We’re recapping each new episode of “Silicon Valley,” HBO’s surprisingly not-terrible comedy-drama that follows a group of young Palo Alto developers as they deal with the absurdity and stress of building a company. We’re adopting the “Alan Sepinwall” style of television recaps so you’ve been warned: Here, there be spoilers.
After last week’s episode of misfired jokes and confusing clashes in tone, “Silicon Valley” may have rediscovered its focus. And its laughs.
Episode 5, titled “Signaling Risk,” is the show’s funniest episode since its debut, though unlike that first episode it draws laughter not from satire but from time-honored sitcom tropes like sight gags, timing, and irony. Sure, it’s disappointing to see the show shy away from serious commentary, particularly when the tech world of 2014 is such ripe ground for observations on capitalism and society. But tonight’s episode showed that “Silicon Valley” works best when it focuses on doing one thing: being a well-written situational comedy. Even better, “Signaling Risk” introduces a plot twist that finally allows a unifying theme to rear its head, if only subtly.
The episode opens as Erlich (T.J. Miller) tries to convince a famed graffiti artist named Chuy Ramirez to design the logo for Pied Piper. His thinking is that, with a name as bad as Pied Piper, the compression startup should at least have an edgy logo. In another example of the characters’ inability to read social dynamics outside their hacker-bro echo chamber, Erlich thinks he can appeal to Chuy by feigning an understanding of “the code of the streets,” offering cash for payment. Chuy naturally demands stock options, as even graffiti artists in the Bay Area are looking to grab a chunk of the wealth that flows from the froth of the tech boom.
Chuy finally agrees to a cash deal because he sees Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) waiting by the car and mistakes the Pakistani for a Latino. It’s a dumb gag, but it pays off later in the episode when the artist’s grand “logo” is a mural of Dinesh dressed as an Aztec warrior penetrating the Statue of Liberty from behind. When Erlich delicately asks if the piece is working, Chuy is certain that it is: “It captures the whole Latino struggle for justice in America.”
Meanwhile, Pied Piper’s meek financial guru, Jared (Zach Woods), is fed up with the startup’s unprofessionalism and sloppy handling of money. Instead of paying Chuy $10,000 for a logo, Jared offers to draw one himself because, at the end of the day, all they really need is two lowercase “p”s in a square, right?
Jared is also incensed that, before receiving a seed investment from Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch), CEO Richard (Thomas Middleditch) submitted Pied Piper to Techcrunch Disrupt and forgot to withdrawal his application. Now that the company’s already funded it makes little sense to make a big splash at a high-profile tech conference unless they have a working prototype, which, with only two months before the event, they are nowhere near to completing.
Richard isn’t concerned at first. He can simply withdraw, right? But it’s not so simple: Because of Pied Piper’s entry, Hooli’s Gavin Belson, who stole some of Richard’s compression technology, has chosen to debut his competitor, Nucleus, at the event. Unwilling to let his old rival Belson steal the spotlight, Gregory demands that the prototype be ready in time for Disrupt.
Gregory’s employee Monica (Amanda Crew) delivers the news to Richard and reveals that the only reason Gregory offered to seed Pied Piper for $200,000 was to screw over Belson, who had offered $10 million to buy the company.
“Does he just want to piss off Gavin Belson?” Thomas asks. “He spent $200,000 just to…”
“Yeah, that’s nothing.” Monica cuts him off. “Peter would spend millions just to mildly annoy Gavin. These are billionaires, Richard. Humiliating each other is worth more to them than we’ll make in a lifetime.”
Thomas is especially hurt because it was Monica who gave the big speech in the first episode convincing him to turn down the $10 million offer. This twist gives Monica more depth than we’ve seen from her or any other female character. Until now, her role has been limited to that of the “supportive girlfriend” or “caring mother,” giving Richard motivational speeches as he struggles to keep his confidence and cool as an entrepreneur. But that was all a gambit. Really, Monica is just damned good at her job. She convinced a guy to turn down $10 million to satisfy her boss’ weird vendetta. In fact, until now it’s been unclear what her job is. Is she Gregory’s personal assistant? No, she’s much more than that. She’s the closer.
At the end of the episode, Monica tells Thomas, “I’m sorry. But I’m also not sorry. The reason I pushed Peter to seed you is, I think you have an unbelievably good platform. Way better than the rest of his other compression plays.” It sounds like an apology, and a reversion to the old comforting mother routine, but it’s much more selfish than that. She struck this deal. And if Thomas loses his confidence now and flounders at Disrupt, it’s on her.
Chuy also finds a way to use Belson and Gregory’s rivalry to manipulate the Pied Piper team. After his “Aztec fucking the Statue of Liberty” logo is rejected, he designs a simple logo consisting of two lowercase “p”‘s in a square, which is probably what Jared was willing to sketch for free. Belson then buys Chuy’s original logo, slightly modified to replace the Statue of Liberty’s face with Erlich’s, for $500,000, likely to embarrass Pied Piper.
Last week I wrote that “Silicon Valley” was struggling with some major consistency issues. It was trying to be a traditional comedy, a semi-realistic depiction of building a company, and a commentary on the startup world, all at once. With tonight’s episode, however, something resembling a driving theme finally materialized. The characters outside of Pied Piper’s insular male-coder circle, though they may seem either marginalized or out-of-touch, are actually having the last laugh, all because Richard and his crew are too enamored with the false cult of entrepreneurship to notice. It’s not always easy for the audience to recognize this because the show is so focused on telling its story from the principal characters’ point of view. But “Signaling Risk” lifted the veil on the forces of greed and pettiness that often provide the fuel for these founders’ dreams.
The last episode may have ended with a painfully cheesy celebration of the intrepid upstarts’ discovery of a vision for their company. But tonight we saw that the destinies of the Pied Piper team are still very much in the control of old billionaire gate-keepers. And while sometimes you have to squint to see that “Silicon Valley” doesn’t buy into its own bullshit, that makes these cynical revelations about what’s really going on all the more powerful.