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Silicon Valley takes a late series gamble on a literal deus ex machina

Zach Woods (left), Thomas Middleditch, Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani
Photo: Eddy Chen (HBO)
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In its six years on the air, Silicon Valley has operated under a guiding rule that we’ll call the Hendricks Principle: there’s nothing that the compression algorithm designed by Richard can’t do in the right circumstances. Richard’s tech and the successive modifications made to it are presented as the seeds of an industry game-changer, something that if developed and implemented correctly could replace every existing status quo. When it fails—as it so often has—it’s because of the outside forces against it, a lack of reliable funding, legal roadblocks, or outright acts of sabotage by competitors. But the technology at the center is still the stroke of genius, something its competitors have tried to steal for years, and something that could reshape the entire world if the world would stop being a dick about it.

Now with only two episodes left to go, Silicon Valley disproves the Hendricks Principle. “RussFest” is an episode where once again the show leaps into in crisis mode, where Richard and company pull out every stop to meet a major PiperNet deadline and thwart a competitor. And despite succeeding on the surface, the victory turns out to be a hollow one, and Richard’s tech is laid bare as not living up to the hype. It’s a development so shattering that it needs a literal deus ex machina to pull them from the depths, fortunes reversed and reset so quickly and drastically that it’ll take next week’s finale to determine whether or not it was the right choice to make.

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We’ll get back to that decision, because there’s a lot of good stuff to talk about before that point. As I’ve argued many times before, Silicon Valley is at its best when it’s in crisis mode, and “RussFest” spends its entire run time in that area. In the first few minutes AT&T walks away from the deal they made with Pied Piper, as their representative clearly assesses that anyone working with Russ Hanneman probably isn’t in the most stable position. Richard is in flop-sweat mode from minute one, and in a previously unseen position of lying to his team to keep them working their unreasonable hours. Writer Carrie Kemper finds some great highlights here, from Richard walking around in an armored hoodie to (poorly) raise morale and Gilfoyle delegating the lunch order to Son of Anton—whose literal interpretation of cheap hamburgers leads to an order of 4,000 pounds of meat.

That stink of desperation sweat is then coated heavily in AXE body spray as we get to the actual RussFest, an event that appears to have no cohesive theme beyond featuring Russ’s favorite bands and his face over everything. Thankfully, Kemper recognizes that despite Russ believing his image can power an entire festival, the same is not true of the character, and he’s used the right amount this week. He’s deployed not as the primary obstacle but as a comedic stinger, breaking the tension as he interjects demands for his event hologram and solicits opinions on his perfect festival outfit. (All outfits that are hilariously ill-conceived. Jared recommends one option he didn’t see, and Russ’s follow-up question is priceless: “You really think a white guy can wear that and get away with it?”)

Rachel Rosenbloom (left), Kumail Nanjiani, Chris Aquilino.
Photo: Eddy Chen (HBO)
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There’s plenty of tension for Russ to break as PiperNet isn’t working to the level Richard expected, its stability dropping even as more festival attendees are added to the network. When Maximo and AT&T launch their partnership publicly, it sends the rest of the Pied Piper employees packing, Richard’s failure to be honest the last nail in the coffin. (Thomas Middleditch’s side-eye when confronted might be one of his best facial tics in a series with lots of competition.) It’s another reset of the show to the core dynamic, though in this case the grounding logic makes sense. At this point, only those who have weathered every storm with Richard would still be sticking with him, and anyone who’s come into the later corporate era of Pied Piper have seen far more of Richard’s failures than his successes. Only Dinesh, Gilfoyle, and Jared are loyal/desperate/craven enough to be willing to stick with Richard, which makes a lot of the various resets the show’s gone through feel a lot more plausible in hindsight.

The collapse of the network and subsequent sighting of YaoNet at the fest means “RussFest” needs not one, but two breakthroughs to find the problem. The first comes from the only missing member of Pied Piper, as Monica’s busy shutting down Jian-Yang’s latest illegal venture (a girls’ “coding” school for writing fake Amazon reviews) when she learns they need his help. Jian-Yang’s long been my least favorite part of the series, but here he’s at least consistent in his villainy, and his battle with Monica produces a good unexpected bit of physical comedy. And Big Head saving the day by remembering the code due to his excessive SIMON usage is one of those background details that Silicon Valley is so good at finding a way to pay off a few episodes down the road.

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When even that key isn’t enough to crack YaoNet’s servers, a more human connection is necessary. Leaving aside the horribly misguided reveal of his real family, Jared’s narrative has been the closest to the season’s emotional arc, adrift in the wake of Pied Piper’s success and latching onto Gwart as a response. Zach Woods has one of his best scenes in the series as he tries to convince Gwart to help them, a childlike sincerity that somehow all the indignities of this series hasn’t beaten out of him, and even more impressive that he’s bouncing off a complete blank slate of a character. His strange way of understanding others gives Pied Piper the edge, Gwart assisting after Laurie’s artichoke-related snub.

