In the first scene of this terrific episode, Travis Kalanick likens himself to General George S. Patton when talking about his Uber “family,” a typically odd and distasteful reference, especially as it comes after news that a dozen Uber drivers have been murdered in Brazil. His callousness recalls another military man once played by George C. Scott in the movies, General “Buck” Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove. Advising the president in the War Room over nuclear war scenarios with the Soviet Union, Turgidson offers the “admittedly regrettable” possibility of 20 million dead rather than 150 million people killed. The president, aghast, says he’s talking about mass murder, not war. To which Turgidson replies, “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed.”
Uber is getting its hair mussed in “Boober,” and the dead Brazilian drivers are only one strand among many. Travis’ brand of scorched-earth capitalism, unchecked by morality or empathy or even a scintilla of self-awareness, is starting to come back to haunt him. To him, other people seem to fall under two categories: Those who can help him and those who are enemies, and it doesn’t take much for the helpers to become enemies if he feels like they’re obstacles to his world-domination plan. Bill, his supposed mentor and chief investor, is an enemy for suggesting that adding tips will make his miserable drivers happier. Austin, his multi-city driver-relations maestro, is a hassle for asking him to stop the rampant sexual harassment in the company. Gabi, his girlfriend, is an enemy for chatting with Google’s Sergey Brin at a conference because he’s the one who should be getting the attention.
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and Travis pounds away obliviously, never thinking about how his recklessness might endanger his company (which he cares about), much less his employees and passengers (who he doesn’t). His obsession is the growth and increased valuation of Uber, which has the added effect of shielding him from accountability inside the company because he’s making everyone filthy rich. “When I walk in this room,” he tells his board, “it should be like Kirk Gibson walking into Dodger Stadium — one loud, long cheer that goes on the whole fucking game.” As the episode unfolds, he cannot stop seething about Bill, David Drummond, and the other turncoats on the board trying to rein him in. Their job is to indulge him. Any advice to change course sounds like a sinister conspiracy.
The issue with the drivers extends beyond the immediate mortal threat in Brazil, though Bill wants to make it clear that protests over safety could undermine the company’s continued global expansion. The bigger problem is that drivers have lost the incentives that brought them on board, and now they’re having to work brutal hours to make ends meet, which is part of the argument for tips. But in Travis’ thinking, screwing over drivers and passengers is a feature, not a bug. The whole point of “disrupting” the cab industry was to eliminate competition and make Uber the sole option for all parties. Making Uber a “good” company isn’t the goal for Travis as it might be for Bill. When Bill warns that people might stop using Uber, Travis lays out his philosophy in a speech that lifts the veil on Silicon Valley revolutionaries:
“Just like they’re going to stop shopping at Walmart and stop eating at McDonald’s? Everyone knows those are shit-heel companies, but no one gives a fuck because the price is dirt cheap and the fries are delicious. We consume what we want and our brains figure out a way to justify it later.”
With this speech, Travis feels back on that airport runway with Bill, looking unimpressed at the private jets around him when what he really wants is a hangar full of them. Uber is to be thought about as a route to wealth and power, and all those surveys and reports about unhappy (or murdered) drivers and customers are not worth considering if making adjustments impedes growth. The mere suggestion of a course correction sounds, to Travis’ ears, like an implicit and mutinous attack on his decision-making. He displays a combination of supreme arrogance and hypersensitivity that isn’t healthy for any leader, much less one this prone to mistakes.
The title of the episode, “Boober,” references a GQ interview with Kalanick in 2014 where he bragged about his sex life — not the first time a man has done so in the pages of Gentleman’s Quarterly, but not something the head of a company should say. Earlier in the season, the party in Las Vegas suggested a top-down frat-boy culture at Uber that manifests itself in the office here to powerful effect. First, we follow a new woman engineer who gets assigned to a top team at the company, only to get harassed immediately by her supervisor, who sends her DMs about how he and his girlfriend have an open relationship. When she takes a complaint to HR, she’s startled to find herself rebuffed. (“I don’t really see the need to ruin his life over something so small.”) And when she talks to Austin about it, she’s again surprised to get a colorful grin-and-bear-it retort: “We basically signed up to work in the middle of Mardi Gras,” says Austin. “We’re not going to show our tits for a bunch of beads, but there’s nothing we can do to stop the parade.”
That all of these conversations happen between women at the company is a fascinating and persuasive example of how the victims of a sexist corporate culture can wind up reinforcing it against their better judgment. Austin has just had her own repulsive encounter with an Uber colleague at a party, where a drunken team member ran a hand up her leg. And because she’s “Employee Four” at the company, she can go directly to Travis to complain about it. Travis initially flies into a rage (“I’m going to dismantle that motherfucker”), which isn’t helpful in its own right, but his actual solution, to tell the offender never to do it again, makes things worse for Austin. When she goes back to Travis a second time, his message is that “assholes” get things done, and tolerating them is a small price for a multimillion-dollar piece of the company.
The Mardi Gras analogy, then, is rational under the circumstances: The choices at Uber, for a woman who likes her work and wants to make money, is to accept harassment as the trade-off. If they want to be part of the team, they’ll have to survive a night out at the bar or the strip club. And it’s not like Uber has any more respect for the privacy of its office workers as it does for its app users: The excellent director of the episode, John Dahl (Rounders, The Last Seduction), turns the open-office space into a hotbed of paranoia and dread, a fishbowl where people can spy on and intimidate each other. It’s corporate transparency of the worst kind.
Off The Meter
• One issue with Super Pumped, as with Billions, is that it can be energetic to a fault. The tempo is most appropriate to the lives of Type-A moral monsters, but devices like the video game-style “Boardroom Brawl” sequence, with Quentin Tarantino narration, are too flashy by half. (And a QT line later in the episode, “This is not somebody who says the first thing that pops into her cabeza, daddio,” made me break out in hives.)
• This will pay off in future episodes presumably, but Uber’s efforts to circumvent Apple’s privacy policies by “geoblocking” Apple headquarters in Cupertino are still so breathtakingly audacious to consider. And also a sign that Travis simply doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s amateur hour.
• Uma Thurman’s Arianna Huffington impersonation is a little iffy, but people who have worked in the media for a while can certainly recognize the connection between Uber and The Huffington Post regarding employee relations. The narration efficiently assesses HuffPo as an operation where “writers didn’t get paid dick,” and Huffington sold her piece for $300 million.
• Travis’ hilariously dopey braggadocio comes out when he tries to lure a self-driving car engineer from Google: “They’re the establishment, man. We’re the renegades. I take fear, I mix it up with some Iams, and I feed it to my dog for breakfast.”
• The Dean Martin example Travis likes to use in reference to his sexist posturing in interviews ricochets beautifully in his last meeting with Austin. “It’s a persona,” he tells her. “Dean Martin drank milk.” To which Austin replies, “No, that was counter spin. He had fucking liver failure.”