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Why the Show ‘Billions’ is Worth Watching in Traumatic Times

By Chaya Bhuvaneswar.

It all started, my hours of having ‘Billions’ run via Amazon streaming on my i-Phone, while I’m cooking or doing household tasks, while I’m shoveling snow or waiting in line at the airport, while I’m recovering from a bad cold and hunkered down under blankets, marking a given space as familiar, because of ‘Homeland’ season one, 2011. On and off I watched, holding my breath for any contortion or look of terror or sudden, frustrated fury that Damien Lewis might want to show me. But eventually, I opted out of ‘Homeland’ because of the blatant racism of season four (2014), reflected in angry graffiti drawn by Arabic-fluent set designers: “Homeland is Racist.” I wanted to go on seeing Lewis (one of my very special triad of European actors charismatic enough so that I don’t primarily think of them as “white” – Lewis plus Clive Owen and Michael Fassbinder, pretty much, just those three contemporary white actors whose fiercely brainy magnetism somehow transcends their whiteness) — without putting up with ‘Homeland’’s sickening and infuriating glorification of the true-life horrors of Guantanamo, of racial profiling and torture, of Islamophobia mischaracterized as a kind of prescience. Add to that Paul Giamatti, whose sad-sack writer character in ‘Sideways’ (2004) was career-making but (as I suspected and was proved right) never allowed him to demonstrate the depths of venality suggested by how easily his character in the Alexander Payne film turned from understandable angst about not selling his novel, to stealing cash outright from his own mother’s bedroom drawer. To revealing, in that film, how the whole reason he’d contrived to visit her was not to celebrate her birthday, but to come and steal money.

            Venality. A word so important to me personally, and perhaps, so defining of these times (“Shithole” is an anagram for “His Hotel”, ala the President) – it merits recapping the Miriam-Webster definition: “the condition or property of being willing to betray one’s trust by improper use of authority or influence, especially in return for a bribe; able to be purchased, as things not properly for sale.”

            The essence of venality is two-fold – a desire for personal gain, at all costs, and an openness to betray anyone, or anything, to secure it. In ‘Billions’, this quality guides most of the characters, even those who (like Maggie Siff’s psychiatrist character Wendy Rhoades, wife to Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades) claim to still have integrity, to be unimpeachable. Chuck Rhoades is the wealthy scion of a father who maintained and built on his inherited millions mainly by doing big, dirty deals over holes of golf, or in the Clarence Day Room of the Yale Alumni Club. Chuck himself, while explicitly defining his identity as District Attorney and therefore “not that, not like my father, but a public servant, motivated by the public good”, proves willing to resort to any betrayal for perceived personal gain – blackmail, stealing evidence, and most strikingly, at the end of season two, lying to and manipulating his only real friend, his lawyer Ira, along with his own father, into sacrificing millions of their own money so Chuck can lay a successful trap for his arch-nemesis, the Damien Lewis character, hedge-funder Bobby Axelrod.  

            The ancillary characters who flesh out the story of the battling duo, Rhoades and Axelrod, echo this same venality, betraying their own ideals, as well as each other, for what seems like personal gain. Chuck Rhoades’ wife Wendy at first blush seems like a mere helpmeet, a thinking-man’s dominatrix-style amanuensis, applying psychotherapy and organizational behavior studies to ‘coach’ the hedge fund analysts and traders through the stress of daily life. She seems like a neutral entity; at one point her husband remarks, “You always try to hear everyone’s side.” Still, Wendy, even with her moments of stylized regret (“I knew something that would hurt her,” she says about Axelrod’s wife, her rival for his attention, “and I slapped her with it, and I am not proud of it,”) – even Wendy maneuvers to personally profit from others’ mistakes, betting against Chuck when he seems to be making disastrous investments, capping what seems like feminist solidarity in her mentoring of a young female trader, with Wendy’s own investment of capital in that trader’s new venture. Strictly personal gain, including when others are suffering devastating losses, is what Wendy secretly and quietly strives for – and similarly Lara, Axelrod’s wife (played by an icy, remorselessly venal Malin Ackerman) is prepared to bribe criminals to frame and lie about a business competitor so that her dominance of the market for “IV therapy for the rich, hungover and dissolute” (rather than a more humanitarian use of her nursing skills) won’t be challenged. And on and on: Brian, the protégé of Rhoades, the ambitious assistant DA, who betrays his own mentor with an anonymous call to the Justice Department; June, the grieving 9-11 widow who is positively cheery after bribing her publisher with sex, in hopes that he’ll reward her by prioritizing her tell-all nonfiction book; and Bobby Axelrod himself, venal enough to bribe and be bribed, to be induced to engage in corrupt, insider trading practices across so many levels, “it’s impossible to keep it all straight in your head, your brain could explode,” as an admiring former acolyte tells the District Attorney’s annoyed, investigating team.

