It seems hard to believe that we’re already past the halfway point of Silicon Valley’s first season. Even by the standards of HBO, eight episodes makes for a very truncated order, particularly for a writer with as much clout as Mike Judge has. (Getting On is the only one with a shorter run in recent memory, though that show was based on a British import with the same episode count.) With only eight episodes to play around with, there’s a lot less time to figure out the strengths and weaknesses of the ensemble, and the show runs the risk of finishing its run before it ever achieves its full potential.
Then again, that’s only a problem if you don’t come out of the gate fully formed, and Silicon Valley certainly did that. In just four episodes, Judge and company have created a world that feels simultaneously real and absurd, and populated it with characters who feel fleshed out beyond stock tech world caricatures. Rather than leaving viewers upset that the show hasn’t found itself, the short order is setting up disappointment that there’s only a handful of episodes left, and relief the show’s already been picked up for season two. And it’ll be even more disappointing/relieving if those episodes are anything like “Signaling Risk,” a terrific installment that both sets the narrative in motion for the second half of the season and proves this ensemble is so engaging, plot’s a secondary concern.
Like the first few episodes, “Signaling Risk” contains another step in solidifying Pied Piper as a business, this one driven by Erlich’s sense of presentation. While he has to live with the name of Pied Piper, he won’t allow the “snack dick” logo to be the symbol of the company, nor will he allow it to follow the disgustingly mainstream process of just using lower-case letters in a square. A cutting-edge company demands a cutting-edge logo in Erlich’s mind, and the man for the job is graffiti artist Chuy Ramirez. While this plot could be presented as a culture shock for Silicon Valley’s sheltered residents, the show smartly continues extending the universe’s bubble. Even on “the streets” where you can get shot for painting over tags, Chuy knows to ask for stock options instead of a cash deal.
It’s only when Chuy sees Dinesh at a distance and praises the company for having a Latino employee that he agrees to do it, which triggers the episode’s best running gag. After four episodes where Erlich has projected the air of master of the universe and even managed to impress the inscrutable Peter Gregory, this chain of events sees him scrambling to keep up. Chuy decides to make a statement on the company’s individuality with his artwork and paints Dinesh as an Aztec warrior mounting an enthusiastic Statue of Liberty, and when Erlich begs him to fix it he merely paints Erlich’s face on the statue. (T.J. Miller’s delivery of Erlich’s response is a thing of beauty: “I’m already smiling, do you really have to paint me giving the thumbs-up? It’s gratuitous.”) It makes for a cutting take on race and perception thereof, as Erlich feels he needs to insist none of his reactions are based on racism—first to Dinesh, then to Chuy, then to the officer citing him for indecency—and every instance leaves him looking worse off.
Where’s Pied Piper’s founder in this? To his credit, he’s barely involved in the entire process—four episodes worth of story have given Richard the ability to identify when something is Erlich’s mess and know to excuse himself from the discussion. That doesn’t mean he’s free of headaches, though, as an old decision comes back to bite him. Apparently, he entered Pied Piper in the TechCrunch Disrupt competition prior to receiving Peter’s seed money, and Gavin catches wind of it, automatically assuming that it’s a ploy to disrupt Nucleus. Last week introduced the idea that Gavin and Peter have a history that didn’t end well, and that suspicion is proven almost immediately: Gavin’s not angry about being scooped; he automatically assumes that this is a ploy on Peter’s part.
That assumption leads him to confront Gavin at an upscale restaurant, marking the first time that Matt Ross and Christopher Evan Welch have shared a scene together. And it’s a riot in its awkwardness, as even for men of their proven social disconnect, this is excruciatingly distant (“How are you?” “Well. And you?” “Not bad”), making clear that whatever happened between them left a few acres of scorched earth. It also proves the second suspicion of last week, that whatever data compression means from a financial perspective is second to its role as Pong paddles the two men are dueling with. Gavin mentions offhand he’s going to be the keynote speaker at the TechCrunch conference and unveil Nucleus while he’s at it, and Peter counters with the order to have Pied Piper ready to go in eight weeks—chopping two-thirds off a projected delivery time that Jared considered unfeasible at best.
Peter opts to convey the bad news through Monica, who is coldly honest in explaining what will happen and how little he means to Peter, but surprisingly, Richard is ready to fight back. The character’s arc has been accelerated due to the show’s short run, but Silicon Valley has done a solid job of making that escalation part of the narrative and reasonably explaining how he could quickly get to this point. The Richard of “Signaling Risk” isn’t the Richard of the last four episodes, and the level of bullshit he’s had to deal with from everyone has frayed his patience and pushed him to new levels of assertiveness. He’s justifiably furious at being a Pong ball, and similarly furious at Monica for talking him into a process that’s bred this many headaches. (Erlich is, contractually, one-tenth as furious.)
