Billions is a 2016 drama about the conflict between US Attorney Chuck Rhoades Jr. and hedge fund billionaire Bobby “Axe” Axelrod.
The very first thing we see in the pilot episode is Chuck stripped and bound at the mercy of a woman in lingerie. This is his wife Wendy, who is also the in-house therapist of Bobby’s investment firm, setting up the triangle at the heart of the series.
BDSM is not a big enough theme in Billions to do an episode-by-episode review. Thus I will focus on certain episodes in which Chuck and Wendy’s BDSM relationship is a major element.
The first thing we see in the pilot episode is Chuck, strippped to his underwear, tied with white ropes and gagged. An unidentified woman (actually his wife Wendy) in high heels stands over him.
Chuck’s position is the kind that can lead to being governor or mayor, and it comes with an incredible amount of pressure. He’s under a media spotlight and surrounded by political maneuvering. It’s not surprising that he deals with the stress in this way.
During a meeting, at which his father is present, Chuck says:
Chuck: “My father always told me that ‘mercy’ was a word that pussies used when they couldn’t take the pain.”
At the end of the episode, after Chuck has goaded Bobby into a confrontation, we see Chuck return home and learn that Wendy is the domme in their relationship, as she pushes him down and presses a high heel into his chest.
That the dominatrix is Chuck’s wife and the confidante of his enemy adds a lot of story potential.
In her job as in-house therapist for Bobby Axelrod’s company, Wendy has tremendous knowledge of and influence on the other employees. Sometimes she uses this power at Bobby’s behest, as when she talks a recently fired employee out of turning on the company. Sometimes she uses this with generous care, when she persuades a female employee to take another job so she won’t be stuck with an abusive boss. If Bobby is the “father”, Wendy is the “mother”, exercising “soft” power within the household.
The scene opens with Chuck bound and gagged on their marriage bed, still in his white boxers. Wendy stands over him in a Domme outfit (black bra, corset, stockings, garters, lacey choker, etc) and wields a violet wand. This scene is mostly shot in alternating closeups.
Wendy: (shuts off the violet wand) “What is going on? You are not here with me.”
Chuck: (mumbles through gag)
Wendy ungags him.
Chuck: “I’m sorry. I just can’t concentrate.”
Wendy: [re the violet wand] “Really? This makes cattle concentrate. The whole point is this keeps you in the present.”
Chuck talks about how Bobby is pressuring Chuck’s father.
Wendy turns the violet wand back on.
Wendy: “I’m going to leave you to stew in it.”
Chuck: (resigned) “Okay.”
Wendy: “And when I get back, you better be focused and obedient.”
Wendy punctuates her words with touches from the violet wand on his bare stomach, making him jump.
Wendy: “Have I made myself clear?”
Chuck: “Yes, yeah, very clear.”
Wendy puts the gag back in his mouth.
Wendy: “Stay here.” [Throws the deactivated wand on the bed] “And wait for your mistress to return.”
After Wendy takes a break in the bathroom, she returns to the bedroom and finds Chuck has freed himself, put on pajamas and is reading in bed.
Wendy: “So you just want to watch TV and eat ice cream?”
Chuck: “Yeah, perfect.”
This scene is juxtaposed with Bobby and his wife Lara in bed together, having passionate sex.
Wendy feels unappreciated by Chuck, as Bobby Axelrod is living rent free in his head. She puts on all the lingerie and makeup and Chuck just lies there in his white boxers, not in the moment.
Chuck Rhoades, sometimes, does not do nice things. In his war against Bobby Axelrod, he’s repeatedly misled and lied to people, threatened their families with prosecution, and sent even people he knows personally to prison.
In this episode, Chuck travels to Iowa to get a man to testify on Axe Capital’s insider trading. The end result is the guy is arrested and taken away, while his wife is left alone to look after their daughter with cystic fibrosis.
Away from Wendy, Chuck sits in a hotel room alone. He looks up a local BDSM venue on a web site.
