How do you begin with the best of personal intentions and end up bilking investors out of more than $700 million dollars? Hulu’s new limited series The Dropout seeks to answer that question.
The show stars Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford dropout turned Silicon Valley CEO of Theranos, a biotech company aiming to revolutionize the healthcare industry by conducting hundreds of health tests with just a single drop of blood. Because of the broken hope and bodies left in her wake, an eight-episode series might be hard to take. Seyfried’s performance as Holmes, however, is worth watching even if it is burnished with a Hollywood brush.
Seyfried’s job was to portray how Holmes was able to transform herself into the world’s youngest billionaire based upon blind ambition. Instead of reshaping the medical industry, though, Holmes sank into a vision of herself that refused to accept failure, taking the Silicon Valley fake-it-till-you-make-it mantra to ludicrous extremes. So far, reviews for Seyfried’s performance have been positive, lauding the actress for not only nailing Holmes as a character, but showing how different versions of the same woman unfolded over the course of the tense docudrama.
The Dropout is told with a linear arc (other than selected scenes with fictionalized footage of Holmes on trial.). From this point of view, the show can feel like watching and rewatching disaster footage. It’s a disturbing yet hypnotic view.
Seyfried-as-Holmes descends from driven to deranged in her efforts to convince investors, board members, and pharmaceutical partners that Theranos is legit. This mythologizing, however, goes to great lengths helps to humanize someone who is facing a possible 80 years in prison for not only lying to investors, but giving false optimism to thousands of patients.
The oft-told tale of the odd Silicon Valley duck gone off the rails in order to fit in has been done before (see: The Social Network). The Dropout can’t resist emphasizing Holmes’s awkwardness and apparent challenge to understand actual human feelings and behaviors. We get to watch her practice simple interactions in an attempt to be normal in college. And we see her as both master and puppet of her abusive mastermind Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews).
The show takes creative license to imagine personal aspects of Holmes’ life that clash with reality. In 2013, Theranos chief biochemist Ian Gibbons took his own life rather than falsify results for Holmes. His widow, Rochelle Gibbons, told CBS News that when her husband died, Holmes never reached out. Instead, an office manager just called to request that she return her deceased husband’s laptop. In The Dropout, Holmes mourns Gibbons’ death in private, which is a stretch, at best, given the content of actions prior.
Holmes also worries about her company’s lack of viable technology, leaning on her mother (played by Laurie Metcalf) to determine if she should remain with Theranos. Sympathetic or not, Holmes still comes across as cruel, cold, and deceiving, especially as she eventually dons the regulation black Issey Miyake turtleneck in homage to Apple founder Steve Jobs.
Still, The Dropout is a quality characterization of someone hellbent on achieving fame and success. Unlikeable central figures are, after all, a fascinating watch. The show offers a distorted reflection of how we all, in some way, give up a part of ourselves to become something more in a professional capacity.
“I decided I was going to build a life by building this company,” Holmes testified at her trial.
The Dropout is streaming now on Hulu.
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