In the software world, “It's not a bug, it's a feature" is a common expression, suggesting that something that appears to be an error or a defect might actually be a desirable or necessary part of the product. Facebook sucking up your private data against your wishes, for instance, might appear to be a flaw in the system, but it also happens to be a very profitable feature for the company.
For six seasons, HBO's Silicon Valley has embraced the technology conundrums and contradictions of its namesake setting. The show, which concludes Sunday, succeeded when it felt only one satirical twist away from reality. From the time it began in 2014 until now, Silicon Valley — like Veep before it — struggled to stay ahead of the increasingly absurd and dangerous world it was satirizing.
But where it stumbled, again, and again, and again, like a poorly programmed loop, was in failing to make its lead character, Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch), compelling or consistent. In charting the many rises and falls of the Stanford dropout's software startup, Pied Piper, Silicon Valley surrounded the character with memorably over-the-top supporting players, from T.J. Miller's blustery Erlich Bachman, to Martin Starr's and Kumail Nanjiani's feuding engineers Gilfoyle and Dinesh. But the center forever wobbled, with a stumbling, twitchy cipher leading the ensemble through a long string of failures and successes.
It could be argued by fans that Richard's lack of much backstory, his ineffective leadership and his bafflingly out-of-character moments were the perfect representation of the real Silicon Valley and the worsening mood there, a place where billions of dollars are thrown at bad ideas, and where bland nerds with the right bad idea can take over the world. If Mark Zuckerberg exists, why not Richard Hendricks, who appears to be cut from the same cloth as Facebook's oft-clueless co-founder?
To put it bluntly: because Richard sucks. He's a bad character whose journey never really amounted to much. Zuckerberg's vision, however misguided you may feel it is, is a feature: it has led to wild success. On Silicon Valley, Richard Hendricks' many neuroses and bad decisions led from one disaster to from-the-jaws-of-defeat success after another, so many times that the seasons of the show began to meld together. When, for instance did Hooli (the show's stand-in for Google) acquire Pied Piper? Or, wait, wasn't there a moment when Pied Piper acquired Hooli? How many times did Hooli founder Gavin Belson (the great, but over-utilized Matt Ross) partner up with Hendricks only to stab in him the back? How many times did Big Head Bighetti (Josh Brener) nonchalantly save the day by dropping a key piece of knowledge or securing an infusion of funding?
The repetitious feeling of Silicon Valley had a lot to do with the non-evolution of Richard himself. He may be a savvier businessman at the end of the series, more willing to engage in cutthroat behavior to keep his company afloat, but he remains a twitchy manchild, so much so that even the characters on the show recognize that he's still the same guy he was in Season One. In the penultimate episode of the entire series, two characters, chaos agent Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang) and Monica (Amanda Crew), one of Richard's allies, both list him as “Bitchard" in their phone contacts.
So, how did Richard get here? Let's take it season by season:
Season One: When we first meet Richard, he's a hoodie-wearing coder drone at Hooli who is working in his spare time on a music app called Pied Piper. At Hooli, some brogrammers get wind of what he's working on, and word gets out that the app actually has a revolutionary compression algorithm that would have many more applications than just music. That starts a bidding war to get investment money into Pied Piper.
In this first season, largely a lead up to a TechCrunch Disrupt pitch as the finale, Richard is portrayed as idealistic and goodhearted, if extremely naive, as he forms his startup team and partners up with Jared (Zach Woods) and Monica from Hooli. There's evidence that Richard has a conscience and isn't driven by money. He's willing to forgo a $10 million offer from Gavin Belson in favor of a longer-term deal with a better mentor, venture capitalist Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch). In the finale, the Pied Piper team pulls off a victory with the infamous “Optimal Tip-to-Tip Efficiency" gambit, but it's an indicator of things to come: a panicked, last-minute push and Deus Ex Machina that pulls Pied Piper out of a tailspin will become an oft-repeated trope of the show.
Season Two: This season is largely about Richard being bewildered by a blizzard of venture funding offers, intellectual property lawsuits, and competitors trying to steal Pied Piper's technology to create the best 4K video streams online. Richard again turns down an offer from Gavin Belson to buy the company, this time to avoid litigation, but says it's so his technology doesn't fall into the hands of a giant, heartless corporation. As Belson points out, Pied Piper's trajectory, if it's a success on its own, will be to become exactly that.
