This week on Dear Television: Jane Hu and Aaron Bady discuss the fifth season finale of HBO’s Silicon Valley. There are spoilers within, so, if you haven’t watched the fifth season, spend a few units of cryptocurrency to buy an HBONow subscription and catch up, before it’s too late!
Jokes, Butts, and Orientalism
by Jane Hu
Silicon Valley turns the joke—the gag, the gimmick, the quip—into a narrative form. Recall, for instance, the famous dick joke from its season one finale: an exquisitely drawn-out parody of the Breakthrough Montage that takes the question of “how long would it take to jerk off every guy in the audience?” to its logical conclusion, and whose culmination is not only narratively significant (it solves Richard’s compression algorithm problem), but also mathematically sound. More often, however, the jokes on Silicon Valley assume less straightforward forms, manifesting across episodes (Jared’s sexual prowess) or even seasons (the ongoing box plot [also a dick joke]). Jokes get iterated and embedded throughout the show’s larger arcs, as it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between joke and plot, punchline and pivot point. At times it seemed impossible to tell how a joke might evolve or expand, as some scale up to take over entire storylines, while others pepper plot in small, but reliable, doses.
Given the sophistication with which Silicon Valley manipulates joke logic, then, no joke seemed quite as static, as tired, or as offensive as the joke that was Jian-Yang: the show’s sole East Asian character. A tenant of Erlich Bachman’s early incubator “Aviato,” Jian-Yang hails from China and is played by Jimmy O. Yang with a heavy Mandarin accent. As if this weren’t enough to mark Jian-Yang’s alterity, he is also the only housemate in Erlich’s incubator who isn’t involved with Pied Piper. For the first four seasons, Jian-Yang remains quite literally on the show’s periphery: popping up around doorways to make some crude remark or making one of a series of prank calls to Erlich, only to be gently whack-a-moled back into the wings. As Silicon Valley sought to complicate (if not entirely recuperate) the social types of eccentric white male genius, narcissistic entrepreneur, tech bro, math nerd, and, even, robot, the “Oriental” seemed always, somehow, either too opaque or too extraneous for sustained attention. Rather than ever twisting the knife of a joke, in other words, Jian-Yang was perpetually its butt.
And what a butt he was. If Erlich was the show’s primary asshole (an assholerly made perhaps more explicit in the wake of actor T.J. Miller’s exit), then Jian-Yang was his reliable butt plug. That is, if dick jokes work to rescue businesses in order to propel plot in Silicon Valley, Jian-Yang’s anality possessed a shorter narrative fuse, whose effect was to offer intermittent entertainment without ever threatening to take over the main plotline. Bouncing almost solely off of Erlich, Jian-Yang was at most a narrative irritant, whose repetitive enunciations (“Seefood”; “I eat the fish”; “Erich, is the refrigerator running?”; “Yes”) stoppered plot. For four seasons, I squinted and grimaced during scenes featuring Jian-Yang, as I watched the show attempt to negotiate the odd presence of their token “inscrutable Oriental.” It was not always flatly offensive or predictable, but it was, in many ways, one of the show’s weakest points, especially given the relative density of Asians and Asian-Americans in Silicon Valley. Though Jian-Yang’s undeniable ineptitude exempted him, at least, from occupying the stereotypical role of “model minority,” and thus left room for potential alternate ways of typifying the East Asian.
For four seasons, however, it seemed as though Jian-Yang would never be anything but a racist gimmick—and, what was more, the show as a whole was getting worse. As a dedicated television watcher, it takes a lot for me to break up with a show, but Silicon Valley had begun to display some of the early red flags. For instance, each subsequent season seemed to stagnate in terms of narrative, rather than make new inroads. One clear sign this was happening was that each season seemed to repeat the narrative arc—the same joke structure—as those before it: in which a bumbling, optimistic, scrappy underdog meets a series of roadblocks before an 11th hour twist turns events precariously in their favor. Each season finale had viewers hanging from the same cliff. The season four finale, however, seemed to promise something different, by having multiple characters leave California and travel to East Asia. The villainous Jack Barker heads to the Hooli plant in China, where he is taken hostage under the demand of better wages and work environments. Hooli CEO Gavin Belson experiences a sudden change in priorities and travels to a monastery in Tibet to meditate. And in T.J. Miller’s final appearance on the show, Erlich accompanies Gavin to Tibet, where he is left with a Tibetan local, whom Gavin pays to watch Erlich.
