Billions, which premiered last night on Showtime, has always been adjacent to the real world, not of the real world. Sure, the show is set in tangible institutions that very much exist in our world: Hedge funds, the New York state government, the office of a U.S. Attorney. But in Billions, everything is faster, more meaningful, more bristling with ludicrous dialogue. The characters have a sense of dogged purpose without the burdens of philosophical conviction (or childcare, or conversations about taking out the trash).
So I wondered how Billions, this show that saps our institutions for exhilarating melodrama, would incorporate the Donald Trump presidency. Would Trump be the president in the Billions universe, or would Billions overlook Trump entirely and veer off into a true alternate reality? Would we see a shot of Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) on election night, staring blankly at the TV, dreading going to work the next day? Would we see Bobby Axelrod (Damien Lewis) gossiping about the one time he met Donald Trump in the bathroom of an expensive restaurant? Would we see Wags hungrily anticipating the reversal of Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms?
None of those things happened. Instead, the Billions premiere handled the Donald Trump presidency in the most Billions way possible: slyly acknowledging a change in the outside world, but not delving into specifics. Trump isn’t a person so much as he is a force changing the rules of Rhoades and Axelrod’s cat-and-mouse game.
Trump is never once named, but his presence (or the threat of his presence) comes up in the very first scene. Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giammatti) is meeting with the new sheriff (quite literally; he’s wearing a cowboy hat) in Washington. Attorney General Waylon Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown), an obvious nod to Jeff Sessions, has arrived to tell Rhoades that he’s safe — he’s not losing his job, like many other attorney generals are. With his legs kicked up on the desk, Jeffcoat recommends Rhoades change the focus of his investigations to align with the new administration’s focus.
But this scene also confirms that Billions has deviated from our world, in some aspects. The inspiration for the character of Rhodes — Preet Bharara, former United States attorney in Manhattan — was fired soon after Trump was elected. David Levien, one of the show's creators, recommended Bharara join the Billions writers room as a second career. Whereas Bharara was fired, Rhoades stays on to ride the wave of the new administration.
The new presidential administration affects the hedge fund side of Billions, too, and not just because U.S. attorneys won’t be going after them with quite the same unbridled fervor. Of course Todd Krakow (Danny Strong), the most smug hedge fund manager on Billions — and that’s quite a feat! — became the new Secretary of the Treasury. This subtle reappointment shows the cross-linking between the new president and Wall Street.
So, this brings Billions “Mention Of Trump” count up to very slim two: There’s a new Secretary of the Treasury, and a southern Attorney General who would prefer Rhoades to go after immigration cases than Wall Street scions like Axelrod. Trump isn’t a character; he’s more like a weather pattern that spins around the characters' weather vanes so they're disoriented, but still intact.
Ultimately, the way the Billions universe will adjust to the real universe is encapsulated, quite perfectly, in a scene from the first episode. The new cowboy-Attorney General gives a speech to a room of lawyers to set the tone of this new administration. After the speech, Sacker (Condola Rashad) asks her boss, Rhoades, “The shifted agenda? That hits us?” Rhoades nods, but he assures everything will continue “business as usual.”
As will Billions. The shifted agenda of Trump will hit the show, but for the most part, it’ll proceed business — bad and utterly captivating business — as usual.
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