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Everything has a price in Silicon Valley, even friendship

T.J. Miller (HBO)
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Early in the run of Silicon Valley—around the time of season one’s “Fiduciary Duties” to be exact—I realized that the relationship between Richard and Erlich is a vital part of the show. Part of it was the obvious parallel between such real-world partnerships as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, part of it was the chemistry between longtime collaborators Thomas Middleditch and T.J. Miller, and part of it is the way that these two characters prove their necessity to each other. Richard has the intelligence but none of the people skills, and Erlich has the charisma but an ego that gets in the way of any productive use of it. It’s a complement that could, if the two could get over themselves enough to use it, rule the industry.

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That partnership is tested to every limit in “Bachman’s Earning’s Over-Ride.” And not coincidentally, it’s also one of the best episodes of the season, events rebounding after a few average installments. By centering on the show’s most important friendship—and surprising us with a few welcome character returns—events find the high gear that’s eluded the show of late. As much as we can talk about the fate of the Pied Piper, the real interest is in the people who make it, and “Over-Ride” gives us a lot of depth about what these people are willing to do for or to each other.

The fate of Pied Piper is in a good place following their launch in “To Build A Better Beta,” with over 100,000 registered users and a high-profile media blitz. Yet a cloud still hangs over it with the fact that Erlich still hasn’t disclosed the sale of his shares to Richard, instead tagging along with Richard on interviews and making sure everyone knows he’s not “Erlich Blockman” (as the white pages tell it). Erlich’s reluctance to tell the truth first looks to be setting up a comedy of errors when Richard hears about shares liquidated and assumes it’s Monica, but writer Carrie Kemper smartly keeps it limited to one pointed conversation where the two clear things up quickly. While there could be a good episode in that, Silicon Valley understands where the real conflict is and gets to that as quickly as it can.

Said conflict is every bit as ugly between the two as expected—or at least as ugly as a conflict can be where one of the parties is dressed like a unicorn rider. Middleditch has had a lot of opportunities to play angry over the course of this season, and he’s particularly pointed in his sense of betrayal and frustration at Erlich’s antics; while Miller manages to make Erlich simultaneously pitiable and self-important about how his name “used to be synonymous with success.” And both men manage to be in the right about the consequences within the insular industry environment. Richard’s right to be furious about what Erlich’s silence on this issue could mean for Pied Piper’s newfound success, and Erlich’s right that bad word-of-mouth could turn him into an unemployable pariah. It ends with what looks to be a shattering of the partnership, Richard promising to vacate the house and vowing at the first sign of bad press he’ll crucify Erlich to the tech blogs. (Erlich: “Even UPROXX?” Richard: “Yes.”)

Richard’s plan to cut ties with Erlich entirely hits a snag though, and it comes from the most unlikely of sources. Going to the hotel he meets up with none other than Russ Hanneman, who in between trying to score with a bride on her bachelorette party lets slip that he was going to buy half of Erlich’s shares before Laurie got in the way. I’d gotten tired of Russ’s schtick by the end of season two, but this scene proves there’s value in keeping him in the show’s orbit. He’s so brazen in his attitude, and Chris Diamantopoulos such a master of saying terrible things in entertaining ways, that as an occasional flavor he adds a lot to the humor. Case in point, the “horror” of losing his three-comma billionaire status: “You guys were the only ones who knew and I actually thought about having you killed.”

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Russ’s legacy is greater than making Richard uncomfortable however. The bad deal that he made to keep his company alive has now centralized Pied Piper control in Laurie’s hands, to the point that she can veto Erlich’s sale and then buy him out for the value of his outstanding debts. It casts Erlich in an unexpected light, a light that becomes even more favorable once Richard gets home and it’s revealed he sent out his own release when CJ warned him about “ugly rumors.” It creates a sense of responsibility in Richard that’s to be expected, and leads to a nicely circular solution. A candidate for head of PR at Pied Piper got this whole thing started, and now it ends with Richard offering Erlich the job.

