Better Late Than Never: The Dropout
Yes, Elizabeth Holmes Was A Criminal, But She Was A Victim Too
We have had more than our fair share of limited series dealing with the rise and fall of so many corporate monsters this season. Dopesick, one of the favorites for Limited Series this year, deals with the consequences of Richard Sackler to almost single-handedly create the opoid crisis for the sole purposes of lining Purdue’s pockets. This past March, we saw the premiere of Super-Pumped: The Rise and Fall of Uber which told the story of how Travis Kalanick created one of the most successful companies in history all while being one of the biggest and unrepentant pricks while doing so. Because I saw the latter series and found so much of it repugnant, I was understandably reluctantly to look at Hulu’s The Dropout, the story of the recently imprisoned Elizabeth Holmes, who became a billionaire by creating Theranos, a company that was supposed to revolutionize the medical industry but never created so much as a working prototype. Despite the fact that Holmes is played by Amanda Seyfried, one of the my favorite actress of the last twenty years and is filled with some of the greatest characters actors in history, despite the fact that, like Dopesick, it too is likely be a major contender for Emmys in a few weeks, I have been extremely reluctant to watch it. I had no interest in seeing yet another corporate monster commit a massive fraud, this time under the guise of helping people, and walk away — as we have seen — with an insufficient punishment.
But I had some time and have watched the first two episodes this week. And I like this series a lot more than I thought I would. Perhaps a great deal of this is because it was produced and co-written by the most unlikely of showrunners: Liz Meriwether, best known for creating the Zoey Deschanel sensation New Girl this past decade. At first glance, Meriwether would seem to be a poor fit for this story. But watching Seyfried in the early episodes of The Dropout, she’s the perfect writer to give a portrayal of Holmes.
In the first two episodes from the beginning, Elizabeth seems like someone who doesn’t fit in anywhere. Her mother barely seems to love her, her father appreciates her talent but thinks it’s untapped, and she doesn’t seem to have any friends. When she goes on a pre-college trip to Beijing and actually spends much of the time studying and speaking Mandarin, all of her fellow students just look at her and call her a loser. Nor do things improve notably when she goes to Stanford. Channing Robertson (Bill Irwin) allows to work as an engineer on his project only after he spends months harassing her. When she comes up with the basic idea for Theranos, Robertson sends her to tech legend Phyllis Gardner (Laurie Metcalf in yet another great guest role) who barely tolerates and considers her barely worth her time. Both of them urge her to just ‘be a sophomore’, which she can’t do. We see her rehearsing friendly statements, but at a party she’s sexually assaulted and the college has no intention of doing anything. She finally decides to convince her parents to invest her tuition money in a start-up.
The real estate for her startup is in the worst part of town. A stray bullet shatters the window of her car before she gets set up. There are ants crawling around in her offices. When she tries pitching Theranos to Silicon Valley, they barely go through the motions to hear her out. The only person who believes in her at all is her much older lover Sunny (Naveen Andrews in a great turn). He is the only person who has total confidence in her, and who doesn’t think what she’s doing is a waste of time. When she commits fraud to finally get seed money, he first tells her not to tell anyone else and cheers her on for what she’s managed to accomplish.
I feel immensely more sympathy for Holmes’ in this series than I did for Sackler or Kalanick. Some of it has to do with how Seyfried plays her. From the moment we meet her, we know that Elizabeth Holmes can’t function in a normal world. She has to rehearse everything; she runs in a way that looks weird; she starts her day by dancing awkwardly to loud music. She is ‘adorkable’ (the term that was used for Jess so often during New Girl’s heyday’) minus the adorable part. At a critical point, she actually admits to Sunny: “I don’t feel things the way most people do” and it’s true.
But even with Seyfried’s brilliance as a performer and the way the writers build sympathy for her, it would still be hard for me to find compassion for her. The reason I do has nothing to do with the fact that unlike Sackler or Kalanick, Holmes did everything she did initially with good intentions. (We all know what parts of that particular road that makes up. What Seyfried and the writers have done is demonstrated that in a sense, Holmes was groomed. Not sexually, though her relationship with the much older Sunny does raise question, but corporately. When she convinces her parents that dropping out of Stanford is the best course for her, she name checks Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Paul Allen. For the 21st Century, we are told these men are success stories because of what they achieved, and no matter what we learn about what they did to achieve it, millions still worship them.
In a critical scene, Elizabeth has a meeting with Larry Ellison on his boat. Ellison has absolutely no interest in anything Elizabeth has to say or even what her company does. All he is interested in doing is spewing his story of success and telling her that’s what she needs to do. He’s annoyed when she receives an urgent call from her mother telling Elizabeth that her father’s in the hospital. And when Elizabeth rushes back to see her father on his sickbed, he summons his energy to ask her why she’s here and that she should back to see Ellison. The fact that her father lost his job because he worked at Enron doesn’t register. In her father’s eyes, we must bow before the money first. And I think this message registers more with Elizabeth than anything Ellison says. Immediately afterwards she convinces her company to follow his advice, but I don’t think she’d have gone that far if her father hadn’t confirmed that’s who she should be listening too.
None of this remotely excuses anything Holmes did or the increasing house of cards she kept building. But if The Dropout tells us anything, it’s that the titans of industry care nothing for ideas no matter how helpful they are but only for money. In a critical scene prior to this, Don Lemon keeps Elizabeth waiting in his reception room, and then has his secretary dismiss her. She yells at her that he missed an opportunity to disrupt a ‘$7 billion blood industry’. Lemon shows up a few scenes later (an unrecognizable Michael Ironside) and gives her fifteen minutes. Like Ellison he cares nothing about Elizabeth or her company, only the money. Elizabeth manages to sell him on potential by — for the first time in the series — a more or less complete B.S. sale pitch that has nothing to do with the science and tech pitches she’d made before. That is what gets her foot in the door. She learned she had to play the game. The fact that she doesn’t have a working prototype at the time makes the point clear. B.S matters more than the product.
And just to be clear, there’s also a lot of awkward comedy in most of this. The scene in Switzerland where the device malfunctions and the business blood of Theranos do everything in their power to make it work — is utterly hysterical. As our many of the scenes in the early stages where this barely functional company falls apart at the worst possible times. There are also a lot of great actors in this series that I haven’t mentioned yet: Michel Gill and Elizabeth Marvel play Elizabeth’s parents, William H. Macy is barely recognizable and Stephen Fry has a wonderful part as a cancer ridden chemist. I haven’t even gotten to the episodes where Sam Waterston shows up (he actually seems to be getting busier as he enters his 80s)
The Dropout is more enjoyable than Dopesick or Superpumped, but has just a powerful a message as the two other series. It is an even more scathing indictment of Big Tech and corporate America as well as telling us that if we’re going to put up so big a glass ceiling, we shouldn’t be stunned that the women who have to shatter it have to be as ruthless and untrustworthy as the men who do so. Yes what Elizabeth Holmes did was a crime beyond any level, and yes, she deserves all the punishment she gets. But society was willing to treat her as much as an icon as any of these other ‘Old White Men’ and overlook all of the warning signs because she was rich and pretty.
In the opening scenes we hear Holmes being celebrated as a business icon and an idol for women everywhere intercut with video depositions. In both, she has the appearance of a deer in the headlights. I kept thinking of Superpumped in the early episodes. Travis Kalanick was an utter and complete monster to everybody, violated the law by every standard, and basically walked away with a golden parachute and another start-up. Elizabeth Holmes basically did a milder version of the same things, and is now in prison. She is paying for her sins, but she’s also paying for society’s and the business worlds’ perceptions.
My score: 4.5 stars.