In defence of Season Four of Silicon Valley

‘It may have given you the impression that the company is in disarray, but I can assure you there’s a very simple explanation for that. It is.’

Thus (again) spake Jared (ne Donald) Dunn, of the embattled startup at the centre of HBO’s Silicon Valley.

************Spoilers follow for all episodes of Silicon Valley up to and including the Season Four finale**************************************************

Season Four of Silicon Valley has been attended by controversy. Its second-billed star, TJ Miller, is leaving the show. Although the show has made diplomatic noises about the departure, Miller himself has…not. In a sprawling, shaggy-dog interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Miller has cocked an eyebrow at series co-creator Mike Judge and star (and longtime collaborator) Thomas Middleditch. He’s called out the show for its cyclical nature, and implied that he left the show for the show’s own good. Without Miller’s character, the perpetually high braggart Erlich Bachmann, the show would have to make a radical change, wouldn’t it?

Others have expressed frustration with the show’s static quality. For all its dizzying pace and intricate plotting, each series – almost each episode – seems to have the same basic structure: ‘The company is doomed! The company is saved! The company is doomed!’ and so forth. Obviously, some of the cyclicality is inevitable. We’re all along to watch these scrappy underdogs struggle, and in order to maintain the tension, both success and failure have to be perpetually plausible and around the corner. But, as the series goes on, the high-wire act is going to get harder and harder to sustain.

Season Four, in particular, has seemed to be particularly aware of the difficulty, and its solution has been to throw plot at the problem in a bid to distract viewers. In one episode, the company makes a play for funding, nearly gets acquired, pips the deal, creates a new rival for itself and loses one of its investors a steady job. Most shows don’t burn through that much plot in a season, let alone a single episode. It’s exhilarating, until you realise that after the smoke has cleared the gang are in exactly the same place that they were at the beginning of the episode. So it’s still a cycle, even if it’s spinning so violently that you might want to throw up at the end.

And in that sense the season four finale may feel like even more of a betrayal. At least Season Four began with the promise of a rift between the show’s main protagonist Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) and his company Pied Piper. Richard, it seemed, was off working on a quixotic ‘New Internet’ – and, excitingly, was teaming up with his erstwhile nemesis Gavin Belson to do it. This promised an invigorating shuffle of existing dynamics, but in retrospect made it even clearer that TJ Miller’s swaggering Erlich Bachmann had little place in the new world order. And in a newly problematic way.

It pains me deeply to say this. Bachmann’s imperious, self-deluding, braggadocious spinmeister was an early breakout character of the show, and I love his gravelly masturbatory arpeggios of bullshit as much as the next person. But even more to the point, I loved the genuine heart beneath the onanism. Bachmann was a liability more often than not, but he had Richard’s best interests at heart, and could provide the vision and the bullshit that pedantic, sputtering, detail-obsessed Richard could not. He was clearly the Jobs to Richard’s Wozniak, and Miller and Middleditch’s easy chemistry sold their connection.

But as the show went on into Season Three, the connection seemed to wither. Miller was still excellent, and the show made hay out of Bachmann’s increasing irrelevance to the universe of its startup, but Richard and Erlich seemed to operating in different orbits except for a few standout moments: the excellent ‘Bachmann’s Earnings Override’ comes to mind. More and more, Richard’s confidant and ally was gentle, earnest Jared (Zach Woods). And while I adore Jared helplessly and will never say no to more of him, I was missing the Yin/Yang of Bachmann’s confidence and Richard’s twitching neurosis.

And then came Richard’s decision to work on his ‘New Internet’ with megalomaniacal Gavin Belson, newly ousted from the tech megalith Hooli. I was looking forward to a nice helping of ‘uneasy bedmates’ humour, but I also realised that in Gavin, we once more had a Jobs to Richard’s Woz. And it seemed that the show was making way for a post-Bachmann reality.

Except that the Richard/Gavin partnership ended almost before it began, with Gavin licking his wounds in Tibet. And as the season continued, the show leaned more and more into Erlich’s irrelevance, ping-ponging him from catastrophe to catastrophe, something that looked horrifyingly like a suicide attempt, a dash to Tibet where he so annoyed Gavin that he spurred his return back to the Valley. Without Erlich, who had been left to rot in Tibet with five years’ worth of opium. An unceremonious goodbye to the second-billed star.

