“Server Error,” the season-four finale of Silicon Valley, checks in with almost all the main characters in Pied Piper’s orbit while setting the stage for two season-five showdowns: the battle between Richard (Thomas Middleditch) and Gavin (Matt Ross) for domination of the Internet and the fight for Richard’s soul. Richard lurches in the general direction of ends-justify-the-means mogul-dom with exquisite clumsiness, bouncing back and forth between maniacal determination and dejected self-loathing as his team keeps pulling him back from the brink—Jared (Zach Woods) appealing to his morals while Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) ride herd on his ego. Meanwhile, Gavin roars back into top predator mode with sociopathic ease, polishing off the amuse-bouche of Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky) in one ravenous bite before making a beeline for Richard.
Pied Piper scores another accidental victory near the end of “Server Error” when they learn that their code has been kept alive by a bunch of smart refrigerators, but the episode begins with the spectacular blow-up of their last brief triumph. In the opening scene, Dinesh watches a viral video of a Hooli phone exploding, overloaded by the combination of Jack and Keenan’s hastily doctored demo and Pied Piper’s illegally installed software. In “Hooli-Con,” that disaster seemed to be just the latest in a long string of defeats snatched from the jaws of victory, but it threatens to be a deeper existential threat to Pied Piper in “Server Error” when it causes Jared, Richard’s right-hand man and unofficial conscience, to resign, horrified as much by Richard’s refusal to show remorse as by the damage done to the phones.
In the corporate-giant version of Richard’s refusal to accept responsibility, Jack pins all the blame for the exploding phones on Gavin and Keenan. He also vows to replace all nine million affected Hooli phones from the market and replace them within the next three days, a goal so impossible that even the Chinese factory workers who make the phones refuse to do it. Their revolt is a hugely satisfying revenge fantasy, given all the reports of near-slave-labor conditions in Apple and Microsoft factories in China, but in true Silicon Valley fashion, it’s played as comedy as well as drama.
Jack looks ridiculous as he tries to give the workers a pep talk; he and all the workers wear white body suits that leave only their faces exposed against an antiseptically white background, like the sperm in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. And the smash cut from Jack saying the title of his would-be-inspirational speech to a TV newswoman announcing that he’s been taken hostage by the workers accentuates the gulf between the workers’ blunt pragmatism and Jack’s smug faith in his own bullshit.
That’s not the episode’s only nod to cultural insensitivity in the tech world. When Jared interviews an Asian-American candidate to replace him at Pied Piper, he segues from approvingly noting that she’s fluent in Japanese to asking if she can be “comfortable with casual racism.” And Bachman (T.J. Miller) and Gavin are the ultimate ugly Americans as they dabble with spiritual enlightenment in Tibet. When Gavin’s lama warns that he has to choose between enlightenment and ignorance, he stops for just one brief comic beat before opting for the latter. So it’s particularly ludicrous—though also, in a way, oddly appropriate—when Bachman, the eternal drifter, ends his time on the series stoned into immobility in an opium den as Gavin hands the owner enough money to keep him high for five years.
Silicon Valley has always excelled in character-driven comedy: sight gags, running jokes, and other bits that spring from or build on something we know about a character. There’s plenty of that in this episode, like the way the mysterious Jared subverts expectations once again when Richard visits his condo to apologize. No doubt Richard expects to find Jared alone, as the rest of the Pied Piper crew almost always are when they’re not with each other, but instead he’s met by the sound of merry female laughter.
Meanwhile, Richard’s lone sexual encounter in months, like Dinesh’s short-lived affair with Mia, goes disastrously wrong as only a socially awkward sexual neophyte’s can, earning him a black eye and probably losing him his only client. His desperate, undignified scuffle of a fight scene with Dan (Jake Broder) is a tasty bit of physical comedy, with Dan throwing Richard off his chair and Jared swiftly swooping in to save his boss. The way Richard boasts about the whole thing later to Gavin is even funnier, thanks to the former’s mangled syntax and excruciatingly awkward body language, but it’s also touching because his pride is so palpable, and so misplaced.
Bits like these are one of the many ways Silicon Valley earns its fans’ dedication. A lesser series might deaden our interest by constantly reinforcing just one or two defining traits for each character, or by bombarding us with canned jokes. Silicon Valley’s humor is both physically and verbally agile, and it constantly draws on and deepens our understanding of its characters, the relationships between them, and the world in which they operate.
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