When we last saw the conniving, backstabbing, double-dealing men and women of Billions, returning this Sunday for its fifth season on Showtime, billionaire Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and his onetime pursuer Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) were beginning to tire of the detente that had them working together toward their respective ends -- Rhoades, enlisting Axe’s help to get elected Attorney General of New York; Axe enlisting Chuck’s to entrap Axe’s wayward nonbinary protege Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) -- and this most knottily-plotted of dramas was poised to somehow get even knottier.
Fed up with Axe pulling his strings, from directing Chuck to lean on Taylor and force them to return to Axe Cap to giving Wendy (Maggie Siff) and their kids a place to stay once the Rhoades marriage hit the rocks for (apparently) the last time, Chuck went through with arresting Taylor, only to propose that they serve as Chuck’s mole at Axe Cap and help bring Axe down once and for all.
Axe, meanwhile, is appalled by Chuck’s treatment of Wendy (Chuck revealed their BDSM tendency to the world during his campaign and did nothing to help her when her medical license was suspended) and his overall lack of gratitude for Axe’s largesse. In an act of spite, Axe bought every copy of a rare book Chuck coveted, just so Chuck couldn’t have it, and in an act of friendship that could easily read as an act of spite, Axe took in Wendy and the Rhoades kids when she walked out -- possibly for the exact same reason.
For their part, Taylor instantly grasped that they were being used by both Chuck and Axe to bludgeon each other, and decided to let them train their guns on each other and then step out of the crossfire at the last moment.
It was inevitable that the cease-fire in Billions’ central conflict would end, but the idea of Chuck and Axe working together was such a great left-turn, and it was such a pleasure to have Lewis and Giamatti sharing scenes where they’re not trading threats, I honestly thought creators Brian Koppleman and David Levien would stay there before going back to the status quo. But after seeing the season 5 premiere, I think they made the right choice.
After spending a season as allies, though both Chuck and Axe have decided that maybe their nonaggression pact has outlived its usefulness, neither has explicitly indicated as much to the other; they are both still presenting themselves as friends. So rather than the open warfare of the first three seasons, where each man’s armies were (metaphorically) lined up on either side of the border, wearing bright-colored uniforms, we can expect some more guerilla-style warfare in season 5, and after the masterful double-cross reveals at the end of season 2 (with the Ice Juice scam) and season 4 (when Chuck got revenge on U.S. Attorney General Jock Jeffcoat), that can only be a good thing.
Of course, there are always new characters in a new season of Billions, and in addition to Chuck, Axe has a new rival to contend with in Mike Prince (Corey Stoll), a fellow freshly-minted decabillionaire who Axe resolves to take down over a slight at a Vanity Fair photo shoot. And though she is not in the premiere, we can expect Julianna Margulies to turn up at some point as author and professor Catherine Brant.
And Chuck, stinging from Wendy’s rejection, resolves to force himself to evolve into a better person and win his family back -- possibly with the help of author and professor Catherine Brant (Julianna Margulies, another new addition to the cast) -- but not without also taking Axe down once and for all, with the help of aspiring Congressional candidate Kate Sacker (Condola Rashad) and decidedly without the disgraced, defeated Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore), who Chuck thoroughly humiliated and professionally ruined along with Jeffcoat at the end of Season 4.
And Wendy, always the most responsible adult at Axe Cap, is faced with the challenge of re-integrating Taylor’s staff, some of whom were Axe Cap defectors, back into the fold, and managing the fact that the hedge fund’s state of perpetual warfare has made it a bit of a bummer to work there.
As always, Billions makes a point of being of its time. The movie-quote dialogue is like another lead character, and just in the premiere we get a peek at an ayahuasca trip, a rage room, a cameo by WWE superstar of the moment Becky Lynch, a cryptocurrency bust, and a stationary pool.
In sum, Billions is back, and with COVID-19 whittling the spring and summer premiere calendar down a little more every week, it couldn’t be more welcome.
Season 5 of Billions premieres at 10pm ET Sunday, May 3, on Showtime; seasons 1-4 are available on demand.