Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber Season-Finale Recap: Ride or Die


Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber Season-Finale Recap: Ride or Die

There are many things that Super Pumped has in common with Billions, the other Showtime series created by longtime collaborators Brian Koppelman and David Levien: The robustly profane and referential dialogue, the fascination with a specific breed of type-A predator, the take-no-prisoners sociopathy of capitalism in its purest form. The difference is that Uber is a service that exists in the real world, not a mere play on the market, and ordinary people have to come to terms with its existence. What is the soul of this company? What is the soul of any company? When you open the app and order a ride to your front door, what is the cost of that convenience, especially when you now know how the sausage got made?

Super Pumped is not a sympathetic portrait of Travis Kalanick by any means, but it’s keen on the hypocrisies that Travis feels so acutely. In a typically audacious device toward the end of tonight’s finale, Travis completes his heel turn and talks directly to the camera about all the terrible things that were necessary to bring Uber — a service you presumably like and use — into the world. The speech is a bookend to another unfortunate bit of Quentin Tarantino’s narration about the messy business of creation, a “God-child” that comes out like the rest of us, “covered in slime, fighting to survive.” Travis is telling viewers directly that being the asshole is necessary. It’s the Colonel Jessup defense: We want him on that wall. We need him on that wall. Because he’s willing to make the unkind decisions that nice people can’t bring themselves to make.

Maybe Travis’s mistake was not being a more disciplined asshole, which is how the other billionaire founders he cites, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, were able to remain at their companies. In earlier recaps, I had likened Super Pumped to the film The Wolf of Wall Street, with Travis as a Jordan Belfort type in a Silicon Valley world in which Gates and Jobs and Bezos are the heads of respectable Wall Street firms. The point Martin Scorsese makes in his movie is that there’s really no difference between Belfort’s rogue, law-breaking “over-the-counter” brokerage firm on Long Island and their Wall Street counterparts: Both camps are utterly rapacious, but one does a better job disguising it in tailored respectability. Perhaps as a consequence of youth, Travis failed to learn any more than one type of aggression.

Super Pumped has been conceived accordingly, as if the best way to make a series about Travis Kalanick is to mirror his ceaseless, adrenalized, occasionally exhausting energy. But it hasn’t been comfortable relegating Travis to the role of cardboard villain, however easy it has been to hiss at his arrogance, narcissism, misogyny, and lack of empathy. The speech at the end reminds us that the distance between Travis and a calm, dignified venture capitalist like Bill Gurley isn’t as big a gulf as it appears to be. There’s a version of Uber — the one that still exists, the one that mercilessly bulldozed an entire transportation sector in the name of “disruption” — that met with Gurley’s full approval and plenty of nasty, not-at-all-nice moves that he and other board members were happy to overlook. He would just draw lines where Travis wouldn’t.

In “Same Last Name,” the line Travis crosses is the only line he isn’t permitted to cross: the profit line. As the episode opens, the list of mistakes made under Travis’s watch expands to include the exposure of Greyball, a technology that grossly violates privacy protections, but it’s hard to point to any one reason for his ouster. There’s also the toxic workplace culture in the office and in the field, the Anthony Levandowski lawsuit, the handling of violent incidents, the #DeleteUber movement, and a take-your-pick of bad headlines from the Korean escort/karaoke bar to Travis berating a driver on dashcam to Emil openly proposing “oppo” tactics against journalists. Every mistake is a consequence of the same impulses that made Uber a phenomenon under Travis’s watch, but when they reach a critical mass, it’s time for him to go. That’s business.

The desperate comedy of this episode is how Travis scrambles to find allies in his fight against Bill and the board but has alienated every single one of them. Who’s going to bat for him? Not Garrett Camp, whose status as Uber’s actual founder is a fact Travis tries to erase from history. Not Austin Geidt, whose warnings about sexist office culture and driver discontent went unheeded. Not Angie You, whom he dumped for a less challenging woman the moment he didn’t need her. Even Arianna Huffington, his devoted ally and guru, does her more delicate version of twisting the knife. In every case, his strategy isn’t humility, much less a confession of mistakes in their personal relationship. Travis feels he is eternally owed their loyalty in exchange for fattening their wallets.

The constant refrain in these last two episodes is that Travis isn’t behaving as a human being would. He’s still the guy who thinks “this is going to be terrible for me” when hearing news of, say, someone being assaulted in an Uber. Super Pumped teases at the question of whether a job like being a Silicon Valley CEO attracts people who are less than human or if the job takes their humanity away from them. Elisabeth Shue’s arc on the show is underdeveloped before it is cut gracelessly short, but her son does seem to have changed in her eyes. Angie sees it too, telling him, “I always thought that the childish, destructive side of you would get pulled up by the brilliant business side, but it went the other way.”

But how much has he really changed in the end? The lesson of Super Pumped is that “the childish, destructive side” of Travis Kalanick and “the brilliant business side” are the same.

Off the Meter 

• “You get into this to build something. To back someone, often someone very young. To empower them to build a world that was not there before them. You sure as hell don’t get into it to boost them up just to butcher them.” An inspiring speech from Bill, but there’s a lot of permissible ugliness that goes into the empowerment part.

• Bill using the terrible sci-fi/horror movie Life as a metaphor for Travis’s destructive power within the company reminds me of the episode toward the end of Breaking Bad, when Walter White hides out in a remote, snowbound Vermont cabin that has two copies of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. “I’m not much of a movie guy,” his handler explains.

• Curious to know what former employees of The Huffington Post make of the scene where Arianna Huffington listens to complaints about an awful workplace.

• “We’re not here to kill you. Just to encourage you to kill yourself.” Never the start of a good meeting.

• Ending the show with Travis taking a yellow cab among a sea of Ubers is the show in a nutshell: a little on the nose but bluntly effective.