Jimmy O. Yang and T.J Miller of Silicon Valley (Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO)

Note: This essay discusses plot points from last night’s season finale of Silicon Valley.

Last month, HBO announced that T.J. Miller would be leaving Silicon Valley, a decision greeted with about as much optimism as Shelley Long leaving Cheers, if Diane had been a bong-ripping walrus of a man who talked about jerking off constantly. Beloved TV characters departing shows while they’re still successful is nothing new (if still rare enough I had to reach back to the hoary old Cheers example). But the loss of Erlich Bachman feels especially pivotal for Silicon Valley: How can this show soldier on without a character who seems so key to its dynamics—and should it? And furthermore, why would Miller just up and leave behind what seems destined to be his most iconic role, depending on how The Emoji Movie shakes out?

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To that last point, we’d normally have to suffer through years of pat PR statements about amicable departures before getting to the real dirt. But because Miller is only a couple of shades removed from his character, he gave an exit interview to The Hollywood Reporter that—in classic Erlich fashion—is unusually candid to the point of insulting, but also appreciably straightforward. There’s the expected stuff about time commitments and making room for family, but the most striking thing about it is Miller’s belief—wrapped up in his apparent distaste for producer Alec Berg and the traditional sitcom model he represents—that removing Erlich will simply make Silicon Valley a better show.

“I thought it would be really interesting if suddenly they were able to rid themselves of him,” Miller says. “If they had truly had enough of him, which is what they’re always saying, then why wouldn’t he just exit? What if they’re really suddenly like, he’s gone? Now what? Who does Richard have to complain about? Who is fucking up their situation? Where is that confidence in the show? Where is that blowhard that everybody needs?”

Silicon Valley’s cyclical nature has been a constant criticism since nearly the beginning, as has the observation that the whole thing is, essentially, Entourage for nerds. That’s a glib but not entirely unfounded comparison. Both shows are about a group of guys whose tenuous, persistently ball-busting version of friendship is based on the mutual pursuit of success, directed according to the whims of one frustratingly temperamental ringleader. (If you really want to get apples-to-apples about it, Erlich, with his pot-addled pursuits of get-rich-quick schemes and his aptitude for hurling abuse, is basically a Turtle and Ari hybrid. But the comparisons kind of fall apart there.)

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Like Entourage’s Sisyphean struggle over whether Vince will do the movie, Silicon Valley follows a repetitive roundelay of success and setback that Miller neatly sums up for THR: “I just thought that what the show has suffered from, what’s bad about it, is that Richard [Thomas Middleditch] is the CEO and then he isn’t but then he finds his way back to be CEO, and then once he finds his way back to being the CEO he says he doesn’t want to be the CEO, and it’s just the same thing over and over.” By removing himself, Miller hopes he will finally, irrevocably disrupt that cycle.

Whether losing Erlich will be enough to permanently change the pattern is obviously too soon to tell—although creator Mike Judge, in a separate interview, suggests that this year’s “win” will actually stick this time, with Pied Piper at last making “that really big play that would take them to the end of the series.” But it’s worth noting that this supposedly pivotal victory also felt really familiar, promising a full reset to the war with Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) that defined Silicon Valley’s earliest seasons. Meanwhile, Richard’s slide into Zuckerbergian megalomania, a character arc that’s been telegraphed since we first saw Middleditch in a hoodie, seems to be momentarily forestalled yet again, even as Judge hints that Richard’s inevitable corruption will continue to be central to the rest of the show.

In fact, the only thing that felt truly game-changing here was Erlich’s exit, which saw him abandoned in Tibet to spend the next five years stoned, giggling at the name “Big Head.” And despite Miller’s promises that this was really the perfect, “organic” way for Erlich to leave, it really only felt climactic, in any sense, because of the behind-the-scenes context. Unless the series finale reveals that this entire thing has just been Erlich’s Once Upon A Time In America-like opium dream, what we’re left with is an amusing, arguably in-character, yet frustratingly inconsequential end to someone who was once arguably the show’s co-lead.

