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In “Maximizing Alphaness,” Silicon Valley minimizes focus and suffers for it

Thomas Middleditch (left), Ben Feldman
Photo: Ali Page Goldstein (HBO)
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After “Hooli Smokes!” set such a high-water mark for the final season last week, it was a safe bet that “Maximizing Alphaness” would be a step down in comparison. That assumption unfortunately proves correct, and it also illustrates another major strength of those caper episodes: a sense of focus. When the whole team is united in pursuing a goal it produces the best of Silicon Valley, able to combine its various cast members to the best possible effect. In comparison, “Maximizing Alphaness” is a scattershot episode, five different plots that direct the cast to various corners of the Valley without connection. And in comparison to last week’s victory high, it’s more than a little mean-spirited to most of the characters, as if consciously trying to strip away the joy of their recent victory.

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It’s frustrating because “Maximizing Alphaness” starts from an interesting position, by opening up a corner of Richard’s life that we haven’t had any reason to think about since the days of “Minimum Viable Product.” Richard clawed his way from low-tier programmer to CEO, and now he’s surrounded by people who might remember those early days. One of them, his first supervisor Ethan (George Basil of Flaked and Crashing) recognizes his old employee and immediately trades on familiarity to keep his job—and then manages to advance past nepotism with a valuable suggestion to convert Hooli phones for a vast expansion of PiperNet. There’s potential in this idea, either Richard regressing to old behaviors or Ethan unable to move past their original dynamic.

And there is some of that, but it’s pushed to unpleasant extremes. Ethan is so determined to assert his dominance that he trots out derogatory nicknames for Richard, shares unflattering photos of Richard as a Hooli employee, and—worst of all—shows off Richard’s early code to a room of coders. It’s almost at Russ Hanneman levels of odious, to the point even Dinesh feels sympathy. And when you’re below Dinesh on the totem pole, something has gone drastically wrong with your life: “I did not have fun. I watched you get kicked in the balls for 90 minutes. My balls hurt sympathetically for your balls.” There’s been plenty of moments where Richard’s needed humbling on Silicon Valley, but this level of embarrassment feels over-exaggerated when they could have gotten the point across in a much simpler way.

The broadness continues into his efforts to fix it. Even worse than sympathy from Dinesh is advice, which takes the form of a non-stop video playing hard rock and flashing stereotypical “alpha” imagery to feel like an alpha. Like so much of the swagger on Silicon Valley, it proves empty and less helpful than you’d expect, as Richard gets goaded into punching Ethan and doing more damage to his own hand. (Helen Hong wins best delivery of the week for her reaction: “So, it’s complicated. You were the clear aggressor in this incident, but you’re also the only one who got hurt.”) And in the long run it’s not necessary to the overall resolution, as Richard’s peace comes out of Holden’s unprompted threats to Ethan—a great mirror of the way Jared stalked Holden in “Initial Coin Offering” to break him into the perfect assistant.

Zach Woods
Photo: Ali Page Goldstein (HBO)
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On that topic, Jared is another area where “Maximizing Alphaness” loses points in its pursuit of meanness. Now, heaping indignities on Jared is a time-honored Silicon Valley tradition, but usually those are tied to professional mockeries or the increasingly horrifying stories of his past. Here, the reveal of Jared’s true parents and the reasons why they abandoned him are needlessly cruel, none of the terrors hinted at in any story but an inhuman upper-class selfishness that dismisses his entire existence outright. Even in this uncaring world, it’s many steps too far, especially the ice-cold dismissal of his supposed solar panel engineer: “Well, Ken, we were underwhelmed by your presentation.” It’s a disappointment he doesn’t set fire to the entire place on his way out.

Things only get meaner when Jared tries to rationalize this wholly irrational behavior, and he reaches the conclusion that he’s being rejected because he subconsciously rejects everyone around him. Between Gwart and Big Head as his sounding boards, this is an episode where we’ve got a lot of Jared talking to himself, and it’s a less fun seeing him trying to analyze himself than it is for other members of the cast to realize they’re too confounded to analyze it in more detail. Thankfully we should be getting back to that soon as Gwart accepts an offer from Laurie, opening Jared for his inevitable return to the warmth of Pied Piper—and even more promisingly, a potential conflict with the man he broke down psychologically to become as stalwart a protector of Richard’s interests.

