What’s new, everyone? The life of Elizabeth Holmes is a topic I’ve found to be fascinating over the past couple years. Having founded the tech startup Theranos (the name was coined as a combination of “therapy” and “diagnosis”) in 2003 at 19 years old after dropping out of Stanford, Holmes was seen by the public as a trailblazer. This wasn’t just because of the groundbreaking invention her company had supposedly been working on: a blood-testing device that could determine whether you have cancer, hepatitis C, a miscarriage, or any other number of ailments via a single drop of your blood. The idolization that had grown around Holmes also emerged because she was a woman who had risen up to the rank of CEO in the male-dominated sphere of Silicon Valley. People hailed her as the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world. They viewed her as a pioneer who was apparently living proof that other women could achieve their own Silicon Valley-centered dreams. That’s what made it all the more shocking when it was revealed that Holmes, along with Theranos’s COO and her secret boyfriend Sunny Balwani, had taken numerous steps to swindle investors and patients by offering up medical technology that, as it turned out, had been faulty the entire time.
This is the story that gets covered in The Dropout, the eight-episode Hulu series created by Elizabeth Meriwether (New Girl) and starring Amanda Seyfried as the eponymous Holmes. Based on the podcast of the same name, the series spends its first half taking you on a journey right alongside her as she adamantly pursues her dream of launching Theranos, emulates the simple fashion taste and fierce managerial bent of her hero Steve Jobs, conceals the inaccurate test results from her defective machines, and boots out employees who don’t display absolute loyalty to her vision. The second half of the show, while continuing to depict the rest of her narrative, widens out to include the detrimental impact she has on everyone in her vicinity—an element that gives The Dropout a particularly engrossing edge.
Obviously, Theranos, if it hadn’t been shut down in time, could have harmed countless patients by shipping its blood-testing instruments all over the world and misdiagnosing them. But the series goes on to portray the stress and paranoia being suffered by Theranos’s employees as they slowly realize the con that Holmes is running and try to thwart her, with results of varying success coming back their way. A tragic turn in the middle of the show particularly encapsulates the ripple effect of hurt that spreads out from Holmes’s ruthless actions.
It isn’t as if she comes across as an absolute monster whom we can’t understand on any mortal level, though. Instead, the first couple episodes spend some time humanizing her as she strives to actualize her blood-testing dream and then gets raped at Stanford. At the same time, the series doesn’t encourage you to feel sorry for her while she engages in her corporate bamboozling. It straddles that fine line between connecting us with her so thoroughly that she becomes an overly sympathetic figure and narrowing our viewpoint of her down to a cartoonish villain who cackles as her malfunctioning blood-testing machines take over the world. It helps us remember that at the end of the day, Holmes is a real person who consciously chose to hoodwink people for the sake of forwarding her startup. We’ll most likely never know the true reasons that drove her decisions, considering how opaque she is in public. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to puzzle her out from watching The Dropout.
Seyfried turns in an Emmy-worthy performance as Holmes, capturing the mostly impenetrable exterior that paints the Theranos founder in an enigmatic light while also infusing her with flashes of vulnerability to remind us that, like I said before, she’s a human being at the end of the day, not an infallible god. I must say, though, that I’m nonplussed by the outpouring of praise that audiences are giving to Seyfried—not because she doesn’t deserve all of it, since she does, but because the praise is being sent out in a way that makes it sound as if she’s never shown off her charisma and talent in any of her previous work. Just because it primarily consists of what’s perceived as light, fluffy, and disposable fare like Mean Girls, Mamma Mia! The Movie, Letters to Juliet, and Jennifer’s Body, it doesn’t mean her performances were any less enjoyable. And remember, she did net an Oscar nomination for Netflix’s Mank. So please give her the credit she’s always deserved instead of treating her like every other actor who suddenly becomes a revelation in the public’s eyes after their transition from comedy to drama.
Then we’ve got the stacked supporting roster, which boasts Naveen Andrews, Stephen Fry, Alan Ruck (the majority of his onscreen time occurs in one episode, but he’s so magnetic in it that it merits an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor), William H. Macy, Laurie Metcalf, Bill Irwin, Utkarsh Ambudkar (it’s nice seeing this character actor on the series, considering I’ve also recently seen him in Free Guy and Marry Me), Dylan Minnette, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Kate Burton, and Kurtwood Smith. They all carry their weight whenever the show throws the ball over to their characters, making their stories and the ramifications that Holmes’s exploits have on them even more compelling to consume. Plus, I was pleasantly surprised by the cameo that Angel Parker, one of the stars of Marvel’s Runaways, made in the finale. I know this is a deep cut, but I just really feel the need to point it out, considering how much I enjoyed Runaways after recently watching it and doing a whole episode about it on the 2 Cents Critic podcast.
It’s coincidental for Hulu to drop this True Life Scam limited series right around the same time as Netflix’s Inventing Anna, which follows the Russian-born Anna Sorokin as she transformed herself into the rich German heiress Anna Delvey and fleeced hundreds of thousands of dollars from businesses and friends, under the guise of a German heiress, and Apple TV+’s WeCrashed, which concentrates on the rise and fall of coworking space WeWork and the role that the relationship between cofounder Adam Neumann and his wife Rebekah played in it. In addition, you could focus on the post-The Social Network revitalization of Hollywood’s interest in tech founders by grouping The Dropout and WeCrashed with Showtime’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, which revolves around Uber cofounder and former CEO Travis Kalanick and the toxic workplace culture that led to him being ousted.
The Dropout certainly has plenty of its own commentary on Silicon Valley, the deification of its entrepreneurs, their predisposition towards the “Fake It Till You Make It” attitude, and the girlboss culture that’s now being regarded with mistrust after the contributions it made to Holmes’s ascent. The show deploys its thoughts on those subjects with subtlety for the most part, except for a few moments in the finale when it abruptly heads in a blunt direction and hammers its commentary into our heads. They detract from the nuance of the finale somewhat, but not enough to hamper the series in its entirety.
All in all, The Dropout, a corporate scamming miniseries that’s riveting as it equally focuses on both the scammer and her targets, should be slotted into the top of your watchlist.
Until next time, stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 90/100