Silicon Valley’s Sad Ballad of Start-Up Success
The third season of the HBO satire has shown, in scathing detail, the perils of triumph in the tech industry.
Silicon Valley has always been a comic high-wire act, mixing a highfalutin satire of the costs of failure and success in the start-up world with the crudest imagery and most foul-mouthed monologuing. The visual tableau at the end of Sunday’s episode might have been the show’s platonic ideal: Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) realized his revolutionary software was being turned into a hacky piece of business tech while watching two thoroughbred horses mate in his CEO’s stable. As Silicon Valley begins its third season, it’s become an even more insidiously clever tale of the perils of “scaling” in the business world, where good ideas get turned into lifeless multi-billion-dollar companies, but it’s not above using the simplest visual metaphor in the world to get that across.
In the previous seasons, Silicon Valley charted Richard’s journey from programmer drone to business titan as he created innovative data-compression software and beat back the efforts of massive conglomerate Hooli (the show’s analogue for Google) to steal it away from him. Now, Richard is finally free to pursue his own vision for his creation, Pied Piper, with millions of dollars of start-up cash at his disposal. But with that comes a new set of expectations: Silicon Valley is, at its core, a caustic long-form portrayal of the mediocrity at the heart of the American dream. Richard has finally found success, freedom, and fame, but the only reward he gets for it is the last thing he’s interested in: money.
As the two horses copulate (in graphic detail) behind him, Richard talks to his new CEO Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky), an experienced hand brought in to help grow Pied Piper into a gigantic company. Richard lays out his dream for his software to Jack: a world where Pied Piper could grant super high-speed Internet to the poorest, most remote areas on Earth, all while turning a profit. Jack gently corrects him. “The product isn’t the platform, and the product isn’t your algorithm either, and it’s not even the software. Do you know what Pied Piper’s product is?”
“Is it me?” Richard asks, as inspirational music builds behind him. “Oh, God! No! No!” Jack shrieks. “Pied Piper’s product is its stock. Whatever makes the value of that stock go up, that is what we’re going to make.” And with that, he returns to his stallions. Richard’s efforts throughout the first season of Silicon Valley were all geared toward avoiding an acquisition by a big company, since it would corrupt his utopian vision. The lesson of the show this year is that the tech industry’s start-up model makes those evils unavoidable. Richard needs money and resources to make his software globally available, a situation that leaves him handcuffed to a mundane business he never wanted.
Jack is the perfect villain for that narrative: a benevolent, avuncular steward for the company’s depressing “business-facing” goals. Richard wants Pied Piper to be like Dropbox, a free piece of software anyone can use with profits coming from premium features for businesses. Jack lends these ideas a sympathetic ear before quietly quashing every one of them, telling Richard the tech bubble could pop again at any moment and it’s better to just make money fast, selling software straight to businesses and leaving the general public out of it.
The delights of each episode of Silicon Valley are mostly in the beautiful creativity of its bad language. Richard, his programmers Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Bertram (Martin Starr), and his advisers Erlich (T.J. Miller) and Donald (Zach Woods) find new, incredible ways to insult and undermine each other every week. But the show’s larger plotting can be more frustrating. Dorky testosterone jousts are always amusing to watch, but Richard is such an idealistic wet blanket that the early struggles of Pied Piper were too halting and pathetic to really root for. The show works much better with Richard as a successful figure: His aspirations are the same, but they may not be enough to halt the compromising tide of money that comes with success.
Richard’s Sisyphean efforts to be “different” in an industry where being different has been turned into its own homogenous concept are the tragic heart of Silicon Valley. Its creators, Mike Judge, John Altschuler, and Dave Krinsky, have managed to squeeze that sad narrative of the American business model into a show that also features explicit horse sex and whole scenes devoted to masturbation algorithms without missing a step. This season will certainly feature many more such antics, as Pied Piper’s ship of fools sail ever closer to multi-billion-dollar success, but without losing the pathos of Richard’s fight to keep his integrity.
That challenge might seem minor compared to those of Silicon Valley’s sister shows on HBO (the continental power clashes on Game of Thrones and the deadlocked presidential race of Veep), but as Richard’s face crumples before those thoroughbreds, it feels like a matter of life and death. Better than that, it’s a challenge that feels deeply rooted in every ongoing discussion about technology, and the question of whether there’s a place for more idealistic enterprise not purely tied to profit and corporate control. Silicon Valley thinks the answer is no, but at least it sees the dark comedy in that.