Billions Tipped Its Hat To The Gawker & Hulk Hogan Feud Last Night

Photo: Jeff Neumann/Courtesy of Showtime.
Photo: Jeff Neumann/Courtesy of Showtime.
Sunday night's Billions season 2 premiere plotted the first bold moves in the kind of macho chess match Showtime's sleek drama is known for. (Note: there is also a literal chess match.) The players, hedge fund titan Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) are still battling it out in the bougie Westport-New York crossfire between big-betting finance and the law that corrals it. And though both men are as hungry — for victory, for their version of justice — as ever, the tables have now turned in round two. Ax now has the upper hand.
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Rhoades' office ravaged Axe Capital last season, but now it's Rhoades who's battening down the hatches. He's under fire from two sides: The Department of Justice, which is investigating his office for misconduct in his case against Axe Capital; and Ax himself, who's seeking vengeance for the damage Rhoades inflicted on his firm and reputation in season one.
The unusual way Ax begins to enact that retribution in the premiere might ring familiar. Ax Capital's rep has been considerably dinged — in the press and the eyes of his clients — thanks to Rhoades (and his ethically dubious case-building). Ax wants to sue him for malicious prosecution, but his lawyer advises against it, deeming it too risky: the case isn't airtight, and do they really want to open themselves up to being dragged through the press all over again?
So, Ax and his legal team decide to make a sneaky move straight out of tech billionaire (and early Facebook investor) Peter Thiel's playbook. In 2007, the now-defunct Gawker pissed off Thiel when they published an article titled "Peter Thiel is totally gay, people." Thiel felt that Gawker outed him and, but didn't have firm legal grounds to sue on. So he did what any billionaire with a vengence does: he financed a covert war on behalf of other alleged Gawker victims.
Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.
Most (in)famous among them, of course, was Hulk Hogan, who sued Gawker for publishing a sex tape of himself with a married woman. Thiel bankrolled Hogan's suit, which culminated in a $140 million payout to Hogan — and, most crucially in Thiel's eyes, the bankruptcy and shutdown of Gawker.
We saw Ax make a similar move on Sunday night. His team found other people with grievances against Rhoades' methods and offered to finance their lawsuits — 127 of them, to be exact. "I have a feeling he's going to make this his life mission," Rhoades says after being served with a literal backpack of lawsuits.
The idea of billionaires secretly funding lawsuits to take down their enemies is worrisome to some people, terrifying to others. And while Bobby Axelrod is no Peter Thiel, it's fascinating to see the often unrealistic show take a cue from real life scandal. Because as Gawker learned, there's nothing more deadly than a blue-eyed billionaire with a vendetta and a checkbook.
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