"Silicon Valley"'s Season 2 finale finally balances the best and the worst of the modern tech industry
Having spent the last week reporting from Bonnaroo and helping to put on the tech conference-cum-whiskey party Pandoland in Nashville, you'll have to forgive me for filing my review of Silicon Valley's Season 2 finale five whole days after it aired. Not that the broader sphere of cultural criticism was in some dire need of another blogger's recap of a television show. But the season's tenth and final episode, "Two Days of the Condor," holds special significance for Pando, as the fate of the show's protagonist became tied up with a subplot that echoes one of this site's most-read and most-important stories.
In January of 2014, Mark Ames published on Pando evidence of a conspiracy -- nicknamed by Ames the "Techtopus" -- between Apple, Google, and other tech mega-firms to drive down the wages of a hundred thousand employees through a variety of unspoken and explicit anti-competitive gambits. The scandal has since expanded to include more and more tech firms along with a number of Hollywood animation studios, and the outcome of the case -- despite the criminal nature of the violations -- is now headed toward a final settlement payout to workers in the amount of $415 million, which is slated for approval next month. But perhaps the biggest legacy of this scandal is the way it represents a corruption of Silicon Valley's initial core values -- values which were supposed to put workers ahead of their scheming corporate overlords.
That's why it's significant that the IP lawsuit between Hooli and Pied Piper at the heart of Silicon Valley's second season was ultimately decided thanks to illegal non-competes found in Hooli's worker contracts, which nullified the tech giant's employment agreements and thus invalidated its claims over the work Richard did as one of its coders. Granted, Hooli's illegal and onerous non-compete agreements are much different than the handshake agreements not to hire each other's employees that the Techtopus scandal concerned. Nevertheless, it's telling that the writers of Silicon Valley, in their quest to encapsulate the zeitgeist of the modern tech economy, chose to include a subplot that echoed the same anti-worker behavior of the industry's largest players.
Elsewhere, the episode captured a feeling that its writers have attempted -- and more often than not failed -- to portray again and again: the scrappy joy of building a company. After Richard confessed in court last week to using Hooli resources to conduct a minor test on Pied Piper's technology, the team is all but certain that it will lose the IP lawsuit and be forced to give up its product to Gavin Belson's monstrous and well-lawyered tech firm. That's when they notice a curious development on the live condor feed they're running, which up until this point has been fully bereft of drama. A worker has become trapped in a crevasse near the eggs and is now caught on camera pleading for help and hanging onto life by its threads in a dramatic display reminiscent of the film 127 Hours. The feed has now attracted hundreds of thousands of concurrent viewers and, despite the dire circumstances, even inspired a series of Internet memes.
And so rather than delete Pied Piper's underlying code to keep it out of the reach of Hooli's tentacles, Dinesh, Gilfoyle, Jared, and even the until-now useless Erlich have banded together to keep the stream running until the worker is saved. That means busting down the walls of the incubator house to create more server space, allowing sections of the living room to erupt in flames as the heat of the hardware becomes too much for it to handle, and even inviting Erlich to battle through his "carpal tunnel" to write some code -- a task which it turns out he's better at than any of the rockstar founder power plays he's been attempting over the past two seasons. With all-but-certain death in sight and no apparent financial reward for their toil, it's an exhilarating example of a team of misfits coming together to accomplish something for no reason other than a desire to see through the thing they spent so much time building and defending.
The victory, however, is shortlived. Raviga, the VC firm run by Laurie Bream, decides to buy Russ Hanneman's board seats -- by the way, I hope this isn't the last we see of Russ, the most hilarious character the show's ever conjured -- giving her a controlling stake in Pied Piper. And while she's enamored with the startup's "underlying technology," she is less excited about the various missteps Richard has taken throughout the life of the company, which had brought it to the brink of collapse again and again. And so in the blink of an eye, after turning down millions of dollars and fighting tooth-and-nail to maintain control of his company, Richard is ousted as CEO.
Of course, Richard's "missteps" were often less the result of incompetence and more due to the founder's moral compass -- which, if Silicon Valley along with the real-life industry it's based on are any indication, is a decided disadvantage. And by ending the season on such a brutally yet realistically cynical note, immediately after putting forth such a joyous vision of startup life, the show has finally balanced the two competing themes of the tech industry in 2015. Sure, the show has explored both the idealism and cutthroat behavior of Silicon Valley in the past, but usually it did so in a way that contradicted itself, making for a weak brew of half-hearted satire.
In the finale, however the writers effectively explored the tension between celebrating and condemning the Valley, and did so more powerfully and clearly than most other pieces of tech industry commentary, fictional or otherwise. Yes, the Valley allows for world-changing companies to be built out of garages, and yes it allows for long-standing, restrictive, and corrupt business institutions to be disrupted. But the industry is still ultimately at the mercy of giant firms capable of unimaginable ruthlessness in the pursuit of profits.
To quote Batman's Harvey Dent, "You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain." And for now, at least, it looks as if Richard is headed toward a hero's demise.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]