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To Understand the Tortured Souls of ‘Billions,’ Follow the Bread

The latest season of Showtime’s food-obsessed show turns its attention from meat to humble baked goods

Damian Lewis as Bobby “Axe” Axelrod, Nina Arianda as Rebecca Cantu, Maggie Siff as Wendy Rhoades and Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades in Billions
Jeff Neumann/Showtime

They called it Billions for a reason. When the show made its debut on Showtime in January 2016, its maximalism was its defining characteristic, the secret sauce that made it feel fresh and new in a prestige-TV economy where difficult men were still the dominant currency. It’s not like the medium hadn’t already witnessed alpha males duking it out in expensive rooms, or characters chewing over dialogue that was equal parts lyrical and profane. Instead, what made Billions unique was the sheer moneyed exuberance of it all — the way it churned through plot lines like an investment banker cranking out a 4 a.m. pitch deck; the characters it introduced at a million miles an hour; the glimpse it gave audiences into the lives of the wealthy elite in ways most of us could scarcely consider possible.

The show was all about scale, all about wealth, all about wealth at scale. There were the beachfront houses, the bonkers supercars, the private jets; there were the fine suits, the cashmere sweaters, the impossibly chic athleisure. And then, of course, there was the food. For anyone obsessed with the subject — as obsessed as showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien — there was a never-ending supply of high-end and fine-dining porn: omakase tasting menus personally served by David Chang, secret hedge fund ideas dinners at Del Posto, forbidden delicacies like ortolan eaten in quasi-Masonic ritualistic manner alongside Wiley Dufresne.

By the end of Season 4, though, something seems to have shifted in the Billionsverse. There’s still the odd scene of debauchery, and the odd reminder that these characters live lives very unlike ours. But the focus seems different: tighter, more domestic, less extravagant. And the food on display has changed, too. Where once uni and bluefin tuna (only sometimes correctly seasoned) were the show’s bread and butter, in these later episodes, it’s far more likely to be actual bread and butter that the characters are eating.

One of the best restaurant shows on television started spending more time talking about homely fare like pancakes and pies. Which raises an obvious question: Has Billions sneakily always been about the other kind of dough?

For its first three seasons, Billions’ culinary lingua franca was rooted first and foremost in meat. In a show so overtly about conflict — initially between billionaire hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (played by Damian Lewis) and US Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), and subsequently between them and a host of other adversaries — meat was a useful stand-in for power and ostentatious displays of wealth and dominance. Meat as signifier lent its potency by its sheer cost, cultural capital, and (in)accessibility to the 99 percent. Whether it’s a hedge fund COO playing off investment bankers at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse, fixers planning political dominance at Donohue’s Steakhouse, or an underling jostling with his boss over whether or not to order the mutton at Keens Chophouse, characters are at their most primal and carnal when animal flesh is on their menu. The name of the steakhouse in the series’ second episode where Axe first does battle with a rival over a pension fund’s investment — the Hunt and Fish Club — makes meat’s role in the show clear: It is the preserve of the predatory one percent, red in tooth and claw.

Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) reinforces this point in the fourth episode of Season 3, when they, Bobby, and Oscar Langstraat (Mike Birbiglia) are celebrating a successful short at Ethiopian restaurant Ghenet. Gesturing to the table, Taylor asks, “Do you know why Ethiopians eat this way? Shared? In the center? It’s to foster a sense of community. Keep everything in the open, so everyone sees how much is available, and everyone knows they got their fair share. It keeps everyone honest. We’ve all done well today — all got our portion. But you two might be better suited to a steakhouse.”

Meat in Billions is the food of capitalist exceptionalism and selfishness. Dough — like the injera sitting in the middle of dinner at Ghenet — is humbler, more universal fare, and most commonly appears in contexts where a softer, less rapacious side of a character is on display. Think of Rhoades sharing noodles or knishes with his team, or the innumerable lunchtime al desko sandwiches that the district attorney eats in the privacy of his office. Most significantly, Bobby gets his favorite pizza at Capparello’s — a set that’s become a regular symbol of his working-class childhood.

Arthur Nascarella as Bruno Capparella and Damian Lewis as Bobby “Axe” Axelrod.
Jeff Neumann/SHOWTIME

As the most visible proponent of capitalist excess in the show, it is perhaps surprising that Bobby should find himself so regularly in this setting, but one of Billions’ achievements has been its ability to collapse the usual binaries that most television series use as narrative crutches. “Good” and “bad” are relative concepts — at times, all of the show’s protagonists are capable of both genuinely kind and shockingly immoral behavior. Axe, similarly, is both a billionaire playboy and the son of a diner line cook. He may have the clout to organize a private dinner at Daniel, but he is happiest in an environment where he can be — or at least pretend to be — a normal, down-to-earth guy.

