Breaking Down ‘Silicon Valley’s Flawed Characters and Promising Debut Season

Silicon Valley’s fourth episode, “Fiduciary Duties,” ends with Richard and Erlich as they leave Peter Gregory’s office, where they spy an old photo of Gregory with Pied Piper rival, Hooli CEO Gavin Belson. In the image, they’re about the same age as Richard and Erlich, who turn back to Gregory. “Is that you and Gavin Belson? Were you guys friends?” And the always-brief Gregory simply replies, “I thought so.”

When the show debuted at South by Southwest, creator Mike Judge described it as being about how in the tech world, “the most successful people are the ones least prepared to handle it.” The show must be viewed through this lens, and that photo in Gregory’s office is the perfect illustration of how no one in Silicon Valley really understands how to navigate the terrain between other people and the stakes that come with outsized money mixed with ego. Friends and collaborators can easily find themselves on opposite ends of a bitter rivalry, thanks, surely, to the gargantuan success that comes to them. It also hints at the show’s underlying tension: even if Richard is successful, will he and his collaborators one day be arch enemies, as Peter Gregory and Gavin Belson now are?

Once Silicon Valley’s season got underway, the next few episodes focused on Richard and Erlich’s disastrous attempts at giving the company structure. They create a business plan with Jared, fight a piping company that shares their name, get a supremely banal logo, and hire a celebrated hacker (who’s really a kid) to create their cloud database. Throughout, the common theme is Richard’s unpreparedness to be a manager, much less helm a whole company.

The rest of Silicon Valley’s season played out as a race against Hooli to debut Richard’s compression application and go to market. The season culminates with the Pied Piper team going nearly head-to-head with Hooli at TechCrunch Disrupt. The episode plays out in familiar sitcom see-saw rhythm of discovery-setback-discovery-setback, but it’s still immensely satisfying to watch Richard enter the zone where he’s at his best (coding) and finally succeed. Hooli may have beaten Pied Piper to the public and supported a compression engine with “tons of functionality,” they may even have Shakira, but they haven’t got the ace-in-the-hole that Pied Piper does: Richard Hendricks himself. Sure, Belson can reverse engineer and steal Richard’s work, but Richard, after a lot of handwringing and stress puking, can go back and rebuild his platform from the ground up, making it even faster. And he does so with only minutes to spare before Pied Piper’s nearly disastrous big reveal at Disrupt’s Startup Battlefield.

The show’s writing is especially stellar in the finale, written by Judge’s co-showrunner Alec Berg (Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld). The scene leading up to PP’s public debut featured the best dick joke I’ve ever heard. In a moment where all seems lost and Pied Piper will be beaten by Hooli’s speed and resources, Erlich refuses to go down, saying, “We’re gonna win, even if I have to go into the auditorium and jack off every guy in the audience myself.” When it’s pointed out that Erlich only has 10 minutes so his ridiculous premise is definitely impossible, it leaves Dinesh and Gilfoyle seeking, in earnest, a productivity equation to (ugh, for lack of a better phrase) actually pull it off. The scene is remarkable in that it’s a dick joke told as only a coder could — through manipulation of data. Their tabulating is what brings Richard’s epiphany that saves Pied Piper, but it also shows the PP team doing what they do best — code — and probably for the first time all season, truly working together.

Richard may not be a good manager, but he’s clearly at home laboring on his platform and the shots of him rebuilding Pied Piper in a Hail Mary pass to stay relevant are probably the happiest we see him the whole season. Peter Gregory isn’t a great manager, either. Earlier in the season, he ignored one of his desperate startups in a brilliant scene where he ruminates over Burger King, making a connection on sesame seed shortages that easily makes his company $12 million dollars. The extra money saves the startup. Seeing Gregory and Richard’s individual moments of brilliance in between their more difficult moments shows that maybe the real Silicon Valley would be better off letting its iconoclasts focus solely on what they do best instead of forcing them into positions as managers and businesspeople.

Additional thoughts:

-In a show full of incredible comedians, Christopher Evan Welch’s performance as Peter Gregory is remarkably specific and funny, which is made all the more bittersweet by Welch’s passing in late 2013.

-There’s plenty of fun stabs at the ridiculousness of the tech world, including Big Head’s rest and vest, Jared’s de facto kidnapping by a driverless car that ends up stuck on an oil rig for four days, Richard’s inferiority complex brought up on the the 16-year-old hacker genuis, the Carver, and later an annoying invasive mini-drone that Gilfoyle bats to the ground while barely looking up.

-Silicon Valley is still lacking in female characters. Sure, there have been a few, but without fail almost every one of them is framed in some way by sex or romance and anxieties both bring — there’s Mochachino, a stripper; Gilfoyle’s girlfriend, Tara (who Gilfoyle convinces Dinesh wants to sleep with him); Richard’s ex, who appears at Disrupt; and the pink-laden Cupcakely girl-woman that Dinesh nearly gets busy with. Even Monica — with one passing suggestion in the finale about possibly going on a date with Richard — eventually gets placed in the possible-romance category. While Amanda Crew is a welcome presence as Monica, her dialogue usually has her delivering the scene’s stakes and setups but never punchlines. And while it’s nice that Silicon Valley’s only well-adjusted character is played by a woman, it’d be much more exciting to see her (or another woman) develop some depth, reveal some weird quirks, and bust out some comic chops.

-Jared is probably the show’s most unsung character, but I can’t get enough of Zach Woods’s wonderful earnest delivery. More please.

-TJ Miller’s facial hair alone deserves an Emmy. What are those weird chin stripes?

Erica Lies is a writer and improviser in Austin, Texas. Her work has appeared in Bitch, Rookie Mag, and Culture Map.

Breaking Down ‘Silicon Valley’s Flawed Characters and […]