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Smart Fridges and Dead Elephants: The Brilliant Writing in Silicon Valley

By Staff · August 22, 2017

By: Mike Danner

Silicon Valley is a show known for its writing as much as anything else. The humor is relentless and self-referential, the characters are written with compassion, and the situations are often surreal to the point of being normal again. The show does an incredible job of constantly ramping up the stakes, and taking the characters–particularly Richard, as the crux of the story is seen through his perspective–to the brink of total loss, only to be saved at the last moment by some combination of luck and genius.

The series, whose fourth season recently came to a close (with a season five slated for some time in 2018), follows the exploits of Richard Hendricks, a computer engineer attempting to take his software company Pied Piper to the next level of tech, with a little help from his friends and in the face of his rivals. Each season brings new adventures for Pied Piper, as the company evolves from obscurity to Silicon Valley giant, and back again.

The Season 4 finale, “Server Error,” is one of the best finales in recent memory, and possibly the best of Silicon Valley, a show that has some very memorable finales. In the episode, we find Pied Piper on the verge of collapse, with Richard’s dishonesty catching up with him, Jared losing faith in Richard, and Gilfoyle confined to wearing novelty cat contact lenses. Things are looking pretty grim.

The episode has some great lines of dialogue, which is one of one of the best things about Silicon Valley. You will find yourself watching an episode for a second time, and noticing lines that you had missed the first time around. There’s a great moment in this episode when Jared is asked about a man squatting in his apartment who had been established in a previous episode, and Jared says, “He left to go sell cocaine at the Keystone Pipeline protests.”

That joke is hilarious, and is a great example of the show’s use of self-referential comedy. The squatter in Jared’s apartment was established in Season 3 Episode 2 “Two in the Box” as an Airbnb tenant who won’t leave, which is a funny problem for the non-confrontational Jared. Making reference to a joke from almost two seasons ago works here because it’s a storyline you’re likely to remember, but even if you don’t remember it, the idea of a squatter leaving Silicon Valley for North Dakota to sell coke to protestors is worthy of a laugh.

Another great example of this is in the Season 3 finale “The Uptick.” Gavin discovers that an elephant he had bought for a stunt has died on Hooli grounds, and he needs to find a way to dispose of it discretely. He even fires his loyal assistant Patrice for having a flash of conscience over Gavin’s callous use of endangered animals.

The payoff comes near the end of the episode when Laurie tells Gavin that they need to discuss “the elephant in the room.” For a brief moment, Gavin’s eyes go wide with horror. When it turns out that Laurie is actually referring to the impending sale of Pied Piper, a wave of relief washes over his face. It’s quick, and you might miss it the first time around, but it’s a great moment.

There are plenty of other examples of these in-jokes and running gags. Like the way in which Big Head is always eating junk food–his trademark being the omnipresent Big Gulp. Other examples include Jared’s obsession with the Pied Piper jackets, Gilfoyle’s increasingly articulate and complex ways to insult Dinesh, and a game called “always blue” that is featured in the last scene of both the Season 2 and Season 3 finales.

Aside from the jokes, which Silicon Valley does as well as anyone else, the show also uses the technique of planting-and-payoff flawlessly. This technique is in some ways a form of self-referential comedy, but it also moves the plot along in an often unexpected way. The best example of this can be found in the Season 4 finale “Server Error.”

Earlier in the season, Jian Yang buys a smart fridge that Gilfoyle later hacks to display a video of a mime mimicking a sex act with “Suck it, Jin-Yang!” written underneath. It’s a funny, yet fairly disposable, moment that is quickly forgotten in the episodes leading up to the finale. Then, in the finale, a series of events leads to almost certain doom for Pied Piper.

Before we get to the smart fridge as a plot device, there are some great character developments that deserve a look. Even though this is a show with tech and Silicon Valley as the backdrop, it is ultimately a show about friendship. In the episode, Jared, who has always admired Richard and would take a bullet for him, loses faith due to Richard’s revealing a more porous moral code than Jared had seen before. It takes Richard to lose everything–his friends, Pied Piper, and his dignity–to come back and admit to Jared that he was wrong. Jared then forgives Richard, and convinces Dinesh and Gilfoyle to do the same. Even though Richard believes he has lost Pied Piper, he still has his friends–a theme that has presented itself in many forms over the show’s four seasons.

There are some important structural plot elements leading up to the final surprise. Richard’s attempts to keep Pied Piper afloat have become increasingly more desperate and morally grey. After hacking Pied Piper’s code into the phones of thousands of unsuspecting users–including fifty or so whose phones exploded, a reference to the Samsung Galaxy S7 (which is also explicitly mentioned in the episode)–Richard is out of options.

His final desperate plea is to back up all of the company’s data on Gilfoyle’s enormous server (Anton) and to bring Anton to Stanford to get connected to Stanford’s network. The only problem is that Big Head specifically told Richard not to do this, because Big Head’s job as a teacher there (which was the best C plot of the season) is in jeopardy.

Richard, ignoring Big Head’s pleas, convinces Dinesh and Gilfoyle to load up Anton in the back of a moving truck and bring it to Stanford. But when they get there, it turns out that they had opened the gate and forgotten to close it again (there’s a good line when Gilfoyle says, “You know who would have remembered to close the gate? Jared.”) This scene is the low point for Richard, as he looks at Anton scattered on the road, and he receives a phone call and a text from Dan Melcher (a Pied Piper client whose website is hosted on the server that is currently in pieces on the ground) who is very upset–we assume, because all of his data is lost.

Now, to the brilliant stroke that makes this episode one of the best in the series. During a late scene, Richard, Jared, Dinesh, and Gilfoyle await their fate in Dan Melcher’s lobby, when an employee comes out and overhears that he is in the presence of Pied Piper. He tells them that their website has been working extra fast lately, and Richard assumes the employee had not gotten the news yet that the servers were gone.

It turns out that the employee had just been using the website a couple minutes ago. On this news, Gilfoyle opens his laptop and they realize that all of the data is still there, and it is being hosted in the cloud from 30,000 devices. Then Gilfoyle, still wearing his novelty cat contact lenses, realizes what had happened.

When Gilfoyle, three episodes ago, hacked into Jian Yang’s smart fridge, he had to install Pied Piper’s software. And since smart fridges communicate with each other so that they can be updated more efficiently (I actually have no idea if this is actually true, but it seems true enough to work in the episode–which is true of many Silicon Valley plot devices) the data that they thought was lost and gone forever is actually being hosted on 30,000 smart fridges.

This is a great plot device, and it’s also a callback to a funny joke, and it ties everything together, bringing Pied Piper back from the clutches of failure and back into the land of opportunity. The button on the scene is Dan Melcher. Why was he mad in the text message he sent earlier if his data was fine?

Liz, Dan Melcher’s fiancee who Richard slept with a few episodes ago (Liz telling Richard the next day how bad it was is one of the funniest scenes of the season), comes running out to warn Richard that Dan knows about what happened. Dan comes bolting out of the back like a bull, tackling him as Jared attempts to help and Dinesh and Gilfoyle, unsure of what is going on, sit back and watch.

A final scene at the end between Richard and Gavin Belson re-establishes their rivalry, and sets up Season 5 nicely. And, with T.J. Miller leaving the show, Erlich Bachman is in Tibet, presumably smoking opium for the next five years. This was a great finale, and a very good season.

To bring things back, smart fridges in this episode are used in a way that is believable, easy to understand even if you’re not a huge techy, and self-referentially funny. These elements are written into every episode, which, along with the great characters and pitch-perfect performances, make Silicon Valley one of the best comedies on television today. 

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