Showtime’s “Billions” is a good, old-fashioned pissing contest: RECAP

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Damien Lewis and Paul Giamatti in “Billions”

When Bobby Axelrod’s dog pees on his furniture during dinner in the series premiere of Showtime’s latest drama, “Billions,” the billionaire in question has a somewhat unusual reaction; he gets excited.

“Look at this!” he exclaims to his to his two young boys. “He’s marking his territory.”

His wife, Lara, points out that the dog is, in fact, creating a mess, but Axelrod’s admiration does not waiver. “Yeah, yeah. But he’s showing Ryan who’s boss.” (Ryan, we can presume, is the guy who has to clean it up).

The scene is a somewhat obvious metaphor for what Axelrod himself is doing in this episode; namely, asserting his territory, taking what’s his, and not caring about who gets sprayed in the process.

A self-made billionaire from Yonkers – “it wasn’t nice back then”—Axelrod, played with a seductive sneer by the great Damien Lewis, leads his own hedge fund, Axe Capital, out of Westport, Connecticut. He’s a rich guy with a huge brain and (at least a public) conscious. He went to Hofstra, but manages easily to outsmart his newest analyst from Stanford and he goes out of his way to save his favorite childhood pizza place from ruin. He’s the type of guy Americans used to love until we didn’t anymore. Until we saw exactly how greedy and destructive guys like him are capable of being.

On the other hand, his nemesis, Chuck Rhoades, played by a simmering Paul Giamatti, is the kind of guy Americans have hated for a long time. He’s the U.S. District Attorney in New York, who prosecutes guilty financiers with an unstoppable zeal worthy of Inspector Javert. He’s caught a sniff of something rotten on Axelrod, and he makes him the focus of his attention/obsession.

But Rhoades is no Robin Hood figure; he’s an old-money type whose wealthy parents live in an apartment stuffed with regal furniture and own a home in the Hamptons around the corner from the mega-mansion that Axelrod purchases at the end of the episode for $63 million.

Rhoades’ grandparents (and maybe great-great parents) probably committed sins not dissimilar from Axelrod’s, so that he can sit back and punish those who are doing the same. His family made it to the finish line first, and now he’s the one who gets to set the rules for how the game should be played.

Not to say that he doesn’t like to be punished, which is exactly how we meet him in the show’s opening, tied up and being pissed upon by his wife, Wendy (Maggie Siff). She also happens to work at Axe Capital, as a type of cheerleader for alpha-males when they experience glimmers of self-doubt.

I won’t go into all of the intrigue that happens in this premiere, which is well structured and paced. Lewis’ Axelrod, like his Nick Brody on “Homeland,” keeps his secrets to himself, daring us to wonder if he is a good guy or a bad one. We don’t have to wonder too much – this guy is bad, Brody was much more ambiguous. But it’s fun to watch regardless, if only because it’s always fun to watch someone this talented wreak havoc on the screen.

Of course, “Billions” is not so concerned about the ramifications of the actions of these rich and powerful people beyond how they affect other rich and powerful people. At least from this first episode, you won’t find much discussion of how financial wizards like Axelrod brought suffering to millions of people or how district attorneys like Rhoades failed to make those wizards suffer in turn for their crimes, letting everyone else shoulder the weight.

Instead, you’ll find a good old-fashioned pissing contest, a struggle between two immensely egotistical men who are both looking for an opponent worthy of them. No doubt, this will be an entertaining contest – particularly in the hands of Lewis and Giamatti, who glare and rumble like the master craftsmen that they are. But it’s the kind of drama we can be thankful is happening on our screens; because when it happens in real life, we, the Ryans of the world, are the ones left cleaning up the mess.