Thursday, January 25, 2018

TV Show Billions and the Abuse of Kink for Ratings

Billions opens with the kinkiest scene on TV ever, but as soon as the program gains name recognition, the kink theme is dropped.

"Honey, I'm home.". The opening scene from Billions (Image: Billions)

In part III of why more kink on TV doesn't increase mainstream acceptance, an indept look at Billions and how it uses kink to sell the show.

Basically, Billions made headlines because of it's opening scene. A man is lying on the floor, bound, helpless and nowhere to go. Heels are clicking. A bit of silly conversation is next. Then mistress puts out her cigarette on his chest. The caring woman that she is, she fights the fire that is consuming his flesh by peeing on her slave. She is also his wife, definitely points for that.

Unrelated Clickbait

Not that BDSM has anything to do with the show's plot, a protracted legal battle between an investor and a district attorney, but at least it gets people's attention. Emmy clickbait anyone? And it gets the media to write about it. The Washington Post, at best a distant cousin to The New York Times [1] has the headline to make you drool: "Even the S&M scenes in Showtime’s Wall Street drama ‘Billions’ feel good." Really Washington Post, does it? If that is true, why does the article only feature about seven lines on the relationship - including the kink - between Chuck and Wendy and that part doesn't start until you've read 80 percent of the article? How about this:

"It’s a mature and matter-of-fact exploration of a lifestyle that is usually portrayed as a punch line or symbol of weakness." For all the WaPo's bravado about how "democracy dies in darkness", before they can claim that, they should pay attention to how enlightenment dies the death of a thousand cuts by the betrayal for clickbait.

The only thing The Washington Post can realistically claim is that it is on the same level as Showtime: anything that garners attention. "We'll print anything, dark or light, as long as it increases sales."

The antithesis to Sherlock's consultant detective is Moriarty, a consultant criminal - and yes the Dark Side is always so much cooler. The kink between Wendy and Chuck is irrelevant to the overall story, but it does whip up a lot of attention. Most of their BDSM stuff is pretty silly, with some being highly realistic. It made me wonder if the show runners looked for some outside council. Luckily they did, and I discovered there is such a thing as a BDSM consultant. Just saying those words feels like Olivia Troy is some brave outpost of the kink resistance. I love it. As for The Washington Post: if you don't know what you're talking about, pay for some external advice.


Digging into the show's main characters there is an interesting twist, the real star of the show is not Bobby Axelrod, the hedge fund manager, nor his opponent District Attorney Chuck Rhodes but his dominatrix wife, Wendy Rhodes. Of course the producers failed to realize this. Despite that, the show has been dragging on for two seasons now, with a third one to be released shortly.

Billions is a show you either love or hate. I tried a few episodes and found it boring. The Bold and the Beautiful all over, just different settings. Investor Bobby Axelrod is the classic rags to riches story. With some five billion in AuM, he's not that impressive. When I first saw Billions, his character reminded me of that of Steven A Cohen, a hedge fund manager, charged with insider trading. As part of his settlement Mr. Cohen had to close down his fund - which is a big thing. Now he manages his own capital, 13 billion.

It never becomes really clear why district attorney Chuck Rhoades turns into Bobby's nemesis. Most people in power are not afraid of the authorities, unless they can go to jail. In the USA most securities fraud is handled by the SEC [securities and exchange commission]. The worst they usually do is slap huge fines on businesses. The Attorney General's Office however can go for criminal prosecution and put white collar criminals behind bars, that's where the real threat comes from. For some masochists it may be the ultimate fantasy, but when you are accustomed to a life where money buys you anything, powerless in prison is the ultimate nightmare.

Part of the two men's adversity may be explained by Wendy, married to Chuck, but working for Bobby, whom she has a strong relationship with for over 15 years. Played by Maggie Siff, Wendy is the real star of the show and the linking pin between both men. She works for Axe Capital as an in-house performance coach. She trained as a psychiatrist and is an MD. And yes dommes with degrees are cool, an upcoming post is in the works.

Maggie's style of coaching is one of "you're a tiger, go get them." It makes you wonder who she is really working for as well as a host of other medical-ethical issues. A psychiatrist, actively coaching traders, implies you believe the stock market can be beaten. It sounds like a dangerously unscientific premise for a medical professional.

Insta-domme, clickbait or just entertainment for the masses? (Image: Billions)

Kinky, pinky glasses

Being into kink, I look differently at certain issues than most people. The producers most likely didn't notice the irony when they decided to make Maggie much more successful at her job than her husband. Findomming for prezzies is clearly beneath her. Chuck is the slave of a woman who is much more successful when it comes to making money than he is. That must be so humiliating. Or is it? After all it's his wife and she does what she loves. She's very good at it. Why not be happy for her? It's a lesson Chuck still has to learn, perhaps because acknowledging that, messes with his kinky fantasies. Which brings us back to the age-old question of love vs lust.

