* Some spoilers of prior Billions seasons*
Showtime did a special early release of the Billions Season 6 premier, thus giving us our first taste of a truly Axe-less series (Damien Lewis gave a never-say-never answer regarding a possible return, but didn't sound enthused). Can the show survive without one of its two leading men?
To be honest, it's really hard to say. On the one hand: Axe was an incredibly magnetic presence. Given how much I disliked Lewis in Homeland, it was astounding how well he played this character, and absolutely sold him as a true force of nature of the sort I can't easily think of paralleled on television. Paul Giamatti is great and Maggie Siff is an absolute legend, but Axe drives the story in a way nobody else does because Axe bends the world in a way nobody else did. Several characters -- most notably Wags, but even Wendy to an extent -- are almost impossible to imagine outside of Axe's orbit.
Meanwhile, Mike Prince is no Bobby Axelrod -- hell, he's no Rebecca Cantu -- and it's one hell of a void he's tasked to fill. Certainly, no other character has come close to equaling Axe as a foil for Chuck -- not Jock, not Connerty, not Dake (Taylor may be the closest, but they weren't really a foil for Chuck -- they always made for a more interesting partner-adversary to Axe). Moreover, I didn't find the end of Axe's arc to be particularly satisfying. On a character level, I can buy him retreating to Switzerland for awhile -- even a full season -- to lick his wounds. But would he actually permanently slink away in defeat? Not a chance. Of course, Damien Lewis isn't bound to perpetual service, so the show has to do what it can with what it has -- but in-universe the play of events doesn't fully work.
On the other hand: It is fair to say that Billions was starting to spin its wheels regarding the Axe/Chuck battle (my wife and I both affectionately characterized it as "will-they-won't-they", only with a decisive resolution rather than sex). There are only so many times one can set and reset the chess pieces between them, and as evenly matched as they are, they're both too smart for one to not eventually learn how to gain a decisive edge over the other. At some point, relying on their well-established personal defects stops being a character note and starts being a failure to grow. Taking Axe off the board allows for a new and fresh direction for Chuck as much as anyone. That Prince is not Axe means that everyone's relationship with Prince -- Chuck's including -- is going to be something somewhat different than what we've seen before.
On a similar note, as much as Axe's insane personal magnetism was a delight to watch, his departure may allow for some of the ensemble cast, particularly those on the finance side of the battle line, to shine whereas previously they were inevitably overshadowed. Taylor -- perhaps the only character who even attempted to assert themselves as an equal Axe -- is an obvious candidate to emerge, but one hopes that some smaller but beloved players like Dollar Bill and Mafee (they are coming back, right?) and Bonnie and Victor might get some more love and care. (On Chuck's side, we've been long overdue for a major Sacker arc, but that's not immediately affected one way or another by Axe's departure).
In any event, I suppose we'll soon see. Billions has been one of my absolute favorite series' on television, and my hope is it will remain in that lofty tier. But Showtime series do sometimes have a tendency to overstay their welcome, and it's easy to imagine an Axe-less Billions being too-pale an imitation of its former glory.