In two instances, one involving a stolen password from the office of a rival, and one involving a Hooli phone being left behind at a bar, Richard is willing to use ill-gotten information in order to protect his company, a pattern that will continue. Richard has very strong ethics, until he doesn't. All the volatility at the company leads Pied Piper's board to demote Richard at the end of the season.
Season Three: Richard's new role as Chief Technology Officer is rocky under the leadership of new CEO Jack Barker (Stephen Tobolowsky), an old-school leader who wants Pied Piper to behave like a more traditional company. Richard shoots himself in the foot by coming up with a bad idea that Jack embraces, but that blows up in both their faces when the board removes Jack and puts Richard back in the CEO role.
Pied Piper's peer-to-peer platform finally debuts, but despite good technology, it's not easy to use and has a bad user interface, proving that Richard's vision may not be very user-friendly. After a good debut, the platform starts to lose steam, putting the company's valuation in danger, until Jared secretly hires an Indian click farm to increase signups and inflate user numbers. When Richard finds out, he's shocked, but agrees to keep the deception secret until he finally confesses before another series of funding. With the company on the verge of being bought out and shut down, Big Head and Erlich swoop in to take control of the company, which decides to focus on a video-chat application that uses Richard's compression tech.
Again, Richard's cluelessness at what's going on at his own company, his willingness to commit fraud and hide it (at least for a while), and his inability to keep the company stable makes you wonder why anyone would trust him in the CEO role at all.
Season Four: As Dinesh takes over the CEO role, Richard starts dreaming of using his algorithm for a new, even more decentralized internet to make servers obsolete and, against all logic, partners with Gavin Belson on the idea. There's a lot of talk about VR this season and capturing user data for aggressive marketing and the ways companies pivot from one idea to the next until they strike gold.
But with Richard mostly sidelined, and dropping in and out of Pied Piper business, he commits two acts, one wildly out of character, the other just ethically shady. Late in the season, he has sex with the fiancee of a client, putting Pied Piper's partnership in danger, and later on engages in a plan to hijack Wi-Fi routers at HooliCon in order to get Pied Piper's app on people's smartphones. Either action would be grounds for most tech leaders to be dismissed from their companies, but somehow Richard hangs on.
Season Five: Failing upward, Richard must now contend with hiring a new engineering team, procuring new offices, and partnering with a videogame company to start building out Pied Piper's network.
It's clearest here that after all this time, Richard still hasn't figured out how to deal with the stress of leading. He throws up when he has to talk to a group of his employees, and continues to have trouble settling intra-office disputes or making firm decisions. When he tries to form a coalition of startups to work with his PiperNet, Richard accidentally outs as Christian the founder of a gay dating app. The season dabbles in artificial intelligence and the mechanics of gaining enough users to make a platform viable, but the real take-away from Season Five is that Richard is just as bad dealing with success as he is with things going badly.
Season Six: The show's final season more explicitly deals with what we know are bad practices from companies including Facebook and Google. For Pied Piper, there's a potential scandal involving the use of user data to feed an ad network, which Richard finds out about and, instead of reporting it to the SEC, hatches an elaborate revenge scheme that has further consequences
Once again, Richard offers to work with Gavin Belson to save Pied Piper, and this time is rebuffed, causing Richard to hook up with venture capitalist Russ Hanneman (Chris Diamontopolis) on an outdoor festival with holograms and PiperNet-powered money transactions. It's at this time that we learn the biggest, and worst, revelation of the show: that Richard's much-touted technology doesn't scale; it doesn't work when too many people are on the network. It's a complete betrayal of the character of Richard to suggest that over so many years, he wouldn't have tested his technology for that, or that the supposedly brilliant engineers he works with wouldn't have found such a flaw.
But as is practice on this show, Richard is able to lock himself away and code his way toward a solution to help the company survive once again. But it doesn't speak well of Richard as a character that he's led so many employees down this path based on a core piece of technology that, it turns out, didn't really work.
And maybe that's the biggest joke of Silicon Valley: that Richard has no real ethics, has no family or discernable personality that we've seen, and ultimately doesn't even have a viable product despite multiple rounds of funding and a billion-dollar offer to buy it. He's a terrible character, but as we've learned this last half decade, the real Silicon Valley is a pretty terrible place where terrible acts are being committed against us with our permission. Richard Hendricks, it turns out, fits right in.
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Omar L. Gallaga is a longtime technology and culture writer with bylines in The Wall Street Journal, NPR's All Tech Considered blog, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, CNN and the beloved TV websites Television Without Pity and Previously.tv. He's a former newspaper journalist who now lives in New Braunfels, Texas. You can find him on Twitter @OmarG.