Stars Paul Giamatti, Corey Stoll, Maggie Sif, David Costabile, Condola Rashad, Asia Kate Dillon, Daniel Breaker, Jeffrey DeMunn.
Some major cast changes for its sixth season would otherwise offer the prospect of a refreshing new perspective to Showtime’s “Billions” if its writers weren’t so set in their proclivities.
For its first five seasons, “Billions” focused on the efforts of crusading government attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) to take down ultra-rich hedge fund guru Bobby Axelrod. With Axe having fled the country, Rhoades sets his sights on the billionaire who conquered Axe’s empire, Mike Prince (Corey Stoll).
Prince hopes to re-energize Axe’s troops with a new mission to pursue investments based on bringing positive social change. Unlike Axe, whose money-making schemes frequently bordered on the shady and abusive, the image-conscious Prince seems motivated by benevolence. Among his efforts are bringing an Olympics to New York City and funding a universal basic income program. His efforts would beautify the city, revitalize infrastructure and stimulate the local economy.
Prince’s arrival also alters the power dynamics within Axe’s former company as they adjust to the new paradigm, particularly Axe’s old right-hand-man, Wags (David Costabile), who will do whatever it takes to prove he’s an ideal sycophant for whomever is in charge, and Wendy, Axe’s former motivational coach and Chuck’s ex-wife, who questions her purpose in the new company.
Rhoades, being the vindictive bureaucrat that he is, strives to quash all of Prince’s plans solely on the theory that simply being a billionaire must make Prince a criminal worthy of a takedown. Rhoades is also out for a bit of revenge given that he teamed with Prince to set up Axe’s fall, only for Prince to manipulate the situation to take over Axe’s companies and facilitate his escape.
The show remains a riveting drama of Machiavellian proportions, filled with engaging character performances, sharp dialogue and a panache for pop culture. But the sixth season’s 12 episodes are a bit of an uneven roller coaster as story arcs veer from one scheme to the next with minimal transitions, and plot twists that demonstrate the writers aren’t willing to accept the obvious messaging of their own storylines.
Rhoades’ unchecked ego and abuse of power make him one of the biggest villains on television today. Yet the show still seems to want to view him as something of a hero, the embodiment of lingering anti-capitalist sentiments that hypocritically infuse the entertainment industry.
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As the cat-and-mouse game between Prince and Rhoades plays out, Rhoades makes it his business to interfere in everything Prince attempts, like a typical statist who can’t abide the concept of private money doing public good when it diminishes what he can control. On the verge of being outmaneuvered by Prince’s political alliances, Rhoades then appeals to broad populism and class warfare, hoping to convince his constituents that societal improvements are only worthwhile if they stem from the government.
What’s especially disappointing about season six is that until the final episodes of the season, Prince’s biggest flaws seem to be a misguided devotion to stakeholder capitalism, which is annoying, but it’s his money. Then the writers let Rhoades and his minions off the hook by gradually revealing facets of Prince’s character and business practices from seemingly out of nowhere for no other real narrative reason than to keep the show treading in the moral gray area it’s been swimming in since it began. There are no heroes and villains when it comes to power — there are just those who benefit and those who get screwed.