            Who cares about all these awful people? One might say. Ah, for the answer to that question (as one might then say in the sonorous, allusive, often pretentious speaking style Paul Giamatti brilliantly assigns to the Rhoades character) – one must turn to Shakespeare.

            In his play, Richard III, are the clues to why venality is compelling, why venality matters, and direct inspirations for specific scenes in the Showtime’s series (i.e. Bobby Axelrod’s uncharacteristic reflection, “I am a sociopath”, for hastening the death of a terminally-ill but potentially treatable colleague, to achieve personal gain, similar to Richard’s genuinely frightened and honest declaration in, “I rather hate myself, for hateful deeds committed by myself. I am a villain.”) At first, like the many moments of ‘Billions’ inspired, in spirit, by Shakespeare’s play, the character of Richard enjoins the audience to simply enjoy and laugh snidely at the villainy, just as he does.

“The ripest fruit first falls.” (Act 2, Scene 1). “Murder her brothers, then marry her…Uncertain way of gain…” (Act 4, Scene 2). This last quotation is more than coincidentally related to the plot of ‘Billions’, as Axelrod the investor “bets” against the US market, buying up cheap stock while his wife-to-be’s brother was killed in the Twin Towers attack, leading to Lara’s family to equate his actions with participating in this killing, by directly profiting from it.

The true value and meaning of ‘Billions’, making it worth watching, worth poring over, however, is the connection between the pronounced trauma and deprivation suffered by characters whose venality would otherwise seem cartoonish, senseless. (Indeed, Giamatti has been accused of “verging into Foghorn Leghorn territory” – a loud, obnoxious, blustering rooster cartoon character.) We learn that Bobby Axelrod grew up in poverty in Yonkers, that he worked multiple jobs, had to buy food and other basics on credit, didn’t have a father, relied on bookies for any kind of fatherly mentoring, and became what he did accordingly: a hypervigilant, angry, hyped-up, adrenaline-junkie of a math-smart trauma survivor able to quantify his pain in dollars and buy up the very world that treated him as an outcast. (From Richard III, where Richard conceives of himself as outcast because of physical “deformity”, and imputes “venality” even to a corrupt and somehow dishonest Nature herself: “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature/ Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time.” (Act 1, Scene 1)).

We learn as well that Chuck Rhoades grew up in emotional poverty, was physically abused and bullied in school (however high-cost his school tuitions), and was constantly manipulated, lied to and used to advance his wealthy father’s political ambitions. He too was traumatized, and from this trauma, emerged with both a self-righteous mask to hide his own villainy, along with a trauma-driven compulsion to enact the abuse and domination each time he has sex, with a wife capable of beating him like his childhood bullies did.

However frothy, topical and sensationalistic a drama ‘Billions’ presents itself as being, perhaps (especially when one watches it on repeat as often as I have), the show can be read in light of writings on trauma that link it specifically with the unique agony of being betrayed by those whom one trusted in the world most completely. I’m thinking most specifically of the psychologist Jennifer Freyd’s important concept of ‘betrayal trauma’, her explanation for why the sexual or physical abuse perpetrated by familiar, close relatives (and not diabolical strangers) is so unbearably hurtful that the human response to such trauma can range from amnesia, to ‘betrayal blindness’ (where the victim is does remember, and knows what is happening, but refuses to label it “abuse” even when physical injury or penetrative sexual contact is involved).

