Rooting for the Robber Barons, at Least on the Screen

The charisma and audacity of wealthy characters in shows like Showtime’s “Billions” can win over even those who bemoan the greed of the financial industry.

Comments: 59

  1. Very strange. I've watched Billions from the beginning and not once have I rooted for Axe. And I'm a high net worth centrist (but not on Wall Street)

  2. We always root for the winner and as Americans are happy when they do win... the problem is that since The Clinton gang removed some of the protection the game is now rigged... Heads they win, tails we lose.

  3. Maybe it's just me, but I hope to see Bobby in shackles. I'm a Hillary guy, but there are millions of Bernie voters who make plain their feeling--and mine-- that the depredations of the speculators must be stopped before we find ourselves back in 2008.

    But wealth has always fascinated the arts and media, from Edith Wharton to Downton Abbey. We visit the Frick, the Morgan, the Whitney. Only in real life does resentment rise up. It's clever that Bobby's resentment plays out by getting rich, but most kids from the Bronx are just trying to pay the rent.

  4. The writer may idolize Axe in this program, but as someone who has had to deal with these people on a daily basis at multiple public companies, there are many out here who do NOT idolize them. In fact, based on the characters in this show, neither side is a good bet. Even the S&M-enthralled state's attorney is a loser. This show may be based on real characters in the financial world. but it's so over the top that I don't see how anyone could care for any of them. It's not just about banks. Axe Capital is not a bank, it's a cheating investment house. Simple as that. This truly is why the average person hates Wall Street. Just ask Steven Cohen if he has any regrets.

  5. Steve Cohen paid for his innocence with stolen funds. The losers were all the mutual fund holders who will have to work a little harder to put their kids through school. The system is rigged. Just keep giving them money.

  6. Sorry to say you are way off target. First of all, Billions is as addictive as sitting on a tack. Next, "Axe" is not charismatic - only smarmy. Finally, it was easy to root for the characters in The Big Short because they did not create the mess - they took advantage of it. They were anti establishment (all the rage now).

  7. "People still root for billionaires because it reinforces the idea that they can do it too."

    He made his money on 9/11 shorting the stocks of companies he knew would tank, while all of his partners - who were seemingly ready to push him out - died in the towers. When this becomes public, his wife tells him "You have nothing to be ashamed of, in a relativistic sense."

    When she's confronted by her sister who asked if she knew about it, she admitted she did, but added the caveat that they didn't even know each other at the time.

    The character is slime, as is that of his wife. There's nothing for which to root. That said, the acting is great!!

  8. It should be mentioned in passing that you actually couldn't short individual stocks on September 11th. The second plane stuck the WTC at 9:03am, before the open. The NYSE and Nasdaq never opened that day and in fact didn't open all week. In those days the alternative exchanges were only infants.

    Axe could have shorted stock index futures or gone long rates ... anyway, it would be nice if screenplay writers got the details right.

  9. He apparently used European or Asian markets according to the comments on that episode last Monday

  10. No I'm not rooting for Axe because of his charisma or the fantasy that I can be him someday but rather because of the unethical shenanigans that the prosecutor engages in! As a lawyer, I know these things happen and it is just as disgusting in real life as it is on screen...prosecutors thinking and acting in ways that are appallingly illegal, unethical and or just inhuman because they are doing "good". It's wrong.

    By the way as usual, Giamatti is excellent I love watching him.

  11. There's got to be some halo effect from Lewis's outstanding performances in "Band of Brothers", "Homeland" and other presentations. He also gets some really great lines. Paul Giamatti's character is cringe-worthy and you can't help but hope that Axe finds out about his whips and chains fetish and uses it against him. Both roles are superbly acted.
    I've worked on a lot of the homes of the .01% on the east end and in NYC, and like any other group, some are nice, others not so much. My general impression is that the newer and easier the money, the worse they are. And just like art imitating life, I'd also say the judicial and political class are no less conniving, vain and selfish than any hedge fund manager or entertainment icon.
    Ask yourself why a TV commercial where a woman tries opening a Rolls Royce with her Toyota key fob while lost in conversation on her phone is so popular and you'll understand the pull of these shows better.

