March 11, 2023.
This review contains spoilers for seasons 1-6, and involves discussions of potentially upsetting themes.
Taylor Mason, a non-binary main character, very much breaks the mould of an otherwise typical drama show, and is played by a White American non-binary actor named Asia Kate Dillon.
Lauren, Taylor's employee, about to kiss them for the first time.
Oscar and Taylor's first night together.
Initially they are an anti-social stereotype of super-intelligence, but develop an actual personality throughout later episodes, and have romantic relationships with a man and a woman. Neither of these relationships end well, but were still groundbreaking in terms of romantic non-binary representation when Taylor was introduced.
Taylor's adversaries, even when plotting how to take them down, continue to use their correct pronouns. The consensus is generally that Taylor’s business practices and dealings are fair game to criticise, but their gender is not. I really enjoy that aspect of the show, and the fact that Taylor is portrayed as a clever, capable person who isn't afraid of conflict.
Taylor, moved to tears after their father makes an effort to be accepting in S04E03.
They are misgendered a few times by antagonistic and ignorant characters, and also by their father, who is struggling to affirm his child's gender. The misgendering gets less and less common throughout the series, and with every season Taylor's gender is less of a topic to be actively discussed. Billions is probably the most long-running show which normalises gender-neutral pronouns in everyday use.
Taylor Mason wearing a wig, makeup, and a dress.
In S04E01, in order to secure a business deal with a sheikh who has anti-LGBT views, Taylor presents femininely and goes toe-to-toe with a representative who insists that "females" ought to play submissive roles in business, and in life overall. This is an example of Taylor's ruthlessness, and the extent to which they sacrifice comfort for business and victory. They're not particularly emotional or vulnerable when it comes to their gender or the pronouns used to refer to them. Unless the person misgendering them is their father, they react with calculated words or just ignore the comments entirely. I like that aspect of Taylor's characterisation. They're very self-assured and calm. Any issues they face relate to other parts of their life (work, relationships, being morally bankrupt, etc) and not their gender.
A watch that Taylor buys in S03E04, which costs $164,400.
The show is ongoing and Taylor remains an influential main character. But there’s no escaping the fact that Billions' central themes include capitalist corruption and rich people’s drama. Taylor themself plays "the good millionaire" in later seasons, which--given the current dialogue about wealth inequality in America--may dissuade some people from watching for the non-binary representation. The antics of the mega-wealthy do get a bit ridiculous after a while. But maybe don't marathon several seasons, as I did, and you'll find it more bearable.
A woman who is used as a prop in S01E02.
The worst aspect of the show is its misogyny, including the tokenising and manipulation of a female rape survivor named Martina Slovis. Season 1 kicks things off with nameless Asian women in a prostituting massage parlour and a nameless dwarfen woman offering sexual services in a bathhouse, so that should give you an idea of the show’s standards when it comes to women and minorities.
The afore-mentioned short-statured woman walks up to a main character and undresses, as pictured above. She is never shown again, relegated to just being a fetish. Entertainment Weekly wrote, "Hall is seen siting in a sauna when, out of nowhere, a dwarf comes up to him and disrobes. Billions! I get the feeling we’re going to learn everyone’s sexual proclivities by the end of the season." The woman, like many other women in Billions, is nothing more than an object. We don't even see her face. She has no name. She's just "a dwarf" and therein a "sexual proclivity".
Even in later seasons, when the show is apparently more progressive, the m-word is used by a character recommending dwarf-tossing as an activity to boost office morale. This is a reference to The Wolf of Wall Street that's pretty tasteless, considering modern awareness of the damage such a practice causes, and the dignity that short-statured people are clawing back from a culture that has historically ridiculed and abused them.
A cis gay character also jokes about a colleague supposedly having a vagina, meaning he's a weak and pathetic man. So yes, there's a non-binary main character, but there's also anti-FTM transphobia. Hearing the throwaway comment, I couldn't help but think of Carter Brown’s experiences. Of his colleagues, Brown recalled in this interview, “They confronted me and said that it had been rumoured that I was a woman. Or, better yet, that I had a vagina.” A lot of violence, especially sexual violence, occurs to trans men when people make such comments. So a joke about a man having a vagina hardly signals an FTM-friendly show, for FTM viewers who have been the target of such comments. But it is a quick moment, one which many viewers won't notice or be affected by, so you can be the judge; I'm prone to analysing media quite closely.
"She's an illegal just over from El Salvador."
I would advise reading reviews before you dive in, especially considering racist storylines in recent seasons, one of which involves Taylor directly. They force Leon Sherald (a Black man) out of business because he refuses to have his money invested with the police. Lauren, their ex-girlfriend and a woman of colour, experiences joblessness twice due to Taylor's selfish and cruel actions. In season three, a woman of colour named Maria Gonzalez is forcibly detained and deported by ICE, in order to cover up the White protagonist's crimes. There is also a poorly-handled, graphically-described storyline about lethal police brutality against a man of colour (Jose Lugo), which ultimately serves as little more than an arc to explore a White dude's professional trajectory. Jose Lugo is the definition of a plot device whose sole purpose is to die.
