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.
Last week I wrote that in its fifth episode, HBO’s “Silicon Valley” had become far more adept at traditional sitcom humor than biting satire. That’s a disappointment for viewers looking for trenchant critiques of modern tech culture, but at least it was an improvement on Episodes 3 and 4 which suffered from major tonal issues. In those episodes, the show wanted to be a bro comedy, a satire, and a realistic portrayal of startup life all at once — an admirable ambition, but one it repeatedly struggled to achieve.
With last night’s episode, however, titled “Third Party Insourcing,” the show once again chased this lofty goal. And for the most part, it nailed it, commenting on Silicon Valley’s ageism, drug use, gender relations, and technological utopianism with intelligence and humor.
At the beginning of the episode, Pied Piper’s founder Richard (Thomas Middleditch) struggles mightily to set up his platform’s cloud architecture. Richard regularly battles insecurity as a founder, but usually he pains over administrative issues like negotiation, hiring and firing, and figuring out to deposit a check. Now, for the first time, Richard’s coding skills are called into question. To fill this knowledge gap, the team taps a high schooler named Kevin (nicknamed “The Carver”), an arrogant coding prodigy who resembles a Muppet on Adderall.
Upon meeting Richard, Kevin remarks, “I thought you’d be younger. What are you, 25?”
Back at the incubator house, Gilfoyle receive a visit from his Satanist girlfriend, Tara. The mere presence of an attractive woman, particularly one who’s sleeping with one of the team members, is enough to throw the team off, what with their fragile egos and unwillingness to think of women as anything other than obstacles or objects. When Tara enters the common room in a bathrobe, the furious keyboard sounds emanating from Richard’s, Kevin’s, and Dinesh’s work stations slow to a halt. No words are exchanged, and yet the three coders are completely paralyzed by this fellow human simply because she has two X chromosomes. To them, Tara is an alien object, whose only apparent purpose is to make them think about sex. It’s telling that the reaction from Richard and Dinesh, two adults in their mid-twenties, is identical to the reaction of Kevin, a high school boy.
Sensing this awkwardness, Gilfoyle pulls Dinesh aside to play a little joke on him. Gilfoyle says that he and Tara engage in compersion, the act of deriving pleasure from watching a significant other have sex with another person, and that they would like Dinesh to be that third wheel. This leads to Dinesh having a moral crisis, as well as a pissing contest with Erlich, who is shocked that Tara didn’t choose him. Mind you, at no point do they try to engage this woman in conversation — they’re too busy fighting over who gets to have sex with her.
What makes this depiction of sexism noteworthy in that there’s nothing “fratty” or overtly cruel about it. Dinesh and Erlich aren’t Pax Dickinson. They’re what many pejoratively call “nice guys.” They don’t actively hate women. But they’ve never taken the time to listen to them either. And this passive kind of sexism is almost more insidious because it’s called out less often. In just a few short scenes, the writers deftly confront the “female problem” that Silicon Valley, both the region and the show itself, is often accused of possessing.
While Dinesh and Erlich continue their weird obsession with Tara, Kevin keeps plugging away at Pied Piper’s cloud architecture. It’s not enough for Kevin to fix Richard’s site for him — he also throws snide remarks Richard’s way about how his age (26!) makes him unfit to be a top coder. Feeling emotionally and intellectually beaten, Richard asks Kevin to help him with some of his database work, even though Kevin has no expertise in that field. Hours later, Richard returns to find Kevin huddled under the table and the site’s whole system “skullfucked.” It’s a nice reminder that while young people may seem like they know more about technology than their elders, it’s just as important to be aware of what you don’t know, a skill that often only comes with age.
There’s one more subplot worth mentioning and it’s among the funniest and most visually striking narratives the show has ever pulled off. After a meeting at investor Peter Gregory’s office, Pied Piper’s desperately uncool financial whiz Jared is offered a ride home in Gregory’s car. It turns out to be a driverless car which excites the adorably nerdy Jared to no end — that is, until the car’s GPS is remotely overridden, directing the car to drive Jared to Gregory’s Peter Thiel-inspired “island” in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In a wonderfully-orchestrated sequence reminiscent of old silent movie slapstick, the car drives itself into a shipping container where it is immediately sealed and lifted onto a cargo ship.
By the end of the episode, both the characters and the viewers have forgotten about poor Jared, which adds to the hilarity of seeing him squeeze out of the container looking like total hell. He finds himself in what appears to be a warehouse, with forklifts driving all around him. But when he calls out for help he realizes these machines are also driverless and automated. Jared locates the exit only to find that he’s in the middle of the ocean on Gregory’s half-constructed startup island. Alone, adrift, and surrounded by cold machines, this is the logical conclusion of every tech utopian’s dreams of libertarian escape. And sure, the whole setup is pretty implausible, but the visual and thematic pay-off is worth it.
“Silicon Valley” has yet to find an identity: One week it celebrates the myth of the founder. The next it tears it apart. Some episodes are content to offer little more than serviceable sitcom fare. Others deliver insightful and witty commentary on the massive aggregation of capital, technology, and power in the Bay Area, and how that effects the lives of people both inside and outside the tech froth.
Last night’s episode, like the premiere, took the latter approach, which is good news for viewers looking for something beyond a slightly more sophisticated version of “The Big Bang Theory.” But who knows what the two remaining episodes in the season (or the now-confirmed second season) will bring?
In any case, if you’re still watching “Silicon Valley” despite a couple lackluster episodes and one straight-up trainwreck, then last night’s episode provides more than enough reasons to stick with it.