BY Ian Bourland | 21 MAY 20 | Opinion
Opinion

Why Is Wall Street Greed so Entertaining?

The fifth season of Billions is a queasy portrait of inequality in the US, but it can be hard to look away

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BY Ian Bourland | 21 MAY 20

In A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844), Karl Marx wrote that broken social relations must be confronted by ‘singing their own tune to them’. He wasn’t writing about the Showtime drama Billions (2016–ongoing), but I’d like to think he was. A longstanding avant-garde trick has been to show the world in heightened resolution so as to appropriate, shock or satirize. The risk, of course, with such close mimicry is that we end up merely glorifying the object of scrutiny. It’s unclear where Billions – now in the midst of its fifth season – will land, but I’m still watching.

When it debuted in midwinter 2016, Billions had a compelling hook: a thinly veiled recounting of a real-life, white-collar, cop-and-robber story set in the shadow of the 2011 Occupy movement. Paul Giamatti plays Chuck Rhoades, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, whose real-life counterpart, Preet Bharara, pursued the swaggering billionaire hedge-funder Steve Cohen after the Great Recession of 2008. Cohen pleaded guilty to securities fraud in 2013, paid US$1.8 billion in fines and lost the ability to run his fund for two years. Some wondered if he’d retire to his manse in Connecticut to be comforted by his sprawling collection of modernist art, but now he’s back, more pugilistic than ever. Cohen’s proxy, Bobby Axelrod, is played with tightly wound charisma by Damian Lewis of Homeland (2011–20), while his firm, S.A.C. Capital, is now Axe Capital, the fund that made an outer-borough boy a fortune as the World Trade Center came crashing down.

Billions, 2016–ongoing, film still. Courtesy: Showtime; photograph: Marc Hom / Showtime

From the outset, Billions had great promise: it was co-created by Andrew Ross Sorkin, the wunderkind financial reporter whose book Too Big to Fail (2009) dug deep into the muck of corruption and self-dealing at the heart of Wall Street and the federal government. No other marquee show sought to tackle such seemingly unglamorous material. For many viewers, it was a story, told in the past tense, of the venality and greed that marked the closing years of former US President George W. Bush’s administration. Even Rhoades, the ‘good guy’, more closely resembles the preening Eliot Spitzer, the Attorney General-turned-disgraced-Governor, than Bharara, who was ousted in 2017 following Donald Trump’s election as president. Others likely saw a cautionary tale about lingering inequality and a broken system of economic regulation in which there are no real white hats.

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But all that can be found in dry documentaries or the kinds of titles sold at airport book shops. What keeps Billions humming along is its vividly adumbrated New York, marked by bravado and excess. Most weeks, the show reflects a city deeply riven by inequality but, somehow, defying gravity with each multimillion-dollar brownstone sale or Instagram-worthy restaurant opening. And, for as much time as Axelrod spends stalking around his downtown offices, he is alternately fixated on the daily pleasures of beloved slice and mangú joints, or finally transcending his humble origins in Queens with one more extracurricular power play. For those outside the know, Billions is like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (1984–95), peppered with the on-trend absurdities of a Manhattan elite that is thirsty to be both moneyed and cool: clean eating and S&M, ayahuasca and ortolan (a rare songbird and illegal delicacy). Or, this past week, cryptocurrency and painfully bad abstract painting.

Damian Lewis as Bobby 'Axe' Axelrod in Billions, 2016–ongoing, film still. Courtesy: Showtime; photograph: Mark Schafer / Showtime

The pleasures of Billions are, then, guilty ones. You find yourself rooting for the crooks, being sucked into the double crosses and reversals. It is also a rewarding show for New Yorkers, much as Gossip Girl (2007–12) and 30 Rock (2006–13) used to play to the local crowd, daring the rest of America to keep up with the staccato name-checks and winking asides. This is a richly aestheticized world and even Billions’s lowly public servants seem to live high on the hog, clad in sharp suits and fluent in single malts. Rhoades himself is a trust funder with an elegant townhouse, and he’s wired in with the power brokers in Albany. The acting is uniformly superb, even when treading on camper terrain: it’s a delight to see Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) dress down the traders at the firm, while David Costabile, one of the most reliable character actors around, plays Axe Capital’s gleefully hedonistic major-domo.

Five years on, though, what started as critical viewing has veered into the merely voyeuristic. Certainly, the show has tried to tack with the winds of Trump’s MAGA era, installing a good-ol’-boy Attorney General to gum up the works in the Southern District. It has also sought to attend to the ongoing conversation about inequality in the workplace by creating a rival, mostly female hedge fund headed up by the non-binary quantitative analyst Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon). For all that, an undercurrent of machismo courses through the series: in Axelrod’s unironic Metallica T-shirts and motorcycling, in the routine belittling of men who show vulnerability and in the knowing elocution of ‘they’ when referring to Mason. It’s unclear whether we’ve drifted beyond satire into the realm of complicity – like that queasy feeling of being at a dinner in Williamsburg or Hudson with rich contemporaries who insist that they aren’t boors and bigots, despite making off-colour remarks ‘among friends’.

Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades in Billions, 2016–ongoing, film still. Courtesy: Showtime; photograph: Jeff Neumann / Showtime

But, you may protest, irony is nothing new: artists like Richard Prince have made careers out of satirizing capitalist archetypes and selling them back to the affluent. Plus, Billions is just trashy television; it’s Ballers (2015–19) for finance bros. Yet, somehow, I find myself tuning in weekly even as this fifth season promises more of the same, nodding along with the ever-denser patois of bombast and 1990s pop-culture riffs, waiting for … something. Maybe I just miss living in New York and it feels bracing now to see a version of it still thronged by crowds, brimming with insouciance.

I hope that this season will be the show’s last: a requiem for a decade that started with the hopefulness of the Occupy protests in Zuccotti Park, but ended in complacency and catastrophe. Marx also observed that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. So, we will spend the months ahead scrubbing through the final hours of cinema and television produced before the pandemic, like time capsules from another world. Let’s hope that the next generation of television programming won’t make such fine work of ‘singing our own tune back to us’ but, instead, will show us what could take its place.

Main Image: Billions, 2016–ongoing, film still. Courtesy: Showtime ; photograph: Jeff Neumann / Showtime

Ian Bourland is a critic and an art historian at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, USA. He is a contributing editor of frieze

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