How did Billions become the best show on tv?

With its stark insight into the financial world of post 2008, Billions is a Great Gatsby for our age.

Tv shows do what they say in the title. Friends is a show about friends. Star Trek is a show about a trek through the stars, and Breaking Bad is a show about a man breaking to bad. Billions is a show about Billionaires. But it’s also a show about the society that gives rise to billionaires, a global society of seven billion people and rising – the society of here and now.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that Billions is a Great Gatsby for our times.”

There’s no missing the genetic fingerprint of HBOs prestige tv format in Showtimes production of Billions. Headline star Damian Lewis is no stranger to that format, having fronted Band of Brothers, the show that pioneered the 10 hour tv serial, and Homeland, a show that pushed the cutting edge of what that format was willing to say politically and socially.

Billions co-creator Andrew Ross Sorkin, a former columnist covering the New York financial world, culls real life events gathered over his career to provide flesh for Billions writers to feast on. The world post the 2008 financial crash, in which billionaires have gathered more wealth and power than at any time since the “gilded age” of the 1900s, is the world that Billions catalogues. It’s no exaggeration to say that Billions is a Great Gatsby for our times.


Billions is the most sophisticated example of “relationship driven” storytelling to yet hook binge-watching tv audiences.

Jared “Axe” Axelrod stands as the billionaire founder of Axe Capital, surrounded by obsequious yes-men and ambitious traders, friends from his working class neighborhood who turn to Axe for favors, and wife Lara, queen to Axe’s king, who acts behind the scenes to aid her husband. Every character who relates to Axe is a courtier, and like a king of old, Axe holds in his grip the fortunes and status of everyone he controls.

Chuck Rhoades is a powerful public servant, a US District Atorney with authority over the financial district of New York. He is backed up by a team of conscientious assisstant DAs and dedicated FBI officers, all with an eye for their next promotion. Rhoades father is a rich investor, who secretly acts on his son’s behalf. Every character who relates to Rhoades is a player in a power hierarchy, within which Rhoades holds a high but not supreme position.

The key to understanding how the HBO television format hooks such intense attention from audiences — what else today do we give ten or twelve solid hours of our time to? — is to understand how the story is driven by its relationships. Every successful prestige format show of recent years uses the same technique, establishing a network of relationships that shift and evolve over time.


Pick almost any scene in any episode of Billions, and you will find that the main action of the scene is a shift in the relationship between two or more characters present on screen. Lara losing confidence in her husband Axe. Chuck slyly dominating his idealistic assistant Bryan Connerty. The broiling jealousy of yes-man Wags to any threat to his status. And of course the love triangle between Axe, Chuck and the show’s lead female character Wendy Rhoades. We’ll come back to her pivotal role.

The relationship driven story certainly isn’t new. Playwrights have consciously worked with relationship networks since at least the 15thC and the Commedia dell’Arte of Venice, which, just like Billions, used relationship driven structures to critique and satirise the rich and powerful of the day. Shakespeare learned these techniques, and some of today’s best screenwriters, most notably Aaron Sorkin (no relation to Andrew Ross), borrow directly from the Commedia dell’Arte for shows like The Newsroom.

The relationships between stock characters in the traditional Comedia dell-Arte.

Billions borrows a trick directly from the Comedia dell’Arte playbook. To manage the potential complexity of relationships between almost two dozen main characters, Billions limits its relationships to those that connect directly to its two central characters, Chuck Rhoades and Bobby Axelrod. This creates two opposing character nets, with Axe and Chuck at the centre of each, their orbiting characters only relating to each other in very carefully orchestrated breakout scenes.

The exception to this rule is Wendy Rhoades, wife to Chuck and therapist to Axe. Wendy is free to interact with any other character in the show, and it’s the shifting status of her relationships that, more than any other factor, drives the narrative engine of Billions. Wendy Rhoades is a “Columbina” character, the central figure of Comedia dell’Arte, whose presence allows the story to move freely through the social hierarchies it satirises.