My personal preference is that neither partner is financially dependent on the other. With that out of the way, lovers can focus on each other and why they are together. The very fact that someone can walk out on you, but chooses to be with you, says it all.

Not that Chuck is exactly poor, he has a trust fund, which for some odd reason he still cannot fully access. By now he must be like fifty years old. And yes, somewhere deep inside, all that money reinforces the notion that kink is an exclusive game for rich males and that your best chance for happy slavery is to be loaded.

Online several commenters carrying female usernames describe the Chuck Rhoades character as unattractive and a gnome. Hedge fund manage Bobby Axelrod is clearly the bad guy, but he has undeniable charm. His enemy Chuck, who, supposedly, is fighting the good fight, meanwhile comes across as a looser. Sounds a bit like slaves should be loosers and unattractive. It also makes you wonder why Wendy falls in love with someone generally classified as a wimp. And even more so why she doesn't order him to shave of his beard?

Or perhaps it is the myth of the "alpha male" who is into BDSM for relaxation “only”. That would be funny because no-one assumes Chuck Rhodes is anywhere near an alpha male" Then again Bobby Axelrod, played by Damian Lewis doesn’t convince as an alpha male either. If all else fails, why not use silly song titles to reinforce the illusion of power? Unfortunately there is little irony when it comes to how widely the producers are off the mark regarding Metallica. No doubt selected to reinforce the BDSM theme, the song Master of Puppets is just plain dumb. The two men may claim so, but neither Chuck nor Bobby are puppet masters, so stop playing that track. Wendy is the real puppeteer here. Want some Metallica, just look up the lyrics to "Nothing really matters." It's a much more apropriate song when it comes to kink.

Wendy is a strong woman, stronger than both men. The show’s producers clearly never picked up on the irony of that. Strong, independent and financially self-reliant she is with Chuck because she loves him. Too often kink characters are portrayed as the opposite of their vanilla personas. Strong men turn into meek slaves and powerless, dependant women dream of being in control. Not with Wendy, she is who she is and loves what she does, both at the office and in the bedroom. Her being a mistress is not about escaping some reality in which she has no power for a few hours, but because kink is part of her. That’s a positive role model I like.

Actress Clara Wong as dominatrix in Toy Story, euh Billions (Image: Billions)

Kinky details

Look up the show on IMDB and you'll be disappointed by the lack of credits when it comes to kink consultants and pro-dommes. After all they are instrumental in creating the show's word of mouth.

Olivia Troy, who runs the Kink On Set consultancy, was an adviser for the BDSM scenes on Billions. No doubt the producers took what they liked and ignored the rest, but overall the femdom scenes are much more realistic than on most shows. Yes some of the visual imagery is meant to shock the audience but the overall tone is one of calmness, which hugely benefits the kink scenes.

Both Maggie Siff and Paul Giamotti describe in interviews the tensions they felt, playing the kinky scenes. Maggie Siff: “When the cameras roll on the sex stuff, it’s all a total illusion. I’m standing there in six-inch stilettos attempting to look hot but desperately trying not to fall on my ass.” Giamotti’s experience is much more relaxed. “For me, it’s interesting. Being tied up made me really relaxed to the point where I kept falling asleep.” And yes that sounds an awful lot like me, even tied up I have no trouble falling asleep. So funny.

Of course things go wrong on set too. “Maggie had to use a low-voltage prod on me, which nobody knew how to operate.” Yes, I’m also wondering where the consultant was that day. “ I’m falling asleep and she’s tickling me with the thing by really pressing it into me. But then she kinda runs it lightly from my navel up to my chest and it shocks the living hell out of me. After that, I was wide awake. She didn’t try it again.”

Maggie Siff wonders if the leather may be more Chuck’s thing than Wendy’s, who does it because she is his wife – because he needs it - and open-minded. In the show Wendy has Chuck tied up and is holding a violet wand. Chuck isn’t with her.

"I just can't concentrate."
"Really? This makes cattle concentrate."
"The whole point is this keeps you in the present."

Kink as therapy? But the conversation also sounds a lot like a caring vanilla wife who plays kinky games because she loves her husband. Once you realize that, all the online writing about a show that treats kink with respect is meaningless.

Olivia Troy has her own ideas about why Maggie and Chuck are mistress and slave. Paul’s character enjoys an “erotic tension between his desires and the risk of getting caught.” Perhaps, I know of quite a few people where the desire for kink turns into a destructive whirlwind.

The consultant continues: “And there's an uncertainty there, too. Is his wife doing this for him or because she really wants it, too? And for Maggie Siff, who plays the wife, is a therapist who analyzes Wall Street dudes all day. Is exercising this more explicit control over her husband a sort of therapy for her? What are the other dynamics at play here?”

It not only makes cattle concentrate but viewers also (Image: Billions)

Never Normal

The show may be the poster child for the acceptance of BDSM, at least in theory, but in season two Chuck has someone steal the laptop of the prodomme he visits. Running for governor, being into S&M is not something most New Yorkers appreciate.

