“That’s like a billion dollars in Indiana.” That quip from Bobby Axelrod is one of the memorable lines in the series finale of “Billions,” the Showtime drama series that wrapped its seven-season run Oct. 27 with the crowd-pleasing episode “Admirals Fund.”
Axelrod, played by Damian Lewis, delivers that line as he takes a victory lap after demolishing his latest foil, rival hedge fund manager Mike Prince (Corey Stoll). It’s a reference to that fact that Prince, after an elaborate sting pulled off by Axelrod and the core “Billions” ensemble, is left wiped out but for $100 million he invested with Black-owned banks a few years ago. Axe’s comment and Prince’s broad smile suggest that the latter is headed to the Midwest to nurse his wounds and rise anew.
The line about Indiana had been on a white board in the “Billions” writers room for more than two seasons, just waiting for the right moment to land a punch, according to co-showrunner and executive producer Beth Schacter. Schacter and series creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien offered insights into the crafting of the finale and the fate of key characters during a Q&A held Oct. 23 at 92Y in New York that included a sneak peek screening of the finale.
“We knew that was where we were driving to and it never came off the board — and that never happens,” Schacter told moderator Cynthia Littleton, co-editor in chief of Variety. “And so I think it’s just fun to see that all coalescing” in the final episode.
Season 7 was designed to provide payoffs and fist-pumping moments for the die-hard fans of the series that revolved around the antics of hedge fund managers and the regulators who try to rein in their excesses. That sector of the financial universe has only grown its influence on the macro economy as well as in pop culture since “Billions” bowed in January 2016.
“We made a decision early on that we were going to make this season of the show for true ‘Billions’ fans – for the people who watch each episode more than once, who catch our references, who notice every song,” Koppelman said. “We wanted to make the final season that we wanted to see as ‘Billions’ obsessives. Seeing you all get the little lines and jokes and the moments and feeling the emotional resonances is incredibly satisfying.”
Getting the show to the finish line was complicated by the writers strike that extended nearly five months. The script for the final episode was completed before scribes went pencils down on May 2. But none of the three showrunners on stage were able to be on set while the final episodes were lensed.
“It was horrible because, you know, we did seven seasons over the course of eight years. We had to take an entire year off during the pandemic. And then to have to stop short and not get to be there for the final lap was really tough,” Levien said.
The trio found great comfort in the fact that the finale, penned by Koppelman and Levien, was directed by Neil Burger, who helmed the pilot and one other episode, from Season 2. “Neil knew exactly the right tone of the show, so it worked out great,” Levien said.
Koppelman observed, “Sometimes a worthy fight calls for a great sacrifice and ours was a small one compared to the ones that crews and so many other people had to make.”
The ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike has added to the challenge of promoting the finale given that stars Lews, Paul Giamatti (Chuck Rhoades), Maggie Siff (Wendy Rhoades), David Costabile (Mike “Wags” Wagner), Asia Kate Dillon (Taylor Mason) and more were unable to talk up their work.
The showrunners noted that they always made an effort to tap into any unexpected skills that each actor brought to the show. Lewis, for one, is a strong tennis player, so of course they worked that into an episode where he plays against Maria Sharapova. Toby Leonard Moore, the Australian actor who played the disgraced (but ultimately redeemed) former federal prosecutor Brian Connerty, once worked as an teppanyaki chef – a role that figured prominently into the finale episode.
“When you make a long-running show, you learn a lot of stuff about people and their personal lives, like Dola Rashad is fluent in Italian, so she had to speak Italian at some point,” Levien said. “Toby Leonard Moore made the mistake of telling us that he worked his way through school once as a teppanyaki chef. And we did not forget that — we carried that around for years.” Added Koppelman, “You have never seen a human being care more about the way a shrimp was cut than [Moore] did. He obsessed over the rehearsals with the hibachi.”
The specific storyline for the final season – how Axe was brought back to the U.S. from exile in London and the climactic sting against Prince – came together mostly during Season 6, Levien said.
Lewis left the series after the close of Season 5 as his wife, actor Helen McCrory, suffered through a long illness before her death in April 2021. When Lewis let them know he was ready to return for Season 7, that set the plot in motion.
“Damian told us before anyone else knew what was going on [with McCrory]. And we knew we were able to say to him, of course and we will bring stuff forward and we will make it all work for season five,” Koppelman said. “But then the three of us and teams of writers sat around and figured out OK, these two seasons — six and seven — what’s the ideal way that it can go? And the fact that we ended up getting to do it in the ideal way that Showtime supported shooting in England, each piece of that was able to work.”
One of the long-running subplots on “Billions” was the will-they-or-won’t-they question of the relationship between Axe and Wendy Rhoades, the brilliant psychologist who was the in-house coach for the alpha traders at Axe Capital (and later Michael Prince Capital). The characters have an incredibly deep relationship – one that confounds their own spouses – but they are not in a sexual relationship.
Schacter argued that the two are deeply in love.
“It’s not platonic. It’s incredibly romantic. They just don’t kiss,” Schacter said. “The secret sauce of the two of them is that they are truly connected in their souls. It’s just not sexual. They do have a certain type of love affair.” She noted that even some writers on the show mistakenly thought that Axe and Wendy had been in a physical relationship at some point.
“Writers pitched it to us all the time. But we felt from the beginning that we had decided it wasn’t going to happen, because then how do you keep the show going,” Koppelman said. “It also felt like they each understood what it was about. They understood that it made them better. They didn’t want to give in to that, it’s part of Wendy’s strength.”
Other highlights from the hourlong conversation:
Dan Soder, who played trader Dudley Mafee, was one of three finalists for the Connerty role that went to Moore. Soder at the time was still working restaurant jobs. Koppelman and Levien vowed to write a role for him that would debut after the pilot – assuming the show was picked up. “We wrote two lines for Mafee in the second episode and Dan came in and destroyed them and then he was off and running,” Koppelman said.
The only other role that was specifically written for an actor was the supporting character of Rian, the mouthy Axe Capital trader played by Eva Victor. Victor was also one of very few actors allowed to improvise on the show.
No series has ever showcased as many New York eateries – posh and popular – as “Billions.” It was a decision that came early on in the series as so much of business happens over drinks and food. “The restaurant placement in the show was organic because we recognized that what restaurants you could get into and what table you could get was a sign of your power and your access in New York,” Levien said. “And then if you go one step further into the billionaire realm, you could buy out a restaurant.” Schacter added that the actors usually enjoyed the dining scenes, particularly Costabile. “There is no greater on-screen eater than Mr. David Costabile,” she said.
Other than the core stars Lewis, Giamatti and Siff, the only other actor to have a line in all 84 episodes of the series was Daniel K. Isaac, who played trader Ben Kim.
“Billions” was also known for its deft use of music to help propel the storylines. Led Zeppelin proved to be one of the hardest bands to license, but they made it happen with “In the Evening” for a Season 4 episode. Koppelman noted that every season has included one Bob Dylan song, including “Blind Willie McTell” from Episode 8 of Season 7.
The showrunners gave a final nod to the former Showtime executives who greenlighted and supported “Billions”: David Nevins and Amy Israel (who have reunited at Peter Chernin’s North Road Co.) and Gary Levine. The pioneering pay TV outlet has undergone quite a bit of change during the course of “Billions” (it’s now been merged with streamer Paramount+) but the showrunners never felt abandoned. “Showtime has been incredibly supportive the entire time of this show,” Koppelman said.
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