Amanda Crew
Photo: Eddy Chen (HBO)
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Yet despite these concurrent successes, the network is still failing. Richard confronts Laurie about her sabotage, and she delivers the cold hard truth to him as only she can: there never was any sabotage. The reason why PiperNet is failing is because the technology isn’t able to deliver what it promises, and the algorithm isn’t potent enough to scale up and manage users on a higher volume. It’s about as cold of a moment as Silicon Valley has ever experienced as Laurie cuts them down to size, observing that she’ll be able to salvage her investment when YaoNet fails. But Richard—poor idealistic Richard, who bet it all on this tech and turned down increasing millions to have ownership of it—doesn’t have anything approximating that. Small wonder he goes on a screaming rant about wasting six years, as I’m guessing some viewers may have as well.

The reveal that Richard’s algorithm isn’t able to deliver what it promises would be a wonderfully cruel joke to end the series on, but Silicon Valley has one card left to play. In shades of “Optimal Tip-To-Tip Efficiency,” Richard locks himself in a room for hours to try to code his way out. Only this time instead of a mass masturbation hypothetical, he’s looking to Son of Anton for inspiration, reverse engineering it to expand his code. Unfortunately, he’s reverse-engineering Dinesh’s prototype version of the AI (“I have good ideas!” Dinesh blurts out desperately) and the resulting hybrid sends RussFest into Fyre Fest territory. Matt Ross is in the director’s chair for the second time after last season’s “Artificial Emotional Intelligence,” and his understanding of the show’s rhythms lets him successfully take the action to a borderline horror degree. Drones strafing the crowd, malfunctions running rampant, and Russ’s hologram transforming into a mad glitchy god looming over the horror until the power goes out.

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But just when you think we’re about to enter a Revolution scenario, it turns instead to The IT Crowd, as the solution was turning it on and off again. Somehow, the combination of Richard’s algorithm, Gilfoyle’s AI, Dinesh’s modifications, and Richard’s modifications to those modifications has completely reinvented PiperNet—and whatever it is operates at a network capacity rate of 160 percent and climbing. Part of me wants to dismiss this as a deus ex machina introduced to make sure the team gets a win at the end, but the more I think on it the more appropriate it feels. This new PiperNet is a hybrid creation, a fusion of all three men’s mix of genius, idiosyncrasies, insecurities, and maladjusted personalities. It’s about as pure an expression of the Silicon Valley ethos as we’ve ever seen, collaboration intentional and unintentional, driven by their best and worst impulses.

Chris Diamantopoulos
Photo: Eddy Chen (HBO)
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And there’s a potential third option on the table. The team look floored by the implications of their network, something that they don’t yet fully understand—and maybe can’t control. My hypothesis from earlier this season that Pied Piper could be responsible for developing Skynet and triggering Judgment Day suddenly sounds a lot more plausible now that Son of Anton has been warped and twisted into something new. For what image augurs the end times of Silicon Valley’s world better than a hologram of Russ Hanneman grown to skyscraper heights, thrusting and fist-bumping on a godlike scale?

Again, we’ll have to wait until next week’s finale to see how much “deus” is part of this “deus ex machina,” but in the moment it’s a thrilling and hilarious development. Much like PiperNet 2.0, “RussFest” is a great combination of the things Silicon Valley does right, one last chance for the show to put itself into full crisis mode and set a record for how many times they can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

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Stray observations

  • Great visual gag in the montage of one of Pied Piper’s employees catching a nap on the delivery of hamburger buns.
  • Also a great visual gag: Jared repeatedly thinking he sees Gwart in RussFest garbage cans.
  • I love Maximo’s declarative way of opening every conversation. “Hello! I am giving a press conference.”
  • Both Jian-Yang and Monica have Richard in their phones as “Bitchard.” It makes perfect sense that’s the one thing they have in common.
  • Evidently the one thing Russ does right is Tres Comas tequila, if Gilfoyle’s endorsement means anything. And he was the one who had Pappy van Winkle in his desk drawer at work, so he knows more about alcohol than anyone else on staff.
  • “Well, if you have an agreement in principle, you can have a disagreement in principle.”
  • “My hologram can 100 percent dry hump festival goers from behind! If they ask for it. Hashtag woke.”
  • “I’ll contact you all later for your exit interviews. And I’m sorry about the ants.”
  • “No one’s eating the peyote. Will you eat the peyote and that’ll break the ice and they’ll eat the peyote?”
  • “I’ll wait for him to fall asleep and then I’ll lower myself through the vents.”
  • “Im sure 20,000 coked-up douchebags will be very civil when they can’t get food or water!”
  • Richard: “Am I going to jail?” Jared: “Hey. I can train you.”
  • “Eat a dick, David Copperfield!”
  • This week’s closing track: “Champipple,” John Popper & The Duskray Troubadors.

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About the author

Les Chappell

Les Chappell is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. He drinks good whiskey and owns too many hats.