JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Introducing Taylor Mason:
Billions
and the first non-binary character in a mainstream U.S. television series

by Kinga Erzepki

Until 2017, the visibility of non-binary people in U.S. television was non-existent. While gender minorities called for more representation, in most media their presence remained largely unacknowledged. The first mainstream U.S. television series to feature a non-binary character was Showtime’s Billions with the introduction of Taylor Mason in the second season (Boisvert; Dowling; GLAAD “Where We Are”). [open works cited in new window] In itself a turning point for non-binary visibility, this addition comes across as even more radical given the series’ setting and conventions verging on a pastiche of Wall Street macho theatrics. To establish how the series positions a non-binary character within this context, I use close textual analysis to examine the first two episodes featuring Taylor Mason.

I begin by focusing on the formal elements and strategic order used to reveal information about the character. I also discuss the significance of their identity as a non-binary Millennial, considering both that generation's contempt for Wall Street and Wall Street's enduring “boys club” culture of exclusion. I then defend the borderline stereotype of Taylor’s physical presentation by pointing to other aspects of that character’s construction. Finally, I comment on the casting of Asia Kate Dillon as Taylor. Relevant reviews, recaps, and interviews support my analysis, as well as provide insight into how other critics interpret the character.

Taylor’s exceptional abilities and privileged background may seem like predictable or even safe traits for a first non-binary character. However, I argue that Taylor’s construction and introduction are a carefully controlled experiment aimed to challenge possible viewer prejudices and subvert typical Wall Street tropes. Billions presents the character as an exceptional individual qualified and suited for a high finance world—and then the script poses a question about how their gender and identity might be enough to exclude them from that world. Juxtaposing them against almost caricatured (or at least hyperreal) hedge fund traders and managers, Billions establishes Taylor as a new kind of Wall Street protagonist—one with professional merit but also a contrarian standpoint. Given the realities and demographics of the financial industry in the United States, the social implications may extend far beyond the fictional firm, Axe Capital. As a result, the introduction of Taylor Mason reads as a conscious critique of prior filmic representations of Wall Street and the culture these reflect.

First impressions

In terms of plot, Billions focuses on the legal-turned-personal battle between two adversaries: Chuck Rhoads (Paul Giammatti), a New York District Attorney (still, in season 2), and Bobby “Axe” Axelrod (Damien Lewis), a billionaire hedge fund manager. Brian Koppelman and David Levien have co-created and produced the series with Andrew Ross Sorkin, and the writing duo continues to serve as the showrunners (Otterson). After gathering positive reviews, Billions has quickly become one of Showtime’s top series (Greene) and its sixth season is now in production (White).

Taylor Mason, portrayed by non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon, joins Billions in the premiere episode of season 2, but their introduction is extended across two episodes, with the first one serving only as a sneak-peak into the character’s identity and role. During their initial appearance, there is no reference to the character’s name, pronouns, or gender. Such a setup introduces Taylor to viewers bypassing any prejudice against non-binary people. Traditionally, introductory scenes provide an audience with the character’s essential traits (Bordwell and Thompson; Pearson) and a “manual” for their interpretation (Elsaesser and Buckland); here Koppelman and Levien make a statement that Taylor’s gender is of secondary importance to the plot and does not constitute the character’s essence. Instead, the scene highlights other aspects of their identity that set them apart from the financial crowd at Axe Cap, and indicates Taylor’s professional skills that will completely change the balance of power in the series’ central conflict.

The scene creates an impression that Taylor is a seasoned employee of Axe Capital whom Mafee (Dan Soder) would consult on a difficult trade. The revelation that Taylor is in fact his intern comes as a surprise. As Sarah Caldwell points out: “Mafee gets schooled by his intern Taylor who shows him how to save 10 million dollars.” Thus, from the very first scene, Taylor is established as an exceptional strategist, clearly more knowledgeable than one of Axe’s most trusted employees. “It's not a fluke. It's efficiency. It's you,” comments Mafee on the financial gains made during Taylor’s internship (“Risk Management” 35:16). This key information about Taylor comes from the speech of others (Butler), a character the audience is already familiar with, rather than directly from the newcomer. Furthermore, it is the “goofball” Mafee (Caldwell)—one of the most likable traders in the series (Nussbaum)—who introduces the new character to the viewers. Thus, from the start, the script indicates that Taylor is already recognized among Axe Cap co-workers specifically for expertise.

The establishing shot of Taylor’s introduction (“Risk Management"). Taylor introduced through the words of Mafee (“Risk Management”).