Billions artful construction serves a razor sharp political purpose.
The conflict between prosecutor Chuck Rhoades and billionaire Bobby Axelrod is Billions central relationship. In the 12 hours screen time of Billions first season, Chuck and Axe share only four scenes together, each made electrifying by the stand out performances of Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti.

1_x6mRte6SI2Y1Hj3F4dRCkwBillion’s writers manage a hard narrative tricks in this relationship. Bobby and Chuck are dual protagonists, and each is antagonist to the other. The writers consistently hold our sympathies at a mid-point between the two men. Both are hugely intelligent and morally upstanding, but also hugely flawed and willing to violate their morals to win. It’s the irony that Chuck and Axe would, in better circumstances, be friends, that makes their conflict so powerful.

“Will the idealism of Millennials ultimately transform into the same corruption as their Baby Boomer grandparents?”

This central conflict also embodies Billions core theme, which is expressed openly in the climatic season 1 showdown between Chuck and Axe. Chuck calls Axe on a simple truth, he’s a criminal, profiting by breaking the law. Axe snaps back, Chuck is a leach, sucking from tax payer money. The personal conflict at the heart of Billions mirrors the political conflict splitting our society today. Public good vs private freedom. State vs enterprise. Left vs right. Red vs blue. Your side in this conflict will likely determine whether you empathise with Axe or Chuck.

Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor Mason.

But Billions isn’t satisfied with being simply political. It wants to get to the heart of the personal conflicts that drive political strife. Season 2 introduces Taylor Mason, played brilliantly by Asia Kate Dillion. Taylor personifies the Millennial generation, a gender neutral digital native with huge insight into the light speed information flows that power the modern world. Taylor is hugely valuable to Axe, but we might expect the high morality of today’s Millennial generation to reject the rapacious world of the hedge-fund out of hand.

Instead, a much more complex picture of today’s Millenial is shown. Taylor is quickly seduced by the world of Axe Capital. But it’s not the allure of money, or the addictive quality of power, that lures Taylor in. The season 2 finale hits us with a final scene between Taylor and an idealistic assisstant DA, who thinks he can challenge the younger person on matters of morality.

Taylor is driven by the highest of all human drives, towards self fulfillment, towards experience over possession, and to creativity over all. All the drives that define the Millennial generation. It’s not entirely coincidence that Taylor Mason so closely resembles, in both ideals and appearance, the young heroes who emerged from the Stoneman Douglas school shooting.

But Billions season 2 leaves us with a disturbing final note. From the highest motivations, Taylor is nonetheless drawn towards the criminal, and the world of high finance that creates billions of victims globally. Will the idealism of Millennials ultimately transform into the same corruption as their Baby Boomer grandparents? It’s asking these kind of questions, through the structures of high drama, that makes Billions the best show on tv.

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Is there any such thing as Geek Culture?

There is no end, it seems, to the impotent outrage of geek dudes who feel hard done by because scifi films no longer exclusively feature geeky white dude protagonists. Here’s the latest dumb s*&t from those guys:

So, no. Of course, Ready Player One is not the “geek Black Panther” and I spend all of five minutes taking that idea apart in my video response.


Geek Non-Culture

We use the term “geek culture” as a shorthand, it’s useful in as far as it indicates the nexus of scifi movies, genre tv and books, comics, RPGs, video games and various other geeky shit.

“Ready Player One is basically a massive advertisement for corporate brands.”

But we might be better off calling it “geek non-culture”. Geek isn’t a cultural identity. It’s where many people end up because they no longer have a cultural identity, and instead fill that void with products that were mass marketed to them in the 80s and 90s.

Many of us today construct a cultural identity from a cross section typically featuring things like D&D, WWF wrestlers, superheroes and Staurday morning kids cartoons. The stuff we grew up with, on tv and in advertising.

This stuff is more than an entertaining distraction for many “geeks”. For millions of people who grew up in vacant suburbs, ghostly dormitory towns, and mass society of the 50s onwards, geek culture has become their surrogate culture.

