Silicon Valley’s Season 3 finale aired on June 26, 2016. Four weeks later, venture capitalist Peter Thiel—partial inspiration for the show’s Peter Gregory character—took the stage at the Republican National Convention and endorsed Donald Trump. A month later, Gawker shut down after Thiel bankrupted it with a vengeful dose of venture litigation. (In 2007, Gawker outed Thiel in its tech-gossip blog Valleywag, a rare outlet to critique and satirize Silicon Valley among what was then a generally fawning tech press.)
And as 2016 dragged on, the public view of Silicon Valley (the place) darkened. Sexism, harassment and dirty tricks at Uber. Fake news and filter bubbles at Facebook. Massive undisclosed security breaches at Yahoo. Russian hackers and troll armies. The Mirai botnet and the frighteningly insecure Internet of Things. (One vulnerable device discovered in 2016 was an Internet-connected vibrator whose camera feed could be exposed to hackers—not the scariest IT nightmare of the year, but it’s up there.)
It will be interesting to see how the new season of Silicon Valley lands in a world where Silicon Valley no longer seems so quirky, cute or harmless—now that we live in what Web pioneer Jamie Zawinski and others have called our "dystopian cyberpunk present.”
The show has always been lighthearted and loving towards its premise and characters—from the parade of earnest entrepreneurs seeking to “make the world a better place” to the feckless treachery of Hooli CEO Gavin Belson and even the douchey caricature Russ Hanneman. Even the direst conflicts seem benign inside this Valley bubble, and despite its roots in satire, the show has achieved a relatability common among HBO shows like Girls and Sex and the City. (You’re such a Gilfoyle.) But while nobody expects the show to suddenly turn into Black Mirror, it’s hard to imagine that the creator of Idiocracy will pull his punches on the Valley’s latest PR crises, especially in today’s high-tension climate of weaponized ridicule.
We don’t go there in season 4’s opener “Success Failure,” but things do get a little darker. When we last saw Pied Piper, they were on the verge of a turnaround—their video chat software, originally written as a failed attempt by Dinesh to get a better look at his flirty Estonian co-worker, has taken off—finally, an application of Richard’s revolutionary compression algorithm that regular people actually give a shit about. However, Piper Chat's growing user base comes with growing server costs. And thanks to Richard’s admission that the company’s previous growth spurt was fraudulent, the company is radioactive in the VC community.
The guys get creative, with Richard posing as an Uber driver to effectively kidnap a VC and give a beautifully forced product demo—one whose implausible scenario and awkward role-playing will be familiar to anyone exposed to a lot of tech marketing. Yet their next funding round still eludes them, and tensions within the group are growing as fast as Erlich’s AWS bill. While Dinesh and Gilfoyle are pulling all-nighters to reduce the load on their servers, Richard has been distracted by a shiny, pointless idea: 12-bit color! This incremental bump in image quality doesn’t solve their problem and is invisible and irrelevant to most users—and Richard’s general disinterest in video chat leads the rest to believe that it’s time for someone else to run Pied Piper.
Over in the B plot, Gavin Belson and airport-bookstore cliche “Action" Jack Barker are heading back from China, where Jack’s beloved, dull-ass “box” has finally found commercial success. The good times stop rolling when Jack has their company jet drop him off in Jackson Hole on the way to San Francisco—adding nearly a half an hour to their trip and later provoking a delightfully petty (and costly) response from Gavin.
Back at the house, Erlich and Bighead’s work to fairly divvy up Pied Piper’s shares is tanked by Bighead’s father, who’s out for revenge after Erlich helped waste all his son’s money on antique cannonballs, Hawaiian-themed Alcatraz parties, and a top-shelf “fruit guy.” While Erlich’s stake in Pied Piper shrivels by the pool, creepy mother hen Jared is inside, talking strategy while giving nail-biting Richard a manicure. (How does he have this skill? “When I was in the streets it was a means of survival.”)
Richard decides that if reputable VCs won’t talk to them, it’s time to talk to Russ Hanneman, who shocks us with some sage and grounded advice: sensing his ambivalence about video chat, he urges Richard to chase an idea he can truly care about. Though, true to form, he delivers this wisdom in the episode’s funniest moment: in front of his obnoxious orange car, using an unnecessarily vivid inventory of gay slang, in a louder voice than appropriate in front of his daughter’s primary school.
Instead of a video chat app, Richard wants to use his algorithm to create a “new Internet”—a completely decentralized, peer-to-peer network, without tolls, firewalls, regulation or spying. “Information would be totally free, in every sense of the word.” This charmingly old-school cyberutopian vision reinforces the show’s theme of tension between idealism, cold business logic, and ground truth: it evokes the early days of the Web, when many believed it would dissolve borders, eliminate conflict, and embolden an informed citizenry led by benevolent philosopher-kings. (We were as humble as we were correct.)
Gavin, meanwhile, has tasked his security chief with proving that Action Jack’s private jet detour was an inappropriate waste of Hooli shareholder money—by having him fly the same route five more times, just to be sure. Armed with the evidence and brimming with menacing good cheer, he “promotes” Jack all the way to Hooli's sub-sub-sub-sub-basement, where we re-encounter the delightful dead-eyed datacenter technician from Season 3, who installs Jack and his conjoined triangles of excellence in his new location.
The group has decided to oust Richard as CEO in favor of simple, oblivious Bighead—the least offensive choice as leader, in keeping with his character's ability to rise without a trace. But the team’s plan to kick him out of the chair fizzles when Richard quits the company instead, offering a perpetual license to his compression algorithm and returning all his equity in exchange for complete control of his new “new Internet” venture. (He also insists on keeping the Pied Piper name for himself, which further delights the group.) He recommends, however, that Dinesh take the reins as CEO, prompting an exchange between Dinesh and Gilfoyle that makes us wish even harder for an animated spinoff where they run a diner together. Jared takes the news hard, and Richard must urge him to stay with the group, with the tone of a man leaving the family dog on the side of the road.
Silicon Valley is at its best when its characters are starting up or starting over, and “Success Failure” sets everyone up nicely for the season—with Richard in front of an empty whiteboard, challenged to turn his “new Internet” idea into an actual working thing, the rest of the crew trying to capitalize on video chat’s momentum, Monica seeking to re-establish herself after falling out of favor at Raviga, and Erlich facing a new enemy in the form of Bighead’s crafty, vindictive father. Whether the writers weave some of the real-world Valley’s darker moments into the plot remains to be seen, but I’m guessing the show will be just fine either way.
Matt Corwine is a writer, tech worker and expat Seattlite in Brooklyn. This is his third tech bubble.