"Billions," which premiered on Showtime in 2016, stars Paul Giamatti as a high-profile U.S. attorney with an 81-consecutive conviction streak, while Damien Lewis plays Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, a revered hedge fund manager and sole survivor of his firm after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

Axelrod has rebuilt his firm into one of the industry’s most successful. How he achieved this success, however, is the question for the Securities and Exchange Commission lawyers who have discovered unusual trading patterns at companies with links to his hedge fund. 

Key Takeaways

  • "Billions" was renewed for a sixth season to air in 2021.
  • Paul Giamatti and Damien Lewis star in this drama set in the world of hedge fund managers and the New York City lawmen who pursue them.
  • The show seems to have resonated with viewers newly attuned to Wall Street excesses.

How the Show Got Made

"Billions" is a fictional jaunt into the dynamic world of hedge funds. It was created by financial journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin and the writers of "Rounders," Brian Koppelman and David Levien.

If the name Andrew Ross Sorkin sounds familiar, it’s because he is the author of "Too Big to Fail," the definitive tell-all book about the 2008 financial crisis. Koppelman and Levien wrote "Rounders," a novel about New York's underground high-stakes poker scene that was later made into a movie starring Matt Damon.

Sorkin’s "Too Big to Fail" was adapted into a film of the same name that aired on HBO in 2011. Following the release of that film, Sorkin sought to create a fictional television show in a territory often ignored by Hollywood: the world of finance.

“After the HBO version of ‘Too Big to Fail,’ I thought we could try to explore the power structure that is the financial world in a nuanced and elevated way,” Sorkin told "Modern Trader." “The goal was to create something that I hadn’t really seen on television before.”

A Battle Between Power and Wealth

The show centers on a power struggle between two sharply defined characters.

Giamatti’s character, Chuck Rhoades, is a conflicted, moral man. While he is in service to his wife’s dominatrix tendencies, he is also serving the public as a successful Wall Street sheriff. With 81 straight convictions under his belt, he picks his battles against financial titans carefully but offers no leniency, even to those he has known his entire life.

At one point, Rhoades is confronted by his father and asked to step in on behalf of a family friend who has been convicted of insider trading. The decision leads to fatal consequences for the convicted, as Rhoades must confront the weight of his power on Wall Street.

Sorkin told "Modern Trader" that Chuck Rhoades is based on a number of attorneys that he witnessed over the years as a journalist covering white-collar crime.

Remind You of Anybody?

A viewer can see elements of former New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer, who prosecuted many white-collar cases in the wake of the dot-com crash, and former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, who won 85 straight convictions on insider trading cases.

Hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod, though, is not based on any single Wall Street hedge fund manager.

Damien Lewis, the actor playing Axelrod, said that he read hedge fund manager David Einhorn’s book, "Fooling Some of the People All of the Time," to prepare for the role. And it is merely a coincidence that Bobby Axelrod shares the same initials as activist investor and Pershing Square Capital founder Bill Ackman.

“Bobby Axelrod is his own character,” Sorkin said in the same interview. “He isn’t based on any one individual, but he shares a lot of qualities of lots of people in the hedge fund world.”

The Lonely Tycoon

Axelrod is also a complex character. Perhaps most striking about him is that despite all of his wealth, his marriage, and two sons, Axelrod seems alone. He's able to discuss his personal issues and motivations only with his company’s trading psychologist, a woman who happens to be Chuck Rhoades’ wife.

He has always tried to be careful in his work and life, but his decision to purchase a $63 million mansion marks a serious break from that cautious approach. When Rhoades advises him to not purchase the mansion, it simply makes Axelrod want it even more.

The final push comes when Axelrod sees his family pet whimpering on the ground after it has been neutered and forced to wear a protective cone. (There's a pretty obvious metaphor here.) He allows his ego to overtake him. But it soon appears that the decision to make such a high-profile purchase may set him up for failure later in the season.

That purchase is the launching point of an investigation of his firm’s activities and the conclusion of the first episode.

The Bottom Line

Showtime’s "Billions" is a unique character study that pits political power against extreme wealth in the world of hedge fund finance and government oversight. The show was renewed for a sixth season in late 2020.