Silicon Valley Recap: Return of the King

Silicon Valley

The Empty Chair
Season 3 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating *****
Zach Woods as Jared, Kumail Nanjiani as Dinesh, Thomas Middleditch as Richard, T.J. Miller as Bachman, Martin Starr as Gilfoyle. Photo: HBO

On this week’s Silicon Valley, Richard Hendricks devolves to the level of douche-bro normally reserved for Erlich Bachman. For the first time in the show’s history, I actively disliked him. As the resident Erlich defender around these parts, that may seem a bit hypocritical, but there’s a difference: I’ve always rooted for Erlich to fail and for Richard to succeed. Richard’s egotistical rant made me temporarily root for his comeuppance, throwing the show’s beautiful power balance briefly off-kilter.

The “one failure to one success” ratio is the yin and the yang of Silicon Valley, and every character has a partner in this regard: Erlich has Richard, Dinesh has Gilfoyle, and Gavin has Richard as well. You’d think Jared is the lone wolf that bucks my theory, but this episode highlights that he too has always had a far more successful counterpart — Big Head is Jared, just stupider and luckier. His luck may run out, however, after he goes into business with Erlich.

More on that in a bit. Let’s start with Richard. He opens the episode in full Kanye West egomania, practically foaming at the mouth over the constant news of Laurie interviewing candidates to be Pied Piper’s CEO. That he thinks he has a shot strikes me as the height of implausibility, so Laurie’s speed-interviewing makes sense. “Maybe she’s just fucking them,” Gilfoyle says of the long list of candidates, to which I say, “Laurie, gurrrrl, you get your groove back!”

There’s no doubt that Pied Piper’s been screwed — and by Action Jack Barker, no less. Laurie may have shot the king last week, but the bullet came with the standard exorbitant CEO buyout. Add in the office rent and salary for an endless array of salespeople, and Pied Piper’s accounting reveals that this $250-million company has burned through its initial financing. Richard’s solution is to ditch the fancy new digs, fire the sales department, and move back to Erlich’s Hacker Hostel incubator. “Can you legally do that?” asks salesperson Jan the Man. Yes, he can. Until the empty CEO chair is filled, Richard is the Gerald Ford of Pied Piper.

“Laurie thinks Action Jack’s empty chair is a better CEO than me!” he growls before storming out of the office. “By comparison, the chair is sturdier than Richard,” Dinesh says. “And it has a lot less of Jack’s ass rubbed on it,” Gilfoyle adds. Martin Starr’s reliably dry delivery makes him this episode’s MVP.

As further proof that you should never read the comments, Richard stumbles upon a brutal beatdown from a tech blogger named C.J. Cantell (Annie Sertich), who writes that “Pied Piper can’t get a man” because Richard is a subpar coder. Since programmers love their coding reputations the way Sir Mix-a-Lot likes big butts, I understood why he wanted to set the record straight. I take issue with his methods, however, starting with his rather condescending call to Laurie.

“I won’t have you talking to a muckraker like C.J. Cantwell just to soothe your male ego,” Laurie tells Richard. He continues to complain, totally ignoring Laurie when she says, “Whether you appreciate it or not, I do have a plan.” There’s no time for that, because C.J. referred to Pied Piper as “the new Clinkle” and Richard must be avenged. I’m not sure that’s an accurate comparison, though. The lack of an executive might have helped Clinkle, whose employees ran like hell because of their CEO.

Laurie agrees to Richard’s interview with C.J., though she imposes a prerequisite meeting between him and Raviga’s press secretary, Dawn Simon (Azie Tesfai). This makes Richard even more livid. “Why do I have to do that?” he asks. “Because when you become emotional, you become highly inarticulate,” Laurie answers. Even Erlich agrees with her. Richard responds to both of their claims by being highly inarticulate.

On the day of Richard’s interview-slash-press-advisory meeting, Erlich is planning a meeting of his own with millionaire Big Head. Erlich plans to screw Big Head out of as much money as possible, creating a contract that will only work “by walking down the path of blind trust.” Granted, Big Head did nothing to earn all of his money, but that doesn’t mean Erlich should get to take it away by doing nothing. Big Head has a temporary lapse in his cluelessness when he gets a buddy to point out the millions of reasons why Erlich’s contract is unwise. Erlich feigns being wounded, and Big Head turns back into his usual dolt self. The company he and Erlich create is called “Bachmanity,” which sounds like something Cirque du Soleil should be doing in Vegas.