The introduction is carefully constructed so as not immediately to give away that this is a key character. Not even its timing in the episode would suggest the incident’s importance; rather than at the beginning or ending, the moment occurs just past the mid-point (“Risk Management” 33:25). The scene does not appear to reveal any significant information or detail, other than some trouble Mafee might be in. However, the mise en scène makes it clear that the main focus here is Taylor, not Mafee. The scene opens with an establishing shot with Taylor in the center of the frame, while the comic relief character is moved to the side.

After showing Taylor’s analytical skills, the introduction moves into a somewhat awkward conversation about Taylor’s presumed veganism:

“Mafee: This is why I need to keep you when your internship's over.
Taylor: Yes. I'd believe the same thing if I were you.
Mafee: Oh. I ordered you lunch. Vegan.
Taylor: What makes you think I'm a vegan?
Mafee: I don't know… Everything? All of it?
Taylor: [sigh]
Mafee: Fuck! You're not?!
Taylor: [annoyed] I'll eat it.
Mafee: [distraught] Look, I've eliminated slippage since you've got here. My trade-cost analysis is up 150 bips. And that's before the 10-ball you just saved me. It's not a fluke. It's efficiency. It's you. And now you're leaving. I can't afford that. I’ll die off. And that's before I blew lunch with you not being a vegan.
Taylor: [smiling] Of course I'm a vegan.” (emphasis added, “Risk Management 34:43)

As viewers will find out later, this seemingly random exchange establishes Taylor’s crucial traits which may serve as the “manual” (Elsaesser and Buckland 17) setting up our interpretation of the character. In this sense, starting from the introductory scene, Koppelman and Levien use (stereo)typical Millennial qualities as a form of social typing (Dyer, “Stereotyping”). That is, as Josh Tickell described them, Millennials may be a “revolution generation”—one that has brought to the mainstream ideals previously disregarded in the United States. Among those ideals are notions of gender as a spectrum, veganism, social justice, and environmentalism (Risman, Meager; Rowland; Tickell). As the young empathetic, progressive, socially conscious, tech-savvy, and non-binary vegan, Taylor’s character practically embodies the Millennial archetype.

The various convictions associated with the Millennial type are revealed gradually throughout the season and beyond, but here a correctly presumed veganism becomes the first indication Taylor will represent a contrarian standpoint at Axe Cap. From the very beginning, these qualities not only mark Taylor as a member (or emblem) of their generation, but also distinguish them from other characters in Billions who are not only older but usually express opposite views. The welcoming of this non-binary Millennial indicates a change at Axe Capital, which is a theme recurring throughout season 2.

Though Taylor is perfectly comfortable in their identity, they are also aware—judging by their reaction to Mafee’s order and later conversations with Axe—how others often perceived them and make such quick assumptions based on their age, gender, and appearance. As Willmore writes,

“Taylor's experience is by no means easier than that of the women on the show . . . but it's different, in that so many of their colleagues are confounded about what biases to bring to bear. No one at work has context for Taylor.”

However, any reservations become of little significance, as co-workers realize Taylor’s skills. This is also precisely where the brilliance of this introductory scene lies. Whatever preconceived notions some viewers might have against Taylor and non-binary genders, they cannot deny the character’s expertise as a hedge fund analyst.

In terms of dialogue, the digression about lunch serves as perfect segue from a jargon-heavy conversation to a less formal one about the character’s value to Axe Cap and personal priorities. “Taylor’s introductory scene is particularly sharply done,” praises James Hibberd, as it provides an overview of the character’s core motivation and morals without unnecessary exposition. It also establishes a friendship between the two characters that will prove crucial both to Taylor’s arc and the show’s central plot (Nicolaou). Mafee is desperate to keep Taylor at the company after the internship is over:

“Mafee: Here's my problem. The shit that I do to keep most people after an internship … throwing money around, showing them a good time … none of that's gonna work on you.
Taylor: You mean like hot girls showing up at my place and drink till I puke and all that? I agree. That wouldn't work in this case.
Mafee: So how do I keep you?
Taylor: You kind of can't.” (“Risk Management” 35:35)

From this short exchange, Billions immediately establishes Taylor as a counterpoint—a character who subscribes to the same professional goals and even methods of attaining them (B. Kesslen), but not the same personal aspirations, nor the theatrics embraced by many wannabe traders in the real-life Wall Street (Polk in White, Maclean), its Billions representation (Hess), as well as many previous cinematic depictions (Boozer, Benke, Salek).

