As the Showtime financial thriller “Billions” prepares to air its final episode this weekend, it’s worth considering how far we’ve come. The show started as the story of the crusading U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and the hard-charging hedge funder Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis). Exclusive restaurants, elaborate schemes and a host of cameos by real-world power players provided the backdrop for their battle.
But when Lewis left the show following a family tragedy, a new antagonist was introduced by the showrunners and creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Andrew Ross Sorkin, a New York Times writer and CNBC anchor, is also a creator): Mike Prince (Corey Stoll), a billionaire do-gooder who ascends partly by besting both Axe and Chuck.
Prince has grander aspirations than making money. His goal is to be elected president — a position from which, he announces this season, he would not hesitate to launch a nuclear first strike should he judge it necessary. And since he has firmly established himself as a man who rarely if ever questions his own judgment, Chuck and Axe — and Wendy (Maggie Siff), who is Chuck’s ex-wife and Axe’s closest adviser — feel driven to take him down. Nothing less than the future of life on Earth is at stake.
Friends since childhood, Koppelman and Levien have no plans to end their writing partnership or the “Billions” franchise: A suite of spinoffs, including one set in Miami, are in various stages of development. In a video chat earlier this month they discussed the state of play and the fates of the major players in the series, without revealing who (if anyone) wins the final “Billions” battle. According to an otherwise cagey Koppelman, “The end of this show is really for ‘Billions’ fans.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
When “Billions” was the story of Chuck Rhoades and Bobby Axelrod duking it out, audience sympathies were fairly evenly divided. When Mike Prince says “Boom” to end the penultimate episode and there’s a little explosion sound effect underneath, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the audience thinking, “Gee, I hope this guy comes out on top.”
BRIAN KOPPELMAN As far as a rooting interest, we start by just being curious and looking at the world. We had met a few billionaires along the way of making the show who were able to talk in the language of the progressive, and of the educated, smart but regular person.
DAVID LEVIEN The show had been created with the prior billionaires [in mind] — these guys in their 40s who started hedge funds and made these fortunes and wrote their own rules. They didn’t have to wear suits to look rich because they just knew that they were rich. They wore T-shirts. They did what they wanted.
But as Brian was saying, about two, three seasons in, we started becoming aware of the new billionaires, who were thoughtful, and taking responsibility.
KOPPELMAN I mean, “thoughtful” in quotes when he’s saying it. The newfangled billionaires that we met believed their own [expletive]. They believed they were making the world a better place, and they could snow themselves. Those kinds of people are very effective in the world, because other people believe it. We wanted to put that kind of person in the show, let them use that rhetoric, and see what happens. Let the rooting interest fall where it lies.
LEVIEN On a basic level, on a pheromone level, people have more respect for somebody who doesn’t lie to themselves. The person who deludes himself and enrobes himself in good … when people see behind it, it rubs them the wrong way.
The season begins with a flash forward in which an angry Prince smashes Wendy’s glass office wall and demands to know why she thinks he shouldn’t be president. We haven’t yet reached this moment, but it’s telling that of all the characters he could ask, he’s asking Wendy.
KOPPELMAN Dave and I are not big on screenwriting books, but maybe the show is Wendy’s hero’s journey — the Joseph Campbell school. If you think about it, she resists the call.
LEVIEN At first she tries to steer him, but when she sees that he’s not steerable——
KOPPELMAN Finally, her conscience gets to the point that she has to take massive action. It might cause her ruination and the ruination of those around her in order to save the world. I won’t say who wins, but it’s Wendy who sets all this in motion, who decides “Even if I get destroyed in the process, it’s worth continuing.”
Mike Prince is a morally clarifying figure for the other characters because the stakes — the potential use of a nuclear first strike — are so huge.
LEVIEN To us, [threatening a first strike] seems one of the threshold things that a world leader could say, and we went back and forth about the volume of the language that he’d say it at. One would think you wouldn’t have to say it very loudly for it to be horrifying, but in today’s world, you kind of have to.
A friend of mine compared it to a superhero story — a team of rivals coming together to stop an existential threat to them all.
KOPPELMAN When you look at what’s going on even in the House of Representatives, when you look at the kinds of people who are gaining power now … Although the construct might look like a superhero show, I would argue that it’s grounded in real, primal, existential [expletive] that’s happening right now all around us, if we’d just open our eyes and look at it. In a vacuum, Mike Prince is way more likable than the real-life analogues trying to steal the country, and the world, for themselves.
Without revealing the victors, how much internal debate was there about which side will win?
LEVIEN I don’t think it was a debate. There were endless discussions about how we were going to navigate and execute the endgame, but there weren’t people taking polar opposite sides of this thing.
KOPPELMAN As you know, Damian needed to leave the show for a year. So in a way, the Season 5 ending was probably the [original] ending we were driving toward between Chuck and Axe, whenever we got there.
For this [ending], I have to shout out Beth Schacter, who for the last two years worked really closely with us. She was an executive producer, in the writing room with us every day — the three of us walking down the street, kicking around ideas for the end.
Since “Billions” first aired, shows taking on the very wealthy have become both common and popular. But shows like “Succession,” “The White Lotus,” even a horror story like “The Fall of the House of Usher,” are often satirical. “Billions” is frequently funny, but the intent feels different.
LEVIEN This was not a satire. It’s a drama with comedic moments, but that’s different than a satire. These characters are perhaps exaggerated in some ways, but we’re not sending up the rich. That wasn’t our goal here. It was more to let people into a world we felt we’d identified — yes, with our spin and our point of view, but not so that we could all huddle together and laugh and feel better than them.
KOPPELMAN There’s an absurdism to “Billions,” for sure, but that’s because the world right now is capital-A Absurdist. The show has to capture that spirit.
I couldn’t wrap up without asking you about the show’s use of all those pop-culture and sports references. There’s a reader who writes to me solely about the show’s use of “The Godfather.” Did you have any personal favorites?
KOPPELMAN I would say getting a couple Dusty Rhodes references in there.
LEVIEN We didn’t go light on the wrestling. I think of the ones Brian came up with as my favorites. Part of the fun of writing the show is going back and forth, trying to entertain the other person.
KOPPELMAN The Tarantino references in Episode 10? We each came up with one independently.
LEVIEN We were writing different scenes.
KOPPELMAN The references are very organic to our relationship, our childhood together, our entire professional life. They show up for us organically, no matter how they read on the other side.
And “The Godfather” has been an ur-text for our whole lives. It just applies all the time in the universe. I mean, you could argue about all the references in the show and that question of, “Do people talk like that?” But “The Godfather”?
LEVIEN They do talk like that.