So this is how Erlich Bachman leaves the stage: shuttered in an opium den while his old Pied Piper buddies survive by the skin of their teeth yet again. He probably envisioned a grander demise—perhaps driving his Aviato car off a high cliff—but Gavin Belson abandoning him to a Tibetan drug haze fits well with the general tragedy of Erlich’s narrative arc. He’s stuck fantasizing about the world, and everyone else moves on.
Some might argue that Silicon Valley has outgrown Erlich, that his shtick has gotten old, that Zach Woods is far more versatile and better-suited to do the comedic heavy lifting at this point. That argument misses the point: of course Silicon Valley has passed Erlich by, because he can no longer pretend to offer anything to Pied Piper. But in losing him entirely, the show threatens to lose its tenuous grasp on relatability.
Erlich has provided the show’s readiest bridge between highbrow, intellectual satire and crude sex jokes, a combination that has helped make Silicon Valley brilliantly funny on every wavelength. This series would be far less accessible if its humor didn’t extend beyond its brutal parody of the tech industry, and Erlich has repeatedly dragged it back to the ground for some of the past four seasons’ best laughs. His “uptick” monologue and “negging the neg” montage stick out as particularly memorable, but Erlich is perhaps best summed up by his response after Jared brings home a woman in “Bachmanity Insanity” (Episode 3.06). It’s a simple congratulatory line: “Nice. Using that dick.” Here, he drops his penchant for flowery language—the surest sign of all his character traits that Erlich tries hard to fit in with his brilliant colleagues—and proves that he can cut to the quick more effectively than anyone because he resides at the basest level.
Another result of Erlich’s fish-out-of-water position is that he has unexpectedly proven to be Silicon Valley’s most reliable source of heart. Perhaps his regular selfish behavior makes Erlich’s altruism stand out more, but arguably no one, not even Jared or Monica, has stuck his neck out more for Richard. He’s punched a child for Richard; he’s put his balls on a table for Richard; most significantly, he’s sold everything he had just to outbid Gavin Belson for the remnants of Pied Piper. At this point, even if Erlich would maintain that he’s done it all in the name of profit, that excuse rings as hollow as a Keenan Feldspar promise. It’s likely that Erlich considers Richard his best friend, and that relationship has allowed the characters to become perfect, dynamic foils for their setting. What began as Erlich’s bullshitting for cash facing off against Richard’s rigid idealism has morphed slowly over the past four seasons to the point where Richard, not Erlich, is now indisputably the show’s biggest asshole. And it’s Erlich whose dreams are crushed and who deserves our sympathy as he sits first in his burning pilapa and then in the opium den, victimized by a better bullshitter than himself.
It makes perfect sense that we would eventually come around to this viewpoint, because Erlich is and always has been the everyman of Silicon Valley.
In a world where almost everyone is a supergenius with subpar social skills, Erlich is the audience member dropped into Silicon Valley and given the simple goal of making money. He doesn’t have spectacular technical ability—he codes exactly once in the series’ history—and his business skills are shaky at best. Absent those factors, Erlich’s desire for material wealth stands naked. From its first episode, the series has elucidated the ways that the tech industry tries to convince itself that they aren’t all merely Erlich Bachmans, with Richard’s “new internet” qualifying as the most recent ploy to “make the world a better place.” And while Richard’s robust will has thus far kept him immune from becoming a Gavin Belson or Jack Barker, we can see stark cracks in his moral fiber, exemplified by the season finale’s events. How long will his contrition last now that his selfishness and cybercrime have proven to bear Pied Piper legitimate fruit?
Erlich alone has never had any illusions about the true purpose of Silicon Valley, and that nihilism makes him the most sincere character on the show. It’s the same sort of technique on which comedy minds like Louie C.K. and Dan Harmon have thrived; take a character who believes in nothing, put them in an environment where they’re given every opportunity to take up a cause, have their faithlessness lapse ever so briefly, then tear them down with a vengeance. When Erlich’s nascent belief in the fundamental goodness of the Valley (embodied by his repeated returns to the game and to Richard) crumbles, his nihilism retakes the wheel of his douchey yellow Corvette and he leaves, just the way most non-computer whizzes would do if they got screwed over by an entire industry. It’s only human.
With Erlich gone, Silicon Valley loses its straightest shooter and its strongest footing outside its setting. Minus its readiest source of base humor and non-techie material, the series runs a real risk of plummeting into an even crazier rabbit hole of satire than the one it currently inhabits.
Take Jared, for example. Zach Woods has owned that role to the point that Jared might now be the series’ biggest draw each week. His delivery is impeccable, and Jared’s sheer absurdities give Silicon Valley a chance to get particularly imaginative and ridiculous. But Jared isn’t a character so much as a caricature or a sentient joke. More importantly, as hilarious as it’s been to catch every newly leaked detail of his past, his lack of developed inner life hampers Jared’s impact as a moral counterweight to Richard’s increasingly Heisenbergian plans. The finale seems to signal a shift in that wind, but it’s all too easy to atone for one’s sins when the ship seems to be going down. Let’s see if Richard continues to heed Jared’s advice now that Pied Piper can once again churn ahead at full steam.
None of the others—Gilfoyle, Dinesh, Monica—speak in any language besides that of good tech and good investments. In losing Erlich as a point of reference, the team is effectively cut off from reality; they can’t point to some decision on their decision tree and say, “That’s what Erlich would do,” because Erlich is gone and Silicon Valley doesn’t bother to think outside its own bubble. Especially not Richard, who we’ve seen become fully consumed by his setting and begin turning into a proto-Gavin Belson. If the show pivots as successfully as Pied Piper, it will spend its time in 2018 following the season finale’s lead and developing that battle. Anything else would be brutal stalling, more recirculation that grates on everyone but the folks who work in the industry and resonate with that development hell.
And without Erlich around to express that frustration, be it via a well-timed dick joke, a fed-up smoke sesh in his pilapa or an enraged “JIAN-YAAAAAAANG,” what else is left for viewers to take it out upon but the show itself?
Zach Blumenfeld is locked in the Chamber of Secrets. Follow him on Twitter.