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'Billions' review: Better than ever in season 4

Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades and Maggie Siff

Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades and Maggie Siff as Wendy Rhoades in Showtime's "Billions." Photo Credit: SHOWTIME/Jeff Neumann

SERIES "Billions"

WHEN | WHERE Season 4 premiere Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In the fourth season — the first four episodes were available for review — former antagonists Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) and hedge fund pirate Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) have joined forces — each needing something from the other. This isn’t just about money, but about payback. For "Axe," that would be Taylor Mason (Asia Kate Dillon), off now running a rival firm, and Russian oligarch Grigor Andolov (John Malkovich). For Chuck, that would be an array of targets, beginning with the feckless attorney general who dumped him last season, Jock Jeffcoat (Clancy Brown), and his replacement as U.S. attorney for the Southern District, Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore). As usual, Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) has to carefully navigate her way among the egos. 

Meanwhile, two important newcomers arrive this season: Kevin Pollak joins as Taylor's dad, Douglas Mason. Naturally, he wants something. Also, 2012 Tony Award winner Nina Arianda has joined the cast as Rebecca Cantu, a hard-throwing financier and new Axe love interest.     

MY SAY As "Billions" fans know so well, this series unfolds in a universe where the rich get filthy rich and where the craven cower before them, and where no one's held to account because they hide behind lawyers and accountants. Meanwhile, honest elected officials have a habit of getting unelected and others in positions of power simply look the other way. Money, appropriately enough, is the only coin of this realm.

This universe seems exactly like our own and "seems" is the right word because with this first-rate workplace drama, we're drawn purposefully into the illusion, then become warped by it. Axe is the anti-hero we want to succeed — and succeed some more. Chuck is the malleable public servant with a ferocious appetite for vengeance at any cost, but we love him anyway. "Wags" (David Costabile) is the loyal praetorian guard to Bobby Axelrod who would kill at his command — but we couldn't imagine this world, or series, without him.

This season more than ever, "Billions" has a habit of inverting "right" and "wrong," then leaving us — the viewer — to figure out how we got suckered by all these pirates in the first place.

In the season opener, Taylor explains that at Axe Capital "they turned us all into Starship Troopers, sent us to Klendathu, where some of us got our brains eaten and it wasn't until the end that we found out we're the bad guys all along."

Umm, so welcome back to Klendathu?

Sure, welcome back, and the pleasure is all ours.

In fact, "Billions" is so well-crafted this season that it seems to have anticipated real-world events. There's a storyline about doping and kidnapping in the Saudi Embassy. There's another one about how a well-connected New York power broker gets a concealed carry permit — just about impossible to get for anyone else. Recall that the current president and his son got one of those, too.

The illusion just gets better: "Billions" really does seem to know how the real world works.

Without getting into too many specifics, the fourth picks up where the third left off, but offers a richer — and often funnier — exploration of the questions it has always asked. To wit: How do highly intelligent people like Bobby Axelrod, Chuck Rhoades and Taylor Mason set aside their better, saner judgment to serve their darker gods — power and vengeance? What kind of damage results, what opportunities are squandered?

The "whys," as usual, are dangled in front of us: Why do we care about these robber barons anyway? That's an easy answer. The performances are brilliant and the writing first-rate.

And that's no illusion.

BOTTOM LINE One of the genuine pleasures of the small screen returns, better than ever.

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