He sits in a rented car outside a BDSM club, indicated by people in fetishwear entering.
Chuck: “I’m outside a club again. I don’t know how I ended up here.”
Wendy: “I’m listening.”
Chuck: “I feel so out of control, Wendy.”
Wendy: “You want to go inside?”
Chuck: “Oh, fuck yes.”
Wendy: “Me, too.”
Wendy tells him to “take me with you.”
Chuck goes into the club and secretly puts in his phone’s earbud so he can talk with Wendy. This scene is intercut with Wendy in their marriage bed at home.
Chuck talks about going to the BDSM club like it is an addiction. Rather than telling him to stop, Wendy turns the moment into a shared experience.
Chuck describes the action in the darkened club to Wendy, and she issues commands to him, like telling him to get on the floor and denying him the pleasure of touching himself. Wendy masturbates by herself (her hand off camera).
Chuck has, at least officially, recused himself from the Axe Capital case to avoid conflict of interest. He and Wendy go out for dinner with another couple, who talk about working as a team on their business. At home, Chuck voices his disbelief that a married couple could be a team. Wendy slaps him across the face, which initiates a scene between them. We don’t actually see this, but the next morning, Wendy wakes up by herself. The room is strewn with floggers and bondage rope, plus a joint in an ashtray. Chuck left her a note, including his email password. Wendy is left to clean up.
We still don’t see Chuck and Wendy talking about the place of kink in their marriage. Even media that is positive about BDSM rarely shows people negotiating before a scene.
In a previous episode, Chuck says that he feels out of control, and in this episode, Wendy very suddenly initiates a scene. Their interaction is a bit compulsive, as if they both spend each day with their armor on, and every now and then they have to go wild.
In previous episodes, Bobby Axelrod used Donnie Cain, one of his traders who is secretly dying of cancer, as a shield against the US Attorney’s investigation. The investigators arrest Donnie, but he dies in custody before he can testify. This pretty much kills the investigation into Axe Capital.
The various characters deal with the fallout of this event. Bobby makes a misjudgment that could cost the company half a billion dollars, and Wendy asks him if he is rewarding or punishing himself. Wendy stays late with Bobby to have a much-delayed session, while Chuck is left alone. He sees Wendy and Axe together on the roof of Axe Capital.
Later that night, Chuck goes into the city and enters a dungeon. It’s the familiar red-and-black color scheme we’ve seen in many films and TV shows. Chuck enters one of the rooms and meets with a dominatrix. Played by Clara Wong, this character is credited as “Mistress”, is a recurring character who will later be known as “Troy”. She greets him as “Mister Hernandez” and says she hasn’t seen him in a long time.
Taking control, the Mistress says, “I can only assume you’ve been a wretched speck of shit.”
There’s a montage of her undressing him, strapping him to a St. Andrews Cross, putting finger spikes on herself, blindfolding him, and performing sensation play.
As we saw in S01E05, Chuck feels compelled to do BDSM play. Before it was a matter of guilt, but now it is a more complicated set of emotions.
We’ve seen other fictional examples of high-powered men who compulsively play with pro dommes as “punishment” for their guilt, such as in an episode of Nip/Tuck. But is this actually “punishment”? Perhaps they are actually rewarding themselves unconsciously for their actions. This ties into another plotline in which Wendy says that Bobby unconsciously blew a deal as self-inflicted punishment for using Donnie Cain.
When she presses the tip of her finger-spike into his nipple, Chuck shouts, “Red!”
Mistress immediately unstraps her. Chuck admits he’s here without permission from his wife.
Domme: “Go get permission.”
Chuck: (getting dressed) “It’s not so simple.”
Domme: “Does Wendy not roleplay anymore? The workshop went so well. She was a fucking all-star.”
Chuck: “It’s like she’s, she’s intractable. And so distant.”
Domme: “Chuck, you guys should go see someone. You can both come here if you want.”
