Thomas Middleditch (HBO)
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There’s a moment towards the end of “Daily Active Users” where Richard Hendricks is at a point lower than he’s ever been. Not for the physical circumstances of being curled up in Erlich’s bathtub, hair touching a drain that desperately needs cleaning, but for the absolute weariness in his revelation to Jared that he’s decided to liquidate Pied Piper. “I’m getting tired of getting kicked in the balls,” he says, going down the list of obstacles that he’s gone against in the last three seasons. His company on the verge of failure, his only employees the original founders, and there’s so immediate salvation in sight—for what feels like the umpteenth time.

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It’s that sense of “second verse, same as the first” constant failure that keeps the action of “Daily Active Users” at arms’ length. While the episode is as ruthlessly funny and well-constructed as any good Silicon Valley episode, the sense that it’s trapping our characters in a never-ending cycle of failure and frustration is getting harder to swallow. Yes, comedies depend on a certain sense of status quo to function, but even the equally cynical Sunday night HBO comedy Veep found a way to keep Selina Meyer as president for more than one episode. In Silicon Valley there’s a cycle the team seems incapable of breaking: no victory is permanent, no achievement good enough, and no mistake goes unpunished.

Keeping to the latter dictum, the latest headache for Richard and company comes from Monica’s judgement in “To Build A Better Beta” that she didn’t “get” the platform. It turns out to be a prophetic statement as it’s not catching on with their users, and only 16,000 of the half million who have downloaded it are using it on a regular basis. Efforts to get to the bottom of this—including the welcome return of the focus group from last season’s “Homicide”—reveal that the platform is so far advanced that it’s over the heads of your average Joe (or Bernice or Clark) who only want to know why their files aren’t showing up in any of the ways they’re used to. It’s a reveal that suddenly makes all this conflict between tech bigwigs the show’s centered around seem trivial, the worldview of the Silicon Valley universe myopic to the struggles of anyone who isn’t in it.

All credit to Richard though as he realizes his error the instant it’s put into words, and rather than screaming and breaking things Gavin Belson-style he decides to barge in and address their concerns directly. Here’s where Silicon Valley goes in an unexpected direction, as while events look to be heading for more Richard mortification—as Monica clearly expects it to—it turns out that Richard is able to explain the platform. Thomas Middleditch is so often only asked to play spastic or frustrated that it’s a welcome change of pace to see him genuinely engaged, pushing past their confused Terminator analogies and converting eggs to electrons. It’s almost enough to think the happy ending for this series is Richard checking out of this industry completely, deciding he’s better off teaching his theories to a like-minded group and hoping they’ll be the ones to crack the system.

Unfortunately for Richard, this success leads to him thinking he’s figured it out, and he decides to reorient the company to explain how awesome the system in. Director Alec Berg perfectly stacks this failure in an epic downward spiral montage, the needle of Pied Piper’s value dropping as its user tally stubbornly refuse to budge. The pacing is excellent here as things get steadily worse for the company, Richard’s pitch keeping fewer and fewer people in the seats, the company’s engineers bleeding away—Jared conducting their exit interviews on the walk to the car—and Dinesh and Gilfoyle going to increasingly low-budget venues. It’s hard to concoct an image that conveys failure as much as the two sitting in front of a Radio Shack, offering demos in exchange for a $5.00 Subway coupon.

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Or at least it would be, if the episode didn’t give us the terrifying gift of Pipey. The desperate search for some way to appeal to the lowest common denominator pushes Richard back to the ad agency, and their response is to create a hybrid of the Microsoft Office paper clip and Navi from The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time. Beyond its shrill tone and cartoonish appearance that not even Jared can enthusiastically back, it further underlines how difficult their messaging is: “Let me walk you through Pied Piper’s proprietary peer-to-peer contract distribution system!” Small wonder that it sends Richard to the bathtub, the realization that all his grand ideas and belief in being the one company to break the mold are shattered by the realization that what he built is something only a few people want.

Interwoven with the failure of Pied Piper is the success of Hooli, the two companies’ fates evidently on the same cosmic teeter-totter. One of Richard’s former employees looks for a job at Hooli, Gavin catches wind of it, and suddenly he has leverage with the Hooli board that ousted him last week. Welcome returns continue as not only does Jack Barker join Hooli as Endframe’s new head of product, he resurrects his original vision for the box and his deal with Maleant. It’s a development that makes perfect sense to the narrative, Gavin and Jack being shrewd enough to appropriate the debris of the data compression turf war and turn a quick profit in a way the idealistic Richard continually refused to do. (Plus, it gives us another sight gag of Maleant’s server labyrinth, trapping the CEOs in cartoonish fashion.) Gavin isn’t bothered by the lofty ideals of others, he’s moved by profits and profile, and the comfort to trot his board out in front of an elephant and remind them just who’s in charge again.

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But as much as Silicon Valley toys with the idea that Richard and his company might fail entirely, it still manages to find a path to keep things afloat. That same employee who spilled the beans to Gavin also gives Pied Piper an out by sarcastically saying buying users is the only way to drive numbers up, and of all people it’s Jared who takes that unethical leap. Jared’s always been depicted as the most earnest and sincere of the Pied Piper team, but he’s also the one who is a true believer in the company even more than Richard. For him to sell his soul with this artifical success and lie to the team about it somehow makes things even more depressing than they were as this point last season—and remember, that ended with Jared indirectly almost killing a guy.

And like that poor maintenance technician, Pied Piper seems to be clinging to life. Jared’s bought them some time with his lie—one Gilfoyle’s willing to let slide in a good payoff to the running gag of his lie detector abilities—but it’s a lie dependent on their limited funds and no one looking too closely at a time of highest scrutiny. If this season of Silicon Valley has taught us anything, it’s that even the most stable of foundations collapse, and this one feels about as unstable as they get. With the season finale next week, let’s see if they can survive the latest round of crises, or if Pipey’s cheerful tune is the company’s death knell.

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Stray observations:

  • This week’s closing track: No music, merely the remorseless click-clack of the room full of users that Jared paid to keep the company afloat.
  • The opening Pied Piper commercial is a thing of beauty, so blandly inoffensive in its stock footage construction and laughably disconnected from common sense in its voiceover that it may as well be a product of Better Off Ted’s Veridian Dynamics. And it’s capped off perfectly by Laurie’s reaction to it. “Yes. Tables, I see. It’s a metaphor.”
  • Laurie is at peak Laurie this week, between saying “clink” repeatedly as opposed to actually clinking her glass to get peoples’ attention and her bizarre home decor options. Erlich on a portrait: “Is that your dog?” Laurie: “It’s a dog.”
  • Apparently WPromote is a real advertising agency. Kudos to them for having enough sense of humor about their industry to participate.
  • Some great early physical comedy from Zach Woods as Jared tries to dodge Gilfoyle’s ruthless lie detector, looking increasingly like a gazelle who knows he’s the weakest member of the herd.
  • Another weekly reminder that Dinesh is the worst as he tries to talk up his Pied Piper contributions at Laurie’s party: “The video chat app, that’s my solo album.”
  • The plus side of Pied Piper’s outreach program is they’re finally able to get rid of the pile of company swag Russ got them to buy back in “The Lady.”
  • Erlich’s efforts to move on from his collapse have turned him into a decidedly dark individual. On Pied Piper’s recent last-minute save: “Of course inevitably we will run out of fuel and plummet towards the earth, leaving only a crater behind of torn flesh and excrement.”
  • “We are so far past the download button!”
  • “Early Bugs Bunny cartoons were just garish displays of anti-Japanese hysteria. And now he’s the face of Warner Bros.”

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