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On Silicon Valley, victory and defeat keep snatching from each others’ jaws

“That was pretty badass, Richard. Until it wasn’t.”

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Amanda Crew, Thomas Middleditch, Martin Starr, T.J. Miller, Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods
Amanda Crew, Thomas Middleditch, Martin Starr, T.J. Miller, Kumail Nanjiani, Zach Woods
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Silicon Valley

"Maleant Data Systems Solutions"

Season 3 , Episode 4

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One of the best things about watching Pied Piper’s journey through all its ups and downs is that there’s no one path to success for the company and its founders. It grew out of a mix of dumb luck and raw intellect, and since then has climbed to its current position by adding to the mix various measures of improvisation, persuasion, ruthlessness, and the occasional bit of begging. On Silicon Valley it’s an open question each week how they’ll find their way out of the latest mess, and just how unlikely their latest salvation is going to be. “Maleant Data Systems Solutions” is an episode that treads all of those paths, leading the team to a string of successes that soon give way to the next obstacle.

This approach is clear from the opening, which picks up in the wake of the “Meinertzagen’s Haversack” cliffhanger. Given the degree of damning evidence it seemed there was no escape from Jack’s wrath, and yet writer Donick Carey finds one that’s both narratively plausible and entirely in keeping with Richard’s journey. Something that often gets lost in all Richard’s business and personal struggles is that he’s an abnormally smart person, and the algorithm he wrote is in demand precisely because almost no one else can work with it—and the people who can are all Pied Piper’s competitors. It’s a terrific scene for Thomas Middleditch as he asserts his position to Jack and sets new terms, and then in true Silicon Valley fashion undermines its dramatic finish by cracking his face on the desk.

With those new terms now including the construction of the box to its bare minimum, it turns into a showcase for the team’s better impulses. As much as they want to just phone it in, Silicon Valley has established their skill and the pride they take in it, and the box project turns into as much a chance for them to show off and one up each other. Like “Meinertzhagen’s Haversack,” it relies on the pure momentum of its cast working to get something done, and flavors it with a few outside forces—in this case the box enclosure designer Dane, dismissed at first and then embraced as the team gets into the spirit of his zest for animal comparisons. (Dinesh: “I don’t care, but maybe a gazelle is more like it, because it’s synonymous with speed.” Gilfoyle: “Fuck that. Cheetah’s faster, and it kills fucking gazelles.”)

Thomas Middleditch, Amanda Crew, Stephen Tobolowsky (HBO)

However, for all their enthusiasm for the box project, up to and including helping Jack pitch the new version, its cost still comes too high as Jack signs the algorithm away in the new Maleant contract. It all comes down to a board vote of two to two—Richard voting on principle and Erlich voting on spite—which leaves Monica as the tiebreaker. Over the course of the show I’ve been upset that the writers haven’t given Amanda Crew more to do, and this makes for a good argument for it. It’s good to see her take a stance, but her explanation for the no vote is dialogue with too much whiff of exposition to remind us of principles she hasn’t had enough screen time to demonstrate.

Speaking of how there’s no one path to success, Big Head has continued to coast along and somehow find gold at the bottom of a Big Gulp. The $20 million windfall he received from Hooli has now gone into a massive house that he’s inadvertently turned into his own incubator, trading rooms for shares. And unsurprisingly, his house is much nicer than Erlich’s—with its hallway doubling as a room and pest problem that calls for hawk urine—and is poaching some of his potential tenants. Unintentionally of course, given Big Head’s complete lack of malice or ambition, but it’s still enough for Erlich to take personal affront and throw down a gauntlet to declare war.

That is, until an issue starting his car completely ruins his dramatic exit, and he changes tack entirely to suggest the two of them partner up. This is a pairing that has a lot of potential for the show, as it pairs up two characters who are frequently on the periphery of the Pied Piper action. I commented last week that the writers treat Erlich’s irrelevance to the business as a joke, and Big Head makes him look vital to the process, less of a character than a pawn to complicate circumstances without any understanding of what he’s doing. Pairing the two with their dynamically different approaches to life—as well as Erlich’s view of his partner as “more useless than a bag of dicks without a handle”—could be much more interesting than the now entirely deteriorated relationship between Erlich and Jian-Yang, especially if Erlich starts playing around with Big Head’s far more extensive financial resources.