This is a tantalizing hint that Chuck and Wendy have been involved in the larger kink world. It also shows the strength of Chuck’s masochistic compulsion and his struggle to stay within the bounds of his marriage agreement with Wendy. It may not even be an expression of guilt, as it is a displacement for anger over seeing Wendy and Bobby together. Instead of flying into a rage at Bobby or Wendy, he instead starts to break his rule with Wendy to attack her, then stops.
A commotion outside with the security guard reveals that somebody has been following Chuck all night and photographing him. Chuck leaves and goes home.
While Wendy is in the shower, Chuck uses her password to get into her laptop, read her notes on Bobby, and get leads on Bobby’s criminal activities. This is arguably a more serious breach of trust than Chuck seeing a pro domme without Wendy’s permission.
Chuck uses information from Wendy’s notes on Bobby to launch an investigation into Bobby bribing police. This works its way back to Bobby, who has a clandestine meeting with his fixer, Hall, who will “prepare the materials for her [Wendy]”.
Bobby directly confronts Wendy and says that she fed information to her husband. He shows her printouts of what looks like BDSM club and BDSM toy shopping pages.
Bobby: “I have your web traffic on our server here. And from your laptop. You got quite a dark side, don’t you? I would imagine this would make Dr. Wendy Rhoades look very unprofessional. And of course, the whole world, including the office of the US Attorney for the Southern District and the Attorney-General would see it too.”
Note that Bobby doesn’t personally attack her about being kinky, merely that other people would object.
Wendy denies selling Bobby out, but goes home to have a long delayed confrontation with Chuck. Chuck goes on the offensive, calling her “one of them” for being a part of a criminal organization.
He also confessed about going to a dungeon without her permission.
Chuck: “I went to see Troy.”
Wendy is shocked.
Chuck: “And like I said, he had someone on me and if I didn’t get lucky there would be pictures of me on the front page of today’s Post.”
Wendy: “You went to see her without fucking telling me.”
Chuck: “Nothing happened. And I couldn’t go through with anything anyway because you weren’t there.”
Wendy: “How touching.”
Chuck: “I’m cut off. I’m cut off, from you, from us. And you sit there and you try and claim moral high ground.”
Wendy throws him out of their house.
Next morning, Chuck cancels the investigation.
Wendy meets with Bobby and plays a recording of Chuck confessing to breaking into her computer and reading her notes. Bobby says he will destroy the records and pay her millions of dollars. Wendy deletes the recording and quits. She won’t be in denial about what Axe Capital is and what he is. Note that she wears a leather jacket in this scene.
Chuck uses a known informant to make Bobby think there are bugs planted in Axe Capital. Bobby literally tears the place apart, looking for them.
Chuck drops by to have a final confrontation with Bobby. Note that Bobby does not mention Chuck or Wendy’s involvement in BDSM.
Season 1 Conclusion
Billions features the old trope of the powerful man who sees a dominatrix to indulge his physical and emotional masochism, combined with the dominatrix-as-therapist trope.
However, the show is not judgmental about Chuck’s masochism. It’s a part of his marriage with Wendy, and at least sometimes it is a source of pleasure and intimacy for them. Wendy enjoys it too.
It’s also something Chuck struggles with. Twice we see him respond to emotional turmoil by rushing to indulge in kink, and twice he pulls back because he doesn’t have Wendy’s permission. It’s a sign of his human weakness, just like Bobby’s impulsiveness and arrogance are symptoms of his weakness.
It’s also a political vulnerability. Early in the pilot, one of Chuck’s staff instructs a new employee that they have to be above reproach in their office. Chuck and Wendy keep their kinks secret, but eventually it gets out, via Wendy’s web traffic at work and by one of Bobby’s minions tailing Chuck to a dungeon.
Bobby has no personal feelings about Wendy’s BDSM practices; it’s something he keeps in a blackmail file on Wendy, just in case he ever needs it. After he did use it to threaten her career and her husband’s political ambitions, it’s enough to make Wendy finally quit and leave him.