When we first meet Bobby (Damien Lewis) and Lara Axelrod (Malin Akerman) in the premiere of Billions, they’re eating pizza for breakfast in Yonkers. While Lara smiles knowingly, Bobby and his childhood friend propose to buy into the pizzeria as partners. Lara and Bobby are positioned as neighborhood kids who grew up, did well for themselves (okay, really well), and are now financially bolstering the institutions that helped form them. Essentially, they’re cool billionaires — you can’t resent them their money, because they use it to help out friendly pizza men.
Lara, especially, waltzes through the first two seasons of Billions as if money were something that happened to her, but didn’t fundamentally alter her personality. She dresses like she’s part yoga instructor, part Lucky Brand ambassador. She wakes up each morning to toil away at her extremely successful farm-to-table restaurant. When she thinks the school nurse isn’t providing proper treatment, Lara conjures up her own past as a nurse, steps in, and does it herself. Remember, this scene seems to proclaim, Lara has concrete skills! She's not just a professional lounger (though, granted, she does do a lot of that)!
The disconnect between the way Lara was raised — one in a bunch of kids in a working class household — and the way she lives now (commuting via helicopter) is personified in her two sons, whom she occasionally looks on with a smidge of horror. Once, after, overhearing Thing 1 and Thing 2 complaining about the state of their omelets prepared by a personal chef, you could practically see Lara rethinking every decision she’d made up to that point. Was this the right way to raise children? Were they too soft? Would they ever realize the enormity of what they had?
By season 3, it seems that whatever Lara feared would happen to her sons — sinking into the swamp of wealth and never wanting to come up for air, essentially — has also happened to her. Even though she acts like Lara from Inwood (especially when she’s verbally intimidating Wendy), she’s become Lara from Connecticut. Now that Bobby’s fortune is at risk, Lara’s been switched into Fight Mode. Preserving the money, more than reconnecting with Bobby, is her priority.
Given precedent, this behavior seems very anti-Lara. In fact, Lara is so radically different that I’m compelled to think the Billions writers' room tore up the scripts for the past two seasons, and decided to start over without anyone noticing (but we’re noticing). Lara 2.0 wears business casual clothing, and her sentences are all dipped in an uncharacteristic layer of bitterness. Never, in the past two seasons, would you hear Lara chide the size of another hedge fund manager’s personal jet, and say, "I wouldn't be caught dead in that fuckin' sardine can!” Never would she look into Bobby’s eyes and say severely, “The money, Bobby. Don’t fucking lose it.” After all, this is the woman who once chose not to run away with the Axelrod fortune when the Feds were coming after her husband; she was the one who chose to stay in Connecticut, and live a riskier, but less cowardly, life.
All that said, even if it seems sudden, Lara’s radical departure in personality is very, very deliberate. Bobby and Lara’s pending separation allows for fascinating and unseemly progressions in each of their characters. Since Bobby and Lara are no longer policing each other’s personalities, they’re spiraling into their unchecked selves. Both are becoming different people before our very eyes.
Bobby's post-separation changes are easier to predict. Lara had kept Bobby a bit more human. He had always been lying to the rest of the world, but at least he was truthful to her (and when he wasn’t, she left him).
Lara’s changes are initially surprising, but I should’ve seen them coming. Nestled up in her ludicrously lavish life, Lara could preserve vestiges of an old value system instilled while growing up in a working-class family. Lara could throw a tiny fit when Bobby impulsively bought a yacht and planned a trip to the Galapagos without telling her (poor Lara). Or, in an effort to teach her sons not to take their lives for granted, stick them in cold Atlantic waters and make them go fishing for dinner with their feet as she used to.
Up until now, Lara had positioned herself as being self-sufficient, tough, and not reliant on her money. But even if she kept up some of the values and traits she’d developed in her youth, Lara has come a long, long way from Inwood. Now that she's close to losing everything, Lara realizes that she likes her money. She likes her life. It’s obvious: Once you become a billionaire’s wife, you can’t let your billionaire husband lose his assets. Because you can’t go back to Inwood again.
The (potential) Axelrod divorce is a brilliant reminder that Bobby and Lara are not quite the “cool billionaires” they were made out to be back in that pizzeria in season 1. They're people for whom Having Money has become a key personality trait, not a nice perk. What we're seeing in the harsher, more cynical Lara 2.0 is a woman afraid of losing herself the moment she loses her fortune.
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