I’m not here to kick that coping strategy in the nuts. It’s ok to do this. But it’s really important to recognise that these things we’ve formed an intense emotional attachment to don’t belong to us, or to the “geek” community. They belong to a handful of multinational corporations – and soon will all belong to Disney – who milk them for every cent they are worth.

Ready Player One is basically a massive advertisement for corporate brands. Turning up for the new Spielberg movie is like paying $30 to have McDonalds and Nike advertisements shoved down your throat, except the brands in question are slightly smarter about hiding away in “beloved” video games and kids cartoons.


We can rebuild you, Geek Culture.

A movie like Black Panther isn’t just important because it comes from a black creative team. It’s also part of a powerful movement to reclaim these corporate owned icons for the communities who value them. The recent Star Wars movies, Ghostbusters reboot and franchises like Doctor Who are all being powerfully influenced by the geek community.

Geeks have forcefully determined that the cultural product made for us should reflect who we really are – which is an epicly diverse assortment of people from all around the globe. Contrast that to the era of “geek culture” through the 00s and 90s, as celebrated in Ready Player One, when geeks were depicted exclusively as young white men, because the media corporations decided this yielded the greatest profit margins.

I don’t believe there was any such thing as Geek Culture…until very recently. We the geeks, people of all kinds, are MAKING geek culture. We’re making it by pressuring big media corps into making diverse content. We’re making it by supporting the creators we love on Kickstarters and Patreon. And we’re making it by having a real critical discussion about our culture, and what we want it to represent

Some people, mostly alienated young white men, hate that this critical discussion is happening. So, we end up with nonsense like Gamergate and the Sad Puppies. But let’s be clear. Black Panther and Star Wars are far, far more representative of geek culture today than Ready Player One, which in 2018 feels exactly like what it is – a relic. If any movie is the geek Black Panther…it’s Black Panther.

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Diagram of Geek Culture by Julianna Brion.

5 things that can go HORRIBLY wrong adapting The Culture

I don’t consider myself a true fan of many things, but I am an unapologetic Iain (M) Banks fanboy.

Which is an easy thing to be. Banks is a brilliant, brilliant writer. A storyteller in the class of Neil Gaiman, with the muscular prose abilities of J G Ballard, and the conceptual imagination of an Asimov or Le Guin. I read his Culture books in my teens, his literary novels in my twenties, and re-read nearly all of them in my thirties. Just this year I’ve been working my way through Peter Kenny’s spot on audio adaptations.

So, like all true fans, I’m a little worried by news of a tv adaptation. Banks was fairly outspoken about his decision not to allow movie or tv adaptations of the Culture novels. I totally respect any decision his estate makes on this, and nobody doubts Amazon have the cash to make it happen? But do they have the skill, creativity and imagination?

How many ways could a Culture tv adaptation go wrong? Let us count the ways.

Read more.

The 4 skills of the Full Stack writer

A stack of 4 core skills are key to success as a freelance writer. Mastering them unlocks huge opportunities.

I landed my first paid writing gig when I was 14. I had a paper route, and one day the local Indian restaurant invited me in, made me a chai tea, and asked how to get a leaflet into the newspaper. In the end I wrote the leaflet, got it printed, and distributed. I think I made £50 on the deal. Or, about 17 weeks of delivering newspapers!

“The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody.”

Fast forward two and a half decades, and I’ve been making a professional living as a writer for most of that time. I’ve written for The Guardian, BBC, Wired, The Independent, Buzzfeed, Aeon magazine and freelanced for major London ad agencies. I’ve published dozens of short stories, won Arts Council grants for fiction writing, lectured at a half dozen universities, published research with Oxford University Press, and studied with Neil Gaiman at the Clarion writers workshop. But that all grew from writing ad-copy for a leaflet.

Over the course of my pro career I’ve seen the writing industries transformed by technology. The internet is full of words. They all have to be written by somebody. And when I have a lot of deadlines, it sometimes feels like I’m writing them all! Businesses all over the world have a huge hunger for words, which has created whole new areas of work for writers. Right now I have clients in Bangalore, Idaho, Paris, Cornwall, Singapore and Shenzen. And this is a quiet month!