Not least since it doesn’t look like the show will take up the idea of a Richard/Gavin partnership again. The season ends with Gavin making an overture, and with Richard turning him down. So on some level, it looks as though the show’s not only walked back the season’s promise of shuffling the character dynamics, but has regressed to its original stance of scrappy underdog squaring off against soulless mastodon. The same soulless mastodon, even. Fronted by the same megalomaniac as ever.

I get the criticism, I do. But I’d urge, also, a closer look at the last scene of the episode. Yes, we have offer, rejection and threat. The ingredients are there, present and correct. But what’s this? Richard makes a counter-threat. Richard’s standing his ground – and rocking a black eye as he does it. And when Gavin tries a little emotional blackmail, reminding him that his help made Richard’s position possible, Richard’s reply? Is a little shrug and a measured ‘….Thanks.’

Because, while I was fretting about Erlich and cycles and who would be the Jobs to Richard’s Woz, the show was preparing for the conflict it was really interested in.

I’ve said before that Silicon Valley has a moral code, and it is strict about it. And the show’s placed Richard in difficult moral positions before. For example, would he lie on the stand to protect his company in the Season Two finale? Would he lie about fraudulent user numbers to a venture capital outfit in the Season Three finale?

And on both occasions, Richard did the right thing. But this season, Richard’s moral compass has been scrambled by his desperation and – tellingly – by his own myopia and pettiness. Richard’s always had a streak of smallness. In Season One, he got obsessed with proving to ex-girlfriends that he’s over them. In Season Three, he broke up with a girl – in the most obnoxious way possible – because of a disagreement over something even he knows to be an irrelevance. In this season, he jeopardises a dangerous, and unethical, scheme in order to play a witless, petty prank on the smooth blonde paramour of that same girl. He sabotages a billion-dollar deal his colleagues had their hearts set on, because he’s jealous of the chipper, blithely successful man-child sponsoring the deal. Oh, and he smuggles malware onto thousands of people’s phones, causing untold damage to ‘real people, with real crotches’.

It’s clear that the show’s red line is Richard’s pettiness, and the lying to his own friends. The show’s own highly specific moral code is relaxed about hacking, stealing, callousness and indeed cruelty – so long as it’s delivered with panache. But it is thunderous about a man who will fuck over his own friends.

And it is in the final three episodes, also, that the show’s plan for the season – and its protagonist- become clear. Erlich’s ouster reinforces Richard’s desperation. Without Erlich to bat for the company with his own particular combination of clarity and egotism, it falls to Richard. And Richard doesn’t have the tools to cope with moral ambiguity. He doesn’t have his Satanist colleague (Matrin Starr) Gilfoyle’s cheerful embrace of the left-hand path, or the naked self-interest of Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), the Rosencrantz to Gilfoyle’s Guildenstern (or is it the Guildenstern to Gilfoyle’s Rosencrantz?)

Which means that it is in the season’s final two episodes that the show tests, breaks and put back together its beating heart: Donald ‘Jared’ Dunn.

On paper, it’s looked like a curious decision to have Richard and Jared spend so much time together. On paper, their awkwardness, pedantry and shared fundamental decency ought to be too similar to work. But Woods and Middleditch find wonderful, strange, joyous nuances in their similarities – and riff beautifully off differences in their energies. And in a season so concerned with tests of character, it makes sense to foreground – and later strain – Richard’s relationship with the most unambiguously pure-hearted of his friends. Albeit a pure-hearted friend who will 100% kill a motherfucker before the show has ended.

Steadily, as the show has gone on, Jared has become its moral compass. Sincere, soft-spoken Jared who, it is revealed, is so downtrodden that he allowed his name to be changed without putting up a fight. Who is so intoxicated by building something new that he gave up a lucrative career at a hugely successful company to fight fires in a hovel. Who lets slip, in his apologetic murmur, details of a childhood so horrific that even Dickens would say ‘……maybe take it down a notch’. Who continues to live in a rat-infested garage he shares with servers when he has a perfectly good flat, just out of solidarity with his colleagues.

