This article includes spoilers from Sunday’s Season 5 finale of “Billions”.
One of television’s last great anti-heroes left on Showtime’s “Trillions” Sunday night.
Bobby Axelrod, the proudly venal hedge fund titan played by Damian Lewis, soared into the sunset in the Season 5 finale, eluding the law and his main nemesis, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), one last time on his way to a less punitive future in Switzerland.
While the character’s final scene was somewhat open-ended, with Ax (as he’s most commonly known) being greeted by Swiss authorities after fleeing America, Lewis confirmed in a recent video interview that he was leaving the series. .
“There might be an opportunity for me to come back,” he said from his north London home. “But for now, generally speaking, Ax has been defeated.”
Lewis’s exit brings to an end what is “the most time I’ve spent playing a character,” he said. The actor was previously best known for his three-season stint in another Showtime series, “Homeland.”
It also comes just a few months after a personal tragedy. Lewis’s wife, famous actress Helen McCrory, passed away in April, shortly after “Billions” returned from their pandemic production hiatus. Lewis shot much of his final stretch of the series remotely, from England.
Over the course of five seasons of the pulpy drama of markets and machers, Ax has embodied the culture’s often conflicting feelings about super-rich. A self-taught, self-proclaimed capitalist monster, he shamelessly destroyed everything between him and his next billion – careers, lives, entire cities. But he did so with enviable audacity and panache, with an equally alluring lifestyle in a penthouse and a private jet.
“When I walk down the street in New York, it’s, ‘Ax, you’re the man!’” Lewis said. “He’s a truly despicable human being, but no one seems to care.”
Much of this is due to Lewis, who from the start imbued a character that could have been a mocking caricature with emotional depth and predatory physique. (When he was developing the character, his acting exercises included moving around the floor like a cheetah.) Just as Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston made Don Draper and Walter White irresistible even when they were horrible, Lewis made the marauding Axis financial fun to watch.
“Damian Lewis is not an actor who is afraid the audience won’t like him,” said Brian Koppelman, who is showrunner with David Levien. “He’s ready to play the character in as caustic a way as the character demands, and he’s confident that if he’s true to that, it will connect with the audience.”
But after 60 episodes of elaborate, sometimes impenetrable blueprints, and Chuck and Ax clashing in various configurations, Lewis was ready to move on.
“It’s hard to keep mining creatively,” he said. “We know who he is.
And after six years of spending months in a row in New York filming “Billions,” he plans to stay close to home and his two teenage boys after “we had a sadness in our family,” he said. he said, referring to McCrory’s death, at age 52, from cancer.
It’s a subject he hesitates to talk about, his normal expansion giving way to laconic answers. He wishes to stay in London for the foreseeable future for “obvious reasons”, he said. “It is obvious.”
Lewis said McCrory’s death did not explain his departure from “Trillions.” He initially signed for five seasons and “always assumed that would be enough,” he said. Koppelman said the show, which premiered in 2016, has been preparing for Axis departure for several years.
But that does explain why Lewis has spent much of the last few episodes appearing from a distance. The cast and crew flew to England to shoot scenes that were framed in the show as a stint for Ax in Covid quarantine. (Lewis returned to New York for part of the final episode.)
“We wouldn’t ask him to come to America in this situation – right after the death of the love of his life, who was a remarkable and amazing artist and human being,” Koppelman said.
“It’s Damian’s private life, so it’s not really for us to comment,” he continued. “We feel really, incredibly lucky to have spent five years with Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti together.”
From the start, the cat and mouse dynamic between Ax and Chuck has been the defining dimension of the series. (Just a second: the many awkward cameos of real financiers and Manhattan luminaries.)
When the show returns on January 23 for its sixth season, Corey Stoll’s Mike Prince, who arrived this season, will be Giamatti’s ethically ambiguous lawyer universe master. The finale found Prince literally taking the seat from Axelrod, having bought his company in an offer Ax couldn’t refuse.
With his carefully cultivated image and saving rhetoric, the character of Prince has more in common with our current generation of rocket billionaires than with the hedge fund mercenaries Ax channeled in the wake of the Great Recession. (Andrew Ross Sorkin, editor and columnist for the New York Times who recounted the 2008 crash in his book “Too Big to Fail,” is a creator and executive producer of “Billions”.)
“A long-standing show has to evolve,” Levien said. “So it’s like recharging in a great way, at the right time. Showtime has yet to commit to a seventh season, but Gary Levine, the network’s entertainment president, said, “From what I’ve seen from season 6, I’m very encouraged.”
For Lewis, who is currently preparing to shoot the British Cold War series “A Spy Among Friends”, his departure from American television comes almost exactly 20 years after being introduced to American viewers, as the star of the mini-film. HBO on WWII. “Band of Brothers” series, in September 2001. It also ends a decade he spent primarily on Showtime, beginning with his stint on “Homeland” as the Soldier became Sleeping Agent Nicholas Brody. (“I’ve had to say goodbye to Damian twice now,” Levine said.)
A British educated in Eton, Lewis showed remarkable talent for playing the American blue collar. (Ax wears his Yonkers roots on the sleeve of his cashmere hoodie.) But he’s not sure when, if ever, he’ll be looking for another American series.
“I don’t like closing chapters,” he says. “But I feel like it’s the end for now.”
Lewis will be sure to play Axelrod, he said. But he’s proud that he and the writers were able to capture something about both the allure and corrupting influence of extreme wealth. While there are still a lot of rich and terribly attractive people on television – “Succession” returns on October 17th – the special flavor of Axis’ swaggering wickedness has become rarer in an age currently defined by people like Ted. Lasso.
“We’ve done it one way or another in culture,” Lewis said. “And it’s always fun to do.”