Thomas Middleditch
Photo: Ali Page Goldstein (HBO)

At the start of season five, I argued that Silicon Valley was staring at a lot of obstacles, thanks to a somewhat unmoored fourth season and associated real-world debacles. And now looking at the season as a whole, it’s been a mixed bag in terms of working around those roadblocks. T.J. Miller’s absence proved to be no detriment to the storytelling, but none of the secondary characters truly broke out to capitalize on that absence. The satire tackled some real-life Valley hotter topics with data theft and artificial intelligence, but continued to dodge the more problematic aspects of the area’s oft-toxic gender politics. And while the team moved into a new setting, the upgrade didn’t provide the hoped-for narrative spark, and the show continued season four’s sense of bouncing around narratively.

On that latter point, season five still feels like a positive step for Silicon Valley, because it finally committed to the success of Pied Piper. While there was still no shortage of risks the writers allowed Richard and company to enjoy their newfound legitimacy, digging into their new offices and employee structure, and not forced back into living room reset mode when things got difficult. To borrow a phrase, it bought in without selling its soul, retaining its sense of humor and not feeling substantively different as a result of those changes. And that spirit has helped the season end on a high note, starting with “Initial Coin Offering” and continuing into “Fifty-One Percent.”

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The success of “Fifty-One Percent” is due to a wide variety of factors. First of all is the fact that showrunner Alec Berg, who wrote and directed the finale, understands that Silicon Valley is at its best when it’s full of nothing-to-lose caper energy. Some of the series’s best episodes—“Optimal Tip-To-Tip Efficiency,” “Two In The Box,” “Meinertzagen’s Haversack,” “Hooli-Con”—are the episodes where desperation fuels inspiration, the team actually working as a team and resorting to unconventional methods to reach the next phase of their evolution. Last year’s finale “Server Error” tried for that level of energy but misstepped by its reliance on a surprise twist, the algorithm serving as literal deus ex machine to save them rather than any real effort on their part.

In this case however, it’s all about effort. After two months in a low-activity purgatory—a rare time jump for Silicon Valley that does a great job of showing how bad things have gotten since the launch, as well as letting us see Thomas Middleditch and Kumail Nanjiani in grizzled prospector mode—user numbers are finally climbing to the point that the team feels like celebrating, complete with loud yells and shitty karaoke. However, some lingering unease about the source of the users sets off a chain reaction as newly installed CFO Monica (check the site, it’s official) starts digging, and her disquiet spreads to Gilfoyle and Jared. It’s Monica’s first outing as an official member of the team, and her comfort in trading ideas and curses and threats is such that once again you ask why it took so long.

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The disquiet turns out to be well-founded as the team learns of Yao’s new Internet, built on the back of Jian-Yang’s stolen code and being funded by Laurie Bream. That assemblage of threat is another point of success, as the Silicon Valley team remains expert at building a conflict out of seemingly tossed-off plot pieces scattered throughout the episodes. Temporary victories have come at a cost, a collection of missteps and burnt bridges coming together to create an enemy that’s flanking the company. And the potential end makes for some delicious irony: Richard’s idea for a new Internet is built on the idea of the majority being in control, and now the slimmest of majorities could cost him everything.

Photo: Ali Page Goldstein (HBO)

But there’s also a potential solution in those scattered plot points. Colin was forced out of K-Hole Games in exactly the same way Laurie once forced out Richard, and he’s brought a game to Richard that could give them the users they need. And when he goes off the grid for some “camping” amidst all the yuppies who are beta testing Burning Man gear, Dinesh’s Tesla obsession gives the company the necessary momentum to reach him in time. It helps create the race-against-time vibe that’s distinguished past Silicon Valley finales, that feeling that they’re forever racing against a deadline to keep what’s theirs. And it pairs up Jared and Dinesh, which is a team that we don’t get to see that often.

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After so many last-minute failures, Richard isn’t going to rely on just one solution to his problems, and “Fifty-One Percent” smartly returns to the conflict that’s driven the show since the start. Bemoaning the ego that’s led him to turn on fellow CEOs, Richard realizes there’s one CEO whose ego is even bigger and even more bruised than his. Gavin’s investment in the Box has failed across the board, and the weakened Hooli is now considering an offer from Amazon that will—ironically—box Gavin out of his company yet again. It’s a great demonstration of how far Richard has come, brushing off Gavin’s expectation that he’s going to be the old idealistic Richard and appealing instead to the other man’s sense of spite.