Who says to Richard pleadingly ‘Richard, don’t weaponise my faith in you against me’ when Richard tries to rationalise an unethical decision. Whose last-puppy-at-the-pound stare may well have reinforced Richard’s decision to come clean about fraudulent user numbers – albeit at the worst possible time. Whose loyalty to Richard is expressed with homicidal relish and the most terrifyingly manic laugh you have heard outside a superhero movie.

Whose coping strategies Richard uses against him to get him to go along with smuggling malware onto people’s phones.

This, I suspect, is the moment that the show flops down next to you on the couch and says ‘Pay attention. It’s going to get ugly.’ Because Jared’s ghastly past provides the show with its most reliable laughs. But the details are invariably Gothic and Grand Guignol enough that they seem…not quite real. He screams German threats in his sleep! His birth-father is a militiaman in the Ozarks! He was friends with a boy in a group home who wore the skin of a beast! That sort of thing.

But in the penultimate episode of the season, there’s little of that. Richard urges Jared into a patently unethical – and illegal – action, and when Jared balks Richard asks him to play a childhood game where he pretended everything was okay. ‘Uncle Jerry’s game’, Jared whispers and it’s so stark and nasty there’s no room for a giggle. Even a shocked one. And Jared is brought along for the Zany Scheme, which Richard promptly fucks up because of his jealousy of the current paramour of his ex-girlfriend.

And Jared snaps. Incredulously he whispers the details of Richard’s idiocy. He reminds him of Richard’s high-falutin’ moral rhetoric. He lays out, mercilessly, the imbecility and the self-delusion of his former hero. And finally, shaking with rage and heartbreak, he says ‘You….reckless….child.’

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(Allow me to gush over Zach Woods for a moment here. I’m not the first to revel in the ‘comedy acting masterclass‘ he so effortlessly delivers as Jared every week, but he’s really special here. His long, thin frame is drawn in, his pale face registers every shade of his incredulity and heartbreak. Even his hands – one fist clenched, the other with two long accusatory fingers pointed at Richard – betray a man on the edge. Go look for ‘PoopFare’ on YouTube. You won’t be sorry.)

It’s a fantastic moment, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when Richard finds a downcast Jared in the final moments of the episode and tries to jolly him into forgetting what happened. You go into the season finale with just the right amount of uneasiness.

And it’s richly merited. Richard’s desperation leads him to risk his friend’s job at Stanford, snap and fire Jared (!), and destroy the painstakingly-hacked-together server that has saved their skins so many a time ere now. It’s only the server’s Christ-like sacrifice that saves Richard’s bacon in the end – and, incidentally, provides a proof of concept of the new Internet, and the barrage of funding offers with which we end the season.

I should also spread the love by saying that the episode is as much of a showcase for Thomas Middleditch’s wonderfully expressive face as its predecessor was for Zach Woods.

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It’s not a perfect finale, by any means . It suffers from the season’s manic pacing, and the show’s ocassionally overemphatic underlining of its moral lessons. And yes, the gang’s salvation cannot escape a whiff of deus ex machina.

And also, yes, I cannot ignore the utter shamelessness of Richard and Jared’s reconciliation, draped in tropes right out of the Richard Curtis RomCom Playbook. Richard shows up at Jared’s door, is distracted by the peals of women’s laughter in Jared’s house, and is met with Jared’s whispered ‘Richard, what do you want from me?’ (I KNOW!). Not even ‘what do you want, Richard?’, but ‘what do you want from me, Richard?’. What does he want from you, Jared? He’s just a boy, Jared, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love him. Oh wait, wrong romcom:

 

Anyway, Richard makes a heartfelt apology to his Morality Pet. He vows to end his company with integrity even if he didn’t run it with any, and trudges away – only to be intercepted by Jared with a job application, while the Plinky-Plunky Guitar Music Of Whispered Declarations plays. Oh, show, never change.

But in the final moments of the show we see where Richard’s struggles have brought him: to a better understanding of his world, and his place in it. And a newfound steel to his spine.

Is it manipulative? A little. Did it feel entirely organic? Not quite. Has the show made a case for a post-Bachmann self? I wonder. But this episode, for the first time, suggested that there’s real mileage to be gotten from threading the needle of moral compromise. And I’m cautiously optimistic.

 

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