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Silicon Valley's final season puts Pied Piper at the top, ready to fall down

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When Silicon Valley premiered in 2014, it felt like a natural extension of the satire Mike Judge had developed in projects like Office Space and Idiocracy. With wealth and technology consolidated in a hyper-insulated space, the tech industry was a breeding ground for eccentric character types, and ideas that sounded like a great idea to those who came up with them but sounded silly to anyone who wasn’t part of that bubble. And despite diminishing narrative returns over the years, it’s kept to that ethos, the team of Pied Piper encountering all manner of missteps and egos on their quest for success.

As the show heads into its final season though, the environment has changed. Start-ups like Uber and WeWork are losing billions in their rush to go public, turning into punchlines where once they were lauded as successes. There’s a new data breach lawsuit in the headlines almost ever other day. Mark Zuckerberg is regularly hauled in front of Congress to squirm as he attempts to mimic human emotions and his company is a frequent target of attorney generals. The perception of tech companies has gone from amusingly disconnected from reality to almost callously disinterested in humanity. The joke is no longer as funny as it used to be, because of the unpleasant feeling the joke is on us.

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But Silicon Valley has always had a eye for the trends and scandals of the tech industry—case in point, Russ Hanneman losing $300 million in his jeans pocket long before Gerald Cotten took $200 million to his grave—and Judge and company are now embracing the world that’s grown darker and more nihilistic in recent years. The battle for Pied Piper is no longer one of success, it’s going to be if Richard Hendricks and his friends will end their journey with their souls still intact. And if “Artificial Lack of Intelligence” is any gauge, the odds are not on their side.

To that end, Silicon Valley has gone back to Richard’s original consideration from the pilot, the idea that by starting his company he could break the mold. The opening monologue is a Thomas Middleditch showcase, beginning with the deer-in-headlights expression he’s perfected over six years and turning into an impassioned walk-and-talk as he explains to a United States Senate committee that the control and power of the tech behemoths is so great they can’t be brought to heel. Only his decentralized Internet, data access limited to its users, is the future. It’s a proud mission statement, one that’s almost undone by falling back in his chair, but at least that’s some assurance a human’s behind it.

Bold words to be sure, but they’re also in opposition to the new playing field that’s been drawn. Even moreso than the new office they found themselves in last year, Pied Piper’s new setup is vast and cavernous, a decision that Judge (in the director’s chair for the season premiere) showcases in the opening party as Richard and Jared are swiftly pulled apart by the hundreds of excited Pied Piper employees. They’re no longer in the grey area between start-up and legitimate company, a decision the creative team has thankfully embraced after stepping back from it so many times the last few years.

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Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods, Amanda Crew
Photo: Ali Page Goldstein (HBO)

And with more human involvement comes proof of Gilfoyle’s hypothesis that humans suck. Colin bringing K-Hole Games back to Pied Piper was the tipping point in last season’s finale, and now he’s turned into a breaking point when he admits that Games Of Galoo is gathering user data through their headsets. The blithe immorality of Neil Casey’s performance stands in stark contrast to Richard’s increased lividity, taking entirely different levels of comfort about lying to Congress not under oath. And with more time to stew, the less it becomes about his company than it does a personal affront to Richard’s authority—something that he’s taking with less and less grace each time it happens.

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It’s become a trope on Silicon Valley that Richard’s algorithm is an all-purpose solution to Pied Piper’s problems, and in the smartest move of the premiere it subverts that when Richard pairs it with Colin’s tech to aggregate his calls into a spiderweb of depravity. Rather than cowing Colin into silence, it sends him excitedly to his shareholders, presenting Richard’s blackmail attempt as the greatest data aggregation platform in the history of the medium. It’s the latest stark illustration of Silicon Valley’s nihilistic sense of humor, that everyone winds up being the systems architect of their own destruction and that there’s no level of shame high enough to keep someone from seeing an opportunity for profit.

If Richard’s losing the fight for his company’s integrity, he’s also losing what let him keep his own. With Erlich Bachman banished to an opium den—and T.J. Miller having zero chance of a final guest appearance, continually unaware that “benevolent benign maniac” is just another way of saying “piece of shit human being”—the core relationship of the show has grown to Richard and Jared. Ever since Jared showed up at the door of the house with a bottle of wine and a request to be a small part of what Richard was building, he’s been the moral center of Pied Piper, a series of increasingly dark reveals not obscuring his fundamental decency. (This week’s horrific analogy: “It’s like stealing from your pimp to pay for your friend’s appendectomy.”)