The gig economy, and freelance sites like Fiverr, have opened up a global marketplace for writing services. At the time of writing I am in the top 5 “Pro Writers” on Fiverr, and in the top one or two percent of writers by hourly earnings. The clients I have worked with via sites like Fiverr include Blue Chip corporations, tiny mom & pop businesses, famed entrepreneurs and hard working YouTube celebrities. The task of finding new clients, once a major problem for creative freelancers, is made easy by Fiverr.

The most expensive content is the content that nobody reads.

The recent Payoneer report into freelance earnings recorded an average income of $19 per hour for writers. But that average disguises a gulf in earnings between two very different groups of writers.

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The shattered realities of William Gibson

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To get the most from the episode, read Count Zero by William Gibson

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Ambient background music by UUriter track Homeland Cassette

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After Patreon: we need a Bill of Rights for creators

We live in amazing times for human creativity. There are more opportunities, for more people, of more backgrounds, to create than ever before.

I think when we look back on the early 21st century, we’ll recognise it as the turning point into a creator culture, in which we value people for their creative talents, over their consumer spending power.

Our entire economy is in the process of reforming around the new creator culture. But when I look at many of the institutions forming to “support” that creativity, instituitions like Patreon, I see the same story.


Read the full post on Medium.

Stop using guns as a symbol of personal empowerment

We don’t like guns because we like guns. But we DO like guns. Gun manufacturers don’t make $billions every year selling guns to farmers or even armies. The AR-15, America’s bestselling gun, is a sexy-as-hell consumer item. Like a lethal steel iPhone but significantly less useful.

I appreciate the vocal efforts of Hollywood A-listers campaigning for better gun laws. But it won’t mean much as long as Hollywood keeps churning out the high production value advertisements for firearms it calls “action movies”. Matt Damon wants you to do as he says when he says ban guns, not do as he does in a career based on shooting guns while looking super cool.

And super empowered.

I went on a mini-rant about guns-as-power-symbols over at my friend Ahimsa Kerp’s blog.

“Most guns, and basically all swords, only exist to kill people. Only a psychopath believes that killing people makes the killer powerful. And yet in stories we present guns and swords as symbols of personal empowerment, that heroes use to fight their way to self-realization. This is so pervasive, most people actually believe it. Imagine if we stopped using guns and swords as this symbol, and started using books instead? That would be closer to reality.”
–Damien Walter

I hate to break it to the middle aged dad-bods out there, but none of you will ever fight your way up 80 storeys of Nakatomi tower while shooting baddies to rescue your wife from Alan Rickman and save your marriage. You are, literally, 82 million times more likely to save your marriage by reading insightful books than by buying a Desert Eagle .45

And yet, from 24 to Taken, we watch the strange modern day ceremony of average middle aged men shooting their way to personal empowerment. And it’s not just the dudes. You can barely walk into a cinema or switch on a tv today without finding somebody liberating their inner agency by blowing somebody elses head off with a gun.

You could make this symbol ANYTHING. If our media churned out thousands of hours of entertainment a year in which average dudes found personal empowerment through the symbolic device of a monkey wrench, then average dudes all over America would manifest a fetisistic relationship to wrenches. They might even go around hitting people with their wrenches, but with a thankfully lower death toll than today’s sickening gun massacres.

People are impressionable. In the 1920s, an entire generation of women were persuaded that cigarettes, of all things, were symbols of personal empowerment, through a cleverly orchestarted marketing campaign arranged by Edward Bernays, father of “public relations” IE legitimised propoganda.

I doubt any Hollywood movie makers will see this blog post (but share it widely to increase the chances). However, you’ve heard the message here, and the chances are, you’re a storyteller. YOU can help change this situation, by using your gifts to NOT replicate the lazy, lethal story archetypes, that lead us to see the gun as a heroic symbol, rather than WHAT IT REALLY IS – a nauseating symptom of deep social sickness.

Replace the gun in your story with a book.

Or maybe a wrench.

