There are pitfalls to working in HR for too long – you might end up writing a shitty TV series like Billions. I’ve always suspected the show was the absurd musings of an ex-HR with delusions of grandeur. And, now that I am a few episodes into Billions season 5, I am sure of it! While the HR fantasies are fun to watch, this current season of Billions has evolved into a glorification of hardcore capitalism and the mega-rich, which leaves a sour taste in my mouth.
Once Upon a Time in HR…
For those of you who have been spared the horror, Billions is a drama-cum-farce that follows the trials and “glamour” of working at New York hedge fund. The star of the show is Wendy Rhoades, who is a performance coach and the Head of HR for Axe Capital. She is also an idol to thousands of real-life HR professionals in banks and financial services across the world. Why? Because the show likes to exaggerate her role in driving profits; the ego-centric male traders cannot make their squillions without Wendy’s special touch.
Watching Wendy coach makes me chuckle on my own vomit. In one scene she says to a trader whose profits are down,
“You’re just listening to the wrong voice. You are tuned into the one yelling at you over the loudspeaker, telling you that you’re fucking stupid and your performance blows. You’re ignoring the quiet one inside telling you where the alpha is. Now that’s the voice that got you here. And, it’s still there if you’re willing to listen… Now, I want you to go back to your Bloomberg and cut bait on your losers. You know, the ones you’ve been defending, hoping they will come back around but secretly you know they never will. I want you to just commit, that you’re in it for the long haul, that you will succeed. And once you do that the new ideas, the winners, will present themselves. Because you are a winner.“
After a bit of chest-beating (literally), low-and-behold the simple male is performing at his peak again. Wow! Who knew making money was so easy? I must try that speech on my cats.
Wendy’s counselling sessions are not completely far-fetched. There is a massive industry for executive coaches. Some of those privileged types with their Ivy League degrees need a hell-of-a-lot of pep talks to feel good about themselves. Of course, Billions loves to overemphasise this.
In the show, hedge fund CEO Bobby ‘Axe’ Axelrod is often depicted as lost without Wendy. No, that’s not quite right. She is depicted as his lapdog and he is depicted as a jerk who likes to command his dog to heel before making a decision. Time after time we watch Axe call Wendy up, usually when she is in the middle of something, and demand she runs on over to soothe his ego and deliver constructive feedback (you know the rule, caveat each criticism with two compliments). This script started in season one, Magical Thinking when Axe demanded Wendy drop everything to coach him following a bad trade. The same old script has kept repeating every season since.
Why is this appealing to some HR? Well, HR needs a seat at the table. This must be what it looks likes in an ideal world. I can empathise because savvy HR professionals can play a very strategic role in shaping company culture and communications which, in turn, drives business results yet oftentimes HR is dismissed as an administrative function. However, in Billions, Wendy seems to reduce the function to something far lower than just administration. She makes out like HR should be personal cheerleaders to the profit-hungry leaders. Eww!!
The allure of money
Besides “power” there are other perks to being the lapdog of a wealthy CEO in New York according to the show. Anyone with a passion for designer handbags may have wet their pants during the season one finale, when Axe increased Wendy’s bonus from $2 million to $5 million and wired it to her account immediately. Or what about the time he gifted her a Maserati Granturismo Sport Coupe worth over $150,000!?
At the start of the show, Wendy’s average annual salary is quoted as $1.48 million dollars (plus bonus and other perks). In season two, she negotiates a 20% increase in her base pay in the below scene.
And from there it has kept on growing. In short, Wendy just rakes it in – her coaching is really that good! No wonder she is the HR poster child.
In season five Wendy gets promoted while compliance acts like a douche
Personally, I love to watch HR on top but Billions season 5 has evolved from fun fantasy to utter crapshit. Now Wendy has added equal partner of a socially responsible investing arm within Axe Capital to her portfolio – on top of her Head of HR responsibilities. It is not Asia Kate Dillon’s expressionless acting but this wacky plotline which loses the show its former sliver of credibility. How does Wendy manage such a workload without even having an assistant? What’s more, where did she learn to make investment decisions or pitch to investors? The scenes of Wendy with sidekick Taylor Mason analysing a fossil fuel investment is beyond stupid.
At least the “HR writers” behind this show are making a serious effort at diversity. In Billions season 5, nearly every scene features some combination of a black character, a binary character, a young vegan female, an Asian, and a guy with glasses. Kudos!
