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Like a Wheezing Elephant: A Complete Taxonomy of the Many Similes of ‘Billions’

With the Showtime series wrapping up its fourth season on Sunday, it’s time for a close reading of its characters’, um, distinct manner of speaking

Showtime/Ringer illustration

This Sunday’s final episode of Billions Season 4 supplies plenty of the plot twists, dramatic confrontations, and vengeance-fueled power shifts that one expects from a finale of the endearingly soapy series. As Showtime’s episode summary cryptically puts it, “Tensions rise, and dynamics shift.” Having seen a screener, we can confirm that tensions do rise and dynamics do shift. But more important, we counted seven similes.

We didn’t say “spoilers,” because you probably weren’t wondering how many times a speaker would make a comparison between two different things to add some flair to a line. But Billions’ verbal gyrations are its most distinctive trait. As Vulture’s Nate Jones wrote this spring, “Characters on Billions do not talk like they are from anywhere other than Billions.” It’s not just that they unfailingly use fancier synonyms than they need to; it’s also that they liken every situation to something else.

For instance, in Season 4, Episode 10, Chuck’s former colleague and coconspirator Lonnie told Taylor, “Sara relayed to me what happened between you and Wendy, and my experience was similar. Brought close just to be expelled.” He could have stopped there, but of course he continued: “Like Sammy Hagar in Van Halen.” Ah, yes. Now it comes clear. Sometimes the “likes” pile up in consecutive sentences. Consider this classic from Chuck: “He took that viper home, like it was a Kewpie doll he won at the county fair. And now, he and his boss will go after each other like Serbs and Croats.”

“Like metaphors, similes should be used sparingly,” advises the expert-tutorial site MasterClass. “If you find you’re spending too much time trying to come up with one, it’s likely your reader will see your effort.”

Billions does not use similes sparingly, and its viewers see the effort. Today, we’re recognizing that effort by presenting a taxonomy of similes in the series. In reviewing scripts for its 48 episodes (so far), we came up with a conservative count of about 300 similes—more than six per episode. Some are simple and could conceivably be said in real life. Many others could only be uttered on Billions. The latter type tend to fall into 10 categories. We’ve listed some of the choicest selections below, ordered within each subsection from least to most Billions-sounding. You may want to cover your head with a napkin while you savor these linguistic delicacies.

The Animalistic Simile

Most characters on Billions behave as if they’re in a state of nature, where the law of the jungle is the law of the land. It’s only natural, then, that they often invoke the kill-or-be-killed animal kingdom. We won’t waste your time with the basics, like stuck pigs, sleeping bears, herded puppies, and bulls in the ring. These are the times when Billions came closest to its wild side:

  • “It’s dangerous and hard to ride, like an unbroken horse.”
  • “This case against you will be complete. And it is gonna land on you like a clearcut ponderosa pine.”
  • “That chain’s like a wheezing elephant ready to stumble to its knees.”
  • “I got baited. Hooked in the mouth like a trophy marlin.”
  • “And however an investigation may start, once I’m in it, I’m like a goddamned octopus.”
  • “I’m birdy as a springer spaniel.”
  • “Like a shorthaired pointer on a dabbling duck.”
  • “Gonna go up like a bullfrog with an M-80 in its ass.”
  • “They are clubbing you like a baby seal.”
  • “Like a honeybee, take what you pick up here, you drop it there. Just make sure at the end of the day, you’re the one who ends up with all the nectar.”
  • “This fucking city, it nibbles away at you like fucking piranhas until there’s nothing left.”
  • “Say ‘literally’ again and I will light you on fire like a dragon of yore.”
  • “I’m here to give you the chance to resign, before I crush you, publicly, loud as a cow elk trying to squeeze out breech twins.”

The Obscure Cultural Reference Simile

As Billions cocreator, cowriter, and showrunner Brian Koppelman told Vulture, his characters “are incredibly well-read. They’ve seen all the important movies. They can talk about paintings. They have an incredible felicity of interests and knowledge.” That sometimes poses a problem for viewers who are a little less cultured. (In other words, everyone.) Even when they refer to a famous film, they’ll do their best to obscure the source material, complaining about being “treated like Eddie Mush with a pocketbook” or advising someone to refuse an order “like Dawson and Downey should’ve with the code red.” As Axe’s estranged friend Freddie says in Season 1 when Axe tells him he’s like Paulie Pennino: “Who?”