  12. Billions is troubling in it's blurring of Axelrod's corruption of markets and the malignant impact of the financial sector on society's morale - on real work, skilled competence, middle class lifestyle, hedging risk only if you have skin in the game (we don't allow folks to take out fire insurance on other people's homes...then encourage arsonists !).
    Making money in capitalist economies has NO moral obligation. Governement must regulate & protect the public good. Taxpayer bail outs squanders revenue needed for infrastructure, police pensions, an educated populace, etc.
    Damian Lewis is such a sexy winner vs Rhoades S&M shlub, that the real corruption of a sustainable populist (vs cowboy) capitalism per Felix Rohatyn is lost.
    The Big Short had a slightly different lesson. Folks refused to accept the clear warnings of sound market analysis so a few smart guys could short MBSs. No one cheated (except concocting a derivative for themselves or Goldman Sachs hiding the truth from ordinary investors, etc).

  13. I am a fan of many of the Showtime's series. However, Billions is not up to par because of horrible scripts and absurd story lines. The show seems to be biased with an infantile perception that financially successful people are all criminals. The show tries to be politically correct at every twist and turn. Like most initial viewers I know, the show is no longer on my watch list.

  14. I'd much rather see more in less of Damian, like his Henry 8 is enough to fill an entire soap schedule. What a stinker. Didn't he already play it rich in an avenging fallen angel scenario with Adam, Yossarian?

  15. In the U.S. culture, we are sick in our worship of predators, even as we are being eaten alive. It's easy for TV and films to portray predators as sympathetic because most viewers are already halfway there. The prey are all living in a fantasy world, using TV and films to vicariously fantasize becoming predators--- something which will happen in real life to almost none of them.

    Selling fantasies is much easier than selling reality. Who wants reality? Ugh.

  16. This explains why Carmine blew the doors off of Costello's crypt. Gigante ego, like a Florentino!

    See, even the moneyed want to hang with the glitterbugs and the mob. Ask Raymond Chandler. My in to the scene was St. Joe's Ash Heap where they took Harry Cohn after his heart attack. I had no idea you could get discovered at birth, but heaven couldn't wait.

    Harry on board; and baby, when Harry get bored, I'm roasted.

  17. Got you on that one Big Duke Six.

  18. Could it possibly be true, the mob ran Vegas from AZ? Funny story...just the entertainment. AZ had all they could do keeping up with the ponies and Horseface.

  19. Roger, Wild Weasel rolling toward today's target. See SAM is sleeping in this AM. Wilco.

    BLAM!

  20. So, is this historically derivative, as in big shorting the CDSwapstakes, or are there lifts in the shape of shoe shifters?

    You know, the way White Shoe Joe gets made over in Board Walking the Dead. From skin peddler to ambassador, where do they get off? Same place we all do. The End, Pantages.

    If you make enough money, there is no way it doesn't get mixed up with the obscene green being gained from our vices. Just try and beat them off if you got game. Why are wages for skills some beg to do just to get into the zone so astronomical? The skim, milk duds!!

    I love to drag out my relations and show them the town now they can't get around, six feet down. Talk about your talent managers...

  21. ‘Billionaires’ is a great show. I enjoy it a great deal., But the notion that viewers like me are rooting for Bobby Axelrod is a bit presumptive. I understand that there are Americans who see the villain in a melodrama and develop a curious admiration, perhaps even wanting to emulate the bad guy in some way. But for those people, a good hard look in the mirror should be required.

    There are probably segments of the population where there is a low-level pathology present, inspired by the movie and television thug or shrewd operator. It is not the fault of writers or producers that their art winds up accidentally inspiring amoral aspirations among certain audience members. But I hope the effect is limited. One wonders where culture crosses over into social antipathy and how viable a threat it can become.

  22. Lady Grantham and I have been standing outside for a long time, so perhaps this invitation to tee up was not intended as received? I'll see you at the PCC, and that 's not the politically correct club, but they did take a select crew of Jews in the 1950s since they owned the bankers, Greenbaum.

  23. Dreaming of wealth, like playing the lottery, is a variation on the "something for nothing" phenomenon. It is so pervasive that it must be a fundamental human trait.

  24. Should anyone be being held by a hostile hostage taking family, please drop a line down the spine of your Gable, Clark. I fear our snark is unwelcome with mixed reviews. Just thinking what stinking bums my rich ones were. And so well maladapted you can hardly adapt them to real life. Take his wife, didn't everybody?

