For all of its emphasis on looking forward, the tech industry is one that frequently displays a heavy amount of nostalgia. Entrepreneurs and inventors are given to wax poetic about the early days of their company, the days of living in low-rent situations and constructing prototypes in the garage, when they may not have had the resources but they had the feeling that they were doing something important, man. (Or “bro,” depending on the company.) And there’s no question that Silicon Valley shares that sympathy, coming down wholly on the side of the rebels and the start-ups who are trying to make it in an environment where those with the resources are patronizing at best to their penniless dreams.
That sympathy is clearly on display in “The Empty Chair.” Clearly the writers want Richard and company to still be in the position of the underdog because that’s the heroic place for them to be, fighting against the forces of entropy and idiocy that distinguish the successful. Much of the episode is an aggressive move to get us back to that position, and while it does that job in a way that makes sense it also does so with such speed it raises questions why a chunk of what happened to date in the season happened. And by dipping deeper into the cringe comedy pool than ever before, it also raises questions as to whether or not stepping back is the right decision for a Richard who still has a lot to learn.
Pied Piper’s return to their bare bones days is one that’s presented out of necessity, as their original cash influx from Raviga has been burned through thanks to office expenses and Jack’s severance package. Abandoning the box means that they don’t have a product ready for market to unlock the next stage of their funding, a move which illustrates that for all their gripes with him Jack knew what he was doing. Richard’s stratagem to deal with this makes sense on paper—downsize the staff to the core engineers until there’s something to market, save office space by relocating back to Erlich’s living room—but it also comes at cross-purposes to a lot of where this season has gone. As Erik Adams observed in his pre-air review, Silicon Valley is a show that needs to grow past its roots to truly satirize the industry, and going back to running the company from an overcrowded table feels like a retreat to the comfort zone.
“The Empty Chair” tries to match the step back with a step forward, as Richard realizes he’s the ranking officer of Pied Piper and is capable of making decisions. However, it balances that out with his continual seething frustrations that he’s not the officer, with Jan the Man wondering why he hasn’t been fired either various blog posts about candidate meetings raising his old frustrations about not being CEO. As much as Richard as talked at length about his lofty goals for his platform and a desire to be a genuine company, the one way he’s gradually become like Gavin and the other CEOs is the growth of his ego. He’s frustrated with everyone: the sales team, the bloggers, Raviga, and the receptionist who points him to the small conference room. Of course he knows where it is!
Except that he doesn’t. He walks right into the big conference room and proceeds to let off steam to what he thinks is a safe audience, in what may be the most excruciating thing to air on HBO since the agony of “Valerie Is Brought To Her Knees.” It’s immediately obvious to the viewer what’s going on here—Silicon Valley having conditioned its audience to expect the worst—but not obvious to Richard, and it keeps going to make the aired grievances more and more damning to his odds of ever being taken seriously ever again. And the creative team makes it even worse for Richard by crosscutting between Laurie and Monica discussing the merits of giving him the title back, only to immediately disprove their arguments with an Erlich-level tirade on “the Laurietron 6000.” The entire thing is excruciating to watch in the right ways, and of course Thomas Middleditch puts on a show of epically spastic proportions as he vents, realizes what he’s done, and tries to block traffic in an effort to spike the story.
It’s so terrible for Richard’s future that of course it has to find a way to reverse itself, which comes from that unlikeliest of resources. Big Head knowing about the search engine re-optimization Gavin ordered back in “Two In The Box” is a move that makes sense narratively—“Two Days Of The Condor” proved that all of Gavin’s terrible decisions will come around to bite him at some point—and it sets up another snafu that Gavin is sure to make worse as he tries to fix it. However, the way it comes up and the degree to which it saves Richard is less elegant than similar reveals, Big Head just happening to say it at the right moment to save Richard. It’s not bad per se, but it paints Richard’s latest hassle as flimsier than expected.
It’s the most productive thing that Big Head does this week, as Erlich continues to run ramshod over his partner. Erlich’s at his most intolerable this week, ruining two juicers in as many days, refusing to consider his shares of Pied Piper in their joint resources pool, and behaving like he’s being magnanimous in his self-centered approach. Currently being held off thanks to Big Head having a finance guy in addition to his boat guy (“He told me I didn’t understand, which is true”), at this point it looks like Erlich is prepared to bleed all his finances dry and damn the consequences. While we’ve seen Big Head get his way unexpectedly for so long it’s nice to see him coming up against someone who won’t, Erlich tends to do better when he’s being thwarted. Hopefully either Big Head will grow a spine or this finance guy will become a visible presence, because the alternative is Erlich just running wild with money Entertainment 720-style.
The episode also gives us our first serious chunk of time the season with Pied Piper’s other employees. It’s a standard story for Jared, Dinesh, and Gilfoyle as they take charge of the new office’s fire sale, only to realize that some confidential information may have been sold off in the process. There’s the usual loathing between Dinesh and Gilfoyle, Jared’s eternal optimism expressed in the darkest ways—he compares the empty office to the sight of a naked corpse—and Gilfoyle getting to put his ideas into practice by driving a drill bit through Dinesh’s hard drive. While there’s obviously company life-and-death stakes associated with the drive going walkabout, it’s a largely slight plot there to let the three bounce off each other and wrap things up by the end of the half-hour.
The episode ends with all the pieces put back to where they were before: Richard is once again CEO and Pied Piper is back to being run out of a living room. Sure there’s a fancy new chair for Richard to sit in and there’s a full team of engineers building their platform remotely, but all of it still feels like the same. Given that “the same” is still one of television’s best comedies that’s not a damning statement on make, but with how great season’ three’s been as Pied Piper moves into the big leagues “The Empty Chair” can’t help but come across as a disappointment.
- This week’s closing track: “Jugadores, Jugadores,” Mala Rodriguez.
- A banner day for disclosures from Jared’s terrifying past: he had an aunt who used to call him “glasshole” due to a sensitive rear end, his biological father is in a militia in the Ozarks, and he doesn’t know when his birthday is because Child Protective Services could never find his birth certificate.
- CJ is played by Annie Sertich of Groundlings Theater, and her dry approach to Richard’s frantic desperation is great. Her suggestion for a story that would play better than his rant: “Get in your car, run over Elon Musk, and give me an exclusive from jail.”
- Laurie has thoughts on H.L. Mencken. “Widely perceived as a racist, but his work on the English language is laudable, and his skewering of evangelicals is inspiring.”
- Erlich on Richard’s interview outfit: “If I’m being honest? Like a ventriloquist dummy.”
- “Say what you will about the chair, but at least it never told me to build a fucking box.”
- “He mostly uses the computer to download photos of old ships.”
- “Traditionally, the offender shakes the offendee’s hand.”
- “Can we do the name thing again?”