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Beyond the Rhetoric of Story

Since I began work on The Rhetoric of Story, a little over a year ago, the success of the course has far exceeded my expectations. Since launching on Udemy, the course has been in the top 12 of writing for 4 straight months! To date over 1600 students have taken the course, and they’ve had some great things to say.

“The lessons are described so as to create a vivid picture of story writing. It’s as if the instructor is bringing alive the story of writing a story…I feel revitalized after feeling lost for so many years.”

“He’s organized and uses his own storytelling mien to deliver the course brilliantly.”

“I’ve read more books on writing than I care to admit…this course though has provided some valuable information on why certain stories resonate with the reader.”

“Damien is so engaging, so personable and presents himself honestly that watching his videos is a pleasure and very a effective way to learn.”

“By examining some of the most enduring stories of ancient and recent history, Damien has created a great series of lectures on story and what makes a story work.”

“This course is actually very deep with highly useful tips and advice on how to tell a compelling story.”

Of course there were also constructive criticisms, of a few glitches with audio recording and a slow intro lecture. With these in mind, I’ve reinvested in better recording equipment, and have planned out a set of new classes.

Beyond the Rhetoric of Story.

I had two aims in the Rhetoric of Story. After five years teaching creative writing at university level, I saw a profound problem in the way it was taught. The craft of writing, and the art of storytelling, were conflated into a single set of ideas. Story itself is almost entirely ignored within creative writing, which tends to focus on language. I couldn’t change this from within, but by making the Rhetoric of Story an online course, I could reach many more passionate writers.

My second aim was to express a powerful idea about the nature of story that has been gathering influence over some years. That story is how the human mind works, and that far from being “formulaic”, the structures of story reflect basic patterns in human psychology. I’ve spent over a decade studying this idea, from the work of hundreds of writers and theorists. The Rhetoric of Story was my way of pulling all that learning into a unified whole.

But the Rhetoric of Story is still a foundation course. It’s there to give writers a solid base of knowledge in story, that they can then apply in their own creations. With this in place, I want to move onto to more advanced material.

I am planning two new short courses, a new full length course, and a series of ad-hoc talks that I really hope you’re going to enjoy!

Short Courses
In my professional life I’ve told stories for some of the world’s biggest media brands including The Guardian, BBC, Wired, Aeon, The Indepdendent and many more. I work with some very famous businesses in technology, healthcare and finance to tell compelling stories about their industries. In two linked, short courses, I want to share some of the essential skills and techniques I use to make this work happen.

I REALLY want to tell you the course titles, but the branding is so valuable I can’t reveal it until the courses are published. What I can say is that these courses are going to be exceptionally useful for anybody who wants to earn a great living from writing.

New Full Length Course
The Technology of Fiction – in a sister course to RoS, I will be dedicating 7 hours of teaching time to a really in-depth exploration of advanced fiction and novel writing techniques. The novel is at least four hundred years old, and over that time writers have developed a full spectrum of technologies for telling great stories with the written word. Mastering these technologies is the key to writing brilliant, widely loved novels.

How To Write Good…
I love to talk about stories, why they work and how they are made. I’m making occaisional short talks for my YouTube channel that will be asking the question “How to write good…”, the first, I think, will be ” How to write good…Game of Thrones!” because its such a phenomenon at this time, and there’s so much to learn from the books and tv show. These talks are going to be fun, and also free. Subscribe to me on YouTube to get them.

Want to get all these courses, FREE?!
My backers on patreon get everything I make, totally free, wherever possible. Stories, courses, everything! A $5 donation is great, but any level gets you full access.

A sad truth. Readers will always steal from writers.

This is a little story about volition. Specifically, the choices writers make about how we share and “monetize” our work. It’s a sad little tale, but please read to the end for the moral.

“there’s an extra irony here, that these were writers, who no doubt stomp around the internet chanting Pay The Writer whenever that noise startsup”

I’m a pro writer, and what I haven’t been paid to write is a much shorter list than what I have. My personal blog, however, is a semi-professional space. I make some income from posting here, but this is mostly material I want to write regardless of payment.