    Did I mention there was a bug butcher job on a few nurses, Grunow? Could a been worse. Guy who did it could of got caught, but we got this ridiculous plot to pass off.

  25. re "When the luxury rail car tycoon George Pullman died in 1897, so fierce was the animosity directed at him from the underclasses, and toward the entire robber-baron population, that his family buried him in a grave lined with steel-reinforced concrete and covered with asphalt for fear that former workers would desecrate it":

    As the grandson of a man who died of lead poisoning from painting the inside of Pullman cars, this reader can verify that there's at least one person rooting for the character played by Mr. Giamatti over the one played by Mr. Lewis -- and also rooting for Preet Bharara any time he goes against the ingrained corruption of Albany or Wall Street.

  26. The Robber Barons made their money by owning factories, coal mines, steel mills. All exploited labor under terrible and dangerous conditions.

    The only right a worker had was to get another job. There was no worker's comp, no safety rules, no EPA, no unemployment insurance, social security or right to collective bargaining.

    They made their money the old fashioned way.

    Today's billionaires have shipped those jobs overseas and we have only their products that we love.

    We do not witness or experience how they are made.

    We have only the products that we love to use. We identity with Apple. I write this on my iPhone.

    Bankers. Hedgies. Smart guys. Creative in the way that inventing a new collateralized product is. It is creative but it only creates wealth for themselves. It is a zero sum creativity. Consumers don't benefit from it.

    We cheer on Bobby in Billions because the prosecutor is so venal, self serving and dishonest. Bobby we feel is more honest though we see him cheat.

    In The Big Short we root for the guys shorting as they are portrayed as the equivalent of a Steve Jobs and a Bill Gates. Outsiders with the truth. You won't listen, well we'll do it ourselves.

    As for the SEC, they are out of it. Stupid, lazy, lawyers all who don't understand the markets at all.

    This is the world we live in.

  27. The Robber Barons made their money by owning factories, coal mines, steel mills. All exploited labor under terrible and dangerous conditions.

    The only right a worker had was to get another job. There was no worker's comp, no safety rules, no EPA, no unemployment insurance, social security or right to collective bargaining.

    They made their money the old fashioned way.

    Today's billionaires have shipped those jobs overseas and we have only their products that we love.

    We do not witness or experience how they are made.

    We have only the products that we love to use. We identity with Apple. I write this on my iPhone.

    Bankers. Hedgies. Smart guys. Creative in the way that inventing a new collateralized product is. It is creative but it only creates wealth for themselves. It is a zero sum creativity. Consumers don't benefit from it.

    We cheer on Bobby in Billions because the prosecutor is so venal, self serving and dishonest. Bobby we feel is more honest though we see him cheat.

    In The Big Short we root for the guys shorting as they are portrayed as the equivalent of a Steve Jobs and a Bill Gates. Outsiders with the truth. You won't listen, well we'll do it ourselves.

    As for the SEC, they are out of it. Stupid, lazy, lawyers all who don't understand the markets at all.

    This is the world we live in.

  28. MTheaybe the hedgies are smarter, but they have no obligation to serve anything but themselves & their notions of personal 'good.' Axelrod mouths some consern for employees & his family. The heavy lifting or moral/social values & protecting a sustainable economy falls to underpaid public servants.
    So why did Sorkin choose to depict Rhoades as a paunchy masochist from a wealthy old money family with no integrity / Why does the show obscure the damage being done by slick gangsters ?

  29. You need to evaluate who makes money and how from "the robber barons", rock & sports stars, universities, political campaign contributors, real estate flippers, etc and how our government wastes money to get a full picture

  30. GDP includes all moneys generated whether cleaning up after a disaster or housing inmates. Ain't it great to be on the cusp of a real change?

  31. We are not rooting for Axe--he is slimy and disgusting. We are just not rooting for the prosecutor because he has no integrity--he is just ambitious and obsessed. Not to say also really kinky.

  32. I have never understood, and evidently never will understand,
    why people allow the Wall Street Wolves,
    who do little more than take billions out of the economy,
    become ridiculously rich off their hard earned money.

