Back in season two, I appeared on the Vulture podcast to talk about Silicon Valley’s treatment of its female characters. This occurred the week before Alice Wetterlund’s character, Carla, debuted. She was a brilliant coder who managed to wow Dinesh and Gilfoyle with her code and scare everyone else with her womanhood. There was talk about the show being misogynistic back then, which I did not agree with at all. Silicon Valley has always satirized its male characters’ response to women, even when there were few besides regular cast member Amanda Crew’s Monica. As Vulture’s own Matt Zoller Seitz said on the podcast, the male characters exist in a world of “chauvinism in the absence of women.”
But what about Monica? One of the plotlines of “Maximizing Alphaness” deals with a Women In Tech (WIT) event to which Monica had not been invited; she finds out about it after running into Professional Badass Laurie Bream. Monica is surprised that she, the CFO of Pied Piper, wasn’t considered for a mentoring panel. Laurie is surprised she would ask. “You’ve never shown the slightest interest in supporting women,” she says. Quite frankly, the show has always seen Monica as “one of the guys” even in the rare moments when she commiserated with another woman. Monica isn’t a coder, but here’s a refresher list of prior programming divas on Silicon Valley.
• Carla’s a good place to start. As the only woman on the coding staff at Pied Piper, she held her own with the guys. Two episodes later, however, Jared was excited to introduce her to Monica so “you won’t be the only one here.” “The only thing worse than being the only female here,” Carla replies, “is being one of two, because everyone expects you to become friends.”
• Charlotte, the Cupcakely Coder, whose sole purpose was to seduce Dinesh with her code. It turns out that her code had been written by Gilfoyle.
• Winnie, the Space-Using Coder, whose offer of casual sex was rejected by Richard because she was on the wrong side of the spaces vs. tabs debate.
• Gwart, the silent Hacker Hostel incubator inhabitant whom Jared latches onto after being dumped as Richard’s right hand man. She figures in this episode by attending the Women in Tech event and then firing Jared as a result.
Monica has always brought knowledge that the Pied Piper guys lacked. As a VC, and then an investor at Bream/Hall, she provided financial expertise and the ability to maneuver through the tech investment world. Her time as equal partner with Laurie afforded her some female bonding, though Laurie is far from the stereotypical gal pal. (She represents her friendship in this episode by touching Monica’s arm, then explaining that the gesture is friendly.) Monica navigates Laurie’s prickly nature because she’s like her first boss, the late Peter Gregory.
Monica has earned the respect of the guys by being as knowledgeable — or as petty — as they are. She even earned Gilfoyle’s begrudging respect in last season’s finale. I don’t think Monica’s gender really registers with this bunch; if this were Tod Browning’s “Freaks,” they’d chant “we accept you, ONE OF US!”
So it’s a surprise when Monica’s femininity suddenly becomes expedient to Pied Piper. Granted, she pulled the old “are you gonna let a woman tell you what to do?” reverse psychology line when getting Hooli’s board of directors to sign over the company, but that was her idea. This week’s turn of events is the first time I can recall Richard explicitly asking her to do something simply because she was a woman. He asks her to take over Foxhole, the military adultery site that’s “90 percent male and all the female users are prostitutes,” according to Priyanka Singh, another Pied Piper coder. Richard’s rationale is that Foxhole will look less vile to feminists if a woman is at the helm of it. This reeks of the tokenism and wrongheadedness I know all too well in I.T., but Daisy Gardner’s script has an even sharper elbow to throw.
Monica doesn’t give a shit about the optics of Foxhole until she has to run it. A woman in charge might take some of the heat off, but a woman of color in charge will lower the heat even more in the era of performative wokeness. Knowing this, Monica dumps Foxhole on Priyanka. In doing so, she can prove to Laurie that she’s a mentor to other women and get a primo spot at the next WIT event. Every petty plan on Silicon Valley backfires, and this is no exception: Priyanka upstages Monica at the WIT event by explaining that Foxhole 2.0 is not only coded by an all-women crew, but they’ve made the site more sex-positive and worker-friendly. Laurie motions Monica off the stage so Priyanka can have her spot.
Since Monica is asked to woman up, it makes sense to make Richard man up. Nobody expects him to be ruthless, though in season four he made a valiant attempt at Gavin-level nastiness. During the axing of most of Hooli’s staff, Richard notices his former Hooli boss, Ethan, in the line. Ethan worms his way into a stay of execution by offering ideas for leveraging the new Hooli products Pied Piper acquired in the buyout. Very little is known about Richard’s prior life at Hooli — he quit in the second episode — so Ethan provides some colorful, historical commentary once he’s on board leading Gilfoyle and Dinesh’s team.
Unfortunately, Ethan is Russ Hanneman–level obnoxious! He disrespects his new boss repeatedly, showing unflattering pictures of Richard’s early days to everyone and calling him Patches, an insulting old nickname. “Patches” evokes the classic Clarence Carter song that always makes me cry, but my tears gave way to anger when Ethan violated a sacred coder’s rule: He shows a piece of Richard’s old code, a very bad snippet where he applied a brute force search to a sorted list. I’ve never done this, but I have written some dumbass code in my early days; if someone were to show that to anyone, I’d be writing these recaps from death row. Of course, Richard takes these insults in stride.
Leave it to our reigning King of Petty to convince Richard to embrace his CEO status. After all, the CEO is the alpha of the company, not Ethan! “I watched you get kicked in the balls for 90 minutes,” says Dinesh, accurately describing their last meeting. Despite his Jane Goodall analogy referencing the wrong primate, Dinesh makes his point by forcing Richard to watch an online video called “Maximizing Alphaness.” I suppose it has subliminal messages designed to pump up the viewer, but its surface-level messages are pretty damn blatant. While a loud electric guitar shreds in the background, images of tigers, scantily clad women, wolves and fast cars flash on the screen. “You are an alpha male” is superimposed on the bottom of the screen. This sequence repeats ad nauseam and looks like a Michael Bay movie.
“Maximizing Alphaness” appears to work on Mr. Hendricks. When Ethan starts in on his nonsense, Richard punches him in the forehead. Since Richard doesn’t know how to make a fist, he’s the only one injured in this altercation. “The forehead is the hardest part of the human body” dude-bro lawyer Ron LaFlamme tells Richard as they sit in Tracy’s HR office awaiting punishment. Armed with an apology, Richard is stunned to find Ethan acting extremely contrite and begging to keep his job. We think it’s that damn video, but it turns out that Holden is terrorizing Ethan the same way Jared terrorized him when he became Richard’s new assistant. The episode ends with Jared and Holden in a stare down over who will get to serve alpha Richard.
Jared, Gilfoyle, and Gavin all have subplots in this episode. Gavin decides to write a roman a clef about his younger days, but he avoids any talk about tech so nobody’s interested in Cold Ice Cream and Warm Kisses. “This book is a fucking disaster!” says Gavin. I’ll refrain from making the same comment about Matt Ross’s screenplay for Captain Fantastic. Instead, I’ll complain about the unflinching cruelty of Jared’s subplot about finding his birth parents; they reject him in horrific ways that drag the episode down.
Oddly enough, the sweetest moment this week comes from Gilfoyle. His subplot brings him John, a chess-playing Hooli employee whose stoicism makes him a kindred spirit. After beating him in 42 straight chess games, John attempts to friend Gilfoyle on Hooli Chat. Watch how the two men look sideways at each other just before Gilfoyle reluctantly declines the request. Maybe Bertram Gilfoyle has a soul after all.