The same White dude (Chuck Rhoades) also seeks the help of an organ harvester, whose primary victims include vulnerable refugees and minorities, to help his obscenely wealthy dad get a kidney transplant. He ultimately doesn't go through with the transaction, but also doesn't use his power as a literal law-enforcer to get the predatory surgeon thrown in prison. In fact, the surgeon hangs around for... comedy relief. Yeah, that's right. The bloke who was gung-ho about chopping up young asylum seekers for rich White people is the funny guy. He shows up to offer boner pills and witty one-liners in subsequent episodes, all the while flourishing on money from organ trafficking. Chuck sees nothing wrong with this.
Pretty much every main character is morally bankrupt. Taylor is an example of good non-binary representation in the sense that they're played by a non-binary actor and allowed a personality beyond their gender, but they're not a very good person. I'm glad that this is the case, actually, and that the show treats Taylor the same way it treats cishet characters. Every human being can be corrupted by wealth and temptation, after all, and gender-diverse people aren't all perfect. If Taylor had been a morally incorruptible, idealised person with no flaws, they would've been ridiculously out of place among the other characters. If they were going to be in this show, amongst awful and selfish people, it makes sense that they're periodically awful and selfish too. That doesn't stop them being non-binary.
Chuck and his father in S03E04.
One of the creepiest aspects of this show, in my opinion, is the relationship between Chuck and his abusive father. When he was only 14 years old, his father and uncle hired an adult female sex worker to take his virginity. (There's a word for that--rape--but the show doesn't use it.) As an adult, Chuck's father kisses his son full on the mouth and holds him still, even as Chuck tries to resist him. Not only did Chuck's wife react with mere mild surprise at her husband's description of statutory rape (and a sex worker who was potentially a pedophile/hebephile), the show does not treat his experiences seriously. It's a repugnant storyline that almost kept me from watching, especially when you consider how a character might react if a 14 year-old girl had been forced into sex by her father and uncle. The double standard is utterly disgusting.
I'm increasingly infuriated by mainstream media treating the abuse of men/boys as trivial or, at worst, comedic. This show does both, with Wags (a main character) asserting that he'd hire an adult female sex worker for a 13 year-old boy's birthday party, so the child could have his first sexual experience. I don't find this funny. I find it deeply disturbing. Imagine if he'd said that shit about a female child. A 13 year-old girl that he'd like to coerce into sex with an adult man. Would that be acceptable? Fuck no. When will this double standard stop? Organisations like 1in6 show that the sexual abuse of boys and men is no joke. It'd be fucking great if mainstream media would stop making it into a joke.
Moving on... Chuck's father, Charles, also uses ableist language and is generally an awful human being. He uses the r-slur in season 3, along with the phrase "physical moron", and degrades his former brother-in-law on the basis that the man has microcephaly. He also calls a group of Native American people "my Indians", believing himself to be the owner of both them and their land. You're supposed to dislike him to an extent but, mainly, the writers seem to encourage viewers to laugh at his cruelty and racism/sexism/ableism/etc. It's rarely challenged in any meaningful way.
Ari Spyros leering at Bonnie, the target of his unrequited, sleazy advances in S04E09.
Martina Slovis' rapist (Ari Spyros) remains an established side character, the seriousness of his crime undermined by the fact that he's treated as little more than an annoyance by the main characters. Beyond the rape (which is quickly brushed off by the writers), Spyros is given free reign to freshly sexually harass women with no repercussions, supposedly powerful female characters like Wendy Rhodes having meetings with female colleagues about how to manage Spyros, rather than just firing the creep outright.
If you want to watch Billions, you'll need to make your peace with the fact that a rapist is inexplicably allowed to grope and harass his way through workplaces which are supposedly all-powerful and fully capable of sending him packing. At one point, Bonnie (a female employee) seeks Wendy's help after Spyros and multiple other male employees have subjected her to inappropriate attention. In response, Wendy smiles placidly like there's nothing she or Bonnie can do except manage these adult colleagues as though they're just silly, misguided children. As I watched, I felt like screaming! How about showing them the door and making the seriousness of sexual harassment known? Aren't you influential people who can demand better, for fuck's sake? Isn't Wendy, particularly, supposed to be the all-powerful woman of the show? The same woman who held up a bottle of Viagra during a speech in which she psychologically dominated a room full of misogynistic cis men? The contradiction is exhausting. Wendy is the perfect example of a strong woman trope done badly. Bonnie is the trope turbocharged.