This is a great resolution to the story, as well as the right move for the show. Erlich’s lack of position in the company has been a reliable joke over the seasons, yet as the company evolves his relationship needs to as well. From the beginning he’s known how to explain Pied Piper to outsiders and navigate industry bullshit in a way Richard never has, and making it his official job both legitimizes him and constrains him as he has to deal with this legitimacy. And true to form, this new position looks like it’ll breed as many problems as it solves given Erlich’s mixed track record with the industry. Yes, he’s smart enough to know that his joke “pesca-pescatarian” order would turn his dining companions into lemmings, but he’s also not quick enough to ask the right questions about just what the “ugly” CJ was referring to was before immolating his reputation.

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Erlich’s first task turns out to be writing a press release to react to Hooli’s decision to make the Pied Piper app available—a success that comes at the expense of Gavin Belson. I commented in “Founder Friendly” that keeping Gavin as Hooli CEO made comedic sense, but since then he’s squandered all of his second chance. This entire season has been a litany of failure for Gavin—the search algorithm controversy, the repeat exodus of Nucleus talent, a waste of almost three-quarters of a billion dollars of company money—and at this point there’s no reason why the board would keep someone this petty and narrow-minded in charge. He’s out of rope to hang himself with, bound for the same irrelevance Big Head somehow managed to survive under for two-plus seasons. As with his last line in “Two Days Of The Condor,” Matt Ross puts so much into one muttered “Fuck,” looking on the roof that is his fate.

However, “Over-Drive” manages to add a twist to his seeming exile with yet another welcome return in Stephen Tobolowsky’s Jack Barker. The scene where their paths cross is one of Silicon Valley’s most brutal evisceration of the big-money bubble, these two insanely wealthy individuals meeting right in front of their private jets going to the same destination, only to nod and part ways once they come to that conclusion. And then, when you think common sense might win over and Jack suggest they plane-pool, it leaps to a higher level of disconnect when Jack suggests they play chess—once the wi-fi activates on their respective jets. (He’s ActionJB62.)

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It’s also an auspicious meeting given the two mention trading war stories, and both of them have recently lost a war to the same person. While it made narrative sense for Jack to depart the show he made a great impression in his early episodes, and bringing him back into the story on Gavin’s side is a great idea. Richard and crew have been such a tightly knit entity since the beginning that they’ve never had to deal with a threat who used to be one of them, creating problems for each other but binding together to fix said problems. And if Gavin and Jack do decide to form a partnership against Richard, being able to lean on his partnership with Erlich is something he’s going to need.

Stray observations:

  • This week’s closing track: “Pied Piper,” Crispian St. Peter’s.
  • No room above to talk about the jacket, but it’s another great plot for Pied Piper’s employees and easily the funniest instance of company branding since “Signaling Risk.” Everything is on point between Jared’s enthusiasm for this obviously terrible garment, Gilfoyle’s deadpan use of it for humiliation purposes, Dinesh leaping between humiliations as he distances himself from and then cravenly embraces it up to the point of terrible karaoke.
  • For your assigned reading this week, The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz wrote a tremendous feature on the ways that Silicon Valley takes down the real Silicon Valley. Strong recommend.
  • Taking a page from my coworker LaToya’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine reviews, I’ve decided that Silicon Valley needs a spinoff webisode series that’s all Gavin Belson explaining his latest direction for the company with the aid of adorable animals.
  • Laurie’s drinking partner is Mark Pincus, co-founder of Zynga.
  • Erlich’s pre-press function ritual: “Shit, shave, shit again, cocktail.”
  • Dinesh on the jacket: “And you guys gave me shit for a tiny gold chain.” Gilfoyle: “I regret nothing.”
  • Zach Woods wins another MVP award for his delivery of Jared’s emotional overload after receiving Erlich’s board seat. “Oh Donald, you’ve come undone!”
  • “All right, let’s do some rearing! Set it so the horn looks like my dick.”
  • “You’re the one who threw a million-dollar party!” “Yeah, but it was a great party.”
  • Russ on the presidential suite being unavailable: “Is it Gore? Fuck that guy!”
  • “It’s very late, Richard. And I’m very high.”
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