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Jimmy O. Yang, Josh Brener, Zach Woods
Photo: Ali Page Goldstein (HBO)

Now even that center is tested in what could become the true heart of the season. Jared’s so desperate to be close to Richard he allows this spiteful plan to go forward—complete with a botched “fuck you o’clock” joke—and disillusioned by his failure he drifts back to his old comfort zone of the incubator While it’s disappointing to see Silicon Valley reject another option to keep these marginal characters Big Head and Jian-Yang relegated to the margins, it sets up far more personal stakes as Jared offers his business development expertise to another socially maladjusted coder. If Jared truly cuts the cord with Richard, or even turns on him, those are stakes that feel even higher than Pied Piper’s future.

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While Richard wages the fight for his company’s integrity, his employees continue to demonstrate their lack thereof. The feud between Dinesh and Gilfoyle remains a steady delivery of mutual loathing, and it’s now ossified to the fact that Gilfoyle has found a way to excuse himself from it entirely by creating an AI program to respond to all of Dinesh’s gripes. Writer Ron Weiner gets a chance to go meta here as Dinesh asks for his own AI to avoid dealing with people, subsequently crashing the entire Pied Piper network when it interacts with his and produces seven million emails worth of sexist and racist comments. And it also introduces an interesting sci-fi twist: how insane would it be if the combination of Richard’s algorithm, Gilfoyle’s server skills, and Dinesh’s craven self-centeredness, led to the end of the series with Pied Piper replacing Cyberdyne Systems as the company that brings about the end of the world?

Matt Ross
Photo: Ali Page Goldstein (HBO)
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If they do manage to end the world, they’ll at least have more of an impact than Gavin Belson at this point. He’s failed to crush Pied Piper so many times that he’s lost all sense of menace as an antagonist, and Silicon Valley appears to have reached the same conclusion. The developments of the last season means that Hooli, once the behemoth and cautionary tale to the scrappy upstart Pied Piper, is now consumed as an Amazon subsidiary. Matt Ross remains great at expressing how Gavin’s ideals and ego have become indistinguishable from each other, and his desire to keep the Hooli name leads to the best visual gag of the episode: so few employees left that he has lease the building to El Pollo Loco corporate, a poke in the eye that becomes literal when the new logo knocks off the last part of the old.

It says something that the two extremes for Pied Piper are giving birth to the new Skynet or sharing space with the market research team of Five Guys, and even more that neither of those options feel like they’re off the table. An ugly paranoia has descended over the world of big tech, and it seems like Silicon Valley is wholly content to drag its characters down into the muck with them. They just might pull a win out in this final season—it is what they do, after all—but for the first time, it’s starting to feel like a victory that might cost them everything.

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Stray observations:

  • Welcome back to The A.V. Club’s coverage of Silicon Valley! Glad to be back for the sixth and final round of system updates.
  • With a new season, time to play Spot the Opening Title Updates. I caught an Impossible Burger truck replacing the Soylent truck, the Twitter pole starting to lean over, and an emphasis on Eaze delivery services.
  • Richard’s first guesses on what Dinesh’s t-shirt tribute is supposed to be are “licked ass” and “dicked ass.” Gilfoyle wonders why those are his first two guesses, but given how long Richard’s known them, guessing they’d give him a profane tribute makes a lot of sense.
  • If you ever see someone with a wearable chair, punch that person in the face.
  • The diagram of Colin’s conversations is one of the great Silicon Valley visual gags. Highlights include: masturbated in sporting goods store, crop-dusted coworker’s cat, used condom he had in wallet for five years, manscaped gooch, made out at dog park, said he’d fuck a dog if it was hot enough, shot fish in a barrel.
  • “He looks like a child in a custody hearing.” “Right, but you don’t feel sorry for him. You just want him to go away and not have any parents at all.”
  • “Hiroshima was an elegant implementation!” “I don’t think anyone agrees with you on that.”
  • “This is the cost of working with humans, Richard. They suck.”
  • “Do you need the real me for this conversation?”
  • “I know you’re my therapist. I was there when the court appointed you.”
  • This week’s closing track: “Easy Lovin’,” Freddie Hart.

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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.