Hedge Funds Are in Trouble, and Billions Is On It
When the first episode of Showtime’s Billions premiered in January of 2016, a Democrat was in the White House, #OscarsSoWhite was trending on Twitter, and the top 10 performing hedge funds with assets of more than $1 billion had averaged a 28.6 return over the previous 12 months.
What a difference a year makes.
By the time the second season of Billions premieres this Sunday, Feb. 19, many hedge funds will have suffered through the worst four quarters in their history. Others, including Blackstone’s Senfina fund, have folded entirely. The show, built on celebrating—and castigating—hedge fund managers’ stupendous fortunes, is beginning to show cracks.
Last season we were introduced to alpha-males Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), a top hedge fund manager, and his antagonist, the U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), doing battle in a drama set among the trappings of finance’s super-rich. There was a certain giddiness as Axelrod bought a $63 million home in the Hamptons, as Rhoades nobly resisted the funds of his old-money Park Avenue family, and even, as both of their lives fell into disarray, they continued to throw money and Maseratis at their problems.
The intense glorification of vast wealth, and the implication that everyone participating in the creation of that wealth was, in various ways, corrupt, allowed the narrative to have its steak and eat it too. There was no one character to root for—both protagonists were the villain in their own, smarmy way.
The new season shifts its focus away from the corruption itself and concentrates instead on the increasingly fragile world that corruption has created. In the episode airing on Sunday, Axelrod, still stinging from his meltdown in last season’s finale, when he tore apart his office building, calls his employees into a lecture hall. “The entire hedge fund industry is under siege,” he says, pacing the stage. “We deserve it. We’ve acted as if it would go on forever. Even as the sh---y returns, the outflow of institutional money, and the rise of quant funds have lighted the way to our demise, we have willfully refused to change.”
If that sounds too familiar to readers of the business press, it’s because the show’s creators “did intense research,” said Brian Koppelman, who, with David Levien, is Billions’ showrunner and executive producer. (They, along with Andrew Ross Sorkin, are the show’s creators.) “We spent time with hedge funders of different levels—with billionaires, and with some people who just work there.” They came away from their research and “realized there was an existential threat” to the industry, Koppelman said. “You start to realize that there’s so much wealth that’s controlled, but it’s a really perilous place.”
So instead of a rehash of the same mano-a-mano showdown of episodes past, Levein and Koppelman have doubled down on their forensic approach to the minutiae of elite finance’s everyday life. In one scene, two Axe Capital employees go to Sushi Nakazawa and become enraged by a couple of callous, low-level Wall Street bros. “You don’t put ginger on the fish, it’s to clean the palate,” hisses Mike Wagner (David Costabile), Axelrod’s No. 2.
One of the most compelling new plot lines, however—perhaps because this is the first character on the show who isn’t introduced as morally bankrupt—is the trajectory of a gender-neutral Axe Capital employee named Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon). “My pronouns are they, theirs, and them,” the character tells Axelrod when they meet. Taylor emerges as Axe Capital’s newest star, and Axelrod, in a surprising turn, remains scrupulously respectful of their gender identity. Taylor can make money, and that’s all Axelrod cares about.
“Where Taylor goes is fascinating and really fun,” said Koppelman. “We were interested in examining the level of meritocracy in the hedge fund world: If someone can generate extraordinary returns, what does that buy them in terms of acceptance?”
The less-compelling characters are those who generate no returns at all. Rhoades’s children are mentioned but rarely seen. Wendy (Maggie Siff), Rhoades's estranged wife and formerly Axelrod's in-house performance coach, comes into her own with an independent practice but is still a pawn between Axelrod and her estranged husband. “I’m not your anything,” she’s forced to say in one episode when Axelrod tries to woo her back. Combined with the tepid plot line provided for Axelrod’s wife, Lara (Malin Akerman), it speaks to the fundamental truth of Billions’ world: Individual fortunes rise and fall, but money is and will always be the star of the show.
It’s a forgivable flaw in the show’s storytelling, because wealth is what makes Billions so compelling—even as its characters become increasingly mired in variations of backstabbing, cheating, stealing, and scheming. Axelrod might not be able to resolve his fights, but the money he burns trying is a spectacle worth watching.