    We "loaned" them $ 1,700,000,000.00 when the Wolves told us the
    entire economy would be ruined if we did not fork over the money right away
    with as few strings attached as possible. [ Each American gave the Wolves
    around $ 5,000.00] And what have we gotten for it ?

    Next to nothing.

  33. We got paid back with interest...or does that not count?

  34. I didn't understand this essay by Ginia Bellafante one bit- I'm not rooting for a single person on these shows or films....I'm simply fascinated by watching the depths these morally-bankrupt sycophants will sink to to out-screw the other....it's the same enjoyment i get from watching reptiles fight it out in a cage

  35. What "Billiions" does quite well is equitably distribute blame to all concerned: The Establishment and "we the people" are as much if not more to blame for the Bobby Axelrods than Bobby himself. Chuck Rhoades (and other winners in the establishment) enjoys well-off lifestyles because his wife earns at least 8 times what he does through Bobby's actions of generating maddening profitability from "the markets". Even the blue collar retiring Policmen ride the coattails of Bobby's acumen with their pensions. To say that Bobby is the villian is to miss the point, he's simply an individual with the circumstances that survived 911 and turned a community disaster of his establishment literally falling down into his own ascension.

    The greater moral hazard is not our envy of Bobby's wealth, his intelligence, his lifestyle or his ethical ambivalence, it is the fact that we have institutions and communities that happily dependent upon his largesse... our censure of Bobby reminds me of the great scene from Casablanca when Captain Renault is ordered by the German Major Strasser to immediately close down Rick's Cafe under any pretense:

    Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
    Captain Renault: I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
    [a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
    Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
    Captain Renault: Oh, thank you very much.

  36. Lundberg will tell you the diff between Robber Barons and their real Deal competitors back in the day was that real barons had their assets caught up in real estate, Donald. What you want to shake and bake over those old birds to fricase their fortunes is liquidity. Just get thee to the curb on time, brokers.

    Has anyone heard about the Equitable Assurance Society Swindle? Really just an old bucket shop juke with collateral benies, but every stock fell with it. Dry run for the Panic of '07, Bucketeers. JP snagged a railroad for himself on the side! Or was that the whole goal of talking down EA stock in the bucket shop, AIG?

  37. I've seen this screw the world mentality among serious collectors who also never pay their taxes, and I still gotta love these guys? Nope, just stand clear of their fear wagons. It's no use talking justice to them, they'll just try to buy you off, and then where's your integrity? Down the drain with their identity theft.

    Look at Carlyle trying to fix another broken institutional symbol with the same marker, Kyle. I'd rather lick the pole than thank him for rerouting his tax payment. I'd have built a waterpark.

  38. It seems we hate the robber barons and their ilk unless and until they come up against the United States government then we side with the "evil" corporations and their "one percent" owners. Go figure?

  39. Ms. Bellafante writes an interesting piece but she paints it too much in black and white-- good guys (whoops, read people) vs. bad. America is way more complex than that. For one, we are not Europe-- in fact, we are the unEurope. Americans enjoy materialism and it inspires them. Why do people buy lottery tickets? So they might win and enjoy a life of Veblenesque consumption. Why do kids go to Silicon Valley with disruption on their minds? So Google or Facebook or someone, anyone, will buy out their start-up and make them unicornic zillionaires. And guess what-- there is nothing wrong with this! It's what makes this country unique and it's what leads to constant change, progress, and enhancement of life on an often times dreary path towards eventual personal extinction. Americans live for the now. What Bernie doesn't get is that we're not Denmark and never will be.

  40. I dare you to see Michael Moore's new movie. The damage done by making thieves into heroes while blaming the poor for being poor is turning this country into a third world country.
    In France for example, school children are served gourmet meals on china for half what we spend per child to feed our children slop. This is because it is considered normal here to privatize government services so that giant corporations can make obscene profits for doing the worse job possible (and then government gets blamed so we can privatize more).
    Again see Where to Invade Next, and see how it is possible to live in a dog is nice to dog world, because it is far more pleasant than cannibalism

  41. Billions is contrived and pretty awful. Characters who make their own problems. An absurd marital situation between the antagonists. Sprinkled in sex to add to it's salacious appeal.

