Episode 1: "Chucky Rhoades's Greatest Game"
Our current headlines are like an algorithm spitting out a handful of dynastic last names: Kushner, Trump, McCain, Clinton. In Showtime’s Billions, viewers get a kitschy glimpse into this unfathomable world of American plutocracy. U.S Attorney Chuck Rhoades Jr. (Paul Giamatti) and hedge fund mafioso Bobby Axelrod’s (Damian Lewis) enticing rivalry reveals that within our neoliberal society, an incessant need for power guides the actions of our perceived protagonists and antagonists. No matter what side you’re on, capital is capital whether it’s financial or allegedly moral.
Throughout the series, New York City’s stratospheric food scene has served as a backdrop for these power struggles. The first three seasons are peppered with celebrity chef cameos and expensive restaurants. Notably, these restaurants are often used to heavy-handedly signify class. We see Axe wheeling and dealing at Michelin-starred favorites all over Manhattan, but when we see him bite into a slice of Bruno’s finest at Capparello’s Pizzeria (aka Rosa’s Pizza in real life), we see an altogether different side of him—at once humbled and grounded, seemingly detached from the world he clings so strongly to.
The show’s season 4 premiere starts off with Rhoades Jr. and Axe in wounded positions. While Rhoades Jr. is out of a job and struggling to accrue a gun permit for a fellow aristocrat, Axe is having problems of his own. Grappling with a world where he has to compete with his ex-mentee—the fiercely brilliant Taylor Mason—Axe finds himself in a dramatic dispute with the delegation of a fictional Arab Peninsula oil kingdom. When his confidante Wags gets drugged and kidnapped, the subplot descends into a blatant homage to last autumn’s Jamal Kashoggi fiasco. Unlike the first three seasons of the show, however, Chuck and Axe are finally utilizing each others’ expertise for mutually assured success as opposed to destruction.
The former U.S Attorney General of the Southern District hopelessly sets out on his quest for a gun permit after a stern talking to from both his father and his wife, and the premier becomes anchored by Rhoades Jr.’s manic exchange of favors. At the beginning of the day, Chuck is essentially useless to the gatekeepers around him—exasperatedly trying to foist a “Park Anywhere” pass onto anyone who will listen. But slowly he begins to weave a web, hopping from restaurant to restaurant, aware of where his targets regularly dine. He utilizes that knowledge to catch them off-guard and defenseless.
So in true Billions fashion, Rhoades visits an old-school, staple restaurant to engage in some gritty dealmaking. His first stop of the day is at Barney Greengrass, a smoked-fish restaurant with decor decades behind the chic hotspots normally traversed by the elite, to smooth-talk a police commissioner. Needless to say, with his tarnished reputation, he doesn’t make much headway (or at least that’s what the writers wanted the viewers to think).
Barney Greengrass seems enthused about a recent wave of publicity:
Rhoades’ next stop is at E.A.T., Eli Zabar’s “grab-and-go” neighborhood deli. Juxtaposed with the stubborn regularity of dining on the classics at Barney Greengrass, the regularity of dining at E.A.T. indicates some flexibility. Maybe you’re on the go, maybe you’re not. Either way, you’re covered at E.A.T.
Oddly enough, this is the first episode that really deals with religion. We have Chuck mentioning the religious commitment of Al Green at the very beginning of the episode, followed by two stops at Jewish delis, and then his first promise to a frenemy: coveted tickets for a Children’s Hanukkah service in exchange for an introduction to a diplomat with unexplained motivations.
We then see Chuck at Michael’s Restaurant, Michael McCarty’s imported Santa Monica eatery which has played host to Manhattan’s rich and powerful for almost 30 years now. As Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times, at this spot, it’s all about where you sit and less about the food. In this case, if you’re sitting in the right place, i.e. where we as viewers are in this scene, then you might notice Michael McCarty himself posing regally in the background as Chuck shakes on a deal. In exchange for the synagogue tickets, Chuck has to acquire a parking pass for the entire Deer Valley ski season.
