This week’s episode of Silicon Valley reminded me that skunks deserve more respect than they get in the animal kingdom. To wit: An old HR manager of mine was looking for a pet, and for some reason, she settled on a skunk. After calling several pet stores, she found a place that had one for sale. When she arrived, she was presented with a brightly colored animal in a cage. The pet shop worker explained that, while the average skunk is black and white, skunks can also come in other colors. This one was yellow. “Who the hell wants a yellow skunk?!” my H.R. manager asked. The skunk immediately gave her this dirty look, as if to say, “Lady, if I weren’t defunkified, you’d be in serious trouble!”
I bet that skunk’s pissed off yellow face looked a lot like Action Jack Barker’s at the end of “Meinertzhagen’s Haversack,” the season’s best episode so far.
The episode’s title has military origins, as does “skunkworks,” the term the Pied Piper gang use for the secret plan to defunkify the putrid smelling future of Richard’s compression engine. In an effort to give the sales people “something easy to sell,” Pied Piper has morphed into a data-backup appliance. The software company now peddles hardware that will sit in one of the millions of anonymous racks in some obscurely located server farm.
If a programmer’s life is a movie by Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo comes to mind at least once a day for me), a network admin’s life is as Kubrick-like as the huge room of servers Richard, Dinesh, and Gilfoyle find themselves in during this episode’s pre-credits sequence. “If you’ve seen one rack, you’ve seen them all,” Richard nonchalantly says of the similar-looking equipment that seems to stretch on for miles. “I thought that way,” says the perfectly cast actor playing their tour guide, “until I saw them all.” Like any good network/infrastructure engineer, the guide mysteriously disappears at the most inopportune moment, leaving the team to fend for themselves in the quest to find one of the 16 stairwells out of this pit of doom.
Before he vanishes, the guide mentions that part of the Pied Piper package includes an engineer whose job is to physically sit in that room to monitor the boxes around the clock. “There’s no difference between day and night down here,” he tells Richard. I can also tell you that it’s freezing in there — a ubiquitous means to stave off overheating. A good stint in a server room will wake you up faster than guzzling a dozen Red Bulls.
After such a depressing experience, Gilfoyle resigns from Pied Piper. The second he makes himself available on LinkedIn, the tech recruiters pounce on him. Now, I should mention that you can’t get a job in this profession without a recruiter. Gilfoyle’s experience runs counter to my own; he is showered with gifts like a hoverboard, good booze, and seven tons of gourmet popcorn when he rejects their offers. I, on the other hand, was once cussed out by a drunken recruiter when I turned down her offer. Your recap tip for the week: Never meet your tech pimp at a bar.
In order to keep his team together, Richard swings into crisis mode. His decision to complain to Laurie Bream is sidetracked temporarily by Erlich, who once again injects himself where he is not needed. “I want you to want me to go talk to Barker!” he tells Richard, who acquiesces. But when Erlich goes to Pied Piper HQ, he finds a different Action Jack than the one he met in the season premiere.
“What information do I not already have?” Action Jack asks, before angrily calling Erlich’s spiel “some free-form jazz odyssey of masturbatory bullshit.” Action Jack gets angrier after Richard’s visit to Laurie results in a rage-fueled phone call. Summoning Richard into his office (which has a really cool remote controlled door), Action Jack informs him that, despite Laurie’s objections to the Pied Piper appliance, they’re still going to build it. Laurie won’t fire him, because firing back-to-back CEOs will make Raviga look bad. Then he puts Richard on notice.
“If you’re going to shoot the king,” he says ominously, “you better be goddamned sure you kill him. You understand what that means?” Stephen Tobolowsky’s delivery of this speech is as funny as it is terrifying, making him this episode’s MVP. Is it too early for me to rave about how fantastic he is in this role? Every look, every line reading, and every gesture is flawless. This is business as usual for Tobolowsky, one of the finest character actors out there. As Action Jack, he combines Gavin’s explosive rage with the analytical coolness of Peter Gregory. It’s a well-thought intimidation tactic, designed to linger in your brain and force you to worry.
Meanwhile, Gilfoyle’s adventures in recruiting bring what Jian-Yang refers to as “someone from Men in Black” to Erlich’s house. Agent K comes bearing gifts that he’ll relinquish only after Gilfoyle meets with his client. “I admire your technique,” Gilfoyle says. Game recognizes game, and the recruiter’s client recognizes Gilfoyle — it’s End Frame! It seems the programmer bros from Nucleus have joined them. With End Frame’s knowledge of one-half of Pied Piper (which was accidentally given to them by Richard in season two), and the bros figuring out the other half, End Frame has Pied Piper’s middle tier “right down to the last semi-colon.” They now corner the market on compression-engine platforms. Gilfoyle reports this back to Richard, who is now totally dejected.
Erlich redeems himself by pointing out that Richard can still build the Pied Piper platform of his dreams on the down low. Here’s where the noble skunk gets redemption. The team decides to form a skunkworks: a secret company that operates independently within another company. The term comes from Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs, who in turn got the name from the moonshine company in the Li’l Abner comic strip. Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works built aircrafts, and Richard’s will outwit both End Frame and Action Jack’s evil salespeople. Gilfoyle senses Richard walking the left-hand path again, so he’s back on the team. “Let us drink from the teat of Pappy,” he says, pouring some of the booze he got from End Frame’s recruiter.
Gilfoyle also says, “I’m going to look forward to going to work,” which raises a red flag with Jared. Our resident explainer pulls out Meinertzhagen’s Haversack, a “principle of military deception.” According to the principle, they have to continue to act as if nothing has changed. They must bitch about the appliance to keep the preternaturally astute Action Jack in the dark. Such deception also includes harassing Dinesh about his new gold chain. Gilfoyle is relentless about it, especially when Dinesh stops wearing it to prevent the teasing. Even Jared scores some points, a rare achievement that will be short-lived.
After an overnight planning session, Pied Piper Incognito is open for business. “We must shred everything we wrote out here!” Gilfoyle warns as they leave for work. Once on the premises, director Charlie McDowell gives Richard, Dinesh, Gilfoyle, and Jared the Reservoir Dogs treatment. They strut into Pied Piper HQ in slow motion while Rick Ross’s “You Know I Got It” blares on the soundtrack. For once, these boys got SWAGGER! I pumped my fist in solidarity before remembering that this series is all about pulling the rug out from underneath Richard and his crew. And just like that, writer Adam Countee immediately lowers the boom.
Mid-swagger, Richard trips over the hose of the office’s resident feng-shui maintenance man, and the pile of papers he’s carrying fly across the floor. Unfortunately, those papers were the aforementioned “must be shredded” items. Seems Erlich doesn’t have a shredder, so Richard decided to use Pied Piper’s instead. A co-worker picks up one of the papers — a Gantt chart that is conveniently labeled “Skunk Works” — and brings it to Action Jack. He confronts the team, eyes full of fire and brimstone.
“Guys, in my office! NOW!”
Had another rap song kicked in under this scene, it would have been Ice-T’s “You Played Yourself.” Instead, we get Bell Biv Devoe’s Rosie-the-Riveter-beat classic, “Poison.” To paraphrase that jewel of early ’90s era new-jack swing: Never trust a big plan and a smile. Especially not on this show.