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How Silicon Valley season 3 explains Brexit. (Seriously!)

The HBO comedy is about the way we live today — and how infuriating it can be.

Silicon Valley
The cast of Silicon Valley waits for something big to happen. (It won’t.)
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for June 19 through June 25 is "Daily Active Users," the ninth episode of the third season of HBO’s Silicon Valley.

"Daily Active Users" concludes with one of my favorite shots in recent television memory.

Jared (Zach Woods), the seemingly hapless financial wizard who keeps the data compression app Pied Piper from losing all its funding, places a call to a mysterious someone else. And that’s when something the audience likely already suspected is confirmed: The strange uptick in users that is keeping Pied Piper alive has happened thanks to fake users in Bangladesh that Jared is paying for.

The camera cuts to a crowded street in Bangladesh, following the man from the other end of the phone call. He disappears into a warehouse, where the camera reveals a massive room full of computer users, idly logging into Pied Piper, crossing the bare minimum threshold for "daily active user." The computers seem almost to stretch as far as the eye can see, the dispiriting backbone of whatever digital economy Pied Piper finds itself a part of.

It’s a wonderful homage to famous shots from the films Playtime and The Apartment, both of which were comedies that spoke to the dehumanizing aspects of the modern world.

But it’s also a reminder of where Silicon Valley finds itself in season three — trapped between its own success and its greater ambitions. And in that space, it’s inadvertently telling a story about the world we live in right now, one where unfiltered anger at the economic elite is having political consequences.

These guys are geniuses, but they can’t get anyone to understand their revolutionary product

Silicon Valley
Jared (Zach Woods) and Richard (Thomas Middleditch, right) contemplate Pied Piper’s future. Glumly.

For those who don’t already know, Silicon Valley follows the career of one Richard Hendricks, played by Thomas Middleditch, a man who can turn playing awkwardness into a kind of epic poetry. He’s a bumbling guy, but he’s also a genius, someone who’s invented Pied Piper, a compression algorithm so strong that it could legitimately change the world.

What season three has gradually, brilliantly teased out is that it’s not really clear to anyone but Richard and his co-workers just how Pied Piper might change the world. They understand it, because they’re engineers.

But when Pied Piper goes to market, it dies because it was only tested by other engineers. Laymen simply don’t understand how to use it. (So far as I can tell, it’s meant to provide storage of one’s files in some sort of computing cloud, but by compressing them so much that bandwidth and hard drive space essentially become infinite resources.)

Thus, Pied Piper is more or less too good to work for the public at large. At times in season three, Silicon Valley itself has seemed to be struggling with the same problem. In short, if Richard and the other characters actually became the major successes the show is clearly building toward them being, they would cease to be the lovable underdogs fans of the show love. But the more times the show has to reset them to their "we’re about to lose everything" state, the less convincing it becomes.

The series has to clip its wings and curtail its ambitions just a bit, if it wants Richard and his friends to still be interesting characters to be around. Structurally, it can’t use them to satirize Silicon Valley excess, because it already has the preposterous Gavin Belson (Matt Ross), head of the fictional tech giant Hooli, to do that for it. But every time the guys fall back into ruin makes them seem slightly more incompetent and thus harder to invest in.

The most persistent complaint against Silicon Valley, then, is that it’s "nerd Entourage." Everything works out for the characters in the end, even if their wins might seem improbable.

I don’t think this is a fair criticism of the show, because Silicon Valley is really good at making Richard’s victories seem earned. But the show does seem to me to be falling into a pattern where everything works out, until it doesn’t, and that might be even harder to deal with.

How Silicon Valley is about the world we live in today

Silicon Valley
Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller) will save the day!

I wouldn’t dare reveal how the third season finale (which I’ve seen) reconfigures the show’s basic setup, save to say that it doesn’t scatter the characters to the winds. When season four arrives, they’ll be back together, working in the same house, living off the faux largesse of that house’s owner, Erlich Bachmann (T.J. Miller), perhaps TV’s best current satire of how awful bros crop up in any male-dominated culture.

This is, in some ways, the beautiful promise of the American sitcom — things will never change so much that you don’t recognize the show, and if they do, they’ll be put back to rights within a couple of episodes. In season three, Silicon Valley went through its own version of this, sending the guys to a new, modern office space, where they worked under "Action" Jack Barker (the brilliant Stephen Tobolowsky), Pied Piper’s new CEO. But by the season’s midpoint, they were right back to Erlich’s house.

Some critics complained about the series’ seeming unwillingness to leave behind its status quo, and I could see where those concerns came from. But a vibrant status quo is essential to almost any series, and at the heart of Silicon Valley will always be some guys in a living room, coding away and mocking each other. Mess with that too much, and you threaten to lose what viewers love about the show.

As a counterpoint, for instance, consider another HBO sitcom, Girls, which has steadily eroded the links between its main characters — as would likely happen in real life — to the point where they barely interacted in the show’s most recently completed season. And while that season attracted a fair amount of critical affection, there are plenty who wonder just why all of the characters still exist in the same show. Silicon Valley, which is much more ensemble driven, likely couldn’t survive such a shift.

And yet that made season three’s ultimate pivot to the idea that Richard could be a genius — but one who couldn’t effectively communicate that genius to the world at large — so smart. It even complemented it with a story about how Erlich (who’d always been best at translating Richard’s ideas into plain English for the non-techies in our midst) was distracted by his own flailing financial venture.

But it all ultimately comes back to that warehouse in Bangladesh. You might be a genius, but to sell that genius, you have to rely on trickery one way or another. Sometimes, that’s the razzle dazzle of a great sales pitch. And sometimes, it’s just outright lying about where your popularity is coming from.

Does the lie ultimately matter, if you can afford it, in both monetary and social capital? If you build a better world atop those lies, but a better world where not everybody benefits equally, is it really a better world?

In its own way, then, Silicon Valley is a TV show of our moment, because it’s about people whose circumstances seem to change but really stay the same or even get a little worse with every new iteration. And their success is built atop oceans of cheap labor, mostly from overseas, right down to the people who use their app and keep it running.

And they throw parties and treat money like it will never run out and just generally become creatures of the head rush of a world they live in. They’re naïve and idiotic and pretending to improve the world while benefiting from its injustices — and they’re supposed to be the good guys.

Is it any wonder someone might prefer chaos to that emptiness?

Silicon Valley airs Sundays on HBO at 10 pm Eastern. Catch previous seasons on HBO Go.