Josh Brener, T.J. Miller (HBO)

Similarly ingratiating himself with a wealthy patron is Denpak, who is at risk of losing Gavin’s focus to more business-related matters and his parking space to bicycle repair. While Erlich knows he can get what he wants by simply pushing Big Head, Gavin’s too proud and prickly for that tactic, and it’s a delight to see Denpak playing him like an instrument, plucking all the right strings. The decision to retain Gavin at the head of Hooli after his defeat last season starts to bear some fruit here, as it makes it clear where this character’s strengths are. He’s succeeded to the highest heights that his industry can provide, and knocking him off that perch would fundamentally change how he approaches the world.

And his approach sets off the next stage of the compression wars. In a rare instance of an animal appearing on Silicon Valley and not doing something obscene, Gavin rolls out a bulldog to the shareholders with a grand speech about the dangers of inbreeding—one punctuated hilariously by its wheeling back and forth from the table. Inadvertently, Denpak has reignited the war between Hooli and Pied Piper, as Gavin acquires EndFrame to rebuild his department with new blood. (A move that absolutely confounds the old blood who Gavin welcomes back as welcome replacements for those who he “incestuously promoted from within.”) It’s good to see Matt Ross back in antagonist mode, smugly calling Richard to gloat—and then gradually undermined by the unskippable ad hiding the reveal.

This move sets off the latest shift in the power dynamics, as Erlich has his second breakthrough in as many weeks to set off a chain reaction of excitement—excitement undermined by his constant coughing but excitement nonetheless. By purchasing EndFrame Gavin’s set the price tag on middle-out compression, giving them a crucial talking point with the ever-analytical Laurie. Yet even that victory is cheapened as Laurie explains that Jack is no longer with the company due to their differences, and none of them will be given his position in the interim. It’s a fitting close to an episode all about jockeying for an advantage, the team handed a victory as hollow as the chair their adversary once sat.

Stray observations:

  • This week’s closing track, “Pain,” Pusha T featuring Future.
  • Several of you in the comments last week—as well as Dustin Roles at Pajibaspeculated that Richard dropping the file and exposing their plans was a cunning move on his part, presenting fake plans to Jack in the vein of the real Haversack Ruse. I think that’s an interesting idea, though at the time I found it hard to believe that Richard would be quick enough to devise a second idea on the heels of the first, and more tragicomically appropriate that he’d be undone by the central part of the original ruse. s
  • I hope this won’t be the last we see of Stephen Tobolowsky on Silicon Valley, as Jack fit seamlessly into this world with his mix of rage and rationale (“Compromise is the shared hypotenuse”). It’d be interesting to see how well he’d do in open warfare with the Pied Piper team.
  • The exception to finding success is of course Jared, whose stay in Erlich’s garage is extended indefinitely thanks to his tenant now renting the place out to a new AirBnB clientele. I hope things pick up for him by the end of the season, as while his pain can be entertaining it would be nice for him to get a win every once in a while.
  • I’m starting to suspect that the continued abuse of Dinesh is because Kumail Nanjiani gives the best sour face of anyone in the cast. His sneer at Gilfoyle’s latest insult (“I’m not Dinesh. It’s very hard for me to do shitty work”) is a thing of beauty.
  • Speaking of which, Kumail Nanjiani disclosed on Twitter that last week’s chain story was inspired by his own high school experience. He had it worse than Dinesh.
  • “It’s funny: we’re named Pied Piper but we’re beset with rats!”
  • “Yes, it would be polite for you to invite me in and offer me a Push Pop!”
  • “The fact that it probably won’t make any difference makes it all the more meaningful.”
  • “Also, I encourage you to click yes if the ad was helpful to you.”