'Billions' Is Back and Ready to Settle Old Scores from the First Half of Season 5

After a long break, Showtime's financial drama returns to finish off what it started in 2020.

paul giamatti in billions

"Don't make a whole thing out of it," says Chuck Rhoades early on in Sunday night's mid-season premiere of Billions, which paused its fifth season back in June of 2020 as the ongoing global pandemic halted production on Showtime's long-running finance drama. In the scene, the comment works as a sly reference to the change in actor Paul Giamatti's physical appearance: He lost some weight and ditched the goatee he's sported since the show debuted in 2016. But it also works as a mission statement for the show's writers and a hat-tip to the ever-loyal audience, a sign that Billions is up to business as usual.

That means no immediate jump right into COVID-related plotlines, GameStop references, or elaborate jokes from Wags about the exquisite torture of watching Gal Gadot's "Imagine" video. Instead, "Copenhagen," an episode penned by writer Adam R. Perlman, picked up right where the show left off, juggling schemes and rivalries with relative ease. That means Damien Lewis's hedge fund guru Bobby Axelrod is chasing a bank charter and attempting to destroy smarmy rich guy Mike Prince (Corey Stoll), Chuck remains obsessed with catching Axe red-handed, Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) can't figure out exactly how to be an ethically ruthless manager at Mason Capital, and Wendy (Maggie Siff) is still dating an abstract painter who looks like Frank Grillo (played by Frank Grillo). No pivoting required.

frank grillo and damien lewis in billions

OK, that's not exactly true. Yale sociology professor Catherine Brant (Julianna Margulies) appears to have exited the show, having ended her relationship with Chuck off-screen after an awkward threesome that was teased in 2020's "The Limitless Shit." Would the plotline have wrapped up in a different, less abrupt manner in "normal" times? Probably. But the transition to a new phase for Chuck, one that finds him still attempting to reign in his manipulative tendencies, is handled without too much narrative throat-clearing. Forced to clean up a collegiate election rigging scandal from his past, Chuck chooses not to take a scorched Earth approach. In the wold of Billions, progress is always incremental.

Though Chuck might be changing his ways, Axe remains as consumed with anger and jealousy as ever. He spends most of the episode targeting Prince because he's about to become an ambassador to Denmark, eventually derailing his fellow tycoon by digging up a dark secret from Prince's past courtesy of the mother (Becky Ann Baker) of an early business partner. Similarly, the other employees at Axe Capital have hardly given up their vices: Dollar Bill still knows how to dig up dirt and Wags gets a joke in about "re-toxing." You might feel like the episode has more of a reliance on presumably safer-to-film two-person scenes rather than large-scale rumbles in public spaces, particularly the fancy Manhattan restaurants the show often turned into arenas of battle, but that doesn't mean the series has entirely pulled back on the decadence. Sports betting is discussed at length. Country singer Jason Isbell stops by for a cameo. Tom Petty pops up on the soundtrack. 

The best indulgences on Billions tend to be verbal anyway, and "Copenhagen," with its Oingo Boingo jokes and Tin Cup allusions, finds the series comfortably in its excessive wheelhouse. (Having one character tell another character they should watch Heat might feel too Billions even for Billions, but, after so many months away, is that really possible?) Thematically, co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien continue to peel away at the larger moral questions the show has always grabbed with, using Grillo's artist character as a way to tease out ideas around wealth, security, and personal happiness.

Unlike some other series that sling arrows at the ultra-wealthy, Billions has always maintained an admirable focus on the "work" part of the "workplace drama." That doesn't mean the show can't be satirical, funny, or brutal. But it often functions best in a more earnest register, one that examines what Taylor calls in one of the episode's sharpest lines "the elegance of success." To put a spin on the show's favorite line from Heat, the action is the ice-juice. Luckily, after over a year away, Billions still knows how to tap into that precious flow-state. 

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.