After years of bad blogging and PR hackery, Dan Lyons improbably writes one of "Silicon Valley”’s best episodes yet
Here at Pando, we've put Dan Lyons' feet to the fire on a number of occasions. And not without good reason: His writing at Valleywag was mean, humorless, and -- the most unforgivable sin of all for a writer -- dull. He was fond of phrases like, "The jokes write themselves." (Sorry, Dan, they don't). And while the zeitgeist surrounding his popular "Fake Steve Jobs" blog was before my time, it suffices to say that it hasn't aged very well.
Between his time running "Fake Steve" and joining Valleywag, Lyons perpetrated the second most unforgivable sin for a writer -- he quit journalism to work in PR. He even wrote a book about how companies can manipulate the press into offering favorable coverage. And so it's no surprise that during his tenure at Valleywag Lyons failed to write a single piece that exposed bad behavior at Silicon Valley's largest firms, instead reserving his righteous indignation for taking down tiny companies nobody cares about and shaming women with "colorful pasts."
But despite this undistinguished career arc that left behind a trail of boring, sexist journalism and insidious content marketing, Lyons has finally and improbably accomplished something worth celebrating: He's written one of the best episodes yet of HBO's Silicon Valley.
"White Hat/Black Hat," the eighth episode of Silicon Valley's second season, is one of the funniest half-hours of television the show has ever conceived. It satirizes and exposes how the tech industry's lofty ambitions to "build a better capitalism" have been distorted and co-opted to benefit the biggest companies and richest individuals -- thus resulting in the same old capitalism we've always had, only now it's shrouded in dishonest idealism. Moreover, the episode is a shining example of what this show and in truth all of Mike Judge's projects do best, capturing the subtle rhythms and machinations of big business when operated at the highest and most hypocritical levels.
The episode kicks off as Richard confronts mega-douche Russ Hanneman after disobeying the investor's orders to merge with EndFrame, the company that stole Pied Piper's technology. Instead of allowing Pied Piper to be absorbed by his worst enemy, Richard challenges EndFrame to a "bake-off," the winner of which will close a $15 million distribution deal with an online porn company called Intersite -- a client that came to Richard's attention after Gilfoyle gained access illicitly to EndFrame's sales systems.
Rather than being angry over Richard's insubordination, however, Hanneman is thrilled by the young CEO's newly aggressive -- and illegal -- sense of gamesmanship. But the investor isn't thrilled enough to give Richard a much-needed check to pay Pied Piper's staff for the week. And his justification for refusing to cough up another round of cash is marked by the grotesque and absurd anti-logic used by the biggest bullshitters in the Valley:
"Giving you money right now is the worst thing I could do for you," Hanneman says, going on to suggest that when Pied Piper wins the bake-off it will be because they had no money -- because they were "lean and hungry." Here, Silicon Valley is at its best, exposing one of the tech scene's most lauded truisms -- "Go lean!" -- as merely another way for ruthless operators to embrace the coldest mechanisms of capitalism. Despite what Eric Ries might tell you, for most people "going lean" isn't a virtue. It's a direct product of being broke. And Hanneman has co-opted this philosophy as little more than an excuse not to pay his developers. Slave labor? Or lean startup methodology? In Silicon Valley, who can tell the difference!
Meanwhile, Hooli CEO Gavin Belson is stirring up his own batch of bullshit soup. With his board of directors breathing down his neck, and his vaunted compression platform Nucleus besieged by one disaster after the next, Belson seeks to relinquish responsibility for the product's impending failure. How? By convincing the genius technologist Davis Bannerchek -- who left Hooli because Belson didn't take his projects seriously -- to rejoin the tech giant. Belson's pitch, like Hanneman's refusal to pay Richard's developers, is a glorious pile of faux-inspirational business-speak drivel:
“I’m here because I believe in you," Belson tells Bannerchek. "And because I believe we didn’t believe in you enough before.”
The episode also explores a much darker side to tech's ascendence: The industry's growing -- and careless -- influence on the lives of children.
This topic is discussed largely through a subplot involving the show's two worst characters: Erlich and Jian Yang. (As an aside, it's pretty unconscionable that every time Silicon Valley's creators are criticized for not including enough women on the show, they say it's because they want to accurately depict the demographics of tech startups. So why is it that despite the fact that Asians make up the majority of tech workers the only regular castmember from China or Southeast Asia is borderline-incoherent and pretty much exists only so audiences can laugh at his broken English?)
