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'Billions' review: Season 5 improves over season 4

Paul Giamatti (left) as Chuck Rhoades and

 Paul Giamatti (left) as Chuck Rhoades and Damian Lewis as Bobby "Axe" Axelrod in Showtime's "Billions." Credit: SHOWTIME/Jeff Neumann

SERIES "Billions"

WHEN|WHERE Season 5 premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Chuck (Paul Giamatti) and Wendy (Maggie Siff) are splitting up; Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon) and crew have rejoined Axe Capital; Bobby (Damian Lewis) has a new rival and he's even richer — Michael Prince (Corey Stoll) — while Chuck has a new friend, Catherine Brant (Julianna Margulies, who joins in the 4th episode.) Meanwhile, Bobby's interest in art grows, or one artist in particular: Nico Tanner (Frank Grillo — "Captain America's" Brock Rumlow.) "Wags" (David Costabile) is exploring his inner-dad. 

 MY SAY The only thing any "Billions" fan wants from this review is a coherent response to the following: Is the 5th better than the 4th? 

Coherent or otherwise, you'll get your answer, but let's unpack that question first. Some hardcores grumbled about the end of the 4th which, if not a jump-the-shark one, was certainly a "Caddyshack" one, with Chuck nemesis Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) effectively playing the Bill Murray role, and Chuck as the gopher. (The gopher wins, as you will recall). It was all so implausible, over-the-top, then Taylor rejoins Axe Capital after everything? 

 Meanwhile, Chuck's new nemesis is also the old one? What goes around comes around … and around. 

What slowly dawned on the hardcores is that "Billions" is so well done in so many small ways that it had fooled them into thinking it must have a handle on the Big Ways too. That there is some sort of bending of the arc in this predatory universe toward finality and meaning, and that "Billions" really has something important to say about human affairs, or that there's a real core to Bobby worth knowing, worth exploring. 

Nah. No bending, just circularity, and no core either, except for the obvious. "I'm a carnivorous monster," Bobby explains a couple of episodes in. (Uh huh. We know). The 4th also pointed to an emptiness at the show's core, too, where the echo we heard was the sound of rich carnivores bouncing off of one another, like so many gilded pingpong balls. The "Billions" formula demands rivalries and rivalries we shall have.

Nevertheless, I'm going with yes — the 5th's better, or at least better when set in sharp relief opposite New York under COVID-19 lockdown. We know what's important, even if Bobby doesn't. We can more clearly see the vanity of these bonfires, and the pettiness of them too. "Billions"' really is just about the depravity of the one-half-of-the-one-percent, after all. Even Bernie Sanders could be a fan. He's got the time to catch up too.

As always, the craftsmanship remains superlative. What other show has this many first-rate New York actors (and a first-rate British one) who can juggle dialogue so rococo it leaves the listener with vertigo? What other drama is this funny? 

 Of those actors, Mark Blum — who died March 26 from COVID-19 — appears in the second episode. A brief scene, with a few lines only, but one of them is about former NFL tackle (and briefly of "The Sopranos") Tony "The Goose" Siragusa. 

 So: Maybe no core, no bending, no deeper meaning, and maybe just more gopher chasing but I'll take a priceless Goose reference over those any day.

BOTTOM LINE The 5th improves on the 4th (or at least the four episodes offered for review do). 

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