Thomas Middleditch, Kumali Nanjiani, Martin Starr (Image: HBO)

Ever since Vikram Murthi filled in for me a few weeks ago, I’ve been chewing on a statement he made in his review, that this year Silicon Valley “excelled by shifting its focus towards episodic narratives over a strong seasonal arc.” It’s an observation I agree with, though instead of using it to praise the comedy I’m viewing it as the explanation why something’s felt off to me about this season. While it’s always been a shaggy show, each season of Silicon Valley has adhered to an arc that shepherded Pied Piper and its employees through a new stage of its existence. Season one was the company’s birth and early growing pains, season two was its fight for survival and legitimacy, and season three was the fight for individuality once it obtained that success.

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Season four didn’t have any of that structure. In fact, references to “new Internet” aside, it’s almost felt like it’s rebelling against having a structure. Silicon Valley burned through plot point after plot point this year, with potentially promising developments—Dinesh’s tenure as PiperChat CEO, Richard and Gavin’s partnership, Erlich’s newfound role as a venture capitalist—introduced and then abandoned within two episodes. The comedic highs are still as high as Erlich, and the ensemble still retains its alchemy, but it no longer feels like it’s building to something to the degree it once did.

In the context, “Server Error” comes up a bit short. It’s full of great things—a screaming match about fucking servers, Gilfoyle in cat’s eye contact lenses, Jack being taken hostage in China, Richard at his most desperately unhinged—but the events feel like just another crisis as opposed to the big presentation/trial/deal that would previously define the end of the season. While the scattered nature of the season delivered (and continues to deliver) short-term laughs, the consequence is fewer payoffs than, say, “The Uptick” or “Two Days Of The Condor.”

The biggest problem in “Server Error” is the anticlimactic way it treats the departure of Erlich Bachman from Silicon Valley. He gets to be the narrative instigator one last time, sharing the news of the Hooli-Con disaster with Gavin and immediately spurring the other man out of his search for enlightenment. On the way home he quickly goes from savior to burden, complaining incessantly about not having enlightenment, to the point that Gavin pays their host to keep Erlich in comfort for the next five years and ditches him. Erlich’s story ends in a Tibet opium den, with the one person who knows where he lying about it, and all indications he’ll smoke himself to death before the five years are up. And given what we know of T.J. Miller’s twisted sense of humor, he could well be thrilled with the bleak and anticlimactic ending he departs the show.

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To Silicon Valley fans though, this exit feels entirely ill-fitting a character who was at one point the arguable co-lead of the ensemble. It would be one thing if this was the way we left him for the season, returning next year with his Jheri curl shorn and a new Eastern mysticism-based outlook marginally more insufferable than Iron Fist. But we know as viewers that this is the last time we’ll ever see Erlich—despite being diplomatic Miller hasn’t sounded open to any future return—and in context it feels disrespectful of what he once met to the show. The only character he got any sense of closure with last week was Jian-Yang, and that was only reinforcing that both men hated each other’s guts. They don’t address his relationship with Richard, his growing feelings of insecurity in the industry, or even any remorse over what happened to his palapa. He’s there, and then he’s not.

But while disrespectful to Erlich’s legacy on the show, the fact that almost no one in Pied Piper even mentions him in their latest crisis does underline that the company has grown past him. Their latest debacle, where Jack’s push for a phone recall jeopardizes Pied Piper’s data, requires all the scheming and bullshitting that Erlich was notorious for. Only this time, Richard’s doing it on his own. I said last week that Silicon Valley was focusing on the corrosion of Richard Hendrix, and “Server Error” continues to lean into said corrosion. He lies to Melcher about the status of their server down time, he lies to Big Head—who Silicon Valley remembered this week is a character on the show—about the depth of his problem, and he lies to Dinesh and Gilfoyle about his honesty to Big Head. Once upon a time he’d be railing against these cut corners, and now it’s just a cost of doing business.

In all of this moral decay, no sight cuts deeper than the sight of Jared handing Richard his resignation letter. (One of three letters he writes every time he starts a new job, alongside a personal action plan and a letter to his 40-year-old self.) While the opposites-attract partnership of Richard and Erlich faded away over the years on Silicon Valley, the near-hero worship that Jared has for Richard has taken its place. Zach Woods and Thomas Middleditch play off each other exceptionally well in this context, Jared’s attempt to remain helpful and supportive and tactfully mention all the problems the company has crashing hard against Richard’s more mercenary side. It’s legitimately heartbreaking when Richard finally snaps at Jared’s “second-guessing hand-ringing throat-clutching bullshit” and terminates his employment immediately.