Yesterday, I decided to share a popular post from this blog on the Medium platform. I’ve made posts over at Medium since it began. It’s a great publishing experience, but has always been problematic, as it struggles to monetize its readership. That struggle took a new turn this month, as Medium opened up a new “clap” based payment system for contributors. It’s interesting, but I won’t share my thoughts on it here. (Maybe in a future post).

As an experiment, I took a popular post from this blog, and placed it behind the new paywall on Medium. As an after thought, I dropped a link to it on a Facebook group for writers I enjoy following.

What happened next was illustrative.

To follow this, you need to know that the Medium paywall allows free access to 3 premium “locked” articles each month, if you sign up to Medium, or unlimited access for $5.

A spate of comments were made on the Facebook group post of this kind.

“Join Medium to read this post” no way

That’s a fair response. But it’s a choice. You either join to read, or you don’t read.

A commenter screencapped the paywall, as a passive aggressive display they thought its existence unfair.

Another commenter then escalated this rhetoric, calling the paywall a “minor betrayal”

These kind of comments continued. Then a commenter suggested I should copypaste the post for the group. The next commenter went further, demanding that a Medium member screencap the post.

Emboldened by these demands, a commenter found my blog, located the original post, and linked it in the comments. Virtual cheers went up. Hooray! The mob had what they wanted.

I woke up to this mini-drama, and made a few responses as it unfolded, while chuckling about the whole thing. The incredible sense of entitlement, displayed with so little self-awareness, was pure comedy gold. I’m not going to post the screencaps. It’s not my intention to shame these people, because their behaviour is faaaaar from unique. Granted, there’s an extra irony here, that these were writers, who no doubt stomp around the internet chanting Pay The Writer whenever that noise startsup. But let’s be honest here, this behaviour is the norm. And as readers, we’re probably all guilty of it.

I’ve written a number of times on book piracy, and met with controversy every time. To clarify, I’m neither for or against piracy. I simply take the realistic position that, the internet being what it is, and people being what they are, that most folks will always dodge paying when they can. And given that reality, the emphasis is on us as creators to find the most constructive response.

The real issue at the heart of piracy is: volition. The power of a creator to choose how their work is shared and monetized. My decision to put my post behind a paywall was, in a matter of hours, openly violated, by my fellow writers, who then celebrated the act. These are the people who should be most sensitive to this issue, and even they don’t care. Given that as context, what chances do you think there are of ever dissuading the huge majority of people from stealing content whenever they can?

It’s a sad truth. But readers will always steal from writers. Your volitional power to choose how your work is published and monetized in this digital era is very limited. Denying that only reduces your options even further. Embrace the reality, use platforms like Patreon to work around it, and the advantages of this new digital era soon outweigh problems…even when that problem is your fellow writers being thieves!

Odd Gods

Gods are an irresistible subject to writers. They were, after all, the first characters, in the first stories. “In the beginning was the word” is both true, and a clever way for ancient scribes to improve their job security. God is, when all’s said and done, whoever is writing.

I found myself writing these stories of Odd Gods in the gaps between other things. Eventually I decided they deserved more attention, and am slowly writing them up from their often quite raw form. I swear I scrawled something blasphemous about Jehovah on a napkin, but I can’t seem to find it now.

Perhaps for the best.

The gods of my stories tend to be self-centred, shabby, outsiders to whatever cause they’ve been presured into serving. Which, I suppose, says more about their author than anything. But then, isn’t that true of all gods? And all stories?

Odd Gods so far…

Pandora Unboxed
Pandora rubbed a hand over her husband’s bald head then scrunched his beard. She did love the old goat, and had to admit he worked very hard.

Shiv the Destroyer
Shiv was late.He was on the wrong side of the galaxy, with eighty trillion stars, and a few thousand black holes, between him and his appointment.

He’d been flicking through tv channels for two hours by then, so the bell was a welcome summons back to reality.

These are currently behind the paywall on Medium. You can also read them all as a patron.

Writer. Story geek. Travelling the world while writing a book.