It even seems to do the trick, right up until Gavin proves himself the scorpion to Richard’s frog and turns his control around to leverage a partnership with Yao. Here’s where “Fifty-One Percent” manages to surprise the viewer—not with the sudden but inevitable betrayal, but with Richard’s reaction to it. Richard’s lofty aspirations are now largely quashed by his tics and rages, but his pleas to Gavin not to destroy his network have a ring of sincerity that’s been a rare thing to hear in his voice of late. Is the Richard who only wanted to build a music copyright app still there, and does Silicon Valley have more sympathy for the dreamers than previously expected?

Photo: Ali Page Goldstein (HBO)

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The answer? “Kiss my piss.” Silicon Valley has shown more resolve than expected in sticking to its changes this year, and the evolution/devolution of Richard Hendrix is no different. You don’t get to succeed in this world without being ruthless to protect your creations, and if you have to weaponize whatever expectations people have of you, so be it. All his great talk was nothing more than stalling, holding Gavin off from pulling the trigger until he could do it himself. Of all the victories Richard’s won, this may be his most satisfying one yet, knowing his enemy’s weaknesses and his enemy’s perception of his own weaknesses. The learner has become the master, and a master of evil to boot, strolling out of the house and tossing a bowl of ice cream to the ground in the world’s sweetest mic drop.

And it’s a success that looks to reverberate through however much life is left in the series. In a smart callback to the darkly funny cold open of “Grow Fast or Die Slow,” Monica leads the team to an unseen new office location, only this time it’s a massive four-story affair they’ve got the demand to fill. Pied Piper now holds legit claim to being a giant slayer, beating rivals up to and including Hooli at their own game, and gaining the attention of every developer (and government agency) out there. The world of the closed-off office is gone, and now they can grow as much as they need—whether or not Richard has anything left in his stomach.

“Fifty-One Percent” is a strong close to a season, proving that change has finally come to Silicon Valley. While the show isn’t hitting its highest marks, it’s decisively moved past any concerns that Miller’s departure would cripple the comedic alchemy or that it couldn’t work if the company was successful. It’s unclear if the next year will be the last—Mike Judge spoke of a six-season plan but the renewal contained no “final season” language—but regardless of how much future it has left, Silicon Valley feels a lot more encouraging than it did at this point last year.

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Stray observations:

  • The MVP of the episode has to be Thomas Middleditch’s physical comedy. His “kiss my piss” dance in front of Colin, his gasping post-run twitches, and the sheer joy he takes in the justly earned victory over Gavin are all aces. It could only be better if he was wearing that Pied Piper costume for the entire episode.
  • My one quibble with the finale: looks like Jian-Yang’s moving back to America and back into the house. Ugh. This season took broader steps toward making him more relevant to the rest of the narrative, but in the end he’s just not a fun character to spend time watching.
  • So... Gilfoyle and Monica, maybe? It doesn’t have any romantic shades—more of a mutual respect than anything else—but it’s still more emotion than we’ve ever seen Gilfoyle show to another human being. And unfortunately, the law of long-running sitcom inertia means unattached leads get paired up at some point, and this one at least has the virtue of being unexpected. Richard would be lazy writing, Jared would be too obvious (this guy fucks!), and Dinesh would be sad. Weigh in below if you’re on Team #Gilfonica.
  • Poor Holden. The darkness that lurks under Jared’s banality finally found a target, and the resulting walking nervous breakdown is the result. And Jared couldn’t be prouder. “I just chipped away everything that wasn’t ‘Richard’s Assistant’ and this is what’s left!”
  • It’s been a good season for callbacks. This week Gilfoyle polishes off the Pappy Van Winkle he got as recruiter swag when EndFrame tried to hire him in “Meinertzagen’s Haversack,” Dinesh returns to his karaoke standby of Crispian St. Peter’s from “Bachman’s Earnings Over-Ride,” and Code/Rag is the publication that breaks the news of Yao’s deal with Laurie.
  • “I find parades to be impotent displays of authoritarianism.”
  • “The Inuit are surprisingly adept at collective bargaining.”
  • “Why are people who aren’t refugees choosing to come here and live like refugees?”
  • “I find this uninteresting. Can we proceed?”
  • “We will tell Jeff Bezos you say hello.”
  • And that’s it for season five. Thanks for reading everybody! I’ll see you next year when season six boots up. Until then, here’s one last closing track: “Getaway,” Uncle Walt’s Band.

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