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Silicon Valley: “Sand Hill Shuffle”

T.J. Miller, Thomas Middleditch (HBO)
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It’s interesting to look at season one of Silicon Valley and see how the show’s central characters and the show as a whole have paralleled each other in their ascent. Mike Judge and Alec Berg’s story of misfit company Pied Piper navigating the maladjusted sea of the modern tech industry was one of 2014’s most interesting and hilarious comedies, finding the rhythms of its ridiculously talented ensemble at the same time Pied Piper’s employees learned how to deal with outside influences and each other. And much as twitchy Richard Hendrix, bombastic Erlich Bachman, and the other Pied Piper employees found themselves basking in attention and accolades by the end, so did Silicon Valley. The first season was a hit for HBO, garnering solid ratings and best comedy nominations at the Emmys and Golden Globes (and more importantly, an honorable mention in The A.V. Club’s best TV of 2014 list).


Hanging over all these accolades in both worlds was a major, unanswered question: How would Silicon Valley handle the death of Christopher Evan Welch? Welch’s Peter Gregory, head of the venture capital firm Raviga that funded Pied Piper’s nascent development, left an immediate impression in his all-too-brief appearances in season one, an eccentric genius who could use the drive-thru menu at Burger King the same way a seer might use a crystal ball. In the second half of the season it was clear that the writers struggled with having to write around the character—Judge and Berg said replacing or writing him out was out of the question given the work he’d done—and they chose to delay the inevitable by isolating him, be it by planning robotic islands or going on safari with Lorne Michaels and Kanye West. No answer was forthcoming in the season finale, leading to speculation the character might become a Vera or Maris type and dispense his odd instructions off-screen for the life of the show.

“Sand Hill Shuffle,” the second season premiere, faces the loss head-on by making Welch’s death (and therefore Peter’s) part of this world. The day before he’s to return from safari in the Serengeti to sign a final deal with Pied Piper, a freak series of circumstances involving a hippo and a rifle round mean that he’s forced to run—possibly for the first time ever—“and that was it.” The story, sadly delivered by his right-hand woman Monica and with increasingly confused interruptions by Richard and Erlich, is as strange and hilarious as the character was, and gives Peter a fitting exit. Similarly, his funeral is a tribute that’s reverent for the man while also full of the idiosyncrasies he displayed on a daily basis. Who else would have a PowerPoint presentation trying to quantify his legacy, or eulogies that turned into debates on whether or not he was disappointed in Snapchat?

Amanda Crew, Suzanne Cryer (HBO)

Welch’s death is a tragedy for Silicon Valley, but it’s clear the writers want to pay tribute to his legacy by making his death matter in the world of the show. From a structural standpoint, that means finding a new venture capitalist to sit at the head of Peter’s company, which it does in managing partner Laurie Bream. Played by veteran TV actress Suzanne Cryer—who, among many other credits, famously popularized “yada yada” in the Seinfeld episode of the same name—Laurie carries on Peter’s legacy of social disconnect while also finding her own interpretation. She replaces dreaminess with abruptness as she’s focused on business and figures to the exclusion of nearly all social norms, so much so that she feels the need to state “Peter Gregory is dead” three times in conversation. It’s a different and fun dynamic for both Richard and Monica to deal with, and Cryer keeps Laurie from feeling too broadly robotic by giving the impression she does recognize the social cues and is making a choice to dismiss them outright as irrelevant. (It’s also refreshing to see Silicon Valley add another female character to the regular cast, given the show’s lack of diversity in season one was one of its major weak points.)


And from a narrative standpoint, Peter’s death is the catalyst for the latest round of trouble for Pied Piper. Monica warned Richard in the season finale that things would only get more complicated after the TechCrunch Disrupt win, and with Raviga’s future up in the air, Erlich decides it’s time to take it to the next level with their venture capital suitors. As satisfying as Pied Piper’s victories can be, the real comedic meat of the show is when the team is scrambling, and Silicon Valley does a good job of making things feel tenuous, while at the same time taking advantage of their new levels of confidence to push them into more extensive business ventures.