In Episode 9 of this season, Axe instructs his underlings to, “Write down those names and look ’em up later.” Ben Smith, creator and sole proprietor of the website The Billions Companion, has done just that. Smith, a photographer by trade who lives in London, found that some of the series’ more United States–specific allusions were going over his English head. So he started tracking, collating, and explaining the cultural references in Billions both for his own edification and for the benefit of his fellow fans (sometimes with assists from Koppelman himself). “I’m pretty sure that’s one of the things Billions fans enjoy,” Smith says via email. “Spot the cultural ref!”

Smith says he’s learned that “These refs are a kind of glimpse into the obsessions and preoccupations of the writers. Because what I’ve realized is that everyone and everything they’re into or have ever been into, finds their/its way into those scripts eventually.” Keeping up with Koppelman and cowriter David Levien is “a fricking time suck, I’m telling you,” Smith says. “But it’s a labor of love.” That effort has produced a site that some of the show’s less cultured characters probably wish they had on hand.

  • “It’s like the end of Speed-the-Plow.”
  • “Thought you’d be with your wife today. The hearing. Instead of skull-dugging around here like Philip Marlowe.”
  • “You gotta be like Eric Roberts and Chris Penn. Best of the Best.”
  • “But ice cream, at a fountain. I mean, that makes you feel free and young, like an American.”
  • “Vetted for making money or for making Taylor’s head explode like in Scanners?”
  • “Make the rounds, sonny. Like Billy Phelan did in his city.”
  • “Well, you do look a little like Kuato.”
  • “Cut ’em down like I was Connor MacLeod.”
  • “This is like No Exit without the guy.”
  • “Eat it all. Like Big Earl. Whole left side of the menu.”
  • “And like your Mighty Mouse, here I come to save the day.”
  • “I’d be laughing like Hank Kingsley if I were in your Florsheims.”

The Tasteless Simile

One Billions character recently described someone’s strategy as, “Spacey-style. Sneaky and from behind.” Most of its characters are rich and entitled enough not to care about politeness or propriety, and their comparisons frequently cross the boundaries of good taste. We also could have called this “The Wags Simile,” because Axe Cap’s majordomo is the most frequent offender (fortunately for his fans).

  • “I miss him like the case of crabs I had freshman year.”
  • “That thing was like cleaning out intestines before you eat ’em, a giant fucking waste of time.”
  • “I’m jammed up like I ate a pint of rice.”
  • “I’ll believe that you’re satisfied when I hear you moan and shake like an old washing machine. And you will tell me who finished you off.”
  • “Like a fart in the wind on the Ponderosa.”
  • “They’re Wellfleets. They’re plump and briny, like my dream dates.”
  • “Every single institution on or attendant to the Street is gonna be dumping like a dray horse on an all-taco diet.”
  • “As our friend Wags might say: ‘Up like his morning wood.’ Yes! Up like his blood pressure on Cialis.”
  • “Your case just fell apart like a cheap bed in a La Grange whorehouse.”
  • “My vengeance will come like I do: slow, thunderous, and in your eye.”
  • “A year ago, I had legions at my command while your fund was deflating like a Tijuana breast implant.”
  • “You keep popping up like a turd remnant that won’t flush.”
  • “And so now is your moment to shine like a pasty on the nipple of Lili St. Cyr in the bright lights of the Florentine Gardens.”
  • “Everything is all fucking covered by Big State. Like a plump-bosomed wet nurse.”
  • “Better start telling me the things that you’re afraid to whisper, that you’ve been keeping inside. Even because you think it’s your fault, like a priest gently sodomizing you.”
  • “He’s torquing up this jury like a fluffer on a porn set.”
  • “I couldn’t be more psyched if you told me Jillian Barberie was gonna ride my face like American Pharoah.”
  • “Being a billionaire, when you walk into a room, it’s like being a woman with a perfect set of tits.”
  • “I know you must be desperate as a fraternity pledge who can’t find a date for the screw-your-brother dance.”
  • “It’s as worthless as a $100 bill to a rooster with a hard-on.”
  • “Forty-five minutes, and I rebound like an undergrad.”
  • “Cozy as a couple of teenagers sharing a cigarette after a backseat fuck.”
  • “He broke like a Mexican condom.”
  • “The stock’s gonna pop like a prom queen’s cherry.”
  • “I’m feeling like somebody slipped us a Cosby.”