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Elsewhere, Silicon Valley continues hanging lampshades on its long-running jokes/issues with Monica’s plot. For several seasons I’ve raised complaints about the series’ lack of gender diversity and unwillingness to tackle the industry’s toxic sexism—a problem it’s had off-camera as well—and now they make those part of the text when Monica tries to join a panel about empowering women in technology. Adding Monica to Pied Piper has dramatically improved the character’s exposure, and it’s also teaching us something interesting: she joins her coworkers in not being that great of a person. Laurie factually points out she’s never shown interest in helping women in tech, and her efforts to do so by giving another Pied Piper employee ownership of Foxhole feel pragmatic at best and craven at worst. (Priyanka on Foxhole: “It’s 90 percent men and all the female users are prostitutes.” Monica: “...Which makes it a very challenging assignment!”)

Amanda Crew
Photo: Ali Page Goldstein (HBO)
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In approaching it this way, it almost seems to be making a meta point about the way Silicon Valley’s approached gender issues in the valley: maybe they shouldn’t because they’d be as bad at it as Monica is. “Maximizing Alphaness” deflates whatever sense of superiority Monica earned in record time, as Kara Swisher (another real-world tech icon guest-starring on the show) is less interested in Monica jettisoning a toxic asset as she is Priyanka’s efforts to fix it. It leads to Monica unceremoniously waved off by Laurie, a solid cringe comedy beat that’s proper payment for hubris.

And if there’s a surprise in “Maximizing Alphaness,” it’s the discovery that Silicon Valley has found a way to make Gavin Belson more insufferable than ever before. In the wake of his Hooli defeat Gavin has chosen to abandon the industry completely, finding a second life as the author of Cold Ice Cream & Hot Kisses, “a thinly veiled roman à clef set at a whale-themed B&B.” There’s no pretension like literary pretension, and Gardner and Matt Ross get a lot of mileage out of Gavin’s devotion to his new career without an ounce of talent. I’d pay for an entire audiobook of Ross reading dialogue in the vein of “Caspian’s heart cracked open like one of his father’s briny lobster traps,” should Silicon Valley want to find a new life for any of those alt-takes.

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Matt Ross (left), Chris Williams
Photo: Ali Page Goldstein (HBO)

And it’s also a move that has ramifications for the last half of the series. When a reporter asks him why he’s not writing about tech, Gavin’s answer is a tirade about the destructive nature of the industry, and it turns out that’s a story MSNBC—and others—are interested in hearing. If other plots of “Maximizing Alphaness” were too mean-spirited, this is the cynicism of Silicon Valley deployed with perfect narrative irony. Richard began this season positioning himself and his company as the answer to Big Tech, the solution to the Hoolis of the world. And now it looks like his moral high ground may have been part of the lowball offer he made to purchase his competitor, handing his soapbox to someone who’s never once shied away from making altruistic promises for his own benefit.

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Stray observations:

  • Gilfoyle’s plot is the simplest part of the episode, as the antisocial programmer forms a potential connection with long-downtrodden data center employee John (first introduced in “Meinertzagen’s Haversack”). Gilfoyle gradually connecting with John over chess games and then deleting his subsequent friend request has more emotional heft than any of the moments where Jared’s family casually dismisses his value to their lives. With Tracy’s earlier observation that she’s seen Gilfoyle-types at five other companies, it’s sad to think he could be around like minds and just chooses not to.
  • This plot also reveals that Gilfoyle’s social media feed is mostly just complaints about Dinesh’s behavior at work. Son of Anton clearly had a lot of content to draw off of in programming its creator’s AI.
  • Nice addition to the opening credits: Pied Piper’s logo has now grown with Hooli shrunken to superscript size at its feet.
  • Big Head continues to spend all of his time with a Simon. It’s appropriate that the character who is ostensibly the most content of the bunch is the one who’s satisfied with this simplest form of technology. And I also suspect that Jian-Yang gave it to him to distract him from whatever Customs and Border Patrol-thwarting scheme being run out of the Hostel.
  • Pied Piper’s office wi-fi password is PiperN3t_4_all.
  • Two punchable offenses this episode: Ethan wears rollerblades in the office, and Gavin takes great pride in writing his manuscript on a 1968 IBM Selectric.
  • “Why’d you just wave him in?” “I don’t know, automatic social shit.”
  • “I am now using touch as a means to communicate friendship.”
  • “You need to assert dominance like Jane Goodall.”
  • This week’s closing track: “First Day Of The Light,” Geto Boys.

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About the author

Les Chappell

Les Chappell is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. He drinks good whiskey and owns too many hats.