Is there another actress working in TV today who is as mesmerizingly good at playing guarded than Maggie Siff? Ever since she first burst on the scene as Rachel Menken on “Mad Men,” she has been effortlessly, slyly captivating characters and audiences. Sexy, smart, and distant, she’s perfectly cast as the very complicated Wendy Rhoades on Showtime’s “Billions,” which officially premieres Jan. 17 after making its pilot available Jan. 1.
Wendy is the in-house therapist, motivator, and lucky charm for Axe Capital, a job she relishes as she bucks up employees who are buckling under the pressure of moving huge sums of money around all day. It’s a job she’s held for years, despite having married U.S. District Attorney Chuck Rhoades. Rhoades is lauded for fighting investment corruption — but, as is pointed out to him repeatedly during the first episode, he’s never once gone after the king of the hedge funders: Axe Axelrod, of Axe Capital. Could that be because, he’s repeatedly asked, there’s a conflict of interests at home? He’s appalled. Wendy is … amused?
On a show that relishes conspicuous consumption even as it half-heartedly decries it, Siff is the saving grace note of subtlety. Axe and Rhoades spend most of every episode in a dick-measuring contest: Axe came from humble beginnings to become a billionaire by analyzing the available information (and perhaps engaging in some shady insider dealing) and wants to protect what he’s created, while Rhoades sees him as an affront to a perfect prosecution record that is now being questioned by allowing the most famous face of finance walk around unaccosted.
They are, unfortunately, the focus of the show. But it’s Siff and Malin Ackerman, as Axe’s loyal wife (who’s like a sober Michelle Pfeiffer in “Scarface,” all sharp blonde bob and sharper tongue) who simply, by virtue of their talent, keep “Billions” from devolving into an exercise in white privilege and machismo, something it constantly threatens to do.
“That stock’s gonna pop like a prom queen’s cherry,” is a fairly typical example of the dialogue that is meant to explicate the boys’ club ethos of both Axe Capital and the U.S. District Attorney’s office, places where the few female characters are prone to machinations, acting like one of the boys, or fretting that their careers might be over and they’ve wasted all those hundreds of thousands of dollars on shoes.
“Billions” is more excited about about Paul Giamatti, as Rhoades, and Damian Lewis, as Axe, facing off both in person and in theory. For his part, Giamatti tackles Rhoades as if this is his “House of Cards,” delivering lines like, “You don’t kill a fresh bull. You wait until it’s been stuck a few times” with almost unseemly relish. And Lewis, back on Showtime post-“Homeland,” is a coiled ball of rage in a designer hoodie. He’s driven by shadowy motivations (a very expensive renaming of a building stems from revenge for something that happened when he was a teenager) but his choices never seem to negatively affect the everyday citizen, making Rhoades’ insistence on taking him down questionable. Mostly, as Wendy snaps, they seem like two dogs that circled and sniffed one another “and didn’t like what you smelled.”
But just when you think you’ve had enough of Giamatti riding a power trip and forcing a passerby to pick up after his dog bare-handed or David Costabile, as Axe’s right-hand man, twirling his mustache and organizing body sushi for the gang, Ackerman will smilingly threaten a potential enemy or Siff will walk into a room and, with just a look, take everyone’s measure — and find them all wanting. Hers is a riveting performance; if only everyone else was up to her — and Wendy’s — measure.
“Billions” premieres Sunday, Jan. 17 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.