The Travis Kalanick of Super Pumped enjoys the sound of his own voice, speaking in grand soliloquies intended to project strength but just as often reveal insecurity and weakness or garden-variety hubris. If Uber was part of the “tech bubble” that Bill Gurley is asked about at the SXSW panel that ends this episode, then surely founders like Kalanick are the ones filling that bubble with hot air. It makes him a killer at pitch meetings, where he can wow venture capitalists with a grandiose vision to change the world. And he’s the king of the open office, where he can stroll into the lobby after every triumph, arms raised, and expect cheers to rain down from his royal subjects.
Best of all, no one can call him out on his bullshit. And so, in the opening scene of “War,” his top lieutenants, along with Bill, have to sit in “the war room” as he quotes Bobby Knight admiringly and identifies with the Al Capone of The Untouchables, specifically the scene where he brains one of his own men with a baseball bat at a conference table. What’s funny about both references is their shortsightedness. The Knight line about winning championships (“We don’t get there with milk and cookies”) sounds like a fine argument for a coach known for bullying his way to glory, but at that point in time, Knight had long since been fired from Indiana University for his abuses. And if you watch all the way to the end of The Untouchables, things don’t end well for Capone, either.
And yet, Travis does seem to love a good braining. “You crack a guy’s cranium open,” he muses. “You make an example of somebody. People fall in line.” At this point in the Uber story, there have been few consequences to Travis’s unchecked aggression and many obvious gains, like his success against city transportation boards and his ability to raise round after round of investor money to smite his adversaries. Never mind that the burn rate is astronomical and the losses unsustainable over the long haul. Or that the corporate culture at Uber is as free of boundaries as its founder, from the wild bacchanals in Miami and Las Vegas to the casual deployment of illegal surveillance. As long as the victories keep on coming, Travis’s confidantes will remain his enablers.
The one baked-in flaw with Super Pumped is that Travis is exhausting to be around. Keep in mind: The top people at Uber have to sit around and tolerate his ravings, but Showtime viewers are not required to do likewise. The models for the show’s conception of Travis, like the Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network or the Jordan Belfort of The Wolf of Wall Street, have at least some sliver of humanity to go along their predatory instincts: Zuckerberg feels bruised and aggrieved, and we can identify with the fundamental loneliness of a founder whose platform was intended to bring people together. Belfort is an absolute pig, but his hedonistic appetites are nothing if not down-to-earth. Sex and drugs are a lot of fun, and Belfort’s earning rate of a million-a-week buys an unlimited supply of it.
Though Travis displays neediness on occasion, particularly when it comes to women, his Silicon Valley sociopathy remains a dominant trait, at least now that he’s still riding high. Following last week’s episode, “War” deals heavily with the battle between Uber and a competing rideshare company, Lyft, over a transportation sector that the apps have already started to dominate. Travis is a zero-sum capitalist who doesn’t want to co-exist with another company in the same field. There are business reasons for this: Drivers are working for both Uber and Lyft simultaneously, and having a competitor may limit how much he can exploit riders when Uber is the only option in town. In the short term, that means giving drivers financial incentives to offer their services to Uber exclusively. In the long term, though, he’s going to have to buy Lyft out entirely.
To that end, Travis needs great gobs of new money, but the question of where and how to get it opens up a rift between Travis and Bill, who is ostensibly his experienced mentor but is made to look more like a hostage here. Bill has a list of respected VC firms for raising another round of capital, but Travis’s eyes drift toward Google Ventures because he craves validation from the biggest players in town. Bill warns that Google will insist on being lead investors while limiting their investment — and, if Travis pitches to them and gets turned down, other firms will likely follow suit. Once again, Travis takes Bill’s advice as a form of oppression and defiantly ignores it, courting another disaster that turns out to be a triumph, as Google kicks in over $250 million in exchange for a seat at the braining table.
The episode ends in a loss that feels like a win to Travis, who would rather humiliate his adversaries than sign off on a deal that benefits both sides. The head of Lyft, John Zimmer, is asking for a 17 percent stake in the combined companies, which doesn’t seem like a huge ask given the promise of a monopoly that will allow Uber to reduce driver compensation while increasing rider fees. But Travis, who cannot stop admiring gangsters, wants to be like Michael Corleone at Lake Tahoe in The Godfather Part II: “My offer is this: Nothing.” At this moment, 8 percent is the closest he can get to “nothing,” but for Zimmer, the message is clear that Travis doesn’t want him around. He’d rather crush him in the field.
This puts Bill in a terrible spot. When Zimmer confronts him outside the building, asking, “What are you doing, Bill? Riding shotgun with a guy like that?” Bill can only shrug and claim he was defending his founder. The decision to throw in his lot with Travis was made the night Travis successfully pitched him, and he’s in the position of having his advice ignored and hoping against hope that a scorched-earth strategy pays off on his investment. He even loses his inside man, Emil, on the first day. Bill’s rebellion at SXSW, where he talks about “dead unicorns,” is so oblique that Uber doesn’t even get mentioned by name. That’s the best he can do to push back. And even that gets him banned from the building.
Off The Meter
• “I am being cucked right now. What are we doing about it?” One of the benefits of being a big-shot tech founder is that you can pose a question like that to the room and not get teased mercilessly for it. (Ditto introducing your new girlfriend to your “jam pad.”)
• “It’s Prohibition, and we’re the only ones making gin!” is definitely a first-act take on The Untouchables.
• The Quentin Tarantino narration continues to be a liability, mainly because it’s like putting a hat on a hat. Travis is such a dominant voice already that his philosophy doesn’t need reinforcement from an unseen narrator comparing people who call him out on his morality to children or traitors.
• Travis appears to be really missing Angie’s Salinger references. His new girlfriend can play the violin at the farmers market, but it’s a bummer to him that she doesn’t pick up on his “dun-colored mare” comment.
• As usual with Koppelman/Levien shows, the needle-drops are first rate here, particularly Beastie Boys’ “Rhymin’ & Stealin’,” from the group’s untamed party-lout days of Licensed to Ill. The opening lines (“Because mutiny on the bounty’s what we’re all about / I’m gonna board your ship and turn it on out”) are a nice summation of Travis’s corporate philosophy.