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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Silicon Valley: “Binding Arbitration”

Ben Feldman, Thomas Middleditch (HBO)
Ben Feldman, Thomas Middleditch (HBO)
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One of the finest achievements of this season of Silicon Valley—aside from the extended awkward mariachi scene and the masturbating cyborg monkey—has been the way that they’ve been able to build continuity. Season one went by so quickly, and was dealing with so many other concerns after the death of Christopher Evan Welch, that there wasn’t time to go beyond a basic arc from. This year, with more time to play and a more confident storytelling voice, they’ve been able to set things up in a way where they don’t have to pay off in the same scene or even in the same episode. Take the creation of EndFrame: introduced in “Runaway Devaluation” as simply another sign of how far Pied Piper’s star had fallen, they came back to become simultaneously their biggest rival and shot at salvation.

“Binding Arbitration” is an episode with two more details that could have been throwaway—a Nucleus beta and a Pied Piper livestream—engineered into major plot devices that bring the two companies into a final showdown. That sense of narrative payoff, combined with the ever-sharp dialogue and buildup to two horrifying punchlines, help make it one of the best episodes of Silicon Valley to date.

In the most blatantly ripped-from-the-headlines plotline Silicon Valley’s yet engaged in, Hooli’s brogrammers pull a Gray Powell and leave their phone with the Nucleus beta at the bar right in front of Big Head—the same phone that sent Dr. Bannerchek running for the hills the minute he got a look at what he’d signed up for. Josh Brener hasn’t gotten to do much of anything this season beyond look stunned, so it’s rewarding to see he’s actually capable of being proactive, inviting Richard onto his boat and being the one to see his old friend’s opportunity. It even leads to a moment of self-awareness not seen since “The Cap Table,” admitting he’s completely useless and has no idea why he keeps getting promoted. (He does only have three classes left for his boat license though, which is something.)

Possession of the phone lets Richard fire his next salvo at Hooli, one that leads Gavin to promise sexual acts with brutal dental repercussions. While the war over Richard’s algorithm was originally cast as another battlefield in the long-standing war between Gavin Belson and Peter Gregory, season two has done the right work to shift the personal aspect rather than dispensing with it in the wake of Peter’s death. Gavin’s inability to quash Pied Piper has only made him angrier at its very existence, and the constant escalation of problems leaves Richard feeling increasingly singled out. The two CEOs feel like equals here for the first time, right down to the lawyers who cut their clients off once the dick-swinging and veiled threats lead to an impasse.

Ron also secures them an attorney willing to work on spec—or rather, someone who used to be an attorney and can only appear in a circumstance that isn’t technically a trial. Here’s where you’d expect another Russ Hanneman type, someone so incompetent and blustery that it’s played for the broadest of laughs and leaves Richard feeling ever more doomed. Yet Pete Monahan, played by Matt McCoy, is anything but. He’s upfront about the literal and emotional ravine he thew himself into (“Did I have sexual intercourse with two women under the age of 18? Repeatedly”), but still comports himself both in research and in front of the judge as a professional. And it’s his eye for detail that leads him to realize something that not even Richard caught—when his “girlfriend” (or laptop) was in the shop for three days, he did in fact use a Hooli computer for one test of Pied Piper.

That adds a layer of threat to the arbitration, as Hooli plays its Big Head strategy and Erlich pushes for the freedom to opine in a quasi-court of law. Both of the testimonies are full of great comedic moments, first watching Big Head try to interpret the legal double-talk that Hooli’s lawyers throw at him, and then again when Monahan puts Erlich on the stand to destroy as a way of poking holes in Big Head’s credibility. It uses the skills of both actors well, particularly T.J. Miller, who’s never better than he is in the moments where Erlich is pushed into a bind. And it creates a feeling of great comedic dread when his sputtering and desire to turn a situation to his advantage highlights the matter of the laptop, one that Hooli’s attorneys pounce on in so quick fashion you can hear the mousetrap closing over Richard’s neck.

Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods, T.J. Miller (HBO)
Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods, T.J. Miller (HBO)

Last week, several commenters shared their frustrations with Richard as a character, arguing that his continual sputtering and bad decisions showed little to no character growth. I share several of those concerns—especially after his desire to clear the air led to a hot of shouts of “skull-fuck”—but the way Richard comports himself on the stand highlights the true nature of the character and rises above the on-the-nose speech he gives about doing the right thing. Richard’s spent so much of this season trying to be something he’s not—assertive like Russ, cutthroat like EndFrame—and every time he’s tried that it’s blown up in his face. Maybe the failure of his company proves that this isn’t what he’s supposed to be doing, and maybe this was a game he was never able to play. It’s a highly dark interpretation, though “Binding Arbitration” masterfully gets out of that mood when Erlich thinks he sees a sword to fall on and tries to pretend he’s what they’re referring to: “I was the one in the shop for three days! Because he had hit it so hard I needed a doctor!”


While the legal fate of Pied Piper hangs in the balance, its remaining employees are busy with questions of quantum mechanics related to their one success. The condor egg feed from “Homicide” is still up and running but the egg hasn’t hatched yet, leading Jared to wonder if things are okay. This leads the trio down one of those inimitable Silicon Valley rabbit holes, a discussion of the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment giving Dinesh and Gilfoyle a chance to riff and for Jared to exhibit confusion leading to ever greater worry as he tries to unpack it: “By that logic, anyone who goes to an open-casket funeral is a murderer!” (Dinesh: “You are one dark motherfucker, Jared.”) These three could carry an episode by themselves, and if season three has any budgetary or scheduling issues a bottle episode of the three having a normal work day feels like it should be winner.

If you need an excuse to green-light that episode, look no further than the facial expressions on all three when they watch the final minutes of the livestream. Much as the horror builds once you realize where Erlich’s babbling is going to lead to, the gradual approach of the repair guy to the camera and his difficulty removing it builds a similar dread—one that’s rewarded when he tilts back and the camera goes with him. Jared’s gripped with uncontrolled terror at opening the box in the first place, and Dinesh and Gilfoyle—for all their casual talk about letting Blaine die on their livestream—are utterly without quip in this circumstance. It’s the blackest comedy Silicon Valley has ever engaged in, and raises all the right questions going into the season finale.


Stray observations:

  • This week’s closing track: Portugal. The Man, “Evil Friends” (Jake One Remix)
  • Richard says early in the episode that Pied Piper had to lay off all the new coders they hired recently. Hopefully this doesn’t mean we’ve seen the last of Carla, who hasn’t gotten enough to do since her first episode.
  • Jared’s latest surprising/distressing reveal: he knows that amyl nitrate dilates the anus.
  • Thomas Middleditch gets so much out of that “Goddamnit, I know” reaction to Erlich’s umpteenth reminder that he owns ten percent of the company.
  • The original statement Richard wrote out in preparation for his call: “That is correct, Mister Belson. And I was hoping that perhaps if I help you find said item, you might be inclined to assist me in certain regard.”
  • “Do you have any skill at all, other than magically failing your way to the top?” “I have a boat. Although that’s not really a skill.”
  • “You can’t threaten him. Especially not sexually.”
  • “Triumph of the will!” “You’re the most cheerful person I’ve ever heard quote Hitler.”
  • “That does sound very Austrian.”
  • “I nurtured Richard, like a baby! I was his patron, like the Borgias with Da Vinci!” Now I’m picturing T.J. Miller in The Borgias and the image is delightful.
  • “Are you telling us this entire case hinges on people believing that Richard had a girlfriend?” “We are fucked.”
  • “I was high when he pitched it, and I like nipples!”
  • “Holy shit, Jared. You just killed that guy.”
  • Season finale next week!