This is Chuck and Wendy in their true element—white tablecloth, expensive, and far, far away from smelly fish platters. At fancy-ass restaurant The Pool, unsubtly named after the pool in the middle of the restaurant, Chuck has to call in a favor with a Wall Street hot-shot he once prosecuted. Naturally, he uses Wendy’s undeniable sex appeal as his Trojan Horse. She walks over to his former prey and gets the Deer Valley parking pass in exchange for a free therapy session.
When Chuck Rhoades finally meets the much-hyped Dominican ambassador who can grant him a mysterious favor that can seal the deal on the gun permit, it happens at Marea, a two-Michelin starred Manhattan joint that’s as stratospheric as it gets. Billions slips in another chef cameo, this time from Michael White, who casually converses with a bartender in the distance. It’s honestly a bit odd that they continuously locate these cameos in the backgrounds of scenes, but that’s a deep-dive we’ll save for another day. In this scene, Rhoades is starting to look very comfortable and even a bit smug as he begins to reveal his game-winning hand.
After spending an entire day hustling from restaurant to cafe to bar to restaurant, Rhoades ends up at the iconic Sparks Steakhouse. Sparks is presented as a watering hole for power-players. Rhoades bumps into his old colleagues and new rivals, Bryan Connerty and Kate Sacker, exchanges jabs, and then meets up with Police Commissioner Sansome who rejected his appeal for an audience that morning at Barney Greengrass. After thoroughly celebrating their successful trade, they drunkenly stumble out of the restaurant recalling the mob shootout that took place at Sparks thirty years ago. Rhoades and Sansome cheekily recreate the scene, performing an homage to New York City’s power-players of yesteryear.
For all of its glamour and excess, the show’s central protagonists are well-versed in restraint. At no point in the episode do Axe or Chuck eat any food, despite much of it being spent within restaurants. The episode begins with Axe turning down his freshly prepared, lean breakfast of toast and eggs, instead requesting his coffee in a to-go cup. And later, Axe sits in the corner of a hotel room rambling off a monologue reminiscent of the hellfire and brimstone in Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” while Wags—a vision of over-consumption—wobbles back and forth while the sedatives he was drugged with wear off. As he listens to Axe, Wags scarfs down a heaping breakfast of toast and eggs, exactly what Axe turned down at the start of his day. When he leaps from his seat, aflame with a new idea, Wags slumps back onto the bed in his terry cloth bathrobe and succumbs to a deep sleep.
Often, food is used to illustrate heavy-handed dualities. Axe is constantly making decisions that increase his net worth despite essentially having everything he could ever want. If not for these humanizing moments of consumption, we’d begin to wonder if he was just a taller, red-headed David Miscavige, a power hungry robot misguided by illusions of prestige, distinction, and clarity. In a world defined by the inhumane pursuit of capital we are left asking the faces on the screen: to what end? What is the point? When will you actually be happy with what you’ve earned and achieved? Luckily, the show has brilliantly found a way to not only appease us with the answer—to be able to fully appreciate and find joy in the ephemeral—but also to feed into our collective, voyeuristic desire to engage without actually having to invest. We are offered a look behind the curtain, free of any commitment. What makes this show so enticing is the way that it plays with concepts of inclusion and exclusion, the way it juxtaposes cultural references to create sharp dissonances that add depth to its characters.
However, it’s notably hard to trust any of them because so many of their motivations are unspoken. It seems that the only thing we can trust is the objective correlative, offered to us through the implicit meanings conveyed by the gastronomic narrative vehicle. Think back to poor Rudy, fired at the beginning of the episode for fraternizing with the enemy, i.e. Taylor. It wasn’t talking to Taylor that made Axe fire him. The decision came down to the fact that Rudy attended her picnic. To share food and commune over a meal is to state one’s allegiances without words because it exposes vulnerability. The quality of Rudy’s work doesn’t count for anything if he’s willing to dine with the competition.