At ReadWrite, we can’t stop talking about HBO’s “Silicon Valley” and its uncanny depiction of the tech world we cover. So we’re going to start offering recaps of the show.
For those of you just catching on to the show, HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” created by Mike Judge, focuses on the trials and tribulations of Pied Piper, a fictional startup working on compression technologies.
Richard Hendriks is the CEO and founder of the company; Erlich Bachmann is an entrepreneur who owns 10 percent of Pied Piper from serving as Hendriks’ landlord; Dinesh Chugtai and Bertram Gilfoyle are engineers; and Jared Dunn, a former employee at tech giant Hooli, now runs business development for the startup. They’re backed by Peter Gregory, a billionaire who’s loosely based on Facebook investor Peter Thiel. Gregory’s nemesis is Gavin Belson, the CEO of Hooli, an all-encompassing tech giant modeled after Google.
The show returned this week to a bittersweet note: Episode 5, “Signaling Risk,” was the last appearance of Gregory, played by Christopher Welch, who died in December 2013 after a fight with cancer.
“Signaling Risk” deals with fundamental questions of identity: What will be the company’s logo—and why does the company even exist in the first place?
The episode sees Erlich negotiating ineptly with a Bay Area graffiti artist he hopes to employ to create Pied Piper’s new logo. We also get to see a quiet brunch showdown between moguls Peter Gregory and Gavin Belson. Their conflict, combined with a casual decision months ago by Peter, pushes up Pied Piper’s timeframe to launch.
The first scene begins with Erlich (T.J. Miller), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) driving in a car flamboyantly wrapped with the logo of Aviato, the name of a startup Erlich sold for a figure “in the low seven digits” a couple of years ago. Erlich takes his two coworkers to a rough neighborhood in order to find a graffiti artist named Chuy Ramirez, whom Erlich hopes will design a new Pied Piper logo.
Erlich says that they need “something raw” for their startup logo, rejecting Jared’s (Zach Woods) suggestion of two simple, lowercase “p”s.
“Every company in the valley has lowercase letters,” Erlich says. “Why? Because it’s safe. We aren’t going to do that. We’re going to go with Chuy.”
It’s a perfect play on the startup attitude of self-important individuality. Erlich’s focus on getting the perfect logo demonstrates the willingness to throw arbitrary amounts of money on superficial aspects of the business, while ignoring the actual product completely—all in an effort to play Pied Piper up as different.
Chuy’s response to Erlich’s offer: “So you going to give me stock options or what?”
This references the $200 million profit real-life graffiti artist David Choe made when he decorated Facebook’s headquarters in exchange for equity. Erlich stumbles through an agreement with Chuy for a logo on his garage door for $10,000. His clear discomfort with striking up deals with the artist is unfortunately paired with his lack of direction for the logo. Chuy is left with a clean canvas.
Back at Pied Piper headquarters, Jared is also stressing “clear lines of communication” to Richard (Thomas Middleditch) because without boundaries, protocol, or a company culture, Jared believes the startup will go downhill. But it’s also clear that Jared, whose previous experience was at the highly structured world of Hooli, is uncomfortable with the looseness of a new venture.
If Erlich represents a delusionally image-obsessed aspect of startup culture, then Jared is a caricature of big-tech-company process management. Jared, who gave up a position as Gavin Belson’s director of special projects at Hooli, can’t let go of his business jargon, charts, and Scrum software-development methodology.
The characters’ wardrobe speaks to the distances between them as well. Jared is still hanging onto his Hooli roots—and before that, his time spent working in politics, with a smart haircut to match his button-ups and sweaters. Compare that to Dinesh’s track jackets and polos, Erlich’s boho sweaters, and Richard’s Zuckerberg-inspired hoodies.
Fashion evokes other power dynamics in “Silicon Valley.” Peter Gregory’s assistant, Monica (Amanda Crew), wears a fitted dark-blue dress, pumps, and a simple gold necklace. Her wavy hair and simple makeup creates a clean look that simultaneously conveys authority and distance from the startup crew.
In one shot filmed through glass doors, she’s framed in a way that divides her from Richard and Erlich, highlighting her otherness as she confronts them about Pied Piper being entered into TechCrunch Disrupt, a startup competition—a move which risks embarrassing her boss. Monica stands as Peter and Erlich sit casually on a couch. Through her body language and wardrobe, Monica’s character represents business reality—a foil against Richard’s builderly cluelessness.
The only other woman in this episode appears when Big Head (Josh Brener), a former Pied Piper employee who’s been promoted at Hooli, meets with Gavin Belson (Matt Ross). She’s a functionary, part of a three-person Hooli team facilitating the conversation. This scene hilariously goes down the ladder of technological ingenuity rung by rung, as Big Head first meets with Gavin through a TeleHuman hologram to chat about Pied Piper’s TechCrunch Disrupt debut.
After the hologram begins to glitch and Gavin screams obscenities at his IT person, the team decide to move over to Hooli Chat, the company’s video chat system. In one of my favorite quotes of the episode, Gavin opens up Hooli Chat and says, “Ah, that’s better. Sorry. The TeleHuman is a great piece of technology. Unfortunately the broadband isn’t that great out here in rural Wyoming. That presents a great business opportunity.” The Hooli CEO moves smoothly from belligerence to upside-seeking.
The Hooli Chat also breaks up, and Gavin ends up calling Big Head, with the Hooli team looking undeniably uncomfortable in the back as they are unable to listen in on the conversation.
In the end, even the phone’s audio cannot hold up—the irony of technology not functioning in its own heartland.
Although Monica can exercise her power with Pied Piper’s team, the limits of her role show when Peter Gregory encounters Gavin Belson. Monica and Peter are out for lunch, where Peter tells the waiter, who asks if he’s enjoying his asparagus, informs him that he only eats it for the nutrients, not for enjoyment.
During their lunch, Monica alerts Peter that Gavin has just come through the door. After a failed attempt to slink away, Peter comes face to face with Gavin in front of a sitting Monica. Peter and Gavin fumble through pleasantries and conversation about Jackson Hole, as Monica watches silently.
With those examples of women standing by mute as men have conversations in front of them, this episode neatly fails the Bechdel Test, a standard proposed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, which requires that two women in a work of fiction talk to each other about something other than a man. It’s hard to see how future episodes will do better, since Monica is the only female regular on the show.
Gavin mentions that he is going to be the keynote speaker at TechCrunch Disrupt, and that he will unveil Nucleus, a technological rival to Pied Piper’s compression product, at the event. This makes Pied Piper’s launch at the event all the more crucial. Pied Piper is becoming a plaything of billionaires more interested in embarrassing each other than building new technology.
After Chuy reveals an unspeakably obscene mural on the garage door of Pied Piper’s suburban-ranch-house headquarters, Erlich finally gets the logo he was looking for. Chuy creates a simple green block with two lowercase “p”s overlapping in the middle—just like Jared had proposed, but for an extra $10,000. Chuy takes back the original mural, and Erlich gets the bragging rights of telling people that Chuy Ramirez designed the logo.
At the end of the episode, we see Gavin looking out of his Hooli headquarter windows towards Chuy’s original Pied Piper logo on Erlich’s garage door. We learn he spent $500,000 to buy it—a last lesson in how Silicon Valley values appearances over substance.