With Erlich gone in the most recent fifth season of Silicon Valley, then, it’s perhaps no surprise that the character who gains unprecedented prominence—who, in ways, “takes Erlich’s place”—would be Jian-Yang. Indeed, the show makes this substitution easy: Erlich goes to Tibet where he gets hooked on opium and becomes a loafing tenant, while Jian-Yang fakes Erlich’s death in California in order to assume Erlich’s 10% share of Pied Piper as well as become landlord of Erlich’s house. As Jian-Yang gains new resources, so too does he acquire a new plot; and as Jian-Yang suddenly accumulates new narrative potential, so too does Silicon Valley itself.
In season five, Jian-Yang’s Asianness transforms from a joke into a competing plot-line. After stealing Richard’s code for his decentralized “New Internet,” Jian-Yang goes to China where he begins to build a knock-off “New New Internet” for China. And while Pied Piper is aware of Jian-Yang’s departure with their intellectual property, it doesn’t initially strike them as alarming—partly because Jian-Yang has never struck anyone in the world of Silicon Valley as a real threat. In China, however, “New New Internet” goes through a series of trades, before landing in the hands of a Chinese CEO named Yao. After Laurie and Monica part ways due to a disagreement over running ads on Richard’s new internet, Monica joins Pied Piper, while Laurie joins Yao in China.
Thanks to what feels like a four-season riff on Jian-Yang’s foreignness, “China”—or, at least, the “Chinese factory”—becomes a narrative space in season five of Silicon Valley. This might not seem all that radical, considering that none of the Chinese characters get much character depth or development (and also that Dinesh seems to be regressing at a rapid rate this season?), but the very representation of China as an agentive space that now necessarily draws almost every major character working against Pied Piper feels like a belated recognition in the company’s prior dismissal of Jian-Yang.
In this season finale’s climactic scene, Richard bumbles by asking Gavin’s help to overcome Yao and Laurie’s growing Chinese users on PiperNet (has there been a better image for contemporary “yellow peril” than that rising data bar?). Rather than help Richard, of course, Gavin turns and begins to strike a deal with Yao and Laurie over Skype. As we watch Yao and Laurie mobilize as a unit against the frenetic panic between Richard and Gavin, I was struck by the brilliance of pairing Laurie with Yao. Laurie had always been an unpredictable agent—less coherent character than an unemotive plot device—but the sight of her sitting uncomplicatedly beside Yao helped illuminate how Laurie might have been playing the role of “Asian” all along. Laurie’s fundamental ambiguity that has helped explain all her previously unpredictable behavior could also be scanned as, well, flexibly inscrutable. Here, Silicon Valley—as a tech show that finally “goes to China”—seems finally to acknowledge that they need China as more than fodder for jokes: they need China to negotiate future narratives.
This is the new China,
Teh Blockchain is Coming
by Aaron Bady
I think the best and worst thing about Silicon Valley is that it really wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, it wants to satirize tech-culture, to crack jokes and make caricatures out of the caricaturish reality of the place itself. So it gives us clowns like Gavin Belson and Erlich Bachman to represent the fools and frauds and monsters and cultists that make Silicon Valley as a place. And because it’s a very HBO comedy—the HBO of “We used to build shit in this country” and “Lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over”—the show makes clear that perhaps the craziest thing about this place defined by futurism, innovation, and novelty is that nothing new will ever happen again. The platforms have monopolized everything now, and the money controls everything, now, so the story can’t go anywhere but stay, forever, in this very particular sense of “now,” a present tense in which, while Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos might once have done some coding or innovating, they now just run monopoly capitalism. In Silicon Valley, now, there is nothing to do but make money, and to do it by emulating the examples of those who came before. Endless, hellish, repetition.
This is one of the two ways that Silicon Valley wants to have it, and the comedy of the show is a function of this totalizing cynicism, a blank wall against which it projects the story of our naïve and idealistic heroes trying to Build Something New. They are the kinds of fools that still believe in the old stories of building it in your garage, of innovating, of technology that will free us from the world’s prisons; they have read the hagiographies of Jobs, Gates, Wozniak, Zuckerberg, Bezos, Musk, and they still believe that something new is possible. The comedy comes from this naivete meeting the insane greed of the way things actually work: if you build something of value, some rich guy will inevitably sweep in and take it from you. The story so far has been Richard’s sisyphean fate: endowed with An Algorithm, our hero sets out to Build Something New, and—over and over again—he is defeated by the entrenched power of capital, as has happened before and will happen again, world without end, amen.
Of course, this is comedy, so while the joke of “Pied Piper” is that it leads you off a cliff, our Wiles E. Coyote never die, they just return to Go and start again. But there is no forward momentum, no sense of progress, and there can’t be; if you go back over everything that has happened in the show, it’s striking how every gain is temporary and every loss will turn out to be recoverable. The status quo is all; there is no alternative. Nothing ever changes. Nothing can change. Always blue!
