Silicon Valley Season Premiere Recap: The Ballad of Action Jack Barker

Kumail Nanjiani as Dinesh, Martin Starr as Gilfoyle. Photo: HBO
Silicon Valley
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Founder Friendly
Editor’s Rating

Silicon Valley has always been about the evolution of Richard Hendricks, the coder whose brilliant idea for a compression engine called Pied Piper anchored the show's two previous seasons. In season one, Richard the Novice Businessman made a deal with the devil, turning down millions from tech giant Hooli to maintain control of his intellectual property at a smaller firm called Raviga. He made mistakes, but he managed to win TechCrunch Disrupt and hitch himself to his software's rising star. His confidence level began to soar in kind.

In season two, Richard the Temporary Tech Hero danced with the devil, cutting another deal with a demon named Russ Hanneman and successfully fighting off an intellectual-property lawsuit from Gavin Belson, Hooli's chief innovation officer. Hooli attempted to reverse-engineer Pied Piper, but Nucleus, the resulting product, is the anti-compression engine. During the struggle to save his software, Richard walked the left-hand path with his fellow Pied Piper employee (and resident Satanist) Gilfoyle. He made mistakes, yet he finally grew a pair of balls and the communication skills to defend his vision. But with great balls comes great ego, and as season three opens, the newly fired Richard's ego has reached DEFCON 1.

"You've created a company that is too valuable for you to run. You should be proud," Raviga boss Laurie Breem tells him. The finale cliffhanger revealed that Richard had been fired, but in a twist even the creators of old 1930s serials would find shameless, the "firing" becomes a "demotion." It doesn't matter, though, as Richard's wounded pride makes him quit. Before his diva-inspired tantrum and exit, Laurie accurately explains that his successes were achieved through Rube Goldbergian contraptions of pure luck. Pied Piper needs someone with more experience and less coincidence. Richard would've been chief technology officer under the new CEO, if he hadn't quit.

Enter Pied Piper's new CEO, Jack Barker, or "Action" Jack Barker as he is known on the 'net. Action Jack is quite the legend: He created two multi-billion dollar companies and started a fund for cancer research in honor of his late mother. "This guy's a keeper," says Gilfoyle. "He's the real deal," Erlich will later say after meeting him. Richard's ego is having none of that. "They're turning over my company to a guy who can't even cure cancer!" the petulant man-child yells. Eventually, Pete the lawyer convinces Richard to visit Barker. Pete's cameo appearance gives Matt McCoy MVP honors for this episode; his deadpan delivery never ceases to crack me up.

Monica, who voted to oust Richard, shows up at Erlich's incubator to both explain her vote and try to talk some sense into Richard. "At least Judas had the decency to kill himself after betraying Jesus, the CEO of the world!" Erlich tells Monica. "You know him?" "I do," she replies. "I went to Catholic school." Monica's confession that she voted to keep herself in Raviga as a spy and ally for Richard receives no penance. However, her comment about Catholic school does arouse Erlich, who inquires about the skirt length of her Catholic school uniform. "Fuck off," she tells him as she leaves.

"Fuck off" is also what Richard hopes his team will say to Pied Piper now that he's no longer CEO. Jared, of course, plays along. He presents Richard with available CTO positions. Richard chooses Flutterbeam, a joint with a video platform he thinks he can tweak, at least until he actually sees it. Giddy about Richard's excitement, Jared says, "Your pumpness makes me pumped!" The line is a gift from writer Dan O'Keefe to the scribes of that naughty Jared-Richard fan fiction I can't seem to stop reading online.

Jared is happy, but Gilfoyle and Dinesh are far more practical. They sit in the backyard of Erlich's incubator mulling the pros and cons of loyalty to their former leader. In an odd moment of freely given praise, Gilfoyle and Dinesh repeatedly state how much they like and respect Richard's technological abilities and his friendship. Then that ol' programmer mentality yanks them back to normal.

"Look," says Gilfoyle, "If we're going to keep prefacing the nasty things we need to say about Richard with nice things, we'll be here all night." They come up with a short-cut acronym: RIGBY, which stands for "Richard Is Great, But Y'know … " The RIGBY complaints fly fast and furiously. "RIGBY," begins Dinesh, "How dare he assume we'd give up our jobs for him!" "RIGBY," begins Gilfoyle, "We gave up our own projects and worked for free on Pied Piper and now this?" The duo decides to stay at Pied Piper, Richard's wishes be damned. Unfortunately, they can't figure out Richard's C code (I paused the show so I could read it, by the way), so their plan may just have backfired. RIGBY!

While Eleanor Rigby spins in her grave and Cathy Rigby calls her lawyer, let's check in on Hooli head honcho Gavin Belson. Publicly humbled and humiliated, Gavin calls a press conference to say good-bye … to the entire Nucleus team. Stock goes up 7 percent as a result! "It is my fault that I trusted them to get the job done," he says before walking off. "That's the gutsiest thing I've ever seen!" gushes one of Gavin's many Yes Men.

It's also Gavin's fault that the non-compete clause that cost him the Hooli v. Hendricks case also applies to the Nucleus team, all 1,700 of whom now have invalid contracts that could cost Hooli big bucks. Using the "at-will termination" clause you all probably have in your work contracts, Gavin brutally fires 1,699 members of the Nucleus team with no severance. The one member who emerges unscathed is our resident VP of Spite, Nelson "Big Head" Bighetti. Though his Hooli tenure was spent eating Arby's and architecting useless ideas, his severance package contains $20 million and the promise he'll say nothing about what he did at Hooli. "But I didn't do anything here," Big Head says. "You're getting the idea!" says Hooli's HR guy.

While Richard veers dangerously close to Gavin's brand of emotional powderkeg leadership, let's look at Richard's prior — and possibly future — mentors. Peter Gregory was brilliant with details, but would score a zero on the social-cues meter. His successor, Laurie Breem, is also similarly focused, but she can pick up on people's displeasure and admits to actually having feelings, even if her vocal delivery never changes when she describes them. Erlich has Richard's best interests at heart, but he simply can't resist causing trouble. His ego needs to be stroked at all times, and that's where Action Jack Barker comes in.

Action Jack Barker is unlike Peter, Laurie, or Erlich, and that makes him the most dangerous of them all. Because Action Jack is all about the social cue. In his few scenes, Stephen Tobolowsky (of Groundhog Day fame) has instilled his character with the power of the Psychological Foot Massage™ or PFM. I had a manager like this once. I still haven't recovered, because you never forget your first puppet master.

What is this PFM phenomenon? It means Action Jack is an observant man who has done his research. He knows what psychologically ails you, and he'll stroke and soothe your emotional weaknesses, lulling you into doing his bidding. Look at how he handles Erlich, a man who never feels appreciated for his "successes." Barker even says the name of Erlich's beloved company "Aviato" with the same goofy pseudo-Italian pronunciation Erlich does. "I have been a fan of yours since Aviato," says Barker, and Erlich is immediately putty in his hands.

It's unclear if Barker works his magic on Richard, whose visit leads to Barker's immediate resignation from Pied Piper. "I can't do this without you," he tells Richard. As Richard backs up his car to return to the house after leaving, we're not sure if it's due to the still-tingling after-effects of Barker's psychological rubdown or his disappointment with Flutterbeam's mustache-oriented video problems. We'll have to wait and see. Regardless, this Silicon Valley programmer is honored to three-peat here as the show's recapper. Here's to a great season of Mike Judge's already renewed-for-a-fourth-season comedy.