Anyway, despite whatever delusions the show may be founded on, at least it used to be entertaining and the characters – albeit evil – had backstories and were a little bit clever. But Billions season 5 has lost its way and most of the stars have become mere caricatures of their former themselves. This is particularly true of Spyros who acts as the Head of Compliance for Axe Capital.
HR must really have it in for compliance because Spyros is portrayed as a bumbling nincompoop throughout Billions season 5. Every time I watch him wreck a scene, I ponder if Billions is drama or slapstick. In the episode Fake It Till You Make It Spyros gets ridiculed for wearing a fake Mensa pin so he decides to study for the official Mensa exam. Unfortunately, he can only pass with the help of an investment analyst who secretly hacks into the system (unbeknownst to Spyrus) to adjust his results. This plotline culminates in the below pompous speech:
What is the show trying to say? If Spyros’ character is anything to go by, I suppose the mission of the scriptwriters is to make a mockery of compliance. This is either a clumsy attempt to reinforce Axe’s disregard for the law or it is just an obvious dig to make Wendy look better. I’m hoping against hope it is not an attempt at humour because the Charlie Chaplin act is not funny.
Now is not the time to glorify the mega-rich
All speculations aside, the real reason why I have come to hate Billions is that season 5 is an inappropriate glorification of the mega-rich. Our world is currently torpedoing into the first great depression of the new millennium as a result of COVID19. Millions are losing their livelihoods on a daily basis. So, watching the characters in Billions throw their money around is about as entertaining as a kick in the teeth.
In the first few episodes, we watch Axe and his buddies fork out piles of cash for spiritual retreats, Vogue photoshoots, personal chefs, sports cars, Manhattan apartments, fancy wines, nightclubs, drugs, strippers, expensive art, and helicopter rides all while trying to avoid taxes.
As far as I can tell, the main plotline follows that money is everything. This is none so apparent as in the episode aptly titled Sins of the Father. Axe’s son Gordie goes to one of those snotty private schools. He accidentally knocks out the school’s power grid during a crypto-mining experiment and faces expulsion. The little runt severely compromised the school’s security and should be punished. However, Axe forbids him from apologising for his actions. Instead, he attempts to bribe the headmaster to overlook the incident and when that doesn’t work, he resorts to blackmail. That does the trick. When Axe uncovers the headmaster has been bending the rules to help a Syrian refugee family he uses the dirt to keep his son in school and is afforded the chance to recite the following speech at the school assembly:
“I’m here to give you a little bit of what the school has been holding back from you: the goddamn truth about Darwin, scarcity, and the world you actually live in. It’s not the warm, swaddled place your headmaster and your parents have told you about. It’s populated by people like me who will tear you apart. Nature didn’t select me. I selected myself by harnessing my nature. My son wasn’t pulling a prank. He was trying to earn. And, if he broke the school’s code, it’s because the code is wrong. It is going against the DNA that is telling each of you to be greedy. Yes, be greedy, subjugate and conquer. Because that’s who we are. That’s what we are. Capitalism harnesses that better than any other economic model on Earth. Everything we have is because of capitalism.“
Absolutely revolting!!! This message of “money is king” captures everything that is wrong with the world right now and it certainly hits a bum note given the current economic climate. Did the scriptwriters really think this would resonate with any morally-upstanding audience? Extreme capitalism is the very thing unravelling the USA right now. Millions of people out of jobs in a capitalist utopia equates to millions of people without income or healthcare… and when most of them have guns you have a real shitstorm on your hands.
My favourite modern philosopher, Harari, said that the world is not ready to try communism again. But communism is looking a lot more appealing these days. It would be nice to see more billionaires using their wealth for the greater good such as Warren Buffet who has pledged to give away the majority of his fortune or Jack Dorsey who has donated close to $1 billion towards COVID19 efforts.
There is nothing wrong with watching what money can afford. I am a huge fan of the show Succession, which follows a dysfunctional and loaded family empire that has more expensive (and classier) taste than the cast of Billions season 5. Those characters and plotlines really delve into the human psyche. Whereas the writers of Billions need to rethink what they are trying to say with their show. Right now, we have a bunch of greedy characters – some of whom are complete tossers, like Spyros, parading around in designing clothes and making statements like, “be greedy, subjugate and conquer”. That is just not appropriate. At least with the whole COVID19 situation, after spending weeks/months in lockdown, many of us have learned to appreciate that we do not need much to live and be well. Let’s cheers to that!