Writing for TV: Billions Pilot
Writing a drama television series is one of the biggest challenges a screenwriter can set out and accomplish. It’s a monumental task, requiring patience, skill, and a knack for writing. Fortunately, plenty of excellent scripts are available for novice screenwriters to examine, with Billions being a prime example.
Billions is an American drama television series created by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Andrew Ross Sorkin. Billions tells the story of hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), as he accumulates wealth and power in the world of high finance.
Axe’s aggressive tactics to secure high returns are often illegal, causing Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) to prosecute. It’s an incredible drama that shines a spotlight on cruelty, loyalty, public image, and doing what’s right. Let’s shine a light on the pilot and what you can take away from its script.
Still from 'Billions'. Photo credit: Den of Geek
Relationship Driven Storytelling
Its pilot largely centers itself on a relationship-driven bit of storytelling. Axe is surrounded by yes-men, people looking for favors, and his wife, Lara. Everyone in Axe’s life is involved in his life to benefit his gain. It almost operates like a king and courier setup from the past.
Meanwhile, Chuck Rhoades is involved with characters who are entrenched in a power hierarchy. The show establishes a network of relationships from the start, highlighting the wants and needs of every character with one another. Its conflict and action are characterized by a shift in the relationship between two or more characters.
The story features well over two dozen characters, all of which vary with what they want. It allows for an interesting dynamic as an audience, showcasing that conflict makes for a great story. It’s not just about Chuck Rhoades versus Axe, but rather their conflict and its effect on everyone else.
Billions features the character in Axe that not many people can relate to. Unless you’re a part of the 1%, hardly anyone understands the nature of being insanely wealthy. Although Billions portrays Axe as an inherently flawed and ruthless character, his lifestyle remains unfamiliar, unlike most antagonists.
Even murderous antagonists such as Michael Myers or Buffalo Bill make us know they’re sociopaths from the start, hence why they’re murderers. At the same time, Axe is a different type of sociopath, solely driven by the profit motive.
The unfamiliar lifestyle of Axe creates a scenery that the audience wants to learn more about. What’s it like to have everyone around you treat you like you’re royalty?
Artful Construction Of Protagonists and Antagonists
The primary plot of Billions focuses on Chuck Rhoades and Axe going against one another. Unlike many other television series, we don’t see these two duel off with one another throughout the first season. Although they meet in the pilot Axe during an investment conference, there are only four scenes with the two throughout the first season.
Limiting real scene conflict between the two allows for the tension to build. A protagonist and antagonist dynamic doesn’t need to have the Batman effect. They don’t need to constantly fight in-person to develop successful conflict for the show. As long as it pushes along the story, rare in-person conflict can be highly beneficial.
Axe’s character centers around the notion of cruelty and the idea of an evil businessman. Axe constantly sneers to his fellow traders and isn’t afraid to speak his mind to his yes-men. It represents a deepened character who indeed looks at others as though they’re beneath him.
However, Billions doesn’t have Axe operate in that capacity solely so the script can have an antagonist. Axe’s ruthlessness is a character trait of someone who cares about making as much money as possible, no matter its legality or consequence. It furthers the point of how he views loyalty and his public image.
Any story that focuses on the idea of investing and business, in general, has a running theme of loyalty. Axe constantly keeps his underlings motivated with fear and reward. He gives them surprise bonuses and a lavish comp salary while offering an in-house therapist for beneficial speeches.
Axe doesn’t care about these characters but instead looks at them to keep him at the top. Chuck Rhoades plays a different dynamic, understanding that loyalty was crafted artificially through fear and rewards. If Chuck can deconstruct the people beneath Axe, will he be able to get to him?
Fake Public Image
In real life, virtually every billionaire has a quote-on-quote charity, some of which view it as a natural benefit for society. In reality, many of these billionaires solely do public charity just to boost their public image. Some of you may disagree with that, but that common theme is in Billions as well. Axe carefully donates to boost his image and end lifelong feuds for his benefit.