    Me? I'm waiting for the return of Penny Dreadful. John Logan is a fine, poetic writer, unlike the lumps who pen Billions

  42. Yes, and THIS is why we have DT running for President. Frank Underwood, Bobby Axelrod, DT - they're all fictitious characters - actors who are reading scripts. Hard to imagine how some people confuse "scripts" with life. Thanks for your contribution to a more civil society, Hollywood and HBO. Political talk shows and shows with violence, corruption, greed, crash and burn and a gun in every hand fill our screens. Fortunately, "Spotlight" won the Best Picture of the Year for 2015. Honest to goodness "reality" won. It is time to force break-up of the entertainment cartel in America so we can get some "real" entertainment and some truth.

  43. Five Guys sat down at the Banker's Club and scubbed up the loose barrels of liquid gold to buy cheap and sell well to their own subsidiaries through a front corp in Canada.

    That's one of the first major slush funds to turn an election, and it blew the Dome off these Tea Pots using it to grease their pipe lines, too.

    $8 million in 1919 Liberty Bonds? Serial Numbers? How do you launder war bonds, skimmers? NY Federal Reserve Class B Banker at their table service. Got a promissory note from the chief. Still got caught, what dolts. That's what happens when you keep the mob out of it. No expert advisers. Lost control of the system for a generation.

  44. When telling a story, it is relatively easy to bring the observer into the head of the main character and create sympathy for their point of view. Even serial killers can be made into sympathetic characters.
    For a combination of reason's it has always been easier to sell stories about the rich and powerful than about the rest of us. This creates a societal sympathy (starting with children who want to be princes and princesses) for the egomaniacs that steal our productivity and turn it into their wealth and power.
    The only defense against this undermining of our own position in society is critical reading and being aware of your own emotional reactions to fiction and fictional accounts of history. When you have more sympathy for the "job creators" who have fired you, cut your benefits and pay, or lobbied to cut their taxes and your government services, then you have for your neighbors, you are putting someone else's interests above your own, not to make the world a better place, but a worse one.

  45. I think Billions is a great TV show. The writers have definitely guided the viewer to like Bobby Axelrod. He came from nothing, Chuck Rhodes was born on Third Base. Axe goes to a Mettalica concert and a blonde tries and tries to seduce him but he remains faithful while Chuck Rhodes can't spend an overnight layover without winding up on KinkFinder. So we are left with the cheating - Axe trades on insider information and Chuck Rhodes trades on threats and deals - same thing - so add it all up and the likable Bobby Axelrod wins over the jerk Chuck Rhodes. This does not mean we are rooting for the Robber Barons, it just means on Billions Axe is a far more likable guy.

  46. Ambition in life to be, and to have, may have some virtues to be emulated by those 'wannabies' living from paycheck to paycheck, perhaps also a'reason' (a gut reason) why so many still believe in fantasy-land (like casinos and the lottery), with the vain hope of transcending their hopeless predicament. But ambition ought not to be confused with the 'mother of all evils', Greed. and the unmerciful harm it creates out of cheating the system and most of the suckers (you and me included). I guess this TV series is one more sinking hole to try your despondency and submission to the 'winner'...at your peril, having a smart though devious guy's hand in your pocket.

  47. Stupid still is based on the stupid things one believes and does. Media claims they have no impact of the values and beliefs of any one. Yet I say that between the perversion of media with corporate takeovers and insatiable greed and patriarchal inclinations, American Democracy never had a chance. Just like other barely remembered civilizations of the past, American Democracy had its millisecond in the sun. But dark days and barely a memory are ahead.

  48. C'mon, why would a woman as smart, interesting, and gorgeous as Wendy Rhoades ever be with a man like Chuck Rhoades, who is just the opposite? (Not to mention their unrealistic and lame sex life, which no one really wants to see anyway.)

    As if any show would have the opposite, a smart, interesting, and gorgeous man with a toad of a wife?

    This sexist trope, similar to the sitcom standard of 'fat dumb husband, skinny smart wife' is such a turn off that I stopped watching the show because of it.

  49. Well, it's not really "Married with Children" but I agree Wendy needs Chuck like a hole in the head. I think the whips and chains bit is there to facilitate Chuck's eventual humiliation and ruin. What's not clear is how Axe or others will fall, but I'mm guessing fall they will. It's also not a morality tale, even if it tries to be, it's entertainment, fairly well acted, made of palatable fantasy and slickly produced. It beats the heck out of "Meet the Press" and soars above "Duck Dynasty". If they can give you characters you love to hate or otherwise get somewhat involved with, isn't that the intended diversion for which we watch TV dramas? There's always C-Span.

