What will happen to Silicon Valley without Erhlich Bachman?

The HBO series ended its fourth season with a familiar reset that's by now become a pattern: Richard Hendricks emerges from a near-catastrophe flush with offers. He uses that narrow victory to declare war on Gavin Belson (who's just recovered from a catastrophe of his own). When these two prickly egomaniacs face off, Erhlich — long the greatest egomaniac on the show — becomes collateral damage. Richard asks whether Erhlich ever made it to Gavin's meditation retreat in Tibet. He did, but Gavin — who paid someone enough to keep Erhlich in an opium den for five years — says he didn't. Belson's petty revenge puts an end to T.J. Miller's tenure on the show. We don't even get a final shot of him.

The character deserved better. I'm going to miss Erhlich's babyface in mutton-chops. Erhlich's affected elocution, his infuriating neediness, his unwarranted arrogance, and off-putting pomposity were crucial to counterbalance the nerdy vibe of the "incubator." Erhlich's energy worked well against Richard's jittery anxiety and it crackled against Jian-Yang's overconfidence and heavy contempt. Miller brought pathos and heart to a character it was hard to love, and Erhlich had useful stuff to say about how masculine obnoxiousness can achieve more in Silicon Valley than skill, intelligence, ability, or talent, especially when it comes to deal-making.

So what happens to Silicon Valley now that its great jolly blusterer is banished? The show has spent years insisting that success in tech requires a two-pronged approach: the finicky makers who can't market a thing and the brilliant peddlers of bullshit. It needs someone like Erhlich to generate momentum, make bad decisions, fake camaraderie, and pull off hilariously unlikely feats of salesmanship. (Erhlich's greatest and least probable overture remains the one he made to Keenan: "Men aren't supposed to grow tits, and yet there they are atop your little paunch.")

As if in preparation for Miller's departure, Mike Judge et al have put forward a number of Bachman competitors. Besides old hands like Russ Hanneman and Gavin Belson, the show has introduced Keenan Feldspar — an amiable rich kid with a gift for spinning a "Keenan Vortex" around his mark until they do what he wants — and Ed Chen.

But the greatest replacements for Bachman are coming from inside his own incubator: They're Jian-Yang (who bought himself a Corvette as a "business expense"), Jared's douchebro alter-ego Ed Chambers, and Richard himself.

As a series, Silicon Valley has resisted anything resembling a real arc with one exception, and that's Richard's slow descent into becoming the petty, vindictive blowhard he never thought he'd be. Remember how Richard's pure-minded pursuit of good tech put him at odds with Piperchat? How the integrity of his algorithm and the possibility of lossless compression mattered more to him than almost everything? How he ended a relationship over tabs vs. spaces? That combination of neuroses and principle has tilted toward the former, replacing the latter with a Machiavellian willingness to do whatever it takes to win.

This is a point made well by "The Patent Troll," an episode this season in which Richard (ostensibly still a slave to principle) decides to fight a notorious patent troll rather than settle and pay him the $20,000. But principle turns out not to be the point: Richard "defeats" the troll by using the original version of Pied Piper — which, you'll recall, was a search engine for musical copyrights — to fake an earlier version of "Canción de Amores" that could destroy the troll's claim. Richard is creating false search results using his pure unsullied tech.

The season's last two episodes were especially strong because — unlike earlier, more self-contained episodes — they extended this arc. Richard's journey to the dark side has been complemented by Jared's rise as a formidable moral force (Zach Woods is a comedic genius). As Richard has gotten more and more comfortable lying, hacking, lighting people's crotches on fire, and betraying his best friend, everyone else on the show has gotten clearer and clearer on how bad all this has gotten. "Even setting aside our CEO's sexual extortion, adultery, and lowbrow scatological vandalism, we're still essentially a criminal operation whose only real product is dangerous malware," Jared tells a prospective hire. "Oh, I see you're fluent in Japanese. Are you going to be comfortable with casual racism?"

For several seasons, the show has insisted that Pied Piper was worth fighting for — a small, sprightly upstart in a sea of bullshit tech. By the end of this season, it's clear that it's no such thing. It's as bad or worse as anything in Silicon Valley, and Richard's habit of overlooking the means to celebrate the end won't be tolerated.

Except, of course, that it will. Richard offers what seems like a heartfelt apology, everyone comes back, and we're back to square one.

But not quite: Erhlich is gone, and Richard takes up the mantle as deal-maker and negotiator with none of the charm. We've watched members of the team lose their minds when they get a little power (remember Dinesh as CEO?) but Richard seems permanently changed: When Gavin Belson reminds Richard that he gave him the patent, Richard sneers and thanks him. And if at first we thought he was accepting the offer from Laurie and Monica because it was the right thing to do, it's clear, by the end of his speech, that his reasons have less to do with friendship and more to do with a plan for total domination. Richard is worse than ever; he's Bachman-Plus.

Remember Gavin's garage inside his garage? That ode to the humble beginnings that made him the hollow narcissist he is now? It wouldn't surprise me at all if the series ends with Richard buying Bachman's house in order to have a house inside his house.