The terrible twosome of Erlich and Jian Yang arrive at the VC firm Raviga to pitch an app Jian Yang created "that helps parents find the least crowded playgrounds." The pair took a common problem and met it with a technological solution. Innovation!
Except that as Monica -- who is forever forced to suffer as the show's stand-in for "normal, non-tech" people -- informs them, they've "basically created the perfect tool for pedophiles to find victims."
With this subplot, Silicon Valley touches on one of the most important and troubling trends of the newest wave of tech -- the wave that adds layers of neat and ordered software on top of messy, imperfect real-life interactions. From Uber's Travis Kalanick to Secret's David Byttow, it's a woefully common theme for founders to find their apps saddled with real-life safety problems they never anticipated. In the really bad cases, these founders cast off responsibility for the problems altogether. Maybe it's because they don't have families themselves. Or maybe they simply lack empathy. In any case, even when these tech-damaged utopians acknowledge the threats to safety their apps pose, it's usually from a horrifyingly frigid profit-maximizing perspective. I can almost imagine Kalanick repeating the darkly hilarious line Monica's boss utters when hearing Erlich's and Jian Yang's pitch:
“The pedophile-facing nature of the app would present marketing pain points.”
Elsewhere, there's another, more subtle line that reveals the tech industry's disturbing and increasing involvement with the world's youngest members of society. Bannerchek is so unimpressed by the progress of Nucleus that he quits within minutes of returning to the company. When explaining to Belson Bannerchek's hasty retreat, a woman says, "He was clocked at 73 in a 25 zone going past one of our daycare centers."
There is just so much creepiness wrapped up in that line. Not only is Hooli so powerful that it knows exactly where Bannerchek is and how fast he's driving at any given moment, but the company also has daycare centers. Hey, we trust Google with our emails and our files -- Why not our children!
It appears that Belson, who with Bannerchek gone has no one to blame for his Nucleus failure, may be on a path to become ousted as CEO of Hooli. How satisfying a twist would be it be to see Belson lose his job? Such a fate would only lead the megalomaniac to become that much more single-mindedly obsessed with taking down Richard and Pied Piper. And crazy, unhinged Gavin Belson is the best Gavin Belson.
As for Richard, he learns another valuable lesson in his transition from kind, empathetic coder to ruthless CEO -- an arc that, like Breaking Bad's "Mr. Chips to Scarface" evolution holds great thematic and dramatic potential. Richard feels an enormous amount of remorse upon learning that Endframe's head of security, Seth, was fired because Pied Piper infiltrated the company's systems. The reason Gilfoyle was able to unearth Endframe's sales specs, however, had nothing to do with a security vulnerability; he merely spied the company's CEO's login credentials on a post-it note. Sensing correctly that Seth must be literally pulling his hair out trying to figure out how he screwed up, Richard reveals the real source of the "hack." But instead of calming him down, Richard only succeeds in angering Seth, who vows to "skullfuck" Pied Piper's systems by hacking them back.
Seth is successful in breaking into Pied Piper's system -- or so Richard thinks. In the middle of transferring thousands of hours of porn to Pied Piper's servers as part of the bake-off, the files start to delete themselves en masse. After a few seconds of panic, the team discovers the real problem -- Russ Hanneman had set his bottle of "Tres Comas" tequila on the delete key of one of Pied Piper laptops. The plot twist surely stretches the boundaries of reality, but who cares if it's plausible? The scene is a clever metaphor for the ways Hanneman habitually screws over Pied Piper with his liquor-blasting, peach McLaren-driving lifestyle. Moreover, it underlines a point I've argued in the past that Silicon Valley is too concerned with nailing the technical details of how startups operate, as the writers seem more concerned with appeasing audience members who work in tech, to the detriment of good storytelling. The show would be better off if it let go of its ambitions to be hyper-faithful to its subject matter and instead focused on telling a compelling narrative to which anyone can relate. If I want to learn about how FTP transfers work I'll watch a tutorial on YouTube. It's not Lynda.com, it's HBO.
Despite the high quality of this episode, Lyons still betrays some of his nastier anti-female biases. The writer can't help but include a weird and not at all funny running joke about Monica being a lesbian. But beyond that, "White Hat/Black Hat" is Silicon Valley at its funniest and most dramatically engaging. It took years of unfunny blogging and corporate shillery, but Lyons may have finally found his calling.
[image via HBO]