The Pied Piper team’s slow-boiling crisis of faith in Richard’s (Thomas Middleditch) leadership, which has been coming to a head throughout Silicon Valley’s fourth season, heats up several degrees in tonight’s episode, “Hooli-Con.” The push-pull between their respect for his brilliance as a coder and their doubts about his talent as a CEO puts the rest of the team in an awkward, can’t-live-with-him, can’t-live-without-him position.
After leaving Richard in the season premiere, “Success Failure,” his team members returned as soon as he came up with another potentially brilliant idea—well, all but Bachman (T.J. Miller), who was finally forced to come to terms with the fact that he has no role to play except as host, though he would never admit it. Even after their reunion, the others’ skepticism about their fearful leader has never been far from the surface. In various episodes this season they’ve called him crazy, said he was cursed, and griped, openly and often, about his uncanny knack for letting success slip through his fingers every time it’s within his reach. But not until “Hooli-Con” does even Jared (Zach Woods) start to doubt Richard’s ability to lead a successful launch.
Directed by Mike Judge and written by Chris Provenzano, this is a beautifully constructed bottle rocket of an episode, shooting out a cascading shower of comic sparks. When Bachman mentions having burned down his palapa the night before, it’s a shock to realize that only a day has passed since the events of “The Keenan Vortex,” as so much has unfolded since then. And it’s almost all funny, from the satire of the sanctimonious PeaceFare game, in which where you grow virtual corn to feed virtual hungry people (“I just gave an orphan her first calculator,” says Jared dreamily as he’s interrupted while playing the game), to the disingenuous teddy-bear friendliness with which Keenan masks his Machiavellian passive aggression, as he marches into his demonstration with Jack from a different direction than the one they agreed on or confronts Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani) for having snubbed him by saying: “You made me feel bad. I like to feel good!”
The comic character development is deepened by a thin lining of pathos in Bachman’s latest doomed attempt at a grand gesture, an episode-long running joke that culminates in his uninvited visit to Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) in Tibet. (“There is a loud man here to see you,” the priest warns Gavin.) And there’s joyous absurdity in bits like the one in which Richard stuffs the last pineapple into Dinesh’s backpack while issuing double-entendre instructions that make it sound as if he’s arming him with a suicide bomb.
The two main threads weaving throughout the episode, which Judge and Provenzano never lose hold of, are Richard’s attempt to salvage his peer-to-peer Internet by hijacking the phones at Hooli-Con and his team’s ebbing faith in him. Richard’s plan proceeds in trademark Silicon Valley serpentine fashion, succeeding with unexpected ease until he shoots himself in the foot by triggering the sweep by the tactical response team that roots out their pineapples. Richard dodges that self-inflicted bullet when Hoover (Chris Williams) decides not to prosecute Pied Piper for sabotaging the Hooli app, just to spite Jack (Stephen Tobolowsky) and to honor Gavin. But the boys barely have time to enjoy their victory before Jack and Keenan launch their VR demonstration and the phones that are unknowingly powering Richard’s network start exploding all over the convention hall.
The Pied Piper team’s internal dynamics are almost as volatile as those phones. Dinesh and Gilfoyle are furious at Richard by the end of the episode, having learned not only that he brought down the tactical response team but, more importantly, that he blew up the deal with Keenan that would have made them all rich. Dinesh has even more reason to be angry, having raised the stakes for the hell he will have to pay with Mia (Phoebe Neidhardt) by paying her a visit in prison only to learn how to hack the Hooli app, and lying about why he hasn’t been there more. Dinesh and Gilfoyle’s fury may be the start of a serious revolt, but it pales next to Jared’s heroically repressed rage. By the end of “Hooli-Con,” he’s back in Richard’s tow, but he’s stumbling along in a fog, no longer lit up by the faithful acolyte’s flame that used to animate his waxy face. Richard’s PoopFare stunt outraged him enough to blast a man he rarely even questions for his childish irresponsibility, and that doubt is threatening to short out his emotional circuits.
Jared starts the episode worrying quite the opposite: He’s afraid that Richard is transforming himself into another of Silicon Valley’s dark lords. It may seem that no one other than the pathologically loyal Jared would think Richard, whose jittery bravado is so obviously rooted in insecurity, could ever be slick enough to become an evil overlord, but some pretty twitchy characters have made it surprisingly far in Silicon Valley—and in the real Silicon Valley. Besides, Jared’s right that Richard’s ends-justify-the-means, we-just-want-to-save-the-world talk in “Hooli-Con” sounds like every other Silicon Valley CEO’s self-aggrandizing bullshit, and he’s gotten awfully comfortable with using dirty tricks. And, having witnessed the transformation of Gavin from a young idealist to “a sad man with funny shoes, disgraced, friendless, and engorged with the blood of a youthful charlatan,” Jared knows a thing or two about where unchecked ambition can lead in this world.
Whether he sabotages himself or succeeds through immoral means, Richard will surely break Jared if he fails to live up to Jared’s lofty vision of him. And if that happens, what demons will pour out of the cracks? Maybe it’s Jared, not Richard, who’s in danger of going to the dark side, becoming the Ed Chambers character he played in “The Patent Troll” for good, taking over Pied Piper’s CEO slot and piloting Richard’s peer-to-peer Internet into the stratosphere.
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