That level of confidence plays out in the episode’s best scene, as Erlich turns himself loose on the VC firms to match fire with fire: “We’re walking in there with three-foot cocks covered in Elvis dust!” T.J. Miller riffing was one of season one’s best elements, and the montage of his ruthless putdowns proves he hasn’t lost a step, throwing out dismissals (“I think what I’m seeing is the human equivalent of a flaccid penis… One of you is the least attractive person I’ve ever seen, and I’m not going to say who”) that only build the company’s value the nastier they get. More cringe-worthy but equally funny are Richard’s efforts to play along, which turns into a word salad of Erlich’s statements: “I’m covered in dust! I’m a three-foot cock!” These two are a terrific yin-yang pairing, and Silicon Valley continues to get comedic mileage out of seeing how they react to similar situations.


However, while Erlich hasn’t learned anything from his prior experiences, Richard has. Judge said in interviews that season two is about “the rise of Richard,” and while he’s still insecure enough to panic when a Jumbotron camera is pointed in his direction something has shifted. After Monica points out that the higher and higher offers are dooming his company to unreasonable expectations, he doesn’t run this theory past Erlich or Jared, he takes it outside to test a reaction on an old colleague—the same colleague whose Kid Rock/liquid shrimp party opened the pilot episode and who’s lost his entire $200 million investment only a few months later. Richard shows no remorse about introducing this hypothetical in conversation and reducing the other man to a screaming wreck at the bar, a move the Richard who tried to defend Big Head to the Pied Piper team back in episode two would never make. He secures the reasonable investment and pays back Monica with the Raviga slot on Pied Piper’s board, demonstrating reserves of both confidence and business acumen not previously seen.

It appears he’ll need those reserves, as Hooli’s Nucleus remains the Death Star aiming for Pied Piper’s rebel base. “I don’t want to live in a world where someone makes the world a better place better than we do,” Gavin Belson dictates to the Hooli board, still steamed at his loss at TechCrunch. He’s still blind to the inanity of his words—a diatribe on data shortages and black markets is a close second to Erlich’s takedowns for best scene this week—yet he’s got the resources to make life hell for those in his way, which he does by slamming Pied Piper with a lawsuit claiming Richard’s software was developed on Hooli’s time. Peter’s death means that the long-standing feud between him and Gavin Belson will never be as important to the future of the show as early episodes implied, but for all his talk of forgiveness and regret Gavin has no qualms about setting up a brand new feud with Richard.


That feud, and the hell it can bring on Richard and his coworkers, sets a clear arc for season two of Silicon Valley. Although Welch’s contributions to the show will be missed, “Sand Hill Shuffle” assures us that it’ll be able to move on from the character, and smartly uses his legacy as the source of new connections and conflicts. It’s an assured start for a season, and one that proves success hasn’t spoiled the show, inside or out.

Stray observations:

  • Welcome back to The A.V. Club’s weekly coverage of Silicon Valley! Glad to be back for season two. (And if you haven’t watched the video where some of the cast talks about the return of Game Of Thrones, go do that right now.)
  • The premiere is disappointingly light on the rest of the Pied Piper team, but each of them get a few good moments. Jared proves himself surprisingly knowledgeable on the art of negging (“Going negative. It’s a sex strategy used by lonely chauvinists”) and Dinesh and Gilfoyle continue their unmasked loathing for each other other with a feud over who gets to be Pied Piper’s CTO. (“You have to know how to delegate.” “I delegate you to go get me a fucking beer.”)
  • Peter’s legacy of seeing profit in the most random details lives on, as Laurie finds Raviga holdings that include a $30 million ostrich farm in Morocco, majority shares in three companies that specialize in invisibility, and a crate of napkins on how genetically engineered cranberry fungus was going to be the next cotton.
  • Silicon Valley continues to incorporate real-life industry figures into its universe, with the Winklevoss twins amongst the potential investors at the AT&T Park party. Erlich: “They’re like two genetically enhanced Ken dolls!”
  • “If someone has to go, I’ll go, but it seems very frightening. Would it hurt your feelings if no one went?”
  • “‘Data-geddon.’ Is he married to that? There’s been a lot of -geddons lately.”
  • “And your logo looks like a sideways vagina. I find that to be racist.”
  • “He put his balls on the table.” “On purpose?” “I don’t see how that could happen by accident.”
  • “There is a linear correlation between how intolerable I was and the height of valuation.”
  • “We talked as old friends do. He asked me about Jackson Hole, I asked him about Pilates.”

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