Can idealists exist in Silicon Valley?
‘Silicon Valley’ returns for a sixth and final season as startup Pied Piper reaches new heights
Silicon Valley Season 6 Episode 1: “Artificial Lack of Intelligence”
Directed by Mike Judge
Screenplay by Ron Weiner
Starring Thomas Middleditch, Zach Woods, Martin Starr, Kumail Nanjiani, Amanda Crew
Behind the Valley’s absurdities and the verbal spars between Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), Silicon Valley is a series with a prickly heart, a satire that asks whether it’s possible to stay idealistic in a world that only speaks in dollar signs. Five seasons ago, the series began with a simple decision with complicated consequences: Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) turns down millions of dollars in order to start his own company, Pied Piper, based around his compression algorithm. Since then, Richard’s lost and regained his CEO status, his employee count has grown exponentially, Pied Piper has a real office beyond their garage, yet Richard still hits the same mistakes — social awkwardness, but more importantly, defending idealism and corruption at the wrong times. This season, Silicon Valley struggles to determine what Richard should become.
We are back for season six (inevitable spoilers ahead), when Richard’s social ineptitude is quickly overcome by his idealist zeal: his company’s moral imperative to develop a democratic Internet free from collecting user data. In true anti-Zuckerberg fashion, Richard delivers a cringeworthy, awkward, yet wholly sympathetic speech to Congress against the “tyranny” of giant tech companies controlling user data. Unlike Zuckerberg, Richard still possesses some of that wide-eyed, bumbling naivete we saw in Season 1. Middleditch continues to deliver a fantastic performance as Hendricks, who, in spite of tripping over his chair and microphone wires, never felt so cringey as to lose his credibility, delivering a far more eloquent speech than a season one Richard could ever have achieved. To thunderous applause, Richard “comes home” to his company in the throes of victory: his employees found his speech empowering, and the audience is led to believe in it too, until it’s shown how casually Richard is taking all this attention.
The Valley, of course, is less sympathetic. This is a world where Hooli CEO Gavin Belson once declared in season two, “I don't want to live in a world where someone else makes the world a better place better than we do.” Money cuts deep in the Valley, and Richard finds himself in a tough spot when he discovers that Colin, who runs Galloo Games on Pied Piper’s platform, is collecting user data. Unfortunately, Galloo Games is Pied Piper’s biggest meal ticket with its largest number of users; without it, Pied Piper ceases to exist. Meanwhile, in the latest Dinesh-versus-Gilfoyle hijinks, data also plays a role as Gilfoyle trolls Dinesh using an AI-generated chatbot acting as his replacement on Slack.
The other B-plot is around Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) who, once CEO of Hooli, is now forced to sell most of his company to Amazon after Pied Piper takes their offices. In true Belson fashion, he fights in a futile attempt to preserve his company against Bezos. Ross pulls off his endearingly selfish character even in his last moments of glory.
But the central plot of this episode has little to do with user data or acquiring companies; COO Donald “Jared” Dunn (played by the hilarious Zach Woods) was once Richard’s right-hand man, but due to the company’s growth, HR has his offices moved further away from our central crew of programmers to work closer with the rest of the business team. Jared spends the episode trying to get back. Jared could have been written as the token businessman, but Woods’ improvisation and wide range of emotional expressions have given Jared far more leeway and sympathy than any other character in the series. He’s not sleazy or amoral but the mother hen of the group.
The camera treats Jared’s story as a one-sided love story: during his business meetings, Jared looks longingly at his phone lock screen — a photo of him and Richard — and Jared makes several attempts to celebrate with Richard in a less artificial setting, where the barrage of Pied Piper employees sharing drinks or taking selfies with Richard for the fame rather than him as a person. We get a closeup shot as Jared talks to his therapist about whether he’s still happy at the company (he jumped ship from his previous stable job at Hooli to work with Richard) and questions himself in this world that chooses “artificial” intelligence over integrity and loyalty.
Jared remains the ethical heart of the show. If Richard’s idealism is quickly undercut by his disregard for Jared until crucial moments where he scrambles for Jared’s help, then Jared’s idealism is what firmly holds Silicon Valley as a show for the good guys, whoever they may be, no matter how selfish. When Richard finds out his problem with Colin, he inevitably runs to Jared for advice when his circle of advisors, Dinesh, Gilfoyle, and Monica (Amanda Crew), disagree with cutting Colin out of the company. Richard uses his algorithm to find Colin’s secrets (which include numerous sexual misdeeds) and tells Jared, “This guy is as dirty as a dog, and we got him, cold,” to which Jared replies, “But we’re supposed to be the virtuous ones.” Perhaps that is the irony in the process of making the world a better place.
When Richard casually admits he signed off on Jared’s office move, Woods delivers a masterful torrent of expressions sliding somewhere between a pained smile and despair. Jared, after his moment of hesitation, calls Richard back in an attempt to salvage their relationship and agrees to confront Colin with him. Going back on his ethics, Jared says, “So even if this is wrong, I suppose you could argue that it’s wrong in the service of rightness.” And Wood’s likely improvised, killer line for Jared: “It’s like stealing from your pimp to pay for your friend’s appendectomy.”
It’s no surprise that as we cheered for the startup Pied Piper, we also foresaw its downfall. After all, ethically ambiguous companies and the disillusionment of financial dreams have become normalized. They feature in popular American discourse, perhaps far too much. We ended last season with Pied Piper supplanting Hooli (and literally buying their office space). We’ve moved out of the garage and into modern offices. What truly struck me in Silicon Valley is how far our core team has climbed, and how far they can still fall.