Sunday night’s Billions had everyone doing the absolute most. The season 4 premiere found Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giammatti) dancing to Al Green’s “I Feel Good” in front of a bewildered client, and ended with him reenacting a mob shooting with the police commissioner of New York. Wags (David Costabile) was drugged and then kidnapped by a Qatari sheik. Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon) dressed up in the trappings of seductive womanhood in order to lock down a multi-billion-dollar investor. And Bobby Axelrod (Damien Lewis) — with a new posse of security guards in tow — was his Axe-ist, most vengeful self as he continued to seek the total annihilation of his rivals, all while clad in a series of artfully distressed tees.
In fact, the only person without some kind of charmingly loony arc was Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff). Billions has been floundering recently when it comes to its sole substantial female character (now that Lara’s nowhere to be seen, at least). With Chuck and Axe no longer at odds, Wendy’s role in their web has become murkier, and Sunday’s episode confirmed more than ever that the show needs to give us a reason to care about her beyond the men she’s stuck cheerleading for.
All of Wendy’s actions in “Chucky Rhoades’ Greatest Game” were in service to someone else’s agenda. She seconded Axe’s decision to hand out non-competes contracts forcefully, and to fire some poor schmuck for no apparent reason. She gave Chuck a pep talk, and smoothly closed a deal for him. And she did it all while looking like a flawless boss.
But what does Wendy actually want? I find myself asking this whenever I see her onscreen. We know that she’s great at her job. She is the best at making big bad finance men even bigger and badder, not to mention propping up Chuck’s ego, all while looking like a sleek designer panther. Siff has played her shrewdly, as a mix of the traditional woman behind the man (a la Carmela Soprano) and the tough-as-nails career woman. But again, those two tropes exist in relation to men.
Much like Axe and Lara’s boys, Wendy and Chuck’s kids have gotten just enough screen time to establish they exist, but not enough to actually matter to the plot. The fact that parenthood isn’t the centerpiece of a woman character’s life is refreshing, but Billions also fails to give Wendy an inner life beyond the office. Even her sex life with Chuck, and their engaging in S&M, is shown to be mostly about him.
What else do we know about Wendy? What are her hobbies? Does she have a relationship with her parents (one perhaps, to rival Chuck’s rapport with his father)? A coffee preference? Hopes and dreams beyond the success of Axe Capital and having a stable marriage? Pet peeves?
Part of the appeal of Billions is that it offers mere mortals a glimpse into the lives of the very, very rich. It’s wealth porn. Our emotional investment in the ups and downs of Axe’s hedge fund, or Chuck’s career as a U.S. Attorney pays off in purring sports cars, glass TriBeCa penthouses, and elite glossy, wood-paneled, members-only clubs. This is how men dream of spending their money. What’s missing is a woman’s perspective. I would watch an hour-long sequence of Wendy shopping for her amazing wardrobe. Years at Axe Cap have made her rich, yet we never see her frivolously spending like the men around her do. I want to see Wendy buy an island! Or, get the most ridiculously expensive facial ever! Let her be weird and selfish and irresponsible! Why does that have to remain in the sole purview of men like Axe?
Billions has proven that Wendy can surprise us. She can be ruthless, like when she plotted with Axe and Chuck to frame someone else for her part in the Ice Juice scheme in season 2. She’s a fierce career woman who, in many ways, has shattered the glass ceiling in an industry largely hostile to her kind. But after four seasons, that’s no longer enough. If she’s to be a full partner in Axe and Chuck’s activities, then she needs to be treated as more than their trophy. We need to know her.
The season 4 trailer shows Wendy forcefully telling Chuck to “walk away,” from whatever vengeance scheme he and Axe have cooking. On some level, that’s what I want her to do. Walk away from these two men, Wendy. You can be so much more than them.