Forgive the lateness of this: I’ve been stuck at Sterling Cooper writing 19,000 words about the Mad Men series finale and all 91 other episodes. Silicon Valley isn’t anywhere near the same level as Mad Men in terms of documenting the emotional contours of a workplace. Nevertheless, “Homicide,” this second season’s sixth episode, touches on a number of salient issues facing workers in the new tech economy — and most fascinatingly, accurately paints the Valley as just as ruthless, cutthroat, and “douchey” as any industry where people stand to make cash by the fistful.
When a sector like tech begins to mint millionaire founders and billionaire companies with some regularity, it invites a different kind of worker. James Currier, a Valley veteran, PayPal investor, and CEO/Founder of the advisory and investment firm Ooga Labs explained this shift to me a few months ago.
“The new language that is so much about the money is attracting a certain different kind of personality types,” he said.
So the type of person who twenty years ago would have joined an investment bank on Wall Street now rides West to San Francisco to plant a flag and collect some of that ever-ballooning cash, at any cost. And the characters in “Silicon Valley” this week encounter a number of these individuals who are driven more by greed than any high-minded ambitions of changing the world.
The episode begins with Hooli debuting its much-anticipated compression algorithm Nucleus — a direct competitor and existential threat to Pied Piper –by using it to host a digital-only UFC fight that can’t be seen on cable. (At first this felt like weird product placement for UFC, but it’s fairly realistic. None of the more popular sporting events or leagues are likely to dare go digital-only at this early stage of the cordcutting game). And in a rare bit of purely good news for the Pied Piper gang, the big unveiling is a disaster. Not only does the feed catch and stutter, it outright freezes, right at the climax of the fight.
That gives Monica an inspired idea. Pied Piper should host its own livestreamed event. As for the event, one of Erlich’s old college buddies is the head of a Red Bull-style energy drink company called “Homicide” that is sponsoring some Evel Kneivel-esque daredevil stunt. The negotiations between Pied Piper and Homicide’s CEO Aaron Anderson (nicknamed Double-A) appear to be going swell until Double-A tells Richard that the deal is off if Erlich is involved. Apparently the two weren’t friends in college at all — Erlich says he “incubated” him, but “inebriated” is more like it, as Double-A and his friends only hung out with the curly-haired dope because he was a couple years older and bought them booze. Of course, audiences can’t blame anyone who’s fed up with Erlich. As I’ve written in the past, he’s not a character you love to hate like, say, Mad Men‘s Pete Campbell. You just hate him.
But Erlich’s character is undergoing a shift. He’s always been a goon, but in the first season and for an episode of two of the second he was framed as a “cool” goon, getting high all the time, brashly dropping his balls on conference tables in business meetings, and possessing some secret knowledge others don’t. But over the past few episodes it’s not just that Erlich’s pathetic — the show wants you to think he’s pathetic It does so by juxtaposing Erlich against other assholes — like Russ Hanneman or in this case Double-A — so we can see that in some respects Erlich is just as obnoxious, though he’s not as successful in business. Erlich subscribes to the motto “fake it ’til you make it” — the only trouble is, Erlich never made it. And so now the writers are framing Erlich more like the hapless yet sympathetic Dwight from The Office — which is a good move because if Erlich isn’t funny or interesting or an effective businessman, he should at least be sympathetic.
The writers are beginning to manage this not just by making viewers feel sorry for him, but by showing that Erlich has Richard’s back, no matter what. He’s loyal. And considering some of the horrible people we’ve encountered on Silicon Valley and in Silicon Valley, that’s not nothing. He backs off from Double-A when Richard asks him to, and also warns Richard that the “Homicide” founder is probably going to try to screw him over. After all, “Double-A” really stands for “Double Asshole.” Now what Erlich fails to tell him is that the nickname stems from a condition Double-A has, requiring him to wear a colostomy bag at all times, meaning he pretty much has “two assholes.” But I believe that has more to do with Erlich’s stupidity and that there was no malice in the move.
And it’s a good thing he did warn him, because that puts Richard on alert. Richard notices that despite their prearranged agreement, Double-A consciously failed to put Pied Piper’s logo on the stream, thus neutralizing the PR benefit it was designed to create. And what’s worse, after Richard pulled out of the project, Double-A went to another compression company EndFrame — the same company that a few episodes ago invited Pied Piper to their offices for a conversation about fundraising, only to “brain-rape” them in Dinesh’s terms and steal their technology.
This is the Silicon Valley of 2015. And contrary to many other pop culture depictions of the industry, it is cock-full of assholes, double-assholes, and deca-assholes who if they were born two decades earlier would be screwing families out of savings with Jordan Belfort, the Wolf of Wall Street. And we should commend Silicon Valley for depicting tech startups not as sunshine entrepreneurs innovating in a rainbow sky, but as ruthless operators that participate in the worst kinds of corporate douchebaggery.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]