Until this season. This season ends with a super mega happy ending: they win! They get it all! When Richard shows himself worthy of The Algorithm by offering to give it away to Richard Belson rather than let it be destroyed, and when he realizes the latent power of friendship that was inside us all along, and also when it turns out that he was just faking and stalling for time and he still wants his enemy to kiss his piss, well, he not only wins back control of the company he’s built but the company is now profitable, viable, and great; after a single victorious cut, we find our heroes touring the gigantic warehouse in which They Will Build The Future. Pied Piper is about to Make Technology Great Again! The coin is GAINING VALUE.
What changed? How did we get here? How did the coins gain value?
This season gave many signs that it was going to show us China eating America’s lunch. That seemed in line with the show’s ethos; I figured we were going to see Jian-Yang and Yao ushering in a new form of entrenched power that would skim everybody’s cream, the Rising Threat of China. Where else could a show about the predatory falsity of American techno-capitalism go? And yet, Jane, isn’t the weird thing how totally the show… didn’t do that? I feel like China is the gun that never goes off: while Yao turns out to be just another completely replaceable businessman—easily integrated into other people’s plots, and defeated with them-—Jian-Yang is really just another would-be capitalist coder, left busted at the craps table, like everyone else, and longing to go home. The most interesting thing about them, to me, is how they refuse to live up to Orientalist mythologies. It’s an excellent joke that Jian-Yang is such a completely normal guy; his lack of social skills, null affect, and basic indecency would be totally unremarkable in Silicon Valley—making him a stereotypical coder—but that being Chinese converts it all into an impenetrable curtain of Asian inscrutability, which he eventually learns to weaponize. If you expected Orientalism from this show—even the techno-orientalism by which the future is Asian—the show’s “China” is just America with the most superficial Chinese characteristics.
I think the problem, ultimately, is that the other way the show wants to have it—the “on the other hand” I implied, six paragraphs ago—is its basic faith in all of the things that Silicon Valley “used to be”: a bunch of friends building stuff together and making the world a better place while they get rich doing it (all male, of course; women can either help in non-threatening ways, like Monica, or in ways that must ultimately be defeated, like Laurie). But buried in the middle of the show is this faith that if we could only sweep away the elites and the parasites and the lawyers—if we could get back to the American basics of a man and his code—then we could finally get some work done around here. It reminds me of the ending of Office Space, where the white collar drone finally finds meaning in blue collar labor; there, as here, Mike Judge can make fun of bad work better than he can let go of the promise of masculine work itself. But what if the problem isn’t a few bad apples but the system itself? What if Silicon Valley is exactly what it was always built to be? Instead of a story of how the internet was built by the defense department and security contractors—and has never not been a tool of state surveillance and control—Silicon Valley decides to end on a note of happy optimism: the NSA called, but whatever, we’ll push back.
All of which is to say, beneath its veneer of sarcasm and cynicism, the show believes in a small number of things: “medical marijuana, the biblical Satan as a metaphor for rebellion against tyranny, and mother-fucking goddamn cryptocurrency.” From the beginning, our heroes’ problem has been that their investors demand control of Pied Piper in exchange for the money that makes it possible to exist, while achieving profitability will inevitably require Pied Piper to do things like sell ads or user data; cryptocurrency—as Gilfoyle’s wonderful, insane powerpoint presentation demonstrates—is the silver-bullet technology that promises to change that. It is money… from nowhere, beholden to no one, pegged—-in some truly obscure way—to the value of the underlying technology. Though the drama of the final act is all about wresting back control of the company from their adversaries, the condition of Pied Piper’s continuing possibility is the $2.51 their coin price has risen to. And though it happens simultaneously with the “51 attack” (that allows them, hilariously, to take total control of their, um, decentralized internet), the show gives no clue as to how or why their coin price has risen 43%, though presumably it will continue to grow forever. It simply has, and for the first time we are out of the show’s perpetual, endless, hellish comedy of now; we are now in a show where we can leap ahead two months of beard growth with a single cut, or however long the time period between the 51 attack and the tour of new offices is. All thanks to cryptocurrency, time exists again; all thanks to cryptocurrency, American techno-futurism can move forward.
To observe that this isn’t how a utility token would work, or that a “51 attack” wouldn’t work like that, is both beside the point—this is TV!—and also kind of not. This is TV, yes, and in this show, cryptocurrency is not a technology, but a narrative device, the promise of money from nowhere with no strings attached, and decentralized freedom that’s fully compatible with authoritarian control (and what is more American than that?) Put differently, this is a show which finally stopped being satire and parody of a real thing—with its comedy at the expense of the fools and naifs who take that real thing’s absurdity seriously—and it became, finally, the tech-mythology that it always, also, wanted to be.
Thanks for the ice cream,