It's easy to see why the premiere episode of financial crime drama Billions opened with a scene which is now burned into my mind's eye (and not in a good way), as Paul Giamatti's Chuck Rhoades - United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York - is burned with a cigarette and urinated upon by a mysterious dominatrix (who is revealed to be his wife come episode end).
It becomes clear over the course of the first episode of Billions that Chuck Rhoades likes to speak in analogies, and this scene presents a pretty obvious one. For a man who commands control and respect in his professional life he craves dominance in the bedroom, but it feels a little forced here.
"The scenes only exist to take advantage of and play into notions of what a premium cable drama is supposed to be, and to offer some freaky sex stuff right up front lest anyone think Billions is all about dry shit like speculative financial instruments."
Thankfully it's mainly uphill from there, if somewhat of a slow starter. But the overriding premise of the episode (and presumably the show itself) is a showdown not of submission but of machismo between the two central characters: the aforementioned DA Chuck Rhoades and Damien Lewis' watery-eyed, 9/11 surviving corrupt hedge fund king and fickle philanthropist, Bobby Axelrod.
"Bobby fucking Axelrod, Man of the People."
Damien Lewis somehow manages to talk without showing any expression in the upper half of his face, and his pale eyes look more watery than anything, all of which feeds into the sleazy yet enigmatic character of Bobby Axelrod.
There's a slur in his voice that would make it hard to take him seriously as an indomitable opponent but the gravitas and sheer financial power behind Axelrod strikes a well defined balance, making him both relatable and intimidating.
Whilst Millions is aiming for this conflict of masculinity as the overriding motivation behind the two men, the spark for this episode is the insider trading case brought to Rhoades by Ari Spyros (Stephen Kunken), a case which implicates Bobby Axelrod in some shifty going ons.
Rhoades is planning to take Axelrod down but won't entertain the possibility of failing, fearful of marring his perfect 81-0 conviction record. The bull analogy he passes to his right hand man Bryan Connerty (Toby Leonard Moore) may be ham fisted but it works; he'll only go after Axelrod once he's sure he can take him down without posing a risk to his perfect record and - more importantly - his professional pride.
Behind Every Great Man...
Throwing a spanner in the works is Rhoades' wife's; Maggie Siff's Doctor Wendy Rhoades who is a psychiatrist and in-house performance coach for Axe Capital - Axelrod's company.
Her loyalty is put to the test almost immediately, with Rhoades pushing her gently towards a new profession in order to avoid a potential conflict of interest should he take charges against Axelrod.
The subsequent argument sets ones teeth on edge immediately, as it appears to be set up as another unhappy TV marriage in a long succession of those fictional relationships where the women wields a stronger financial power (Wendy states that she earns "eight times" what her husband makes).
Though it initially feels like she's going to become the scapegoat for all her husbands failings (see Anna Gunn's Skyler in Breaking Bad) Billions manages to sidestep this pitfall, with a peaceful resolution to the argument and no further signs of trouble in their marriage. And Rhoades defends her to his father - Chuck Rhoades Sr (Jeffrey DeMunn) - when he questions her loyalty to her husband, a piece of dialogue that smacks of 60s ideology.
But Axelrod is no fool, he recognises Wendy's consideration of a career change not just as losing a valuable employee but also as losing a strong leverage against his opponent, and convinces her not to quit. Wendy herself says she wants room to grow but seems completely in her element when wielding words of motivation and carries a powerful presence in the office and a gentle but no-shit taking attitude at home.
Axelrod's wife (above), the devoted, determined and ruthless Lara Axelrod (Malin Åkerman) plays a pretty minor role in this episode but quickly establishes herself as one to watch out for as she threatens the mother of one of Axelrod's philanthropic projects for publicly speaking against Bobby.
Hopefully Lara's character will be fleshed out as we move along the line, especially in relation to her husband's shady dealings and how she's involved.
"Thats Why It's Called A Pissing Contest"
And in the end it all comes down to the $63 million beach house, which Wendy advises Axelrod against buying as even he realises that it's "a huge mistake for dick measuring purposes".
But, as it turns out, the dick measuring cannot be contained. The family dog's castration serves as an obvious metaphor for how Axelrod feels after being taunted by Rhoades and he bites back, slamming his metaphorical dick on the table for all to see even though it could run him the thing he fears the most - the men in windbreakers coming to take him away.
"It's like he's daring you" Connerty tells Rhoades, and he's absolutely right. And this is a fine proposition for a first episode, but to build a whole series out of this concept of a pissing contest between two powerful men just doesn't feel sustainable. As a film yes, the premise works. As a series it's going to be hard to pull off without falling into outright cliché or tired sexism. It's just too early to tell.
But so far Billions is doing pretty well. With a record breaking performance of over 2.99 million views it's become Showtime's best debut performance yet. Let's just hope it can work out the kinks (pun intended) and get into the meat of the conflict with Axelrod attempting to outmanoeuvre the authorities The Fall style before the audience get bored with watching two dudes slapping their dicks around (metaphorically, of course).