Over the years, HBO’s Silicon Valley has received some criticism regarding the cyclical nature of its season-long arcs. That is to say, you could reliably time the rise and fall of Pied Piper by how many episodes were left in the season. Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory had become the series’ unofficial method of operation, meaning, despite making meager gains over the course of a seasons’ storyline, there would typically be at least one hitch in the plan that would inevitably end with the sensation that Richard (Thomas Middleditch), Jared (Zach Woods), Dinesh (Kumail Nanjiani), and Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) were collectively sliding backwards, thus giving them something to work toward — or to correct — in the following season.
As criticisms go, the rinse and repeat method isn’t exactly a great crime against semi-serialized haf-hour television. In spite of the prescriptive ups and downs of a season, the series reliably delivers where it matters most: making people laugh. Silicon Valley is always finding new ways to for Dinesh to humiliate himself in his ongoing (mostly) friendly rivalry with Gilfoyle, or in discovering new aspects of Jared’s seemingly tortured past, as delivered with shocking lack of formality by series MVP Woods. Mostly, though, Silicon Valley has concerned itself with the socially awkward bumblings of often-embattled Pied Piper CEO Richard Hendricks, who this season alone managed to vomit in front of a room full of new coders and also panic walk through a plate glass window, landing himself in the hospital as way of ensuring we all get our recommended allowance of Andy Daly as the show's resident doctor with the difficult bedside manner. So, given the show’s continued success when it comes to fulfilling its duties of, you know... actually being funny, at a certain point, the evaluation of show’s cyclical nature eventually runs into the idea that, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
But Silicon Valley is getting on in years, and despite recently being renewed for a sixth season, the series will have to break the loop its been in to bring the series to a satisfying close. Whether or not that end will come with season 6 is not yet known but the season 5 finale, ‘Fifty-One Percent,’ is the show’s best attempt since the end of season 1 to throw a change-up. The closing moments of the season feel distinctly different; they’re unequivocally a win for Pied Piper and Richard, but there’s also a definitive quality to them that would have made ‘Fifty-One Percent’ a totally satisfying series finale as well.
Some of that is, of course, due to how HBO’s series are made. The entire season is in the can before it airs, meaning any questions as to the show’s future not answered before filming concludes puts the writers in the position of having to provide some semblance of total closure, but not so much closure that the show can’t return.‘Fifty-One Percent’, then, delivers on both accounts, seeing Pied Piper snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and in the process all but vanquish the increasingly antiquated monolithic empire and that is Hooli (or was, thanks to Jeff Bezos’ buyout), and the handing Richard's nemesis, Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), his biggest loss to date.
That end is made all the more fulfilling given how much of the episode was spent tracking a familiar path. The launch of PiperNet, the decentralized internet first envisioned in season 4, was met with great fanfare in the company's offices, highlighted by the sight of Richard in a Pied Piper costume (that is only surpassed in its ill-advised self-promotional greatness by Jared’s garish Pied Piper team jacket that later brought Gilfoyle adoration and Dinesh greater embarrassment). But when the episode jumped forward two months to reveal a dramatically limited workforce and PiperNet’s inability to become the world-changing innovation Silicon Valley and Silicon Valley both adore, it seemed like another example of the series comfortably doing what it normally does very well.
But there were subtle hints that ‘Fifty-One Percent’ wasn’t going to be another example of business as usual, beginning with Richard’s self-admonishment in front of Monica over his insistence that Colin (Neil Casey), the former head of gaming company K-Hole, “kiss his piss.” And while Richard was admittedly flummoxed over his unfortunate choice of words, it was the level of self-awareness and apparent dismay over the realization that he may be as petty and vindictive a person as Gavin Belson indicated a change was on the horizon.
The finale also gave Dinesh, Jared, Gilfoyle, and even Monica important, if sometimes hurried roles to play, as it became clear what Laurie Bream (Suzanne Cryer) and Yao (Tzi Ma) end run to secure control over PiperNet was, and how Gavin might once again find a way to stave off obsolescence in the face of a takeover bid from Bezos that would mean the ostensible end of Hooli. But as perfunctory as some of that seemed, the payoff of ‘Fifty-One Percent’ and the requisite belly laughs sprinkled throughout — like Jared asking with no small amount of hostility if a glamper was ready to die — were such that season 5 ended on an impressive high note.
The sight of Monica leading the Pied Piper boys through their new offices — evoking the end of Mad Men season 5 — made for a satisfying end to what was a strong season of Silicon Valley. It also could have easily made for a gratifying end to the series itself, as Pied Piper moving into the space previously occupied by Hooli was the show’s version of David slaying Goliath, something that’s been in the works from the very beginning. Knowing this isn’t the end does dilutes the emotional gratification somewhat, as the more compelling story is always in watching the underdog succeed. That has been the case, in fits and starts, for the last five seasons of the show, but now that's certainly changed. There’s undoubtedly an interesting story to tell in Pied Piper's transition from always fumbling startup to an industry leader and replacement for Hooli. That new direction could present some unseen and potentially more gratifying avenues for the series to take in season 6. Hopefully that’s where Silicon Valley will be headed next year.
Silicon Valley season 6 will premiere on HBO in 2019.