Suddenly, Hooli’s former figurative “VP of Spite” gets a call from Laurie’s office inquiring if he would like to be the actual CEO of Pied Piper. “Big Head as CEO?!” Richard screams as he plummets over the edge. “I told them no!” Big Head says, but Richard’s gone before he can hear it.

Meanwhile, Dinesh has a dilemma of his own. During Pied Piper’s garage sale that Jared orchestrated to raise cash for the salaries of new engineers, Dinesh’s hard drive is accidentally sold. What it was doing outside of the computer we’ll never know, but the nice old man who now owns it has no plans of giving it up. Ever the optimist, Jared reassures Dinesh that none of Pied Piper’s intellectual property will be discovered by the senior, who is so computer illiterate he calls the Geek Squad to help him install the drive. Dinesh remains worried. Here comes Gilfoyle to the rescue!

The mere notion of Gilfoyle as a Geek Squad member sent me into joyful spasms of laughter. “You’re not wearing your uniform shirt,” the suspicious senior observes. “I spilled coffee on it,” Gilfoyle says. “I’m a nerd.” He’s also handy with a drill, which he uses to destroy Dinesh’s drive. Dinesh is not happy.

While that mission is being accomplished, Richard rants and raves about Raviga to a woman whom he thinks is Dawn Simon. Richard mocks Laurie viciously, saying “the Laurietron 6000 isn’t programmed to admit a mistake!” This is intercut with Laurie doing exactly that. She’s out drinking with Monica, and not only does she cop to being wrong about Richard, she explains her smartly executed plan: “I interviewed those other unavailable candidates because Richard must not be seen as the most expedient choice, but the right choice.” Richard will be the new CEO again, provided he doesn’t mess up between now and tomorrow. He’d be fine if he were bitching to Dawn Simon. Instead, he’s complaining to C.J. Cantwell, who can’t wait to publish this juicy evisceration. Oops!

What struck me about this episode is how it continues Silicon Valley’s subtle yet subversive lean toward its female characters and viewpoints. Silicon Valley is mostly about the fellas, but last week’s episode featured Laurie and Monica taking charge in important ways, and this week expands upon that theme, casting some side-eye toward the discomfort some men feel when taking orders from women. Richard is our catalyst here, which forces us to pay attention. Everyone who pisses him off in this episode is a woman, from Jan the Man to the tech blogger. His behavior plays like a reassertion of a masculinity that he hadn’t lost in the first place.

Had he given C.J. a chance to say anything before firing off a rant he felt was justified, he would have known she wasn’t Dawn. He saw a woman, he made an assumption, and suddenly her input was secondary to his impulse. These assumptions are exactly how Carla got the better of Richard in the skunkworks episode, too.

Richard’s line about Peter Gregory really hammers this theme home, and not just because it’s a cruel thing to say. It’s also wrong. In the realm of the robotic, Laurie Bream is practically Bender from Futurama compared to Raviga’s late leader. Peter Gregory had no empathy whatsoever; he would have fired Richard long before she did.

Writer Megan Amram also gives Amanda Crew’s Monica a moment that really resonates. It’s small, but important. After Big Head feeds C.J. the scoop about Gavin’s net-neutrality violation in exchange for killing the story about Richard’s rant, an especially useless Erlich asks Monica if she “really has to be here.” Her response — an exasperated look that says, “Haven’t I heard this a million times before?” — speaks volumes about the show’s targets. Silicon Valley isn’t out to vilify the guys, but moments like this one keep the satire honest. Nobody’s flaws are immune.

And so, after dodging a serious bullet, Richard is once again CEO of Pied Piper. (He’s back in my good graces, to boot.) His reelection comes just in time: Pied Piper will surely face a tough battle against Gavin and his reconfigured Nucleus in the second half of this season.

Silicon Valley Recap: Return of the King