The arc of Super Pumped and Travis Kalanick’s run as CEO of Uber is basically the reaping/sowing meme from Twitter. Travis spends the early episodes doing all kinds of sowing (“Haha fuck yeah!!! Yes!!”): Rolling over the transportation board in San Francisco, using Greyball to extinguish a similar threat in Portland, stocking his company with “assholes,” blowing venture capital to attract drivers and passengers that he intends to screw over after destroying the cab industry. Now comes the reaping (“Well this fucking sucks. What the fuck.”), when those seedlings of toxicity within the company and exploitation in the field are starting to bear their poisoned fruit.
The show is beyond caring about how any of this affects Travis. In contrast to the excellent Hulu series The Dropout, which seeks to explore the contradictions and vulnerabilities of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes while also revealing the systemic fraud at her company, Super Pumped isn’t interested in Travis’ human side. In fact, during a scene at the hospital in this episode, where Travis takes a moment to talk business with Arianna Huffington, his own brother looks over and says to his ex-girlfriend Angie, “Those aren’t human beings.” With his mother dead and his father seriously injured after a boating accident, his preoccupation with the fate of his company is now all-consuming. Ambition has hollowed his soul.
As the headaches detailed in last week’s episodes carry over into this one — the video of Travis berating a driver and the Google lawsuit against Anthony Levandowski for theft of trade secrets chief among them — another round of errors adds to the migraine. With his reputation already shrinking among the rank-and-file at Uber, Travis’ decision to join President Trump’s economic council lands badly at headquarters and worse on the streets since Trump’s virulent anti-immigrant sentiments, codified in “the Muslim ban,” affects many in the driving pool. To make matters worse, a taxi strike in New York City inspires Uber to eliminate the surge pricing that would normally occur when the demand for rides is much higher than the supply. When the decision is made to offer cheaper fares from JFK, it’s widely understood as an opportunistic form of strike-busting, another chance for the company to harm the cab business at a vulnerable moment. It shouldn’t have to be said that Uber, a service that relies on urban riders (and drivers) who are predominantly left-of-center politically, will not want to be understood as Trump-affiliated scabs.
Enter Dan O’Sullivan, a left-wing journalist from Chicago. In the political ecosystem on Twitter, O’Sullivan (once @Bro_Pair, now @osullyville) is well known for his scabrously funny tweets, but when Uber’s New York account posted a notice that it was suspending surge pricing on rides from JFK, his response was unalloyed fury: “Congrats to @Uber_NYC on breaking a strike to profit off of refugees being consigned to Hell. Eat shit and die. #deleteUber” The #deleteUber part caught fire on Twitter, in much the same way users can come together for a mass public shaming. In Super Pumped, O’Sullivan fires off this little torpedo while working on the sad bachelor lunch of grilled cheese sandwich — in real life, he was folding laundry — but deleting Uber became a viral movement. People posted screenshots before nuking the app from their phones.
It’s a small but significant detail that Travis’ name appears next to Elon Musk’s in the headline on tech CEOs joining Trump’s advisory council because that’s the type of leader he wants to be — not the pitiful loser with the private jet, but the titan of industry who owns an entire hangar. The funniest moment in the episode is a phone call where he informs the president, with all the gravity he can muster, that he’s withdrawing from the council, and Trump just hangs up on him. He thought that he’d have the president’s ear, which would be good for the company, but it’s his vanity that was being served here. As Austin tells him in a fury, “What you’re doing is dicking around. You need to start listening to the people here, the people who helped you build this company. Because the people here, they hate him. And they are starting to really hate you.”
Travis’s confidence never wavers through all of these problems — which, of course, is a problem in itself. Uber was built on his unchecked swagger, the notion that only “assholes” could get the job done. He can’t be expected to gearshift to humility. When it comes to Uber’s workplace problems, his response is to roll his eyes and say, “I just need a list of shit to do. And then I’ll do that shit and people can stop freaking out.” He loves the idea of Eric Holder being the man to make that list because Holder’s position as Barack Obama’s attorney general might Febreeze the stink off Travis’ association with Trump. His embarrassingly heavy-handed attempt to charm Holder into issuing a gentle internal investigation backfires (“I don’t work for you,” says Holder), and the doorstop of a report that follows lays out the company’s sins with devastating comprehensiveness.
One of the report’s recommendations is to fire Emil Michael, who made the wrong kind of news in telling Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith about the possibility of “oppo” research on unfriendly journalists and being part of a story on an escort-karaoke bar excursion in Korea. (Kalanick also mentions “there’s India,” referring to reports of Michael’s lack of urgency when asked to order a direct report, Eric Alexander, to hand over the medical records of a rape victim in India, records that Alexander obtained and carried around in his briefcase for months.) Ever the loyal Smithers to Travis’ Mr. Burns, Emil spares him the discomfort of having to fire him, recognizing that Travis needs him to fall on the sword. They’re still bros, after all. Uber is a bro culture to the end.
Off the Meter
• The show again gets too cute with the gimmickry in this episode. A scene where Bill and Arianna have a phone conversation where their actual feelings are subtitled below their more diplomatic exchange feels like a half-baked nod to Annie Hall. And Quentin Tarantino’s narration isn’t getting any better, though the running #deleteUber tallies that follow are an effective graphic.
• Travis disposes of Gabi as coldly as he did Angie, which is something he feels entitled to do as a certified Big Shot, but it turns out to be another example of his poor judgment as a CEO. A better break-up might have kept the Seoul story from coming out. (Or, you know, don’t take your girlfriend and female executives on a company jaunt to an escort bar.)
• Levandowski’s line about not bothering to cover his tracks at Google is hilariously blinkered: “When you take a dump on your ex-girlfriend’s lawn, you want her to know it was you, not the Great Dane next door.” It turned out to be a costly shit for Mr. Levandowski, who would need Donald Trump to keep him out of jail.
• More Olympic-level arrogance from Levandowski: “People like me and TK, we have the ability to make the world better. And applying conventional morality to world’s most brilliant minds is insanity.”
• Last week, the journalist “Olivia” was a stand-in for PandoDaily editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy. This week, Olivia is Mike Isaac, the New York Times reporter who broke the story on Greyball and wrote the book on which Super Pumped is based. Much more of that story to come in next week’s finale.
Update: An earlier version stated that Emil Michael obtained medical records of a rape victim in India when it was a direct report of Michael’s who obtained said records.