In summary: Taylor Mason is compelling and Billions is far from perfect, although I did enjoy it enough to marathon all available episodes. Most of the acting, especially Paul Giamatti's performance as Chuck, is superb. Just prepare yourself for a whole host of nasty people and loose morals. Depending on who you are, and what your experiences have been, you'll react differently to the shit Billions serves up.
You're supposed to hate many of the characters in this show, which is much of the defence behind actions/beliefs that the writers never bother to properly challenge. You're supposed to look at the power imbalances that exist between the main characters and other people, in terms of financial security and ethnicity and all aspects of life, and reflect on how closely those imbalances match real life. But that justification doesn't mean the show is always easy to watch.
Season 7 Update:
I'm partway through the last season of Billions at the time of writing. In terms of the show's non-binary representation, Taylor remains largely the same, although they and other characters have become cardboard cutouts of previously fleshed-out personalities. Taylor seems to be utterly vacuous, with no opinions about reuniting with a man who destroyed their romantic and platonic relationships. They've been reduced to snappy one-liners and boring dialogue. Any compelling storytelling has gone down the drain, even beyond Taylor.
Bizarrely, Volodymyr Zelenskyy briefly stars in season 7, and fictional characters are credited with providing crucial assistance to Ukraine. (The real-life invasion of Ukraine is inserted into Billions' fictional universe.) This side plot stuck me as a weird, clumsy, and egotistical way of shoehorning characters into a very real conflict. I didn't find it offensive, just... a bloody strange thing to do. I rolled my eyes pretty hard when the titular billionaire of this series was being lavishly praised for providing assistance to Ukraine. It was rubbish storytelling.
Episode 3 features body shaming via small dick jokes. Lazy, misandristic, predictable, shallow crap that's permitted by mainstream media as long as it's exclusively directed at men. Bleagh.
In episode 8, a woman approaches a group of men, says she's been watching them urinate, and comments on the size of their penises while they were urinating. Again, another small dick joke, and a profoundly creepy admission of voyeurism. This is supposed to prove she's a cool, confident woman, but I find myself imagining flipped gender dynamics whenever shit like this occurs in television shows. If a bloke approached a group of women, said he'd been watching them urinate, and commented on the appearance of their vaginas while urinating, would that be funny? Or would it be gross? Because gross is precisely how the woman's comments seem to me. Grosser, in fact, than the scat fetish scenes in the same episode. Although, hey, I won't yuck any yums; I have more respect for people who consensually engage in scat fetishes than women who think small dick jokes are funny. It's literally just body shaming. Grow the fuck up.
Episode 10 sees the return of some compelling writing and plot suspense, thank fuck. The only complaint I have about it would be song choice. During a dramatic scene where a main character's professional and personal revival is being celebrated, thrash metal plays to emphasise his formidable nature and professional brutality. That in itself is fine (I'm a huge fan of thrash metal and sludge metal) but the song they chose is "Angel of Death" by Slayer. It was hard to focus on business acumen and strategic cunning while hearing the words "Auschwitz, the meaning of pain" and "destroying without mercy, to benefit the Aryan race". I dunno why the writers reckoned those lyrics would be appropriate, or even relevant, to framing a character as being badass and willing to do anything to win. Slayer have always maintained that their songs about Nazi brutality don't glorify such brutality, but I'm not sure the writers of Billions could duck under such a rationalisation, since Nazi history is a fucking strange thing to evoke in the episode's context. Beyond whether it's appropriate, why the hell was it relevant? Are we supposed to associate Bobby Axelrod with Josef Mengele?
I found episode 11 to be a departure from episode 10, unfortunately, with tension and conflict fizzling out into a boring, plodding series of scenes, largely revolving around the previously-discussed creep who remarked on the size of strangers' genitalia.
The most confusing thing about the finale (episode 12) is the fact that Mike Prince doesn't launch across the room and punch someone's face in! Taylor's story ends happily, so that's nice. All in all, regardless of the decline in quality as the show progressed, and regardless of the show's confronting and badly-handled themes, this series will remain history-making in terms of its normalisation of a non-binary person who uses they/them pronouns. Many more shows and films are now introducing non-binary characters, but Billions really did do something nobody else was doing in 2017, and the showrunners kept Taylor around. That deserves credit, along with any criticism that the show also deserves.
The finale sees Ari Spyros loaded up with obscene wealth and riding off into the sunset, along with the main characters, and he literally never faces consequences for raping Martina Slovis. Charles never faces consequences for paying an adult woman to rape a child. But I didn't expect that Billions would hold these characters accountable. It was a disappointing ending for these two shitstains, but not surprising.
Bobby Axelrod is lauded as the coolest bloke ever (again, unsurprisingly) when the show ends. His defeat of the antagonist, who is supposedly the most evil dude in the room, is celebrated. It's worth remembering, though, that Bobby considered killing Taylor, and he's done many horrific things beyond that. He's one evil piece of shit if we're being honest with ourselves, but don't expect that honesty from the characters.