IF YOU’RE NOT watching Showtime’s Billions, the sixth-season finale of which drops Sunday, you’re missing out on the best season of prestige television ever made about a Hoosier.
In Billions, Michael Prince—played by Corey Stoll, who you might recognize from his turns as the troubled Congressman Peter Russo in Netflix’s House of Cards or as Buzz Aldrin in the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man—is a former Indiana college basketball standout turned self-made deca-billionaire. He attended New Castle High School and was once Indiana’s Mr. Basketball.
There is no series on prestige television right now that has more Indiana tie-ins than Showtime’s Billions. As Prince takes over the hedge fund Axe Capital and transforms it into Michael Prince Capital, attempting to turn a corruption-laden New York City private-equity shop into a bastion of common-good capitalism, he wears his Hoosier identity on his sleeve. He talks about limestone. He references the pride of Hall, Indiana—John Wooden, the famed basketball coach. He quotes John Mellencamp’s lyrics. He cooks his family “Indiana biscuits and gravy.”
On its face, Billions is a show about money and power. Paul Giamatti is Chuck Rhoades, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York turned former New York Attorney General who wants to take down Prince and isn’t buying his local-boy-made-good routine. But this season’s arc, in part, is about what it means to come into the rarefied world of Manhattan as an outsider like Prince. Prince wants to land a Winter Olympics for New York City, reimagine the good a billionaire can do for society, and in the process win back his estranged wife Andy, played by Piper Perabo. (What, after all, is more Hoosier than trying to land a big sports event for your city?)
There’s a speech in which Prince nails the Hoosier psyche, as he tries to convince the board of trustees at the fictional Indiana A&M, his alma mater, to invest in his own hedge fund:
“I’m from Indiana. I grew up there. Went to school there. I know your families. I know your history. And yes, I know your goals. You want everything consistent, and I appreciate that. You see 17 percent returns year after year, and you like it, because you’re not greedy. And it’s reliable, like Indiana corn being knee-high by the Fourth of July. But I’m going to tell you, that’s not the world anymore. We’ve seen it clearly. So you need someone who can make 60 percent, or 600 percent, in a year to survive the 10-percent years. So you can survive the negative. In an unpredictable market, you need non-correlated returns. I can give you that while also maintaining investments that are thoughtful, moral, and for the betterment of our planet. You get to know you’re doing good, and doing the best there is for the student body. There’s very little in the world that feels better than that. Maybe winning an NCAA Championship, but not much else.”
In an exclusive interview, Billions showrunner David Levien talked with Indianapolis Monthly about this season’s Hoosier roots, the greatness of John Mellencamp, and what makes Indiana, Indiana.
How did you decide this character was going to be from Indiana?
Going back many years, I’ve written a series of crime books that are set in Indianapolis. The character’s name is Frank Behr, and he’s a private investigator. The first one is called City of the Sun (2008). There were four of them in total. So I’ve been to Indianapolis many times, researching the place where some of this stuff happened, and just getting a hit of the place in terms of local flavor. We [Brian Koppelman, Levien’s longtime creative partner, and the co-creator, showrunner, and executive producer of Billions] have also been out there speaking at Butler University in their MFA program.
The decision to make Prince from Indiana wasn’t 100 percent conscious. We knew that Bobby Axelrod [Prince’s predecessor at Axe Capital before Prince drove him out of the firm] was a Wall Street guy who ran a hedge fund. He was from the East Coast. He was very New York–centric. And when the show evolved, and we wanted to have it centered partially on Mike Prince, we wanted him to be emblematic of a new kind of billionaire, who is perhaps more involved in tech, certainly more involved in private equity and venture capital, someone who sees himself as building something. We wanted him to be somebody who was from a real heartland place. And Indiana is so representative of that for us in our imaginations. That’s where we landed. He went to school there. And that was an important part of his life at college. And, you know, it was just a fun aspect of the character that was a very different flavor to the rest of the show, which is much more focused on what you maybe call ‘coastal-elite types.’
Earlier this season, Prince takes a trip back to Indiana to his college alma mater. Is Indiana A&M a fictionalized Indiana University?
It’s not exactly that place. We wanted to make it fictional so that we had freedom in our storytelling.
Prince has sort of a do-gooder mentality as a billionaire. Is that a product of his Midwestern upbringing?
That question about his magnanimity, and how far down to his core it goes, is something that we explore throughout the course of the season. We’re fascinated by characters who self-mythologize. And even though Mike Prince is not from the East Coast, he’s somebody who has indulged in that.
Hoosiers are certainly not immune from self-mythology. Speaking of which, Mike Prince seems to fancy himself a basketball star.
Yeah, he was a standout player in college.
There’s a great line in an episode in this season of Billions, where Prince says, “There’s some Indiana John Mellencamp anger happening too. But when I fight authority, authority does not always win.” You and Brian are Mellencamp fans, right?
Huge Mellencamp fans going all the way back to when we were kids. His music is very special to us. And we love the attitude. That was a great chance to do that name-check. On Brian’s podcast recently, he interviewed Mellencamp, and it was incredible. Whoever is reading this should go check it out. Brian is the world’s expert on John Mellencamp. It sounds like he could sit down and write a bio right then and there without doing a lot of fresh research. It was all based on his fandom going back 30 years.
We’re fans of Mellencamp here at the magazine, too. You’ve spent a lot of time in Indianapolis. What misconceptions do you think people have about the city and the state?
I think for people who haven’t spent a lot of time in the Midwest, it’s all non-specific to them. It all blends into one. So that’s why we like to try to make specific references and try to bring up some more of its specific facets.
If you get a chance soon to come back and visit, where would you want to go?
I’d love to see a game at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Lucas Oil is obviously a huge part of the city’s identity. My son actually went to a game there, the Michigan–Iowa Big Ten Championship game.
Do you think Indiana will continue to play kind of a subplot role in the story in future seasons of Billions?
It’s a huge part of Mike Prince. And Mike Prince is a huge part of the show. So I don’t want to promise it, but I think that there are going to be overtones and maybe particular visits that play in over the course of the season. And next for sure.