The Historical Simile

Bolstered by either unparalleled scholarship or untold hours of Wikipedia deep dives, Billions’ characters are capable of engaging in an impromptu, extended discussion of architect Louis Kahn on a trip to Roosevelt Island, dropping the name of the 18th-century British officer responsible for purposely spreading smallpox to Native Americans, or revealing that the so-called “Chinese water torture” was actually invented by 15th-century Italian Hippolytus de Marsiliis. Presidents and kings come up from time to time, but aspiring Billions writers should observe that casual references to long-ago organized-crime figures (both real and fictional) are particularly prized.

  • “It’ll be like the old water torture: drip, drip, drip. Like the Japanese in WWII.”
  • “This is where you would make some kind of reference to a gangster movie betrayal. As in: I went to the barber and ended up on the floor like Joey Gallo.”
  • “Normally, a guy takes what I consider to be an aggressive line against me, I cut him down like the Mongol hordes.”
  • “You’re basically asking me to form the Committee to Re-elect the President. I always knew I’d end up like John Mitchell.”
  • “These jurors are gonna do me like Louis XVI.”
  • “Ohhh, I’ll fix it. Like Lyndon Johnson did the South.”
  • “And when I win, I’m gonna roll over you like it’s Tiananmen Square.”
  • “If you want to motivate someone to a specific action? I say: Be like Roosevelt and do both.”
  • “Find a way to introduce an infected blanket, like good ol’ Lord Jeff Amherst.”

The Sports Simile

Billions characters like sports, and they aren’t afraid to say so. But they are afraid of invoking contemporary athletes, and they’d rather avoid the most mainstream sports. If they have to talk about something as basic as basketball or football, they’ll damn well flaunt their knowledge by steering clear of athletes that anyone under 40 might have seen play in their prime. As Mafee puts it after Dollar Bill cites Roger Staubach in Season 3, “Vintage ref. Nice.”

  • “That’s like getting traded from the Pats to the Titans.”
  • “Now we ride you like Justify.”
  • “I have to fly above reproach, like one of those American Gladiator people on the Sky Track.”
  • “Numbers move from here to there, and emotions are smoothed out, like ice under a Zamboni.”
  • “You’re like Kobe firing up shots when he’s 2-for-18.”
  • “He’s got a cancer, Dad. Moving through him like a race car on the Bonneville Salt Flats, fast and full steam ahead.”
  • “I’m gonna win a fat judgment, and then, because I got nothing else, thanks to you, I’m gonna make it my sole purpose in life to stick to you like Lester Hayes until you’ve paid it willingly just to get me to go away.”
  • “Like Agassi in his prime.”
  • “Brains like Will Hunting, strength like Artis Gilmore in the ABA days.”
  • “Thick with power, like Vasily Alekseyev himself.”
  • “When they found out, they went to town on me like Dave ‘The Hammer’ Schultz.”
  • “He was driving towards a wall like Dale Earnhardt at Daytona.”
  • “We’re crushing it like Richard Petty did Daytona.”
  • “Oooh, working stiff. Just like your personal totem, the Undertaker. … When we’re here 12 months from now, if you’re not still bodyslamming like, uh, King Kong Bundy …”
  • “Your board likes Devin Hester returns and I’m the only one who can take their money 109 yards to the promised land.”
  • “And somehow like the man, Teófilo Stevenson, you boxed your way out of the corner and found a way to cover your losses.”
  • “We all mask certain emotions, often our most intense ones, like Bjorn Borg did. But like Borg, eventually, it’ll end up costing you everything.”
  • “This thing is running like Bill Rodgers in Boston, fast and long.”
  • “I hit like the Purple People Eaters. So be careful what you wish for.”
  • “Like Staubach to Drew Pearson.”
  • “I had a conversation with Bob Sweeney that didn’t go as smoothly as a Dick Button figure eight.”
  • “And like Earl Anthony bagging the 7-10 split …”
  • “I spun like Katarina Witt in Sarajevo, but there’s nothing new out there ready to come on board.”
  • “I want you two in sync like incestuous ice dancers.”

