Matt Ross (HBO)
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If you elect to think about a season of television as obeying the traditional three-act structure, Silicon Valley is having a disappointing second act. The first part of the season promised a new frontier for the show as the iconoclasts of Pied Piper had to learn to navigate the waters of respectability and the temperament of CEO “Action” Jack, and since then it’s backpedaled aggressively from that structure to return to its original framework. Plots have focused on classic misunderstandings and stock romance difficulties, and while it’s been funny it’s also overly familiar, lacking the spark of the initial arc.

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Thankfully, “To Build A Better Beta” is the episode that looks to set up a third act with a much different set of stakes. The events of the episode are largely to be expected—some inter-team feuding, Richard’s ego warring with his better instincts, Gavin’s continued journey to supervillain status—but it leaves things in a position where the main character outright says everything is going to change at this point. By the end of this episode the platform that Pied Piper fought tooth and nail to build is ready to launch, and the company is heading for new frontiers, potentially without one of its founding members.

That missing member is Erlich, who experiences a non-stop downward spiral following the disclosure in “Bachmanity Insanity” that all of Big Head’s money is gone. Erlich goes on a warpath to figure out how his golden ticket evaporated and cover his Alcatraz luau invoices, dragging a bemused Big Head along for the ride. T.J. Miller and Josh Brener remain a great comedic team, as Erlich’s need to suck up all the oxygen in the room balances with Big Head’s confusion about what room he’s even in. (“Sorry.” “Don’t apologize to him!” “Oh, right. Sorry.”) Yet despite knowing where the money went and exactly where the missing fiberglass tiki head is—it’s at the bottom of the bay, if the Coast Guard would only get off their ass—he’s got no way to retrieve either, and a fair amount of people calling for his head in exchange. (Big Head, true to form, skirts the fallout and gets to keep two cannonballs as souvenirs.)

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Ken Lerner, T.J. Miller (HBO)

It’s an interesting position for the show to place Erlich. Throughout all of Silicon Valley Erlich has stood as the titan of braggadocio, able to bounce back from all his humiliations thanks to his impenetrable hubris and occasional flashes of insight (and legendary riffing capabilities). But now he’s in a position that he can’t bluff or buy his way out of, and the awareness that he’s in trouble is clear. The district attorney makes it clear that he’s an entitled white guy who won’t get a shred of pity for squandering his fortune, and C.J. makes it equally clear that his owning the blog won’t stop her from reporting on him as the same. Erlich got himself entirely into this mess, and the lifeline will require him to sacrifice the one thing he’s held close since the show started: his ten percent of the one product of his incubator that managed to succeed.

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On the Pied Piper front, the focus is back on the platform which has thrived in its new environment, so much so that it’s now ready for a beta testing route. It manages to accelerate its development while still keeping it accessible to the non-tech viewer, and manages to skirt complications by being more about how the team reacts to it than by what it actually does. Richard is so burned by past experiences that he doesn’t want the program to see the light of day until it’s absolutely ready, and Dinesh winds up chagrined by the process once he realizes he doesn’t have any friends to invite. Again, the beats are largely familiar ones, particularly in Dinesh’s case. After last episode kicked Dinesh around for his shallowness and left him without romantic prospects yet again, a second plot about his status as a social reject comes across as unnecessarily cruel.

Uncovering Dinesh’s lies do lead the story to a more promising point as they track the beta to unexpected locations. The first plot, where they learn that Gavin’s security expert has gotten a hold of a Pied Piper beta key, is a terrific win for the boys over Hooli’s forces of evil. After Gilfoyle spent so much time advising Richard down the left-hand path, it’s supremely rewarding to see the student become the master. (Richard: “Is shutting down this guy’s account really the worst thing you can think of to do to him?” Gilfoyle: “Oh my God, where the fuck is my head.”) And with Gavin’s behavior growing more deplorable every week—expanding now to include monitoring employee emails—it’s entirely too satisfying to see his personal electronics fried, his office powered down, and his technical staff leaving right after he’s asked for a full rebuild of the system.

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Amanda Crew (HBO)

The other surprising beta user is Monica, revealed to be using it after she said she hadn’t gotten around to it. Richard tracks her down for her opinion, which turns out to be the only negative one of the entire product. Here the action stutters a bit, as Monica’s speech to Richard about how his opinions are the only ones he should trust falls flat. Richard’s been something of a dick since his victory over Jack, and for him to be told by a lot of people his platform is great, one person to tell him no, and then to ignore that one person and plow ahead feels like Gavin-level hubris. It’s an approach that could work under the right circumstances, but it feels off in this one, a move designed to push the story forward and get the product out the door. (And once again, I echo my request for Monica to have something to do beyond offering Richard support and constructive criticism.)

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Then again, given how mindful Silicon Valley is about the lesser details—Erlich’s prior decision to keep his Pied Piper shares out of Bachmanity winds up being the thing to save him from its collapse—it could be that Monica’s claim about the platform being too engineered will be the major issue to form the next obstacle. The episode ends on an optimistic note that’s strangely counterintuitive for a show driven by the next worst-case scenario, an excited huddle and a cut to black as Richard pushes the launch button. Maybe next week it’ll be revealed that some critical thing was missed, or that Monica’s hesitations mirror the world’s, or that Laurie has some unexpected plan that owning Erlich’s stake lets her put into play. Either way, here’s hoping the next big thing isn’t far off on the horizon.

Stray observations:

  • This week’s closing track: “Raw,” San Holo.
  • Some fun callbacks this week: Monica’s wearing the beige sweater she wore the last time she came to the house to deliver bad news, and Erlich’s eating the same poppy seed muffin Jack offered him on their first meeting. It’s also the first appearance of Gilfoyle’s long-distance girlfriend Tara since season one’s “Third-Party Insourcing,” and time has not removed Dinesh’s discomfort around her.
  • More evidence of Jared’s cocksman abilities, as all of the names he adds to his beta invite list are women.
  • Gavin’s new security guy is great. He’s like an adorable puppy with shady tech skills.
  • Jared wins the quote game this week. “I went through your records, at first a bit voyeuristically.” “I don’t want to count our chickens before they hatch, as three percent of hatchlings are born mutated or dead.” “When I was little, I used to pretend I shared a room with Harriet Tubman and we were always planning our big escape.”
  • Gilfoyle on Pied Piper: “It’s a promising compression company that doesn’t pay very well.”
  • Monica passed on Slack. “I didn’t get it. I still don’t get it! What is it, is it email, is it a chat room?”
  • “It makes you wonder if the word Hooli has any meaning for these people whatsoever.”
  • “The history of humanity is a book written in blood. We’re all just animals in a pit.”
  • “Gentlemen, I just realized that I’ve forgotten to take a shit.”
  • Big thanks to Vikram covering for me last week while I was on vacation. This guy fucks!

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