This is one reason that “Infinite Game,” the seventh episode of Season 4, feels so pivotal. Capparello’s has been a constant throughout the series — so much so that when owner Bruno (Arthur J. Nascarella) confides in Axe that he has received an offer to sell the restaurant, Axe’s initial impulse is to offer him money to “transition” it over to a replacement — effectively keeping him on retainer and delaying his retirement for another five years. He eventually realizes that his usual response to a problemthrowing money at it until he gets his way — will not work in this case, and the right thing to do is to allow Bruno the peaceful retirement he craves. It’s a moment that displays some genuine emotional growth on the part of a character built on narcissism and monomania.

It is telling that just two episodes earlier, Axe and his girlfriend Rebecca (Nina Arianda) are sitting down for a double date with the Rhoadeses at yet another pizzeria (this time, Una Pizza Napoletana). Because Axe and Rebecca look like they’re building a healthy, mutually enriching relationship together, Chuck and Wendy (Maggie Siff) have never looked in more jeopardy.

At the heart of Wendy’s discontent is Chuck’s purely selfish decision to reveal intimate details about their sex life to avoid being smeared on the campaign trail — a decision that has reaped rewards for him but left Wendy humiliated. Wendy is so outraged she moves to sell the family home. And in an attempt to win her sympathy and get her to change her mind, Chuck tells what he calls the “pancake eater” story, a horrific account of sporadic domestic violence and emotional abuse that Chuck Sr. inflicted on his wife, Ellen.

In Chuck’s retelling, every Sunday, she would cook pancakes and bacon, preparing an “incredible spread” for her family. Most Sundays, Chuck Sr. would congratulate her on the effort, implying this was his ideal was to spend a Sunday. But every once in a while, he would sweep the entire spread onto the floor, screaming, “What the hell do I look like, a goddamned pancake eater?” It was only later that Chuck Jr. discovered that this was all a sham, intended to “keep things fresh and exciting” for Ellen, so she wouldn’t take domestic bliss for granted, and to make her appreciate the Sundays that Chuck Sr. didn’t break it all apart.

There are plenty of interpretations of this account, but the central argument is that the normality represented by those Sunday morning pancakes is always going to be out of reach for Chuck, given his traumatic upbringing. His attempts at contrition — including bringing Wendy a loaf of bread from She Wolf, her favorite bakery — are intended to bring the couple closer to the cosy domesticity of Sunday morning pancake ritual, but his inability to truly give himself over to the relationship and what is best for them, rather than just him, will always make true contentment impossible. By the end of the episode, they are outwardly still together, but inwardly deeply divided, their pretense symbolized by the freshly baked pie the realtor leaves out at the start of a viewing, intended to “create the sensory impression of a perfect home.”

Home, increasingly, is where Billions focuses its attentions as its fourth season draws to a close, with the final episode seeming to decisively sever the show’s two central couples in a now-typical set of last-minute rug-pulls. Chuck finishes season four estranged from his wife, and closer than ever to his father, which — as the pancake eater story suggested — is not exactly a healthy place to be. Pancakes, in fact, feature one last time in the finale, as the dish that Axe has Iron Chef Alex Guarnaschelli fix for Sandy Bensinger (Richard Thomas) as they agree to betray Rebecca. The perversion of this symbol of domestic bliss into the currency of hard-edged business talk is a neat encapsulation of everything that Axe is willing to give up in his quest for personal and professional satisfaction.

For a show that has always been (in various senses) about the cost of things, Season 4 of Billions zeroes in specifically on the toll that our protagonists’ professional successes and victories have taken on those they love. It is perhaps fitting, then, that it is not prime animal protein but simple, humble dough that has become the dominant culinary symbol of this season and its most pivotal character beats. Simple pleasures like a slice of pizza or a piece of pie are close to worthless when held up against steak or bluefin tuna, but they derive their value from their sheer accessibility, the comfort resulting from their abundance and persistence as cultural touchstones that have endured from childhood.

Billions has always tacitly argued that there are some things that no amount of money can buy, but as it heads into Season 5 that message has been tweaked subtly. Sometimes, the cheapest things can cost the most, too.

George Reynolds is a food writer based in the UK. He is a regular contributor to Eater London.