show to watch, is June Raichlein. June is the grieving widow from the pilot, the woman Lara pounced on after she aired her grievances publicly rather than try to make peace with the Axelrods privately. Given the brevity of her scenes in the first two episodes, June seems like an unlikely character to serve as an emblem of Billions’ shortcomings, but then again, that’s the June of the pilot. The June in “YumTime” seems like a completely different person. In the pilot, June was mousy and wounded, but in “YumTime,” she’s a glamorous, fame-obsessed society woman. Her hair is different. Even her voice doesn’t sound quite the same. The before and after is pretty dramatic.
Why is it necessary to tweak June this way? For one thing, it gives Lara, a character who could easily get lost in the shuffle, a fire to put out. But it can’t be just any fire. In order to justify Lara’s campaign to annihilate June’s social standing and even get her son denied admission to Stanford, June has to be a terrible person. She can’t be the whimpering sad sack she was in the pilot, so “YumTime” immediately goes to work shaping the audience’s perception of her to make Lara’s takedown feel more satisfying. The episode opens with June bouncing eagerly on an elderly book publisher, who has agreed to publish a memoir called 9/12: The Day After, a memoir of June’s experiences following the 9/11 attacks. Lara catches wind of the book when she runs into June at a group fitness class, then sets about wrangling a copy of the book and picking June apart until she has no choice but to relent and edit out incriminating information about the Axelrods.
If the June of “YumTime” was the woman in the pilot, the woman horrified by Lara’s thinly veiled threat, the plot would be tough to watch. The story would be about an aristocrat destroying a woman for having the temerity to speak out of turn, and while that would be no fun, it would also give the audience full permission to hate the Axelrods. But Billions isn’t a show where a guy in a white hat faces off against a guy in a black one; it’s premium cable anti-hero cliche. Lara has to succeed in taking down a shameless social climber who bedded a publisher to advance her tired memoir and book appearances on the morning shows. June is also a hypocrite. When Lara goes over the content of the book with the Axelrods’ attorney, they strongly imply that Bobby capitalized on the 9/11 attacks for financial gain. But June is doing the same thing, trying to turn her grief into a book deal and speaking career, and again, Billions becomes a show that asks the audience to cheer when the pot triumphs over the kettle.
Showtime has already renewed Billions for a second season, so apparently there are people who enjoy the moral relativism in this epic battle between power-hungry pole stars. But with so little nuance and grace in the execution, the shades of grey are just boring. Billions manages to be boring even as it pulls out all the tricks in its premium-cable knapsack. In fact, the sex and salty language are precisely what calls attention to just how boring Billions is. Coarse language and sexual imagery are used as spackle, and when a spackle job is this bad, it’s hard to focus on anything other than the hole it used to be. “YumTime” starts out cutting between two unpleasant sex scenes between characters whose names I couldn’t remember, and that sets the tone for the rest of the episode. There are mentions of “ass to mouth,” ass lube, twats, cunts, people fucking goats, the rape of individually wrapped pastries, and putting companies in your mouth.
All the talk of phalluses and orifices is a function of the plot, which is all about people getting screwed in one way or another. Bobby’s latest feat of corporate plunder involves YumTime, the maker of Scrumpets and other fine snack cakes. Bobby takes a stronger position in the company and shakes up the board of directors as a means of restoring YumTime to its former glory, but the maneuver isn’t just about salvaging the Scrumpet’s good name, it’s about humiliating the elder Chuck Rhoades. Ol’ Man Rhoades is having an affair with Evelyn, who is occupying his former seat in YumTime’s board, and has that position stripped from her during Bobby’s coup. Evelyn’s ouster is Bobby’s second quiet victory over Rhoades, with the first being his success in getting a mole inside the U.S. Attorney’s office. It also represents the second time in two episodes that Bobby has gotten to smugly cut people down to size in a boardroom. Billions goes out of its way to avoid having a villain, but right now, Bobby is as close as the show comes to having one simply because he’s currently winning their diffuse battle of wits.
That makes Rhoades the hero by default, not because the audience should be anymore invested in his success than in Bobby’s. Rhoades is also screwing people, a guy in the park who Rhoades forces to pick up dog poop with his bare hand, and a colleague who gets his terrorism case wrested from him so Rhoades can use it as a bargaining chip. Rhoades isn’t above using anyone or anything as leverage, so long as it accomplishes the intended result. He has no problem going after Peter Decker’s probably innocent parents when he discovers they’re close enough to the money that he can use them as kindling. Rhoades is a pretty terrible person, but the audience isn’t given full permission to hate him either. Billions demands that its characters be loved for the ruthless pricks they are, which would be admirable if their choices weren’t always being measured against the behavior of random foils.
Once again, Wendy Rhoades: Douche Whisperer has the most interesting storyline, even though her professional quandary is like a watered-down Dr. Melfi’s story from The Sopranos. Wags’ bloodlust is triggered because Maria “got out of line” by leveraging a deal from another fund to get a better offer from Axe Capital. Wendy’s torn between two people and forbidden to judge either one of them. Sounds an awful like the experience of watching this show.
- Bryan and Terri are sleeping together, which I’m sure will be important pretty soon.
- The scene with Rhoades making the guy pick up the dog poop in the park is baffling in so many ways. Why again is this man submitting to Rhoades’ bullying? Because he’s “that guy” and has a tailored suit on? And then there’s the jaunty incidental music when the guy is forced to pick up the poop, which suggests that was supposed to be a fun moment for the audience, but that’s not the experience I had.
- A 9/11 widow memoir in 2016? What am I missing here? I’m guessing June called it 9/12: The Day After because it sounded snappier than The 15 Years Of Magical Thinking.
- “What’s Ebbinger’s? That’s exactly what you wanted me to ask, isn’t it?” Ugh.