What makes the emptiness bearable is each other.
By Tim Moody
I keep dipping in and out of the Showtime series, “Billions.” It fascinates me. It depresses me. It wildly entertains me. It intrigues me. It infuriates me. It pushes boundaries that disturb me. It portrays people that I wonder if really exist out there, and if so, man, is society screwed.
The episodes are based on the moral and ethical conflicts between billionaire financier Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhodes (Paul Giamatti).
Axe, as he is called, is a cunning hedge fund genius with sociopathic
tendencies. Rhodes has convinced himself he is the good guy, that he’s a man of principle and virtue, even though he crawls around in loathsome behavior. He sees himself as a better person than Axe, and yet he likes S&M experiences with the straps and the gags and the whips and a scantily black leather clad dominating female to humiliate him into a sexual frenzy. That’s his mild side. As U.S. Attorney for New York, the guy is insanely ruthless in his obsession to put Axelrod in prison.
I want to root for justice in this thing, but Rhodes is such a sanctimonious weasel that I find myself cheering for Axe in all of his dazzling schemes of corruption.
If the banking industry and the U.S. justice system is as foul and crooked as portrayed on Billions, then God help us. And I’m not even sure God is enough.
Rhodes tells a colleague, “You need me, because I am willing to stare into the abyss beyond conventional morality and do what needs to be done.”
There you have the man’s credo. It’s a nice justification for his diabolical plots against Axe. But in the end, his behavior leaves him a morally compromised man with phony values.
Axelrod sums up his philosophy nicely by telling his number one guy, Wags (David Constabile), “You only get one life, so do it all.”
I have to say, I like that. And darn it, I can’t keep from liking Bobby Axelrod more than Chuck Rhodes. Way more.
The series, even if it embellishes things, which of course it does, is still a terrific study in human behavior, business dealings, legal complexities, psychological insights, and maybe most of all, the corroding effects of revenge, exploitation, and calculated wrongdoing.
I get the strange sensation in watching these people that their ethical accommodations, their selling out their own values, their dabbling in questionable even in scandalous behavior, is a mirror before all of us. We may not always get down in the slime and roll around in it like they do, but most of us dangle our feet there and maybe take a dip now and then.
There is something alluring about all of this. And yet, Billions reminds us that our human needs and urges can get twisted into choices and behavior that turns us against ourselves and others. We may not be as thoroughly compromised as these characters, but in our own way, we have been hurtful to others. We have said things we shouldn’t have. We have betrayed the ones we love in small and perhaps large ways. We have ignored our conscience.
I come away from Billions and sometimes feel what novelist D.H. Lawrence felt when a character in one of his books says, “Don’t you find it a beautiful clean thought, a world empty of people, just uninterrupted grass, and a rabbit sitting up?”
Ah, the people we put up with. Including ourselves.
And yet, I could not agree more with the great Carl Sagan, “In all our searching, the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other.”
You don’t need billions to finally realize that.