Silicon Valley is Mike Judge and Alec Berg’s biting comedy about the American tech industry, now in its fourth season. Every week, we’ll be taking one idea, scene, or joke and explain how it ties to the real Silicon Valley and speaks to an issue at the heart of the industry and its everlasting goal to change the world — and make boatloads of money in the process.
Spoilers ahead for the fifth episode of season 4, “The Blood Boy.”
Silicon Valley’s biggest strength is also its most persistent weakness: the real place, located in the drab suburbs just 35 miles south of San Francisco, is itself stranger than fiction. So when the HBO comedy attempts to tackle some of the tech industry’s most outlandish and perplexing happenings, the joke either lands as spot-on satire or falls flat in the face of how ludicrous the real thing is. Because not everyone eats, sleeps, and breathes the tech industry quite like those in the Bay Area, these jokes have to walk a fine line between believable and truly bizarre.
On last night night’s episode, “The Blood Boy,” the show took aim at Silicon Valley’s quest to eliminate death, and it succeeded rather wondrously. This quixotic dream has been well documented over the years, and an excellent New Yorker feature published in April dove deeper than most into the actual science and the philosophical debates shaping the anti-aging industry. Some of the world’s richest, smartest, and most self-serving people think death can be cheated. Humans can live forever, the theory goes, if we just put enough time and money into understanding the myriad ways our bodies and our brains begin to fail.
On Silicon Valley, we have disgraced Hooli co-founder Gavin Belson serving as a stand-in for every egomaniacal supervillain in the tech industry. As part of his quest to live forever, Gavin takes part in the practice of parabiosis, whereby a younger and healthier person’s blood is transfused into an aging recipient to try and restore youthfulness and forestall the effects of aging. The titular “Blood Boy” happens to be a brogrammer named Bryce, Gavin’s “transfusion associate,” who irks Richard by lying about his computer science degree.
This is trademark Silicon Valley these days. The show has become incredibly adept at taking a morsel of a much larger and telling aspect of the tech industry and using it as a springpad for a traditional sitcom subplot. So parabiosis becomes an avenue to have Richard clash with Gavin over how best to launch their new product. Because Bryce suggests casually that a splashy public launch might be better than a stealth one, Gavin runs with it — all while Bryce goes through the motions of removing himself from the transfusion machine. (Later on, we learn that Bryce is secretly writing a tell-all about Gavin while just pretending to be a cash-strapped programmer with healthy blood for the taking.)
The biggest target of this satire is, of course, Peter Thiel, one of the industry’s most infamous venture capitalists and a co-founder of PayPal. When he’s not running a clandestine funding operation to bankrupt news organizations he despises, Thiel is an active supporter of President Trump and an investor in anti-aging ventures. One of these happens to be called Ambrosia, which is working to explore the benefits of parabiosis. These types of transfusions have shown positive effects in clinical trials with mice. But the science is sketchy, and harvesting the blood of the young is ghoulish in the extreme.
This skewering of Thiel is interesting on two levels. Gavin as a character has, in the past, been used more as the idiotic and power-obsessed CEO that is not necessarily restricted to the tech industry. But with the passing of actor Christopher Evan Welch, who played eccentric VC Peter Gregory, the show has shifted some more of the Thiel satire onto Gavin, who considers his closest friends to be his devoted private security guard and a hackish life coach who preaches the gospels of meditation. It’s pulled Gavin’s character in a number of directions, thinning him out quite a bit in the process. So it was, in fact, a bit refreshing to see Gavin exit on “The Blood Boy,” on an apparent quest to “go find himself” after he signs over the valuable peer-to-peer internet patent to Richard.
Silicon Valley’s writers aren’t always able to take these stranger-than-fiction stories about its real-life counterpart and contort them into clever parodies. This is mostly because the show always risks playing to its primary targets, with jokes only understood by those working within the orbit of the tech industry.
With “The Blood Boy,” however, Silicon Valley found a subject just zany enough to paint California’s titans of industry as out-of-touch billionaires while also staying grounded in reality. You as a viewer may have never heard of Ambrosia or parabiosis or even Peter Thiel. But the show’s best jokes are the ones that linger long enough for you to head over to Google and type in, “young blood transfusions,” because a part of you knows that there is just a slight possibility that the joke is actually based on something real. In the case of Gavin’s blood boy, it most certainly is.