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LI's surprising role in Showtime's 'Billions'

For starters, the drama's showrunners are both LIers, inspired by many of the large-living characters they encountered growing up here.

Paul Giamatti as Chuck Rhoades in Showtime's "Billions."

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

If “Billions” — which returns March 17 for a fourth season (Showtime, 9 p.m.) — was a board game, it would seem to need a set of operating rules, or principles. But which ones? Superficially, “Billions” might seem like just another high-finance procedural built on malice, treachery and greed.

What’s principle got to do with it?

But as fans know, the beauty of this intricate series lies in the details and in those very rules of the game which — even if they are unwritten — tend to organize them.

So, to sort those out and reorient you back to what should be another compulsively watchable season — the first four episodes of this series about ruthless financier Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) were available for review, and yes, they are terrific — we’ve come up with some baseline axioms:

New York City may be the center of the financial universe, but Long Island isn’t far off-center.

The reason is that “Billions” showrunners are Long-Island born-and-bred. Brian Koppelman (Roslyn Harbor) and David Levien (Great Neck) — pals since summer camp — were inspired by many of the large-living characters they encountered growing up. (Koppelman’s father is music industry veteran Charles Koppelman). Says Levien (in a recent phone interview), “growing up on Long Island, we could see these colorful characters who were these brash, successful dudes and we were completely swept up by them. They come from everywhere but there seems to be a lot more of them on LI.”

“Billions” also has a big fan base on the Island (I know because I hear from them) and to that, Koppelman says “Long Island has always been an aspirational place and the way [fans] look at [‘Billions’] characters, maybe they recognize the ambition in themselves.” (Alas, “Billions” — which has shot scenes around the Island in recent years — stuck mostly to the five boroughs this season.)

Greed is good. Vengeance is better.

Vengeance was and more than ever remains the key narrative driver of “Billions.” “All I want is vengeance,” says former DA Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) in the season opener, “and it will be had.” In the fourth, former antagonists Rhoades and hedge fund pirate Axelrod have joined forces — each needing something from the other, or specifically a means of avenging those who have wronged them. This isn’t about money, It’s about payback. For "Ax," 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).

Says Koppelman: “The show really is about vengeance [and] how certain kinds of ambitious people sometimes do not give in to their best impulses but to those impulses that drive them to victory at all costs.” He adds, “that powerful force that is the need for vengeance can be incredibly warping.”

Gender is meaningless and distracting.

The bad boys of “Billions,” like Ax and right-hand man Mike “Wags” Wagner (David Costabile) are chest-thumpers and nonpareil fast talkers who bludgeon their opponents with words and 100-proof testosterone. But the women of “Billions” — notably Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) and newcomer Rebecca Cantu (Tony winner, Nina Arianda), a flame-throwing financier — may be the most potent characters of “Billions.” The most potent of them all is Dillon’s Taylor, who is nonbinary. This season, whole new facets of Taylor are explored, further enriching one of primetime’s most intriguing characters.

It’s not just who you know, it’s how you manipulate those you know.

There’s a particularly amusing — and shrewd — sequence in the opener where Rhoades is enjoined to get a concealed carry permit for some dealmaker that he needs a favor from. In his effort to fulfill this impossible request, Chuck is forced to go to other power brokers, in what then becomes a high-stakes version of “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” A profound, unsettling “Billions” truth emerges: This rarefied world of power is never about common decency but about brute, brass-knuckles influence-peddling.

Never turn your back on anyone, especially Bobby Axelrod.

Woe to those characters in the blighted world of “Billions” who assume their rival has good intentions. Woe especially to those who assume same with Bobby Axelrod. There are few characters in primetime as carnal as Lewis’ Axelrod (although Lena Headey's Cersei Lannister of "Game of Thrones" does come close). And yet, he remains more than ever this season, the character we love to hate, the one we love to love. It’s perhaps the core mystery of "Billions," an unsettling one, that demands an answer.

Koppelman offers this one: “Why do we in our culture celebrate the Bobby Axelrod's? Why do we decide that characteristics like audacity, charm, aggression, wealth and power should stand in for characteristics like kindness, empathy, selflessness? Dave and I thought the way to tease out an answer was to cast a compelling actor — -an actor like Damian Lewis who sucks you in and makes you empathize with him. By putting ‘Ax’ in all these situations, we thought we could begin to deconstruct the question, and get at the answer. But after all these seasons, we still don’t have it.”

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