I have a love-hate thing with “Billions.” But this season, which wraps up Sunday night on Showtime, the love has outweighed the hate. It has helped enormously that I’ve learned to Mamet-watch the drama.
Mamet-watching “Billions” involves focusing in on the wordy adversarial confrontations between the characters — not just Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), who meet so rarely, but between any two characters — while suspending tons and tons of disbelief. Just watch the eyes pop and the spit fly (I once saw Al Pacino spritz his way through “American Buffalo” at the Wilbur). Don’t bother parsing the particulars of the story line. The key things to watch for and savor include bluster, venom, power plays, and the distinct absence of moral weight.
The juiciest clashes this season have included those between Chuck and his slimeball father, played with a ferociously aristocratic grin by Jeffrey DeMunn; between Chuck and Bryan Connerty, played with expert ambiguity by Toby Leonard Moore; between Axe and David Strathairn’s aggressively calm Jack Foley; between Axe and his lieutenant Dollar Bill, played by the remarkably versatile Kelly AuCoin (who is also thorn-in-the-side Pastor Tim — a.k.a. Pasta Tim — on “The Americans”); and between Wags, played so mischievously by David Costabile, and himself. Special notice goes to Axe and Dr. Gus, his cartoonishly masculine one-time performance coach, played by Marc Kudisch.
Mamet-watching viewers need to understand that self-interest forms the foundation of every scene, that each character is after his (sometimes her, occasionally their ((re: Taylor)), but usually his) own prize. Their bottom-line motivations are right there on the surface. The “Billions” characters don’t exactly recall Mamet’s rhythmic speech patterns — the self-conscious street jargon — and they aren’t on the margins of society. But their intensity, generally of the macho variety, does. They’re Mamet-ish hustlers and con artists — with an eye on the long con this season — and their dealings don’t speak well of the world of capitalism and business. They’re fighting Mamet-like for their versions of the American Dream, involving money and power, a fight that has the potential to destroy them in the process.
The best part of Mamet-watching, though, is the overacting. Giamatti is the winner, with his endless growling and in-your-face attacks. He’s had his purring-kitten moments with his wife this season, but he’s still a tiger when he’s on the job, as well as when he’s plotting to become governor. Often, I don’t even care what he’s saying, because I’m so floored by his excessive intensity. I’d bet billions that he loves the smell of napalm in the morning.