Silicon Valley indicts the region for its over-reliance on dubious ventures to manufacture a grand façade of happiness, satisfaction, and wealth. Take Peter Gregory’s toga party, the fourth annual “Orgy Of Giving,” a scene of false Roman bacchanalia. Just a few weeks ago, in the pilot episode, Gregory was giving a TED talk in front of a large crowd and projecting the standard image of the tech billionaire, albeit with some left-field views on entirely eschewing higher education in favor of immediately hitting the tech workforce. Now, in a social setting instead of a business one, he’s uncomfortable and curt while thanking rapper Flo Rida as “Florida” (as more people should, since it’s a ridiculous name) for his introduction. Just like the Kid Rock-headlined party that opened the series, this is Silicon Valley pretending to be something it’s not— because the area wants to be as exciting as Hollywood.
But the ruse pervades every level of the party—not just the veneer of flashy entertainment and decoration that belies the tech industry workers in attendance. Richard, Dinesh, and Gilfoyle talk to two girls who come up to talk to them, who appear suspiciously engaged. That odd tone is immediately rewarded with a twist—the girls are actresses, working for a startup that supplies attractive party guests (“everyone above a seven”) to feign interest in the typically awkward invitees (“anyone below a three”). Everything, from the décor to the plants in the audience, suggests that Silicon Valley is uncomfortable with itself.
And then Erlich’s staging of the Pied Piper company photo, a staple for any startup company that needs an initial benchmark to measure against later progress. He tells Dinesh to leave his shirt unbuttoned because it will make for a better “Before” photo, and has Jared stand off-center, as a “sort of late addition…that may not stick around for the entire duration of the company.” Erlich himself wears a jacket over his Steve Jobs-aping black turtleneck, but with sandals so he’s “iconoclasting a little bit.” It’s all carefully manicured to project the narrative of the humble startup before it explodes into massive success for all involved. And Erlich expresses his satisfaction with capturing everything, including drunken party rants, for an eventual Pied Piper documentary. (He’s even so hopped up on an ego trip that he wants photos of just him and Richard, “Because at the end of the day, people only want to see a picture of the board members.”)
And yet, there’s a kernel of truth to everything that reads phony on the surface throughout the episode. Richard doesn’t have a clear grasp on how to sell the big picture of his company—not even to Peter Gregory’s uncaring lawyer, who inadvertently reveals that Gregory has invested in “six or eight” other compression software startups through a vivid metaphor about turtle hatchlings’ chances at making it to the ocean. That pressure doesn’t make Richard’s work any easier, and he fails at an attempt to summarize his vision to Peter’s assistant Monica at the toga party. His indecisiveness is further compounded after offering Erlich the third seat on the Pied Piper board in a blackout drunken stupor, then reneging while sobering up in the morning.
The ensuing argument with Erlich is exactly the kind of tone Silicon Valley is trying to strike. TJ Miller excels at this type of outlandish physical humor, and it serves as a tonal smokescreen for the underlying message: these kinds of flip-flop decisions are why Richard is floundering as CEO. He has, in Erlich’s words, “no vision, no balls, and no game.” It’s the first moment where the slimy greaseball has been given a chance to prove that he’s more than a doddering moron who got lucky with Aviato. He has talent, just a very slim range in which to use it. And in the end, Richard recognizes this in a moment of sheer panic, where Jared catches him washing his entire pair of pants in a bathroom sink, before the reconciliation right before a big meeting with Peter. Now we finally have an image of what Pied Piper will do: it’s Dropbox, but with significantly easier access to audio and video files on any device. Erlich has the catchy phrases (“We control the pipe. They just use it.”), and Richard backs everything up with the code supervision. They’re a partnership in spite of, and probably because of, the conflict between them. But the show seems to argue that both sides of that coin are necessary in order to create an environment for creative success anywhere in life.
In contrast, Big Head is living the sterile, charmed life of a man bought out for vengeance. Of utterly no use to the brogrammers trying to reverse engineer Richard’s algorithm for Nucleus, he’s taken off the project and left unassigned, so he wanders aimlessly until he finds a group of similarly orphaned contract workers. Everyone is biding time until contracts run out to divest stock options and reap extraordinary financial benefits. It’s in clear contrast to Richard. Bighead collects a huge payday for doing absolutely no work for three years, while Richard toils miserably under pressure in order to grasp at the future promise of even greater success. Silicon Valley does hint at the question of which one is preferable—but it damns Big Head to slovenly complacency (Arby’s? Seriously?) while establishing Richard as in control of his destiny despite no financial guarantee.
That final note about Gregory and Hooli figurehead Gavin Belson is another nod to classical partnership storytelling, but also some clever foreshadowing. There’s a picture, just like the Pied Piper one Erlich took out by his pool, showing a young Belson and Gregory together. Gregory thought Gavin was his friend—and it recalls Dinesh and Gilfoyle’s reaction to Richard putting Erlich, someone within the company, on the board. Right now, Richard needs a Jobs-like marketing figure to his Wozniak, but it leaves open the possibility that he could get voted out of his own company should the partnership go south in the future. For now, Richard recognizes that he needs Erlich’s help, but even though the unreliable man with hideous facial hair came through in this instance, he’s proven so erratic and bumbling that Silicon Valley offers the possibility that the tenuous balance won’t be so easy to maintain.
• Silicon Valley got renewed for a second season! That’s good news for the freshman program, since over this first half of the eight-episode debut season I’ve been pleased with how the show has established its world. But it does once again highlight the loss of Christopher Evan Welch as Peter Gregory, since it’s going to be mighty difficult to continue that arc of the show without what has become a cornerstone performance as a man Richard might well become.
• That’s Ben Feldman, who plays Ginsberg on Mad Men, as the unnaturally slick Silicon Valley lawyer. What a blowhard, bragging about a guitar signed by two Google founders—and cutting off a phone call with Richard because his “enema guy” shows up.
• Zach Woods is so great at playing the socially inept but disarming rube. He wants to speak to Richard the morning after the party, and Richard assumes it’s so obviously about giving Erlich a seat on the board that he neglects the possibility that Jared just wonders why he wasn’t invited to the party along with everyone else. Poor Jared, hopefully that documentary on Liberia was informative.
• “Are you dressed like Steve Jobs?” “Oh am I?”