The argument leaves Monica in a less comfortable place than she’s been for the first half of the season (Peter’s Burger King theatrics aside), and she shows up at the Hacker Hostel to beg forgiveness. Of the Silicon Valley cast, Amanda Crew has had the least room for growth and development, operating only as an extension of Peter’s company—a move that’s even more problematic for the show as a whole given she’s the only regular female cast member. She doesn’t cross over into fully formed character territory, but the awkwardness of her apology (complete with accidental Nazi reference) and her promise to invest in the company herself is a good first step.
Jared is a similarly frustrated employee, who is at wits’ end by the chaotic neutral environment of the Hacker Hostel. It raises a conflict that’s been humming in the background of the last few episodes, as Jared has arguably given up the most to make this company happen: Richard and Erlich can talk about the stakes of the $10 million they walked away from to create Pied Piper, but that remains a choice between two payouts. Jared walked away from a solid job at a wildly successful company to be on the ground floor of Pied Piper, potentially sabotaging his entire career for a risky venture. And that ground floor is a place he’s woefully uncomfortable, particularly with regular competitions where Gilfoyle is tracking objects Dinesh has touched. (Gilfoyle: “I just masturbated to heighten my focus. I have a 15-minute refractory period.” Jared’s subsequent dodge away from his hand is priceless.)
The question of how “corporate” Pied Piper will have to be to succeed has come up at several points during Silicon Valley, and “Signaling Risk” approaches that question head-on as Jared tries to find ways to streamline the business practices. His proposal of cubicles (or “a neutral-colored enclosure about yea-high” as he phrases it) is met with horror, as is his carefully built scrum system that Dinesh dismisses as “Psych 101 MBA mind control bullshit tips.” However, Jared has uncovered the first step in building productivity, as he realizes no matter how much Dinesh and Gilfoyle loathe his ideas they loathe each other more, and the merest hint of making it a competition is enough to spur them into checking off tasks. This will clearly remain an uphill battle for Jared, but given the way Judge has previously approached cubicle life, that doesn’t mean things will get less funny.
All three plots come together terrifically in the final scene, as Chuy’s painted the mural he thinks his “white boy” clients will like: lower-case letters in a square. It pleases the business-minded Monica and Jared, is uncomplicated enough to satisfy Richard, and makes Erlich just happy to have a logo that doesn’t feature him being penetrated by Aztec Dinesh. Unfortunately for his self-esteem, that image has gone to a broader audience, as Gavin purchased the original mural and is displaying it prominently on the Hooli campus. It earns praise from his guru for challenging sensibilities, a dumbfounded stare from Big Head, and a final hearty laugh in an episode packed with them.
- Speaking of Big Head, the Telehuman gag where Gavin attempts a holographic chat with him is the best scene of “Signaling Risk.” It’s a terrific example of the cutting-edge technology that Silicon Valley can produce, and of how easy it is to slice yourself open on said cutting edge as it crashes constantly, a move that increasingly shatters Gavin’s faux-Zen attitude as he curses out his IT guy. (“Fuck you, the audio’s still working! Audio worked a hundred fucking years ago, you fucking piece of shit!”) The escalation of the gag is also masterful, as they downgrade to video chat and then to phone and the technical difficulties persist across all platforms.
- Best sight gag of the week: Erlich failing to dramatically exit through not one, but two doors as he storms out of Peter’s office.
- Best facial expression of the week: the evil smirk on Gilfoyle’s face as Dinesh grills Erlich on why he let Chuy think he was Latino and why that even matters.
- Waiter: “Are you enjoying your asparagus, sir?” Peter: “I was never enjoying it. I was only eating it for the nutrients.” I like to think that after “Articles Of Incorporation,” Peter continues to eat Burger King regularly if only to secure his investment.
- “I am not racist! I watch a lot of black porn. I mean, a lot.”
- “So you want to have a meeting in the room where all the food is and have us eat our food in the room where all the computers are.”
- “Is that the Statue of Liberty? And that’s... that’s penetration.”
- “Pretty happy with yourself?” “I’m pretty happy with ourself.”
- I’ll be on vacation next weekend, so one of my colleagues will cover “Third Party Insourcing.” I look forward to seeing what they have to say.