Building Character-Driven Conflict

A rewatch of Billions and a Hungarian playwright’s approach to conflict

Building Character-Driven Conflict
Photo by Rahul Pabolu / Unsplash

I’ve been rewatching Billions lately.

If you haven’t seen it, Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis star as ambitious US Attorney Chuck Rhoades and billionaire hedge fund owner Bobby “Axe” Axelrod welded in a Shakespearean-level feud to destroy one another. The show used their antagonism to explore the relationship between capital and the state, the pissing contest between old and new money, and the struggle between institutional power and hyper-wealth.

I never finished the last two seasons; the show was always over-the-top with its depictions of decadence, but the charm of the first two seasons was the central struggle between Giamatti and Lewis. New antagonists for the two main leads never recaptured that magic. Also, one of the juiciest relationships of the show came from the third member of the feud: Wendy Rhoades, Chuck’s wife and Axe’s psychiatrist, long-time friend, and work-wife (played by Maggie Siff). Her role changes by season three, to the detriment of the show.

But man, those first two seasons are delicious television.

On a rewatch, I realized how often the show’s writers put obstacles between Axe and Chuck actually coming to blows. Both parties begin the season not all that interested in a fight; Chuck has to be essentially coerced into pursuing a case against Axe, and Axe is inclined to simply ignore the machinations of the state. There’s an episode in the first season where both Chuck and Axe are convinced by their respective advisors to make a deal. Both characters have mirrored scenes where their spouses, lieutenants, and ‘superiors’ urge them to strike a deal, and they both agree.

And, in tragic fashion, both characters allow mutual victory to slip away from them because neither can settle for less than total victory. You can watch both of them sabotage themselves in the meeting scene (one of three times the characters speak to each other all season), now totally driven by internal forces to go to war.

The episode spells out, scene-by-scene, all the ways that open war between Axe and Chuck would be disastrous for both of them, how settling would suit both their long-term goals, and how neither party has any external force dragging them into the fight against their wills.

So when these two characters finally come together, when they finally reach the moment to put the struggle behind them, it’s only their psychology compelling them forward. A feud once driven by external pressure is now self-sustaining, built only on the vanity, insecurities, and compulsions of the two leads.

Characters & the unity of opposites

In The Art of Dramatic Writing, Hungarian playwright Lajos Egri writes about the importance of “orchestration” to the drama of a piece. The strength of a dramatic premise, he writes, depends on the degree to which the protagonist and antagonist are bound in a unity of opposites.

“Unity of opposites” is a Marxist term describing the way two diametrically opposed forces are drawn inexorably toward conflict by their inability to coexist and their mutually exclusive interests. In Egri’s hands, it describes a dramatic situation wherein two characters are driven to conflict by forces outside their control and are unable to end that conflict until the other character is destroyed.

But not every character is suited to seeing every conflict through to the end. A passive, rational, or purely self-interested US Attorney would not be a suitable antagonist for Axe; such an attorney would settle in a heartbeat, or opt for easier prey. Neither would a cowardly, effete frat-bro hedge fund manager be a suitable antagonist for Chuck, and in fact Chuck makes short work of such a billionaire early in the season.

This is where orchestration is important—how a character’s environment, physiology, and psychology interact to drive them forward. One of the keys to good conflict is crafting your characters such that they are utterly compelled into the central dramatic conflict.

“He went to Hofstra

What makes the feud at the heart of Billions possible is the writers’ orchestration of the cast—pitting the insecure, vain, and zealous Chuck against the self-destructive, vindictive, and merciless Axe. For reasons neither character understands, they’re compelled to burn their lives down in order to beat the other.

But (and this is important), those reasons are evident to the viewer.

Chuck is the well-heeled son of a narcissistic old-money billionaire whose own political aspirations were destroyed in his youth. It’s clear that Chuck’s political career is a concession to his father, who constantly emasculates and goads him into self-destructive behavior. It doesn’t help that Wendy seems to have a deep bond with Axe that precedes him. At the same time, Chuck believes in the righteousness of his office; he, more than any of his colleagues, truly believes in his mission to punish crime, particularly the crimes of the ultra-wealthy who consider themselves above the law.

Axe is the opposite in almost every way. He grew up poor, and despite his photographic memory and genius-level facility for numbers, attended a mid-tier college (“He went to Hofstra,” one character says in disbelief) and got his start betting the odds at the racetrack. To paraphrase another character, he came from having nothing and expects that he’ll return to having nothing—and this drives his impulsive, scorched-earth attacks. Axe is also a true believer, an Ayn Rand-level zealot of the free market.

Each of them represents, for the other, everything they despise, but more importantly they represent the very source of the other’s inadequacies. Axe wants to destroy Chuck because he hates authority and has a chip on his shoulder about his lack of legitimacy, particularly the way reputable financial institutions hold him at arm’s length. Chuck wants to destroy Axe because he resents the limits impressed upon him—his (relatively) low wage, his father’s expectations, the way his colleagues and friends have pulled ahead of him.

Even their physiologies speak to how they navigate their worlds. Damian Lewis is tall, lean, vulpine handsome, often leaning forward like he’s ready to pounce, dressed in casual athletic wear. He’s a competitor, a champion boxer. Paul Giamatti is short, rotund, scowling, always hunched and leaning back imperiously with his arms crossed, dressed in pinstripes, suspenders, and double-breasted wool suits. He’s as immovable, stout, and old-fashioned as the institution he represents.

It’s not just about opposites—it’s about unity in opposition. Their psychologies, environments, vocations, and ideologies set them against each other in such a way that they’re unable to walk away, yield, or relent. And the more they take bites out of each other, the further compelled they are to continue.

When you have characters perfectly orchestrated to each other like that, the drama arises organically out of their natures. Even the smallest conflict has explosive potential.

And if Billions has taught me anything, it’s that organic character conflict is compelling as hell—even if the rest of the story isn’t perfect.