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This termination is of course the worst move Richard could make. Depth of the conflict establishment aside, Silicon Valley’s ability to build and execute crisis is one with few equals, and this one is great. Middleditch is pushed to new heights of mania and desperation as Richard tries to keep everything together, with his lecture to Gilfoyle and Dinesh about their hypocrisy potentially his best individual delivery in the series. And the sight of Anton splattered across the Stanford campus is perfect dawning horror, the grim realization of how once again Richard’s done it to himself.

They need a miracle to save them, and thanks to the all-purpose plot spackle that is Richard’s algorithm, they get it. Gilfoyle off-handedly used the code to post his profane Jian-Yang smart fridge video, and the code gets copied in a update to propagate to multiple fridges—inadvertently creating a location where Anton could shift all of hs data in the event of catastrophic failure. Again, while less satisfying than some of the hail Marys of previous finales, this satisfies as a plausible solution to the problem, fitting in with both the previously established trend of Richard’s employees to use the algorithm when it suits them and the show’s love of taking these one-off jokes and making them pay narrative dividends. And those who feel Richard needed some comeuppance for his behavior over the last couple of episodes get to see him punched in the face when his ill-advised hookup with Liz becomes public knowledge.

The most promising direction for the future of the show comes with the reunion of Richard and Gavin at their usual spot. Gavin offers to renew their partnership, and Richard stands his ground, saying he sees a future where Pied Piper is king and Hooli is not. I was critical of the show hitting the eject button on this team-up so early, but in definitively ending it here is takes events to a personal degree that the untimely death of Christopher Evan Welch halted. In the early seasons Gavin’s pursuit of Richard was only out of the desire to control a potentially hot piece of technology, gradually curdling into malice as he kept losing publicly to this young upstart. Now they’ve built the bridges and they’ve burned them, and the Richard versus Gavin feud is entering the implied depths of Gavin versus Peter.

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It’s another move that gets us back to the status quo, alongside Jared reapplying for his old job and Richard stating they’re going to take Bream-Hall’s money. Even Erlich’s departure doesn’t have serious ramifications in the short-term—although at some point they are going to have to acknowledge the fact they’re living in a house whose owner is probably going to be declared legally dead in the next few months. Season four leaves us much as we began, existing conflicts sharpened rather than reinvented, and at this point in the show’s life it’s time to accept that’s all the forward motion it wants. Silicon Valley continues to run along its success/failure parabolic curve, and while that may frustrate at times, at least that curve is still one of the best comedic grooves on television.

Episode grade: B

Season grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • This week’s closing track: “Don’t Stop,” Wu-Tang Clan (now available on the official Silicon Valley soundtrack)
  • UPDATE: T.J. Miller did an interview with The Hollywood Reporter after the finale aired, and it’s a fairly remarkable read for his personal reasons for leaving, what he hopes happens to the show going forward, and some not-so-subtle shade thrown at Middleditch and Alec Berg.
  • It turns out Jared’s condo squatter left town months ago “to sell cocaine at the Keystone pipeline protests,” which somehow makes Jared’s ongoing residence in the garage even more heartbreaking and endearing in equal measure. And the sounds of his housewarming party remind us, once again, this guy fucks.
  • Gilfoyle’s Halloween contact lenses are possibly the best joke of the night, and are even funnier for the fact that they have no narrative reason to exist. His glasses breaking doesn’t jeopardize Anton’s survival or tie into anything he’s done this year, it’s only there because someone on the creative team wanted Martin Starr to have cat eyes for half of the episode.
  • Also in terms of jokes, it’s mildly disappointing that Erlich’s Corvette doesn’t play any sort of role in the finale beyond being visible in the establishing shots. This season it wound up being Chekov’s smart fridge, not Chekov’s sports car.
  • Big Head’s latest lecture topic per the chalkboard: Old Tron (16) vs. New Tron (2). I’m assuming those points for Tron: Legacy are the soundtrack and Jeff Bridges getting to play off of himself.
  • Also, Big Head’s username and password are both “password.” Why? “It was just easier.”
  • Jared defending Richard from Melcher is ace physical comedy.
  • “You only make that face when your dick is on fire.”
  • “Even setting aside our CEO’s sexual extortion, adultery, and lowbrow scatological vandalism, we’re still essentially a criminal operation whose only real product is dangerous malware.”
  • “I’m in Tibet, it’s right next door.”
  • “I got it from a woman. She didn’t hit me. The man did. Because of sex. That I gave to her.”
  • That’s a wrap on season four coverage! As always, thanks for reading. See you next year!

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