When a certain deal is brought to Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod (Damian Lewis)’s attention, the resulting scene cleanly established that Axe knew what he was talking about business-wise in the first act of Billions. When the leader of new business deal was announced, Axe had the back-history and personality of that person memorized and was able to apply that knowledge to the new business situation. Axe even knew how this particular person strategized. They were brilliant moves to clear one-self of a business position and it took brilliance to assess them so accurately.
Since Axe’s character is not ‘on the floor’ like the hedgers that work for him, that was an important character moment for him. It showed the viewer that Axe was not an empty suit but a knowledgeable veteran of the field that he was now the captain of, with his very own custom-made ship navigating its water.
Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and Axe were both drawn early in the episode as the captains of their respective fields, Chuck more clearly than Axe (Axe was easily seen as rich and knowledgeable but Chuck was far more complicated). He was juggling his marriage, his job, his growing renowned as a corporate prosecutor with the growing conflicts of his wife working in the wolf’s den and a barking conscience.
With those conflicts and waters to navigate, Billions started stronger than most TV dramas. The only other TV drama that comes to mind that started with as many twists and turns (in recent memory) was How To Get Away With Murder.
Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff)’s working for Axe was probably the best introduced storyline in Billions besides the growing one between Axe and Chuck (that includes the “domination” storyline as well). Wheels have already begun grinding against each other causing sparks because of that situation.
Because of the storylines, the dialogue, and the conflicts, the Pilot episode of Billions worked on multiple levels.
There were numerous “read” scenes in the episode. Chuck Rhoades didn’t let himself be manipulated by one at the beginning of the episode. He saw what was dropped in his lap (and its inherent implications) for what it was. A surprising “read” involved Axe’s sons. Gordie Axelrod (Jack Gore) had the game down. He “read” his brother Dean Axelrod (Christopher Paul Richards) and the situation they were involved in as if it were an open book, a parallel to Axe’s “read” of the Merrill Lynch deal earlier in the episode.
Yet another “read” was between Axe and Dan Margolis (Daniel Cosgrove), a former friend that was now trying to entrap Axe in a scheme he was cooking up with law enforcement.
The resultant cloak and dagger meeting Axe had in the basement of a building established that he had a highly placed source in government that alerted him of danger (possible prosecution files being opened on him, etc.). The backstory on Axe and Hall (Terry Kinney)’s relationship remained as shadowy as their meeting place.
Both established that multiple groups are trying to get Axe, one is trying entrapment, the other is trying to get him (presumably) for something that he did in the past.
Since Axe knows about both, he is in control (or thinks he is in control) of the outcome of both scenarios (at the very least, he can see all of the players on the chess board). It will be interesting to see if he is correct in his assumptions.
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