A finance bro runs for president


The finance bro drama “Billions” returns for its seventh and final season on Showtime, with a hedge fund manager eyeing a presidential run. That would be the smooth-presenting Michael Price (Corey Stoll), who took over after his antsier, rougher-around-the-edges predecessor Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) absconded to parts unknown when the walls — and the law — were closing in.

Price fancies himself a compassionate capitalist, but huge sums of money are at stake; said compassion is more a branding opportunity than an actual ideology. Not that he would ever admit that to himself. Which is why he’s convinced he’s just the man to occupy the Oval Office, despite no previous government experience. What could go wrong?

In the world of “Billions,” karma is but a figment of the underdog’s imagination. He who accumulates the most — money, power, even enemies — wins. Everyone else (that would be you and me) is a sucker to be exploited.

It’s fitting that “Billions,” from creators Brian Koppelman, David Levien and Andrew Ross Sorkin, is coming to an end just as real-world disparities between the haves and the have-nots have become even starker.

From left: Corey Stoll and Piper Perabo in Season 7 of “Billions.”

“Billions” is steeped in a cynicism that provides a fig leaf of critique (these are ruthless and terrible people, the show makes no effort to pretend otherwise) while also giddily elevating that cynicism to an art form. Not unlike “Succession,” for that matter.

But the show never became a pop cultural phenomenon the way its HBO counterpart did. In the high-stakes world of wealth-aganda, “Billions” has always been an also-ran. What a bitter pill for these fictional megalomaniacs!

Because Price is a phony who must be stopped, a trio of holdovers from Ax’s reign embark on a hush-hush plan of sabotage to save the country, nay the world. The takedown crew is made up of Wendy, the firm’s wily in-house psychologist (Maggie Siff); Wags, the happily pathetic indulger of vices (David Costabile); and Taylor, the deadpan numbers whiz with the buzz-cut Taylor (Asia Kate Dillon).

Why should we believe they would sacrifice anything for a higher principle? Pardon me while I laugh! They’ve never cared that deeply about anyone, or anything, outside their inner circle or desires. And now they’re suddenly the nation’s only hope?

Well, there’s always the hedge fund’s nemesis — the show’s obsessive Javert figure — in the form of Chuck Rhodes, the emotional con artist played by Paul Giamatti. As a U.S. attorney, he’s as dirty and egomaniacal as the hedge funders he’s looking to prosecute, but for Chuck, the ends justify the means, ethics be damned. Especially if it benefits his career.

Paul Giamatti in Season 7 of “Billions.”

The casting on “Billions” has always been a strength. After taking a year off, Lewis is back as Ax, albeit in a limited capacity. Babak Tafti is a sharp addition to the ensemble as Prince’s campaign manager. He’s sly and smart and cagey. The visuals are sleek and high-end, and costume designer Eric Daman has consistently given the show a signature color. The dark teal is a wardrobe staple in nearly every scene — someone on screen is wearing it — and the hue matches the color of the New York Harbor curling around lower Manhattan, as seen in the drone footage that opens each episode.

But creatively, the show is tapped out. As we arrive at the show’s end — or one hopes; reboots have a way of recurring like a bad dream — the clashes play out like one rope-a-dope after another. Awkward cameos from the likes of entrepreneur Mark Cuban, author Michael Lewis and rapper Killer Mike are just embarrassing. There’s diversity in the cast, but no real cultural specificity in how anybody is written. As a project, the series is wedded to a weirdly limited view of human psychology: Given the right opportunity, or threat, everyone is corruptible.

What purpose does a show like this serve in this moment?

Look around at what’s happening outside your window. “Billions” is not only out of step, it has nothing to say.

“Billions” Season 7 — 2 stars (out of 4)

Where to watch: 7 p.m. Sundays on Showtime (and streaming on Paramount+)

From left: Asia Kate Dillon and Toney Goins in Season 7 of “Billions.”

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic

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