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Richard breaks bad on Silicon Valley, and in the process breaks everything else

“Think of it as forced adoption through aggressive guerrilla marketing.”

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Kumail Nanjiani, Thomas Middleditch, Zach Woods, Martin Starr (Image: HBO)
Kumail Nanjiani, Thomas Middleditch, Zach Woods, Martin Starr (Image: HBO)
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Silicon Valley

"Hooli-Con"

Season 4 , Episode 9

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In his advance review of season three, Erik Adams made the key observation that while Silicon Valley’s ensemble is its greatest strength, it smartly never gets away from keeping Richard Hendricks at the center: “This is still the story of a protagonist with a good idea, noble intentions, and ample vulnerabilities... the compelling tale of a creator forging his own path.” All the trials and tribulations that the Pied Piper crew has gone through has been because Richard wanted to run the company his own way, using his algorithm in the way he wanted to, and not become compromised like the other industry titans who wanted a piece of his success.

After “Hooli-Con,” that’s not what this journey feels like any more. Rather than making Richard the lone example of how to keep to your integrity intact in an uncaring industry, Richard seems to be chipping off that integrity piece by piece in Better Call Saul levels of personal corrosion. Signs of this have been scattered throughout the life of the series—Gavin promising whatever company he built would still be a company, Gilfoyle’s advice to walk the left-hand path taken more and more often—and the subtext has now become full text. Richard’s out to make his vision of the Internet a reality, and if he has to defraud 160,000 people and a major corporation to do so, it’s an acceptable loss.

If Silicon Valley is going to commit to such a dark message, it helps that they wrap it up in such a well-done episode. The title “Hooli-Con” carries double meaning, referring both to the massive convention that the Pied Piper team attends and the scheme they’re implementing to push up their user base to levels that will free them from server costs. It’s a welcome marriage of two of Silicon Valley’s best concepts, the large-scale excess of the industry from “Proof Of Concept,” and the high-stakes caper vibe of “Meinertzagen’s Haversack.” Season four has had a bit less momentum than other years—a consequence of a more episodic focus—but there’s a tight quality to the action this week, with high stakes and an understandable scheme capturing the right energy.

Jimmy O. Yang, Thomas Middleditch, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr, T.J. Miller (Image: HBO)

And much like “Proof Of Concept,” Richard’s focus is distracted by an ex-girlfriend. Winnie, who he broke up with in “Bachmanity Insanity” over the space verus tabs feud—ground he’s still unwilling to cede—returns to assist her new boyfriend Joel in a demo of his charity-centric mobile game PeaceFare. It’s a distraction that proves Richard’s major flaws, as his downward moral spiral comes not from his ego or intellect but wounded pettiness, a resentment of those who things seem to go well for when all of his efforts crash and burn. And if you had to engineer someone for Richard to hate, Joel fits the bill. He’s an anti-Richard: handsome and confident, talks casually about selling prior companies to do the right thing, and is fully assured in his team’s respect for him.

It stands to reason then that Richard would take the opportunity to mess with Joel’s laptop in an unguarded moment, even if it’s only to do something so trivial as a screensaver update. And similarly, it stands to reason that doing so would jeopardize Pied Piper’s entire scheme by calling the attention of the security team. What’s kept Richard from truly succeeding on his darker path is the fact that he’s really bad at it, to the point that it seems like self-sabotage: carrying incriminating folders, reaching out to injured parties, and withholding information from his team. Thomas Middleditch, whose expressiveness is his great skill as an actor, gets ample opportunity to show off his rage and frustration this week, building past his typical levels of twitchiness and irritation. The moment where he pushes Dinesh to carry their last piece of tech for a last-minute push, not seeing the uncomfortable interpretation it could have, is jaw-droppingly brazen (and shockingly funny to boot): “You’re gonna walk into the most densely populated area. If you see security coming, you press this button.”

The other key truth of Richard’s schemes is that while he’s terrible at executing them, they work when they overlap with someone else more incompetent or corrupt than he is. In this case, he gets a narrow win because it’s Hoover running convention security and Hoover favors Richard’s public praise for Gavin over Jack’s obnoxious attitude. (Jack’s also fully aware his investment in Keenan is $2 billion for only a 90-second demo, in keeping with his oft-myopic business sense and willingness to pay a lot of money for a big finish in a short amount of time.) On other shows this could feel like a cheat, but recent episodes have done the work to underline Hoover’s distaste at the new Hooli status quo and an inexplicable affection for Gavin that won’t soon go away.