What’s usually left out of the ‘trauma victim’ narrative – how dangerous trauma survivors can be to others, when survivorship extends to a projective, paranoid, hypervigilant view of the world that demands, each time, “draw your gun first.” Extreme emotional violence and exploitation are perpetrated by both characters – ranging from Rhoades constantly humiliating random strangers, (by forcing one to pick up dog poop with his hands, or savoring how terrible another man feels when he is forced to listen to a tape of his wife cheating on him), to Axelrod savagely and suddenly turning on random friends (like the one he leaves behind without a safe way to get home, or like his fellow hedge funder and senior statesman (Larry Boyd, played by a finely reptilian and extremely repellent Eric Bogosian), the kindly pizza man who fed him for free as a child (whose town he destroys), Lara his wife (dramatized in a series of frightening and outright abusive messages he leaves on her cell phone when she panics him by leaving suddenly), Wendy (who is like Barrie’s Wendy to Axelrod’s elusive Peter Pan). But these only make sense when considered in light of trauma as a kind of ‘weaponizing’ force – not a new theme, to be sure (when one considers any kind of movie about a woman becoming a warrior in vengeance for a rape) – but extremely interesting when considered outside of a literal war narrative, and within a strictly contemporary, physically non-violent one, where weapons aim to extract emotional pain and financial ruin rather than blood.

It is a choice and a real challenge, then, to be a trauma survivor who doesn’t devolve to becoming venal – who instead finds a way to operate from within a compassionate, non-interfering, yet still productive position. ‘Billions’ doesn’t necessarily offer a secure vantage point from which to view the world as a post-therapy trauma survivor. But the they/ their-pronoun-using character of Taylor (played by a watchful, winning, gender non-binary actor, Asia Kate Dillon) is a start.

Despite how roughly and outright rudely Axelrod dismisses Taylor’s attempts to do so, at least they articulate the neutral, compassionate position. “You know, like in that movie, when at the end, when the bicyclist is winning, he just closes his eyes and lets go of the bars and lets everyone else go ahead of him,” she rhapsodizes, before he crushes that impulse. But in her description, the opposite of venality is seen – when a trauma survivor (as Taylor is exposed as being, enduring anti-trans and anti-LBGT hazing and social rejection of the non-binary identity) goes to great lengths to avoid exploiting others, because of the suffering they themselves have experienced. ‘Billions’, like Richard III, reminds us of how terrible the alternative is, when those who have been traumatized, like Axelrod and Rhoades, use the experience of having been betrayed to project negative intentions to everyone else in the world, and to always seek to draw a gun on the other guy first, even though it’s not a show about literal murders.

I watch ‘Billions’ to remind myself, that as a trauma survivor also: I have the choice. I watch it to warn myself about venality, out there.

Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician and writer whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Lit, The Rumpus, The Millions, Joyland, Large Hearted Boy, Chattahoochee Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, jellyfish review, aaduna and elsewhere, with poetry in Cutthroat, sidereal, Natural Bridge, apt magazine, Hobart, Ithaca Lit, Quiddity and elsewhere. Her poetry and prose juxtapose Hindu epics, other myths and histories, and the survival of sexual harassment and racialized sexual violence by diverse women of color. IN addition to the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection prize under which her debut collection WHITE DANCING ELEPHANTS will be released on Oct 9, 2018, she recently received a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and a Henfield award for her writing. Her story collection has so far received a starred review from Kirkus and was included in The Millions Second Half Most Anticipated List. Her work has received several Pushcart Prize anthology nominations this year as well as a Joy Harjo Poetry Contest prize. Follow her on Twitter at @chayab77 including for upcoming readings and events.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 6th, 2018.