First they think you’re crazy. Then they fight you. Then all of a sudden you change the world.
Well, at the very least you become the fascination of a society gaga for stories about scammers, capture the interest of Hollywood, and become the subject of several extremely high-profile TV and film projects, at least one of which—Hulu’s new series The Dropout—we can now say is quite good.
Those first three sentences were actually spoken by Elizabeth Holmes and are now an indelible part of her notoriety. Holmes is the disgraced founder of Theranos, a company that frantically deceived its way to a $9 billion valuation and turned her, the youngest self-made female billionaire, into a tech star and—this not hyperbole—a global savior. The promise was a revolutionary blood testing method that would use just one small finger prick; the reality was that, outside of the truth that this technology could be game-changing, it didn’t work and she and her company were massive frauds.
But what makes Holmes such a captivating figure is that the first two sentences of that infamous mantra were undeniably true.
When she dropped out of Stanford her sophomore year and convinced her parents to invest her tuition money into this company, everyone did think she was crazy. And when she amassed the support of the likes of Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch, and George Shultz and became one of the most adulated and visible entrepreneurs in the world, skeptics pointed their raised eyebrows at the company and its claims. But for Holmes, it was possible to shrug them off as jealous haters—real buzzkills when you’re just a blonde billionaire who is going to change the world.
If you know anything about Holmes, Theranos, and this mind-boggling case of fraud, then you know to be absolutely baffled by this woman. She knew she had a company, a mission, and a promise built on a delicate house of cards—9 billion of them in fact, and each one a lie. Yet she was still steadfast in her insistence that she and this nonexistent tech were really going to do it, that whole world-changing thing.
It’s outrageous. One of the greatest what in the actual hell?! stories of modern times. It’s obviously fodder for good TV, but that’s where we become the skeptics. As our collective obsession with scams and hustles—particularly girl-boss grifters—reaches a fever pitch, television hasn’t quite known what to do with them. The stories on face value are juicy, but a TV treatment is pointless if it doesn’t have something to say about it, or an understanding of how to marry entertainment value with real-world stakes.
Netflix’s Inventing Anna was an abomination in that regard—man, I hated that show—so much so that, at a moment of peak exhaustion with these kinds of stories, it was hard to shake the suspicion that The Dropout would follow as its own TV version of a scam: the false promise of a shocking true story spun into an unwieldy mess with a lack of focus or perspective. But The Dropout, which premiered its first three episodes Thursday on Hulu, pulls off a miracle, in that it actually pulls it off. And the gamble that makes it all work is the all-in, career-best performance from Amanda Seyfried as Holmes.
Much of the mythology of the Theranos saga is wrapped up in how Holmes herself, as much as she was plastered on the cover of every business magazine and would seemingly grant interviews to anyone with a tape recorder, was an inscrutable enigma. She may have stood apart from the sea of tech bros in hoodies and their douchebag entitlement by the mere facts that she was a woman and she worked her ass off, but she did adhere to at least one stereotype about self-proclaimed prodigy-entrepreneurs: she seemed to be a bit of a weirdo.
By the time she became a public figure, Holmes had, taking inspiration from her idol Steve Jobs, adopted a work uniform in various versions of all-black, but typically with a turtleneck. Her hair was blonde and, to an observer, seemingly fried to a crisp, bizarrely frizzy and unkempt for a person who could, at the time, afford all the luxuries of life, such as conditioner. It’s a neutral palette that makes her intensely blue eyes blare as if they were electrically illuminated on a cyborg. That those eyes are so wide and appear forever unblinking add to the mystique, telegraphing some sort of unsettling genius that you can’t look away from—or, more to the point, won’t challenge.
The robotic comparisons extend to her unusual voice—a gruff, husky monotone that is clearly several registers lower than Holmes’ natural speech. It’s bizarre, and those who worked with her have talked about how confusing it was to witness her adopt the manufactured way of speaking (supposedly inspired by her love of Yoda) over time. But the voice and the image seemed to be her armor—some sort of reassurance that she would be taken seriously, or at least that her appearance wouldn’t in any way distract from the mission at hand. (Once again: Changing the world!)
Character descriptions like “enigma” and “robotic” could be lethal for an actor attempting to bring some sort of life to a part. At best, they could produce serviceable mimicry of the idiosyncrasies; at worst, they’ll come off as cartoonish and satirical. So it’s no small feat that Seyfried, with her own striking eyes capable of lacerating, laser-like focus as well as transforming into a wellspring of emotion and pathos, creates a portrait of someone complicated, impressive, conflicted, and, at times, maybe even relatable. And she does it without undermining the enormity of the downfall that brought Holmes into the public eye, and the bizarro behavior that has made her a lingering cultural presence.
Seyfried captures the hustle that was Holmes’ driving engine, flitting just enough into the mania that was ultimately her malfunctioning glitch. The sequences in which she’s trying out the deep voice could have easily been a cringe laughing stock, or, more likely, rather cruel or misogynistic. But even those scenes, somehow, come off surprisingly human. There’s a stacked supporting cast in The Dropout: William H. Macy, Laurie Metcalf, Elizabeth Marvel, Sam Waterston, Stephen Fry, Michaela Watkins, Dylan Minnette, and Kate Burton, for starters. But this is the Amanda Seyfried Show, and she rises to the occasion.
This is also a story that is, when you think about it, totally absurd. Like, this happened? Really?! All of these people were fooled? All of this money was spent? All of these employees went along with the coverup? There’s inherent comedy in that, if done delicately.
Where To Stream The Dropout: Hulu
Showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether, who created New Girl, and director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick) have found a way to tease out notes of humor without shortchanging the circumstances at hand. Real people’s lives were at stake because of this blood-testing fraud, and real employees’ careers were at risk for speaking out about it. Juggling that gravitas along with the humor-of-the-absurd and, frankly, the high-energy thrill of the start-up world when a company reaches the heights that Theranos did could have devolved into a creative clown show. But The Dropout pulls off the trick.
You get a sense of who Holmes was, what drove her ambition and, ultimately, the desperation behind her foolish delusion that she had to stay the course, even as things careened out of control. Yet the series never lionizes her or glorifies her actions—tempting given the scale and implausibility of what she pulled off for as long as she did.
When you meet young Elizabeth in the early episodes, sure, it’s invigorating to watch her build a company. She’s a nice girl and a smart girl, and she was facing seemingly insurmountable odds as a woman her age in the male-dominated start-up world. She was easy to root for then.
What’s fascinating is how, over the course of the series, The Dropout slyly morphs the narrative, maybe even without you realizing it. The kinetic thrill of Elizabeth’s hard work to build her company transitions into a menacing thriller. As people start to piece together the insidiousness of the fraud and the harrowing real-world repercussions, she becomes a complex villain, surrounded and protected by a coterie of loyal minions she’s cast a spell over. That the show never loses sight of the “huh?!” of it all is perhaps its shrewdest decision in figuring out how to adapt this can’t-make-this-up story.
There have already been documentaries about Elizabeth Holmes. There’s a feature film starring Jennifer Lawrence and written and directed by Adam McKay in the works. McKay, with Vice, The Big Short, and Don’t Look Up, might be responsible for the way we’ve grown accustomed to see these “based on a true story” projects told. It’s a formula that mixes wink-at-the-camera cheekiness with Sorkin-esque moral grandstanding.
The Dropout, blissfully, spares us that patronizing oversimplification, and instead gives us something much more valuable, something that Theranos hoped to achieve itself: A new, better way of doing things.
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