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Which is a shame. Miller is correct that Erlich felt increasingly tangential of late, particularly as compared to the Jobs/Wozniak jostling with Richard that defined Silicon Valley at its beginning. But not having a clearly defined role also freed Erlich up to be its most unpredictable element. This season in particular seemed to be feinting toward some actual, unexpected growth for Erlich, who was humbled enough by his complete uselessness to beg for a job at Bream-Hall. And it saw his tried-and-true practice of being the biggest negging dick in the room briefly land him on top of the world, only to be bested again by Keenan Feldspar (Haley Joel Osment)—the laid-back surfer yang to Erlich’s hostile, loutish yin within the Tao of bullshit.

Erlich’s existential crisis only deepened those glimpses of insecurity that have always redeemed him amid so much frat-house bluster, and it would have been interesting to see that lead to some actual evolution. Especially compared to the joke of where we left him—essentially reducing Erlich to a human Poochie, headed back to his home planet in a haze of drugs.

Matt Ross and T.J. Miller in Silicon Valley (Photo: John P. Johnson/HBO)

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I recognize that, for some, Erlich Bachman was every bit as polarizing for his own, proactive methods of getting biz-zay—and that to many who are nevertheless still watching the show, he won’t be missed. Erlich, like Miller himself, traffics in a swaggering obnoxiousness that some people find grating, like the three-beers-in churlishness and propensity for pompous monologues of every blowhard roommate you’ve ever had, magnified by having a team of professional writers giving a polished articulateness to his bluster. (If they ever get around to making that A Confederacy Of Dunces movie, T.J. Miller is this generation’s lock.) And even I’d be hard-pressed to argue that he’s the show’s funniest character, especially these days; Miller himself acknowledges that the honor belongs to Zach Woods’ Jared, who continues to yield details from his childhood at a Dickensian rate of compounded misery, and who recently added a split personality to his vast repertoire of cheery psychological damage.

Still, even if Jared forever slipped into Ed Chambers and embarked upon a reign of lunch-eating terror, he wouldn’t fill the precise void being left behind by Erlich. In his THR interview, Miller points out that the show similarly had to deal with the sudden loss of Christopher Evan Welch, “who was 10 times funnier than I am,” but that ultimately it “found a way to pivot.” Of course, that “pivot” was the introduction of Suzanne Cryer’s Laurie Bream, who is essentially just a female version of Welch’s hyper-intelligent extraterrestrial.

Silicon Valley could arguably pull the same trick with any of the other characters who embody Erlich’s know-nothing, say-anything side of the technology business, from Osment’s Keenan to Chris Diamantopoulos’ Russ Hanneman, who seems as invested in actual innovation as he is in swapping out the Crazy Town CD in his car. But unlike those guys, Erlich demonstrated the limitations of that with such Falstaffian joy that you both laughed at his self-inflicted blunders and felt sympathy for him, even as he, say, punches out a little kid. Erlich was nakedly nihilistic in his self-serving ambitions and bluntly honest about his need to manipulate others to achieve them for him. Making all that seem humanly vulnerable and endearing is something that’s not easily replicated, even if you do find a foulmouthed woman who likes weed and porn.

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And while Erlich might not be as integral to the story now that Richard is growing more comfortable with fucking people over, he repeatedly made the case for assholes exactly like him—a crucial part of a business that relies so much on packaging and posturing, which Erlich understood better than anyone. “If you’re not an asshole, it creates this kind of asshole vacuum and that void is filled by other assholes, like Jared,” Erlich mused early on. The trajectory of the show has long been pointing us toward Richard—not Erlich, not Jared—ultimately fulfilling Erlich’s prophecy, with Erlich, along with Gavin, Russ, Jack Barker, et al. serving as the moral red line Richard dare not cross.

But with Erlich gone—along with the loss of one of the great mutually assured destruction comedy duos in his Laurel-and-Hardy-esque feud with Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang); along with not having anybody who can freewheel insults like the Miles Davis of dickishness—Silicon Valley doesn’t just have an asshole vacuum that won’t be so easily filled, even if Richard does eventually complete that metamorphosis. It also loses any chance to have Erlich complete his evolution as Richard’s moral counterweight, becoming the inverse of Richard’s own selfishness the way Erlich’s occasional flashes of humanity always promised.

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Achieving that insight might have given some meaning to the Buddhist cycle of death and rebirth the show has long been trapped in; instead, like Erlich, it ends up this close to a place where it might have achieved enlightenment, only to retreat back inside its bubble. Ending Erlich’s run like that might be funny in the short term, but right now it’s hard to argue it will make Silicon Valley a better show.