Silicon Valley Explores the Darker Side of the Industry

In Season 5, the satirical show seems primed to dig into the ethical complications of being a tech CEO—at just the right moment.

The main cast of 'Silicon Valley' in Season 5

There’s arguably never been a better time for Silicon Valley to be on the air. As Mark Zuckerberg takes out full-page newspaper ads apologizing for Facebook’s recently revealed data leaks, America’s queasiness with the apps and tech companies that have become integral to daily life is reaching critical levels. HBO’s Silicon Valley is, first and foremost, a silly, heightened workplace comedy. But over its first four seasons, it has incisively parodied the boom-and-bust cycle that so many venture capital–funded firms go through. If creating a tech company is the 21st-century version of the American dream, then Mike Judge’s show exists to point out the moral compromises inherent in any path to success.

In Silicon Valley’s fifth-season premiere on Sunday, Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) has finally “made it” in the industry: He’s rich from his invention of a data-compression algorithm. And he has secured funding to pursue his dream of creating a “decentralized internet” free of data-mining, firewalls, and government interference—a tabula rasa for an online society that’s coming to grips with how much surveillance happens during day-to-day browsing. It’s a radical notion, but one that’s in line with real-world thinking about the future of the web. Silicon Valley’s creators have long prided themselves on staying ahead of tech trends via thorough research, and this new season seems more on-point than ever.

Richard’s idea of a decentralized internet—powered by the processing strength of networked cellphones—is a basic invocation of the blockchain, a tech concept that has its roots in the cryptocurrency movement and has become the latest industry buzzword. Like many a Silicon Valley invention, Richard’s dream is still far from being realized (and is simplified for viewers like myself who barely understand what blockchain is). But the “decentralized internet” concept is developed enough to straddle the line between fantasy and reality, and part of Season 5’s arc will follow Richard’s attempts to make it the latter.

As with any soaring American industry, ego often gets in the way. Sunday night’s episode, “Grow Fast or Die Slow,” delved into the typically hilarious minutiae of start-up hiring and a battle of wills that breaks out between Richard and a jumped-up new CEO who invented a pizza-centric app. The conflict is a miniaturized version of the war Richard has fought with Hooli CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross, playing the maniacal head of a Google-type company) for Silicon Valley’s entire run, only this time it’s Richard who’s the big bully.

Silicon Valley has essentially been on-air long enough for Richard to become the sort of villain he once despised, and it appears Season 5 will center on the tension between his desire to succeed and conquer, and his more altruistic ideals. In the past, Richard has resorted to lying and cheating (even employing a click farm in India in one season) to get what he wanted, motivated by a resolute belief that the technology he’s building will improve the world. Rightly or wrongly, Judge (and his showrunner Alec Berg) see that kind of superiority complex as what’s driving so many industry CEOs, and compelling them to overlook the more ethically dodgy parts of their business. Judge may not have seen the Cambridge Analytica scandal coming, but that’s hardly the first time a tech giant has covered up a data leak.

Part of the brilliance of Silicon Valley is how convincing the details of Richard’s world are. “Grow Fast or Die Slow” sees the rest of the ensemble engrossed in their own ridiculous schemes—Richard’s colleagues Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) imperiously reject all job applicants to Richard’s firm over superficial details, while their former rival Jian Yang (Jimmy O. Yang) concocts a plan to fake someone’s death as part of a hostile tech takeover. As the challenges pile up, the viewer grasps just how disastrous any public failure would be for Richard—which makes his moral corner-cutting easier to understand every time it happens.

In its first four years, Silicon Valley had another main character to give voice to the undercurrent of ego among its cast of coders—Erlich Bachman, the bloviating venture capitalist played by T.J. Miller. But partway through Season 4, news broke that Miller would be leaving the show for good, and the finale saw Erlich being summarily abandoned in Tibet. In later interviews, Judge referenced on-set tension as the reason for Miller’s departure, but I still wondered at the time if the show would function as well without him, given his uniquely bombastic role.

I shouldn’t have worried, because Erlich’s absence lets Richard’s emerging dark side become more of a central focus for the series. For years, Silicon Valley seemed almost afraid of having Richard succeed, throwing narrative roadblocks in his way to stop him from becoming an all-powerful CEO and to perhaps maintain dramatic tension. The blundering Erlich helped the series in that regard, but now Richard gets to be his own worst enemy. If Season 5’s first episode is any indication, Silicon Valley will be more exciting—and painfully realistic—this way.