Even the very first line addressed at Taylor: “Thanks for working through lunch” indicates their much different disposition and work ethics, especially contrasted with the preceding scene when Wags (David Costabile) mocks the analysts for their “dog shit” ideas and lack of any “cocksucker” strategies (33:42). Taylor and Wags’ roles at Axe Cap differ significantly, but the sequence further accentuates the intern’s greater competence. Thus, before Taylor’s gender or pronouns are ever mentioned, the character is already presented to the audience as a potential MVP with unshaken confidence, impressive skillset, and strong moral compass, all of which command respect. Immediately, they are established as a character of great potential who happens to be non-binary, rather than one whose gender would shape the core of their story arc.

Pronouns

It is only the second episode that officially introduces Taylor (“Dead Cat Bounce” 09:17). The series also takes this opportunity to immediately address the use of gender-neutral, singular pronoun “they”—a topic as important for many non-binary people, as resented by those unfamiliar with it (Dembroff and Wodak; Retta and Burke; Wynn). As Taylor approaches Axe’s office, their face is not showing, only the back of their head. However, considering the characteristic haircut, the viewers might already recognize them from the previous episode. The moment they step into the room, as the camera faces them, Taylor introduces themself and states their pronouns. Axe simply acknowledges, replies “okay,” and the two proceed to discuss the strategy Taylor devised (“Dead Cat Bounce” 09:17).

It is worth to consider how introduction of Taylor and their pronouns is reminiscent of a scene from the infamous second season of Twin Peaks. There, in “Masked Ball,” special agent Dale Cooper expects the arrival of his long-time friend “Dennis” Bryson, whom he describes as  “the finest mind of the DEA.” Much like Taylor then, this character is also introduced to the viewers and other characters as highly-skilled before even arriving on scene. Moreover, in each series, both characters are initially announced as men.

In Billions, when Mafee describes the strategy “his analyst” proposed, Axe orders “to bring him in,” assuming the likely gender due to the company’s demographics, since he has never met Taylor before (emphasis added; “Dead Cat Bounce” 09:06). In Twin Peaks, neither Cooper, nor Sheriff Harry S. Truman know about Bryson’s transition, so the latter tells the receptionist to “send him right in” (emphasis added; 16:39). When the character walks in, she presents feminine, declares that “[she] now goes by Denise” and uses female pronouns. Just like Axelrod, Cooper simply replies, “Okay”—“not ‘Wow!’ or ‘Huh?’ but a prosaic, matter-of-fact ‘OK’” (Allen)—and from that moment addresses Denise by the correct name and pronouns. However, as Denise leaves, Deputy Hawk comments: “That's a good color for him [sic]” (“Masked Ball” 18:16); thus, “misgendering [Denise] and giving the audience tacit permission to laugh at the character—especially because the line follows a deliberately long beat” (Allen).

“Plots that turn on switched identities and disguised passing have been comic staples since the Greeks,” and those featuring gender transgressions proved to be equally popular with contemporary U.S. audiences. In this vein, Some Like It Hot, Victor/Victoria, The Birdcage, Tootsie, and Mrs. Doubfire all reached and continue to hold their status of genre classics (“AFI’s 100 Years”; “The 50”; “Hollywood’s”; “Readers’”). However, considering that their protagonists disguise themselves belonging to another gender to hide their true identity, all these films tend to be considered as “cross-dressing” farce, rather than as depicting a transgender experience (Cardullo; J.R. Miller; Lieberfeld and Sanders).

This is not the case with Denise in Twin Peaks who feels more authentic presenting feminine (Kruger-Robbins). Regardless of that, the character receives a similar comedic treatment, as the topic of her gender becomes a “wink wink” type of gag between the series and its viewers. Whereas with the former films I mentioned, the audience is in on the dramatic irony and laughs with the male protagonists successfully tricking others (Feder; Harris-Moore), such positioning in Twin Peaks reads more at Denise and the unabashedly transphobic jeer (Allen; Fradley and Riley). Consequently, her introduction falls into a typical late 80s-early 90s style of LGBTQ+ representation that seemingly had to feature a queer-phobic dig in some capacity (Becker; M. Miller). Still, watching the scene now, it is no less jarring to me that the character used to misgender Denise is Deputy Hawk—possibly the most competent, moral, kind-hearted character in the series, and one universally beloved by its fans (Collins; Roffman et al.; Wigler). Yet, Axe is equally popular among Billions viewers (though for much different reasons).

Misgendering in Billions (“Dead Cat Bounce”) vs. Twin Peaks (“Masked Ball").