Silicon Valley is Mike Judge and Alec Berg’s biting comedy about the American tech industry, now in its fourth season. Every week, we’ll be taking one idea, scene, or joke and explain how it ties to the real Silicon Valley and speaks to an issue at the heart of the industry and its everlasting goal to change the world — and make boatloads of money in the process.
Spoilers ahead for the ninth episode of season 4, “Hooli-Con.”
More so than any of its sharp commentary and up-to-date references, Silicon Valley has always been a show about a good-natured protagonist with a good idea who must contend with the cruelties and unfairness of reality and capitalism. The drama half of the series has performed well as a lesson in preserving idealism in the face of compromise, and staying true to who you are when hit with hardship. And it’s these elements that make the penultimate episode of season 4, “Hooli-Con,” such an interesting and surprisingly impactful piece of television.
In an attempt to field test his peer-to-peer networking and data storage service, Richard has his team hijack a Hooli technology convention’s mobile app to illegally install Pied Piper’s software. “Think of it as forced adoption through aggressive guerrilla marketing,” Richard says. The show performs some narrative somersaults along the way — Gilfoyle and Dinesh are caught because of Richard’s jealousy over a former flame’s new boyfriend, while the group finds a new ally in the form of Gavin’s right-hand man Hoover, who wants only to enact revenge on Jack Barker. But it ultimately revolves around Richard’s inexcusable actions, which appear to cause Samsung Galaxy Note 7-style explosions for every Hooli-Con attendee that tries Keenan Feldspar’s new virtual reality demo.
Much like Vince Gilligan’s Better Call Saul, and Breaking Bad before it, Silicon Valley is now about the corruption of its main character — the myriad ways Richard sabotages himself and others, and the moral depravity he’s capable of when seemingly backed into a corner. But unlike AMC’s grim tales of drug-running cartels and shady legalese, Mike Judge and Alex Berg are telling the same antihero narrative in a context that feels very real, immediate, and public.
We’re all currently living through the apparent implosion of Uber and its CEO and co-founder Travis Kalanick, who’s taking a leave of absence following the death of his mother and the string of controversies that have left company leadership reeling. As bystanders, we’re getting a firsthand look at the shape a corporation takes when moral disregard, sexism, blatant defiance of regulation, and ruthless competitive practice are built into an organization’s core DNA.
It’s clear the writers of Silicon Valley are keeping a close eye on not just the news headlines of the tech industry, but the ways in which the industry’s identity and self-image have been forever changed by the likes of Uber and the corporate misdeeds of so many tech companies before it. What once was a place where “change the world” was proclaimed in earnest is now looking much more like a fervent breeding ground for egoism run amok and the corrupting nature of power, wealth, and success.
What’s fascinating is how that lesson manifests in Silicon Valley as a series of seemingly minor excuses Richard tells himself and Jared, now pretty much the acting conscience of Pied Piper and the show itself. It’s all of these small exceptions to Richard’s corroding moral center that add up to the colossal transformation of his character, from struggling idealist to an inconsiderate cynic willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. “It’s a means to an end. It’s not who I am,” Richard tells Jared. “Lincoln had to suspend habeas corpus to end the war, but he restored it right after.”
“It’s a means to an end. it’s not who I am.”
That last line is meant as a bit of hyperbole, meant to demonstrate Richard’s self-delusion. Yet, like many of Silicon Valley’s best elements, it feels grounded in reality. It’s not hard to imagine Kalanick once saying that line to a room of executive insiders, describing any number of covert actions Uber took to achieve its massive growth.
It was clear from Silicon Valley’s second season that the show was never going to be about young, scrappy entrepreneurs making the next Facebook. That’s not anywhere near as funny, or as ripe on satirical grounds, as what viewers got instead: a show about how well-intentioned people can nonetheless hinder themselves and their dreams time and again by failing to acknowledge or address the elephants in the room. If that wasn’t a tech industry parable in 2014, when the show debuted and when Uber first launched its carpooling service, it sure is now.