Super Pumped isn’t a show that needs more storytelling devices, given the glut of illustrative titles, backscreens, and animations, on top of Quentin Tarantino’s voiceover narration. Adding “breaking the fourth wall” to the list, as “The Charm Offensive” does, seems like a bad idea, an unnecessary narrative shortcut currently plaguing the mostly entertaining HBO series Winning Time. Yet the structure of this dense, purposeful episode makes talking to the camera akin to a courtroom testimonial, with Tim Cook as the presiding judge, Uber employees like Susan Fowler and Fawzi Kamel as witnesses and viewers acting as jurors in the court of premium cable opinion. And so, in the words of many an indulgent TV judge, “I’ll allow it.”
The fulcrum for the episode is a meeting Travis Kalanick takes with Eddy Cue and Tim Cook, who are threatening to pull Uber from the App Store after the company’s deliberate and reckless violation of Apple’s privacy policies. In the meeting before the meeting, Travis cannot humble himself enough to acknowledge the seriousness of the problem, much less consider an apology. When his co-founder peeps, mouse-like, about how this could be Uber’s Waterloo, he cracks, “Napoleon was a great general. I’m not knocking the little man. But he was not making France the kind of coin that I’m making for Apple.” And when Emil, his more fiercely loyal right hand, advises an apology (“Saying sorry costs nothing”), the idea sits like ash in his mouth. That’s not the Uber way.
There’s one sliver of a reason to understand Travis’ indignation at this moment, even as most humans would recognize him as spectacularly arrogant. As Travis knows — and would have no trouble reminding people, as he did when he asked board members to cheer him like Kirk Gibson at Dodger Stadium — his take-no-prisoners, rule-breaking style is the reason why Uber is the force that it is, fully enabled by the men (always men) who put him in that position. Now these same men want him to change course as if he isn’t the Frankenstein’s monster they all had a hand in creating. It’s not in Travis’ nature to feel remorse for his actions or sympathy for the victims of his ambition, and his behavior was never curbed so long as he was winning. This rant to Cook lays bare that Silicon Valley hypocrisy:
“That’s what it means to be a disruptor. You want to punish me for embodying the spirit that built the Valley? That built this building that we’re sitting in right now?”
Nevertheless, the App Store issue does represent an actual existential crisis for the company, even if Travis is ultimately correct in predicting that Apple isn’t inclined to yank such a popular app from its service. The situation allows Cook to grill Travis over his company’s sins, which in turn allows the show to do likewise, with powerful vignettes around Fowler and Kamel and glimpses of Uber’s calamitous “charm offensive” with a press corps it had persistently antagonized. In every case, Travis’s worst qualities as a person and a manager finally inflict serious damage to the company and his leadership failures.
Much of Fowler’s piece of the story is drawn from her widely read blog post from February 2017, titled “Reflecting on One Very, Very Strange Year at Uber.” In an earlier episode, we already saw the astonishing account of her first day on the job, when her team leader suggestively mentioned his “open relationship.” That started her own open relationship with Uber’s HR department, albeit one without a moment’s satisfaction for Fowler. It may seem inelegant on the show’s part to have Fowler tell her story directly to the camera rather than dramatize the subtle and not-so-subtle evidence that Uber is a hostile work environment for women. But Fowler’s blog post lays out the case so well that adapting it directly to the screen seems like the most economical and forceful solution. Working on a genuine world-changing app is exciting for Fowler and other women at the company, and so the solution, in the face of rampant misogyny and a complicit HR department, was simply to try to fit in. But at a certain point, that becomes impossible for Fowler and many women at the company.
The show had also sketched some of Kamel’s story in the lead-up to this episode, like a scene where he chooses to sleep in his car because he needed to log more driving hours to make ends meet. Here his financial struggles are multiplied by his purchase of a luxury car for Uber Black, a decision the company encouraged and supported through a loan program. But in the fascinating dashboard video of Kamel confronting a defensive Kalanick, it’s clear that the company’s drivers, once lured by big incentives to work to Uber, are now hung out to dry by low pricing, no tips, and poor commissions. The plan for riders and drivers is the same: Spend billions in VC money to kill the cab industry and bring them on board, then squeeze them later when they have nowhere else to go. Travis feels perfectly content being a “shit-heel company.”
And so it’s with a smug wink that he gathers the press for an off-the-record dinner and announces, “I’m not a rapacious industrialist. I’m just a man stewarding a world-altering vision that’s exceeding all expectations.” Even with a communications team desperate for Travis to make peace with the press and avoid a long list of controversial topics, he cannot keep himself from glibly peacocking for journalists or expressing his grievances about their supposedly unfair coverage. On the other end of the table, Emil uses “off the record” as blanket immunity for startling slanders about reporters, particularly one named Olivia that the company was doing oppo research on, with the intention of revealing her as a “slut” who cheats on her husband. BuzzFeed reporter Ben Smith, who never agreed to the company’s restrictions on the event, dutifully reports about it, creating another PR headache.
In the end, Cook’s interrogation results in a slap on the wrist, just as Travis predicted. Money forgives everything.
Off The Meter
• Travis’s problems with women include those closest to him. In an early scene, we never actually hear the “good news” Gabi wants to share with Travis, who’s so buzzed by his own victories that he’s more interested in finding the Wii remote. Then his mother tries to counsel him on how to handle reports that Uber is putting women and children in danger, a charge that Travis waves off as “middle school stuff.” She counters, “Except you’re not in middle school anymore. You’re a grown man and you need to take responsibility and face your problems head-on.” Sorry, mom.
• “I have nothing but respect for Apple’s commitment to privacy” gets the burst of open laughter it deserves.
• Not to be outflanked in the rapacious industrialist department, Cook blows right past Travis calling him out on the worker abuses at Foxconn, the notorious company that manufactures Apple products, and ends the meeting by cooly announcing that Uber’s multi-billion dollar investment in China is for naught. Check and mate.
• At this point, the conversation shifts to whether Travis’s various missteps are “survivable.” No doubt this will be fleshed out more in the next episode, but it’s telling that Travis’ decision to pull Anthony Levandowski away from Google’s autonomous vehicle program is a far graver misstep than his long list of managerial abuses. Losing money is, again, the only unforgivable crime in business.
• Most of the figures in Super Pumped are dramatized under their real names, but “Olivia” is an amalgam of multiple journalists. In this episode, Olivia is a stand-in for Sarah Lacy, the founder and EIC of PandoDaily. A full account of her battles with Kalanick and Uber can be found on Vox.
• Strongly considered bumping up the rating a full star for The Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular” needle drop. The song is about people retreating to a bar “after a hard day of nothin’ much at all.” Quite a different feeling for an Uber employee than drawing from a keg in Las Vegas.