Once again, the plot of Silicon Valley (the show) converges with that of Silicon Valley (the place) with season finale “Server Error,” a story that’s hard to watch without thinking of two tech-world events this week: venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck taking a leave of absence after accusations of sexual harassment from six women, and the now-permanent resignation of Uber founder/CEO Travis Kalanick, after oh I don’t know, take your pick.
With Action Jack recalling all the Hooliphones that exploded due to his sloppily-ported VR code, and possibly (probably?) Pied Piper's compression software, Richard is scrambling to find a new place to store their single customer’s data. Now that he’s this close to seeing his “new Internet” idea succeed, his behavior continues its season-long nosedive into amorality and assholery. Normally he must be coaxed or tricked into being the devious prick Pied Piper needs to reach the next level, but it’s starting to come to him a little too naturally. (We see him get better and better at this throughout Season 4, between trolling the patent troll and exposing the Blood Boy’s stoner lifestyle.)
All this weighs on the conscience of poor, poor Jared, a man whose upbringing is a nine-volume leather-bound anthology of cautionary tales. He becomes, improbably and bravely, Pied Piper's moral compass. So moral, in fact, that he can’t just walk out - he agrees to stay for two weeks, under protest, per the employee handbook he wrote himself. Interviewing his replacement, he describes Pied Piper with a little too much clarity: “[We] probably gave you the impression that the company is in disarray. I can assure you there’s a very simple explanation for that: it is. Even setting aside our CEO’s sexual extortion, adultery, and low-brow scatalogical vandalism, we’re still essentially a criminal operation whose only product is dangerous malware. Oh, I see you’re fluent in Japanese. Are you going to be comfortable with casual racism?"
Unfortunately, Jared - who’s quickly fired by Richard after being the voice of reason one too many times - is the only person who could have saved Pied Piper from the comedy of errors that ensues. After Richard loses everything by trying to operate without his even-handed guidance - from the trust and loyalty of his friends to the beloved server farm Anton - he hits bottom, offers genuine apologies to everyone, and summons enough integrity to come clean to their storage product’s first and only customer about their massive data loss. But it turns out that Gilfoyle has inadvertently recruited 30,000 “smart” fridges into the Pied Piper network - the company is saved, though Richard does get a black eye for his delightfully awkward and mercifully brief affair with the customer’s fiancee.
Which brings us to the news this week - Richard’s less public failures and alienation of everyone around him provoke a moral reckoning and genuine contrition that helps bring the gang back together, but the actual Silicon Valley saw two mea culpas that rang a little hollow and raised serious questions about how and when companies should deal with their very real culture problems. Both Uber’s Kalanick and Binary Capital's Caldbeck responded to public pressure with acknowledgements and apologies that many criticized as too little, too late. While they both deserve some credit - some - for owning up to their behavior, the industry can certainly do better to take its problems seriously long before they lead to public embarrassment or real financial risk.
In Uber’s case, the company’s aggressive tactics and culture of sexual harassment were known and even encouraged internally for years, but it wasn’t until former employee Susan Fowler kicked off an avalanche of criticism that financially threatened the company that Kalanick finally acknowledged the need for some soul-searching for Uber and himself alike. Likewise, Caldbeck has come under fire for an apology that started with how difficult the situation has been for him and comes a little too soon after he attacked his accusers. (As one wrote, “I do not believe that someone can harass women for 10 years, tell the people who exposed him to go fuck themselves, and then 24 hours later, thank them for bringing him self-awareness.”)
With stories like these, it’s nearly impossible to keep watching Silicon Valley as a self-contained comedy. When the show premiered in 2014, the premise felt much more light-hearted: just a bunch of lovable nerds trying to make it in the goofy upside-down world of tech, with enough broad comedy to attract a wide audience but an impressive attention to detail in its nerdy and complicated in-jokes. But I’d imagine that the elaborate dick joke that closed out the show’s first season wouldn’t land so well today. As the tech world’s very real cultural, economic and political issues come to light, the show has started to evolve its satire - and season 4 took us to some dark and not-so-funny places.
Richard had the luxury to come clean about his faults a little more privately, and his company was saved by yet another round of the dumb luck that keeps the show’s plot moving from season to season. His decentralized Internet now has a proven application and all seems right with the Pied Piper crew - including Erlich, who will apparently live out his days in a Tibetan opium den. (Good for him.) Richard now feels empowered enough to take on the industry without giving in to its basest impulses, including what is presumably a very generous buyout offer from Gavin Belson. We’re set for what should be an interesting fifth season, where we will hopefully see the gang wrestle with the challenges of genuine success.
Matt Corwine is a writer, tech worker and expat Seattleite in Brooklyn. This is his third tech bubble.