Mistress asks Chuck to meet her in a deli, where she tells him her laptop got stolen by a client. Not to worry because it’s encrypted by a deeply devoted client from Palo Alto who is in corporate cyber defence. Guess mistress knows all isn’t exactly true. Has she heard of hacker consultants selling hacking subscriptions to governments? Personally, I would be more worried about the security of her cell phone, but unfortunately I have nothing to hide.

"You think it's an attack against me?"
"You or one of my more prominent clients"
"More prominent than I?"
"Should come as no surprise to you the lifestyle attracts brilliant people."
"And intricate temperaments.
And intricate tastes."
"I know that your relationships are beyond transactional."
"The idea of blackmailing someone with something so close to their core, of punishing true expression..."

An interesting scene in which she both manages to humiliate Chuck and put him in his place. The second half however, intricate tastes and true expression, unfortunately comes across as yet another example of how kinksters are outsiders, kind of special, but if that is a good thing?

Then the scene takes a strange turn. Mistress drops the cap of her water bottle and orders Chuck to pick it up. As he searches the floor, she puts her heel on his hand. Rather strange, this kind of [non-consensual] public play if you pride yourself on the confidential nature of your clients. Anything that prolongs the hype I guess.

As she walks out the deli, mistress says, she hopes to see Chuck again. After he has gotten permission [from his wife] of course. Pretty odd because the average pro-domme client is married and most likely doesn’t ask his wife for permission unless he has a fetish for being killed by her in a fit of rage.

In an earlier episode Chuck is out of town for a business meeting and wants to visit a BDSM club because “he needs it.” Mistress-wife Wendy agrees and Chuck wears an earpiece so she can listen in. The whole scene is so strange. It doesn’t make sense at all. Probably the show’s popularity was sagging and the producers decided to spice things up a by adding a bit of kink.

Not all viewers and writers feel the kink angle is great. MRC, a conversative online media outlet has probably the clearest headline “Showtime’s ‘Billions’ Turns Boring U.S. Attorney Into Sexual Deviant”.

Review website Pajiba doesn’t like Billions either, it becomes nowhere more clear than when they speak of “kink addicts”. “Why a wife would drive a lit cigarette into her husband’s chest. Why he would find himself compelled to be outside a kink club when away from her and why she would make him kneel down in that club on a filthy floor and demean him.” Pointing out the kink thing is not remotely connected to the overall story, they wonder what the point is.

In the end nothing better illustrates the abuse of kink for commerce than the fact that in season two it fades into the background for the most part. Job done. People know the name of the show and clearly kink isn’t relevant to the character build-up and story line.

"Don't worry about that stolen laptop, your privacy is safe with me" (Image: Billions)

It’s no use

Like all good soap operas, the only reason people break up, is to reunite later. The same goes for Wendy and Chuck. Of course they break up, they have to. Chuck accessed Wendy’s laptop, examining her patient files while Wendy put Chuck in hot water by working for the man he is prosecuting. The interesting thing is how they make up. Not by talking like two adults or having make-up sex, but as mistress and slave. There will always be people for whom there is no other way to communicate than kink, but Wendy and Chuck also have two children they love and this is way outside their normal behaviour. Once again, anything for a click.

The kink community is tiny, at best a fraction of one percent. That number doesn’t include men who adore girls in leather pants or women who love to be called goddess. For most of the planet, what makes a kinkster tick isn’t even a question. They don’t care, we’re weirdos, thriving on pain and humiliation in an unhealthy way. Other people’s happiness is always hard to understand.

This decade’s  most famous kinky TV couple doesn’t educate nor foster more acceptance. Some things are simply beyond comprehension. The only choice left for kinksters is whether we want to be digital cannon fodder or not.

Despite I don't care for the show and it's blatant abuse of BDSM imagery to sell it, there are a few things I like. Wendy and Chuck are in a loving relationship, part of which includes Wendy being the dominatrix and Chuck being the slave. Done right, that kind of intimacy makes for a happier, healthier relationship. Wendy is a financially independent woman, who loves her husband for not other reason than love, even if in the real world their marriage would be highly unlikely.

Even more so, Wendy is a strong woman, so strong in fact that she is the one in control of both men. Since irony rules the world, that fact is overlooked by the producers. Still it is one of the best things about the show. But like Metallica sang: “Nothing really matters.”

Not even a show like Billions will make the general audience more tolerant of BDSM. Only one show ever did and nobody noticed. Long before there was Fifty Shades, there was kink on TV. It was back in the days when The Dark Side lured you with cookies you could actually eat. It was twisted, darker, so beautiful and with a deeper love than anything that came after it: The Addams Family.


[1] Compare the original Vulture article about Erykah Badu and her comments on Hitler to the clickbait the Washington Post turned it into.

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