The Spyros Simile

Axe Cap’s compliance czar, Ari Spyros, almost pulls off the impossible: making his slightly less caricatured coworkers seem like plausible people. Spyros is Billions turned up to 11, and his similes are as florid as the rest of his speech.

  • “My words do traverse that regal canal like a vaporetto gliding to the Piazza San Marco.”
  • “More like a professore. Selflessly lowering his learned mane so that young matriculants can climb up his ivory tower, sit at his feet, and savor of his erudition.”

The Musical Simile

Billions doesn’t just stuff its soundtrack with classic rock; it also invokes it via dialogue. The series’ skill at citing aged acts is still tighter than AC/DC in ’78.

  • “And what is that? Move like Jagger?”
  • “You played those heart strings like Orpheus.”
  • “Unless you want to wheel through the rest of your lives like Teddy fucking Pendergrass, you will tell me where it is.”
  • “Now he’s like the bad guy in a Springsteen song. … In fact, like the main character in that deep cut [‘Meeting Across the River’], Axe is not gonna win here.”
  • “You’re like that Sade song come to life, Kate. ‘Smooth Operator.’”
  • “That would be like me citing Vince Neil to sell you. Does Vince Neil speak to who you are?”
  • “Like Huey Lewis crooned, we’re going back in time.”
  • “Remind them that we have the answers. That they are safe in your loving arms. … Like Barry White? … Oh, he’d have had them hands in the air, weeping and singing along. So, yes, exactly like Barry White.”
  • “Some guys just stumble into money. Like Leonard Cohen into the Chelsea Hotel.”
  • “But once we do, yes, it’s gonna be like Chris LeDoux came back to life in here.”
  • “Being in the cockpit was like hitting the stage with the Clash.”
  • “We have him. And he’s singing like Hank Williams, the elder.”
  • “First, you misplay the invitation. Then you treat me like I’m Courtney Love in ’93.”
  • “We’re about to rock like Cameo in ’86.”
  • “Sara relayed to me what happened between you and Wendy, and my experience was similar. Brought close just to be expelled. Like Sammy Hagar in Van Halen.”

The Advertising Simile

Old advertising slogans may no longer appear in print or rule the airwaves, but long after their deaths, they’ve been reborn on Billions.

  • “It’s like that commercial: ‘Never let ’em see you sweat.’”
  • “It freshens the blood like Geritol.”
  • “Ya gotta keep as cool as a menthol. That’s Kool with a K.”

The Unnecessary Abbreviation Simile

One of the weirdest quirks of Billions dialogue is a tendency to abbreviate movie titles. It’s unusual enough to drop a Dances With Wolves reference. It’s odder still to call it Wolves, as if Dances With Wolves had the kind of cultural relevance that allows us to shorten Game of Thrones to Thrones. Then again, who among us hasn’t called Fight Club “Club” and expected the listener to follow along? Note: These three lines are delivered by three different characters.

  • “You really are starting a war. Like Costner did in Wolves.”
  • “Is that what being a boss does to you? Like when Sonny Black gets upped in Brasco?”
  • “Are you testing me? Like that waiter in Club?”

The Military Simile

Nothing projects power like comparing oneself—or one’s leaders or enemies—to a weapon or warrior. On several occasions, a character has summoned some martial spirit.

  • “It’s unfortunate, but my enemies seemed to have found a way to aim the government at us like a nuclear weapon.”
  • “A man as steely as a Roman centurion.”
  • “Slices through rough seas, like a man-of-war.”
  • “Like we’re on a fucking Higgins boat heading straight for Omaha Beach.”
  • “It’s like a Trident missile in launch mode.”
  • “He’s like an aircraft carrier in the center of a strike group.”
  • “It’s like me firing a pea shooter against a Panzer tank when what we need is a Howitzer.”

There are many more milder comparisons where those came from; Billions’ use of similes seems to have increased as the series has found its footing. We could have chronicled them all. But as Chuck once inexplicably said (via simile), “Like a country doctor with an outbreak across the shire to deal with, I’m gonna get back to fucking work.”