  50. It says volume about a society when its members, even (or especially) those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder, aspire to reach the very top and join the obscenely wealthiest. Our conditioning still includes a deep-seated belief that somehow the very richest of us "deserves" the wealth - that it's divinely ordered that they have it. It's not about a belief in hard work paying off; it's about a belief in magic.

  51. I think the author of this piece is sorely out of touch. Billions is a perfect example. It actually fails to elicit any sympathy in any of the characters. This is because it is both a very poorly constructed story and because the point of view the author points to that "the poor with support lower taxes for the rich because they hope to be rich one day" holds little force today. The cultural and media elites can keep pretending that nothing has changed. But if they do, they ought to heed Lenin's warning that capitalism with produce the rope to hang itself with. And that rope is Trump.

  52. "Billions" portrays Wall Street the way "Smash" depicted Broadway — as a ridiculous sex-filled soap opera celebrating bad taste and bad behavior, with a few names and places thrown in as a sop to reality. It is the most hilarious "hate watch" currently on TV

  53. As "Mad" magazine used to say: Eccchhhh!

  54. People are greedy; institutions just reflect people Our "greedy" ancestors -- who wanted more than they had -- were more likely to pass on their genes than those who were happy with what they had. Greed, or wanting more, is baked into our genes. Accept it. We're all greedy.

  55. In legends and fairy tales - archetypal stories that have resonated throughout human society since the beginning of recorded time - there have been fat, foolish kings who measured their own girth to determine their worth. The equivalent in our modern era, reminding us just how shallow, corrupt and lost Western culture has sunk must be the bloated elitist milieu portrayed in the useless column "Isn't That Rich". The values of compassion, generosity of spirit, loving-kindness, an simple joy are disregarded, replaced by envy, materialism run amok and an overarching cupidity that solely focuses on who has how much and who has more. A quick look at national politics shows where this nasty, deplorable state of affairs has gotten us. " 'People still root for billionaires because it reinforces the idea that they can do it too,' Mr. Kirshenbaum said recently." Some people do. Others dream of guillotines, and still others among us look for ways to care for and carry one another, without getting lost in the aptly named rat race.

  56. I think Gina Bellafonte gets it wrong. Billions is an entertaining show but I find it hard to believe that viewers like Bobby Axelrod. He may have grown up poor, but he is portrayed as a spoiled child who will do anything to get what he wants. The only reason people may root for him is his adversary Chuck Rhoades comes off as abrasive and distasteful.
    As for the Big Short, these investors should be congratulated. They saw an opportunity and profited from it. Bringing down Wall Street and the banks at the same time. These individuals should be canonized not ridiculed.
    It is the President and Congress who failed to act,either before or after. Shame on them.
    JWolfson
    New York New York

  57. To those who want to cheer the activities of fictional wall street billionaires - "just to be one the side that's winning"- remember that when United Technologies closes down the Carrier Air Conditioner factory in your city, it won't be because the factory wasn't profitable. It will be, as has been reported, because the stock price was too low.... to keep Wall Street happy. Wait till it happens in your town, and your family is thrown out on the street.

  58. Carrier's move is entirely justified in a capitalist economy. Capital naturally seeks efficiency and owes nothing to labor, except in the minds of the left who've never had to answer to shareholders.

  59. "The Big Short" told a story, a story that we lived through. "Billions" is a very old and worn amusement story set in today's world and it has a twist. Chuck and Axe have very similar personalities. Both like (must) to be on top and they are obsessive. Both had giant hurdles to overcome as they grew up, Chuck his father, Axe his economic status. Both have enormous resources available to fight the other. Axe has money and reputation, while Chuck has the force of law. Both have very well connected networks in their worlds.
    Chuck believes that all on Wall Street are criminals while Axe states that one of his managers did what anyone on Wall Street would do as the manager is arrested.
    Both Axe and Chuck will get that they deserve in the end. Neither is a hero, neither is a villain, but Wendy - there is the reason I watch the show. Wendy's character is almost implausible. I hope the writers pull it off and not reduce Wendy to a tormented wench crippled by the specter of having to choose.