Brow Beat

Silicon Valley’s Series Finale Shows Just How Much Its Perspective on Technology Has Changed

The cast of HBO's Silicon Valley sitting on outdoor furniture on a rooftop. They all look depressed, and Martin Starr is holding a full bottle of tequila.
Bummer. HBO

The season finale of Silicon Valley aired Sunday night on HBO, and if you’re looking for a quick gut-check about how much the world has soured in the past five years, you could do worse than taking another look at the series’ 2014 pilot. That initial episode, “Minimum Viable Product,” promised a standard workplace comedy about an extremely eccentric workplace, populated by a gang of socially maladroit but basically likable people. There’s a running joke about Silicon Valley founders baselessly asserting that they are “making the world a better place,” but there’s not much suggestion that they are deliberately making the world a worse place—the joke is that they keep attaching world-shaking importance to extremely esoteric advances in computer programming. A speech given by a programmer whose company has just been purchased by Google neatly captures the show’s relationship with its subject at inception:

You know, a few days ago, when we were sitting down with Barack Obama, I turned to these guys and said: “OK. We’re making a lot of money. And yes, we’re disrupting digital media. But most importantly, we’re making the world a better place, through constructing elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility.

That’s an extremely silly thing to say, but it’s not actively deceptive or malicious. But you couldn’t possibly make a show about Silicon Valley in 2019 that treated the tech industry as a positive or even a neutral actor, and so Mike Judge and Alec Berg didn’t. Silicon Valley has been consistently getting darker over the years, but in its final season, the show’s once-lovable hackers were dragged before Congress over privacy concerns, distributed a video game that was a Trojan horse for a surveillance network/blackmail engine, had to decide whether to accept blood money, and accidentally created a paper clip maximizer–style artificial intelligence that threatened the very concept of privacy. The entire first season was structured around Richard Hendricks, the would-be Zuckerberg played by Thomas Middleditch, making an enormous technological breakthrough while eagerly chasing after Silicon Valley money. The last season is built around Hendricks and his friends destroying their best work at great financial cost after getting a closer look at the moral abyss at the center of their industry. So how on earth do you find an ending for a story that began as Horatio Alger and turned into Frankenstein? Before you submit your answer, remember: It also has to be funny.

Silicon Valley’s innovative solution to this impossible problem is “Exit Event,” written and directed by Alec Berg, and it mostly works. Berg splits the difference between the show’s beginnings and its end by framing the story of Pied Piper’s collapse with a Where Are They Now?–style documentary set 10 years in the future. That creates plenty of space for guest stars like Kara Swisher and Bill Gates to pull talking-head duty, but more importantly, it pulls the characters out of the moral dilemma that powers the contemporary section of the finale (and the season that led to it). That lets the show and its characters strike a more season finale–appropriate “wistful and nostalgic about the television program Silicon Valley” tone, instead of the slightly less welcoming “let’s seriously consider destroying the planet for money” plot machinations of the final season. The epilogue does justice to Silicon Valley’s characters in surprising but immediately believable ways—Berg’s solution to the problem of T.J. Miller’s departure, in particular, is hilariously elegant—and fans hoping to spend one more episode hanging out with the show’s characters should be more than satisfied, particularly by Josh Brener’s final turn as Nelson “Big Head” Bighetti. But if you look closely, even the callbacks to Silicon Valley’s early days demonstrate how much the show’s perspective has changed. Besides a reappearance from the Hoberman Switch Pitch, the most explicit echo of Silicon Valley’s beginnings is this line, delivered by a Stanford student pitching a startup:

I’m making the world a better place through an intelligent, semi-autonomous agent, powered by distributed DNA-based compute that automates personal planning and scheduling.

On the surface, that looks like the same joke that opened the series, but its meaning has changed: The speaker is not using tech gobbledygook to overplay the world-saving virtues of her get-rich-quick plan; she’s using it to wildly underplay the many ways her idea could go horribly, horribly wrong. She seems to be planning to build an artificial intelligence that uses protocells for hardware, repurposing DNA to perform computing operations, and she’s giving that A.I. the explicit goal of telling human beings what to do and when to do it. As Martin Starr’s Gilfoyle puts it, “It sounds like an atrocity.” It’s a long road from “move fast and break things” to “first, do no harm,” but as its series finale shows, Silicon Valley traveled it. If only Silicon Valley would do the same.