The near-failure of the scheme also further makes apparent the fragility of Richard’s support system. Dinesh and Gilfoyle, at peak sniping levels as they plant the pineapples around the convention center, prove their ability to combine forces when they discuss how badly they want to hurt Keenan and then turn on Richard when the truth of Keenan’s offer comes out. Joel talked about his team’s loyalty, and so many moments this season—Dinesh’s CEO hubris, Gilfoyle’s standoffish way of asking for a job, last week’s near-mutiny—prove that their loyalty to Richard only exists alongside the company’s success. Just look at their contempt over Richard’s poor choice of screensaver pun, tearing it apart (“PeaceFart. That’s changing one letter!”) as once again not tough enough to succeed.

Stephen Tobolowsky, Haley Joel Osment (Image: HBO)

In working to keep their loyalty, Richard may be sacrificing that of Jared, whose faith was such he gave up a lucrative job at Hooli and a Palo Alto condo to manage a failing start-up and live out of a server-stuffed garage. All episode, Jared’s trying to steer Richard away from following Gavin’s path to being “A sad man with funny shoes... friendless, disgraced, and engorged with the blood of a youthful charlatan.” And all episode Richard’s steering around that good faith, offering platitudes about how this is a suspension of habeas corpus and suggesting Jared do what he did in his childhood to pretend things were okay. (“Uncle Jerry’s game,” he muses.) Silicon Valley gets away with doing a lot of terrible things to Jared, but destroying his faith may be the cruelest one yet.

If this cruelty must exist, at least it’s one rich with comedy. Every week it’s an onerous task to pick which of Zach Woods’ moments is the best, and this is the fiercest the competition’s been in some time. Is it the desperation in how he tries to scout out the bathroom to not be present while they scheme? The horrified expression as he lifts an earphone to hear Richard give Dinesh suicide bomber-style instructions? Or the moment where upon hearing just what Richard changed the screen saver to, his facade cracks and he goes to breakdown territory, screaming “You reckless child!” We all know that Jared is a mess, and if Richard asks more of this from him, the full damage may soon be apparent.

Then again, Jared’s emotional damage is secondary when things literally below up in their face. Evidently the merger of all the different programs—Hooli apps, Richard’s code, Keenan’s VR—transforms every smart phone in the convention center into a Samsung Galaxy Note 7, setting off a series of explosions that send Jack and Keenan running for the exits. It’s an explosive end to the scheme, one that follows “Terms Of Service” to prove the team is only capable of seriously hurting competitors by accident, and leaving supposedly quiet and supposedly successful scheme ripe for even more scrutiny. Richard seems headed for a fall more catastrophic than ever, and based on what we’ve seen in “Hooli-Con,” he’s getting exactly what he deserves.

Stray observations:

  • We haven’t touched on Erlich’s arc, where in the wake of his latest professional failure he extrapolates an invitation from a postcard and travels to the Tibetan monastery where Gavin is seeking new enlightenment. This is likely not the character’s final exit from California, but if it is he leaves in typical fashion, once again seeking accolades from his houseguests and getting none, and delivering one last “JIAN-YANG!!!” scream as he’s abandoned at the airport.
  • This is the first Silicon Valley script by Chris Provenzano, who joined the series as an executive producer this season and whose writing credits include episodes of Justified, Mad Men, and Archer. A worthy addition to the team.
  • Richard may be the petty one, but once again the gold star for shittiest ex-boyfriend goes to Dinesh, letting his fear of Mia’s skills and inability to trust emotional commitments betray her to the authorities. (“What’s your policy on anonymous tips?”) Kumail Nanjiani’s ability to convey this craven behavior only makes his emotional depths in the upcoming The Big Sick more impressive.
  • Richard points out to the team that nobody deletes old apps on their phone. Richard has Vine—may she rest in peace—Jared has NipAlert, and Gilfoyle has McCain/Palin. (Nanjiani and Woods have priceless reactions to the latter disclosure.)
  • “Every time we’ve got a whiff of success, a giant pelican by the name of Fate takes a four-and-a-half pound shit right on top of us.”
  • “I can call my uncle. He’s very corrupt.”
  • “Not that you asked, but you handled that very poorly.”
  • “You don’t think this had anything to do with us, do you?”
  • Season finale next week! HBO hasn’t made a screener available yet, so there’s a chance it’ll be a late one.