Just What Was Going on With Elizabeth Holmes?
The Dropout Answers Everything — Except That
In the third episode of The Dropout ‘Green Juice’, everything that Elizabeth Holmes has spent the last few years building is about to collapse. Her boyfriend Sunny visits the lab and sees that they have no workable products, the tests are still in a failed stage, her board is about to give a vote of no confidence to her, and her entire group of workers quit. In the midst of this, her iPhone breaks and she goes to the Apple store to get it replaced. Seeing the apparent downfall of her dream, she tries to express to the poor service person working for her what it must be like ‘to not have dreams’. When the phone isn’t working, she starts weeping and apologizing.
Immediately after this, Elizabeth goes before her board — and with variations on the phrases, mirrors the tech workers breakdown. She convinces the board that she is too young and that she does need supervision. She convinces them to hire Sunny to be COO and to infuse cash into Theranos. For the rest of the series, she never shows emotion at all, whether remorse or anger or anything. She comes across as nothing more than a pure sociopath.
The reason I raise this issue is that prior to all of this we have seen that Elizabeth was a human being. Yes, she was ultra-focused on becoming a mogul, but she shows happiness around Sunni, joy when it came to talking to her mentor Channing about the plans for Theranos, warmth when talking to Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry) the chemist whose ideas were at the inspiration for the company, and when a real result came in for her product, genuine happiness. When she came to Venice for a backers meeting and the product didn’t work, there was genuine despair and frustration. And when her company went public, she screamed: “I’m a millionaire!” to the celebrating city.
Amanda Seyfried goes to such levels to make Holmes seem human in the first two episodes that I was genuinely floored by her one-eighty in the rest of the series. Holmes never shows as much as a sign of humanity the rest of the way. You can argue that she’s trying her best to compete with the boys’ club that is the business world, but the longer we follow her, the less human she becomes — and I mean in terms of her vocal delivery and her refusal to speak in anything other than clichés. In the first two episodes, you could see that Elizabeth Holmes was a real person once. By the end of the series, not even her own parents recognize her any more.
The thing is, even given the utter misery she wreaks upon peoples’ lives with her company, the thousands of people she defrauded, the countless number of powerful men she utterly fooled, the relationships she laid to waste as a result — the relationship between George Shultz and his grandson is the most obvious, but it’s just an archetype for the series — and her utter disconnect from reality the longer the series goes on, I still feel something resembling empathy for Holmes’ or at the very least, Seyfried’s portrayal of her.
Yes, it is clear that Elizabeth Holmes was a narcissist of the upmost category — I don’t think anybody will forget her birthday party where all the guests wore paper masks of her, where she forced Tyler to play a song celebrating her twice, and when she finished up the night dancing with Sunny, who was also wearing a paper mask of her (and that’s a psych case right there). But even as things continue to get worse for her the bigger a success Theranos becomes, you get the feeling Elizabeth is empty and a fraud because she has nothing in her life to fill it. At one point during her uncle’s funeral, she tells her mother she’s thinking about quitting the company, and her mother basically dismisses the idea: “What else would you do?” she asked. Elizabeth also asks her mother if she had hobbies growing up, and the fact that she has to remember them now indicates her company is all she has. This becomes equally clear when she’s shooting an ad for Theranos, and she has no idea how to act like a normal person. “Act like you’re talking to your best friend,” he says casually. “I don’t have one,” she says.
And she doesn’t. Her brother is part of the company but she barely acknowledges him throughout the rest of the series. The only real relationship she has of any sustenance during the length of the series is with Sunny, and she has been the entirety of The Dropout pretending that it wasn’t romantic. When she thinks it is in her best interest to drop him from the company in the finale, she does it as coldly as she has with everybody else. Whether or not the relationship between Sunny and Elizabeth was abusive in real life is impossible to say — it is at least possible there was a certain amount of grooming involved, at least in the early stages. What becomes clear throughout The Dropout is that Elizabeth has spent the entirety of the series prioritizing the success of Theranos above all else. She can not separate the success of the company from her personality.
It is impossible not to look at how much of The Dropout unfolds and not be reminded of Citizen Kane. Elizabeth Holmes is essentially a woman who wanted the world, got it and then lost it. She didn’t want love on her own terms, she wanted respect and adoration — and when she got it from her peers; she thought it was the real thing. We see in the early episodes there’s a real person behind Elizabeth Holmes, but the longer the series go on, the more she separates from the cover of the magazines she graces, the boards she’s a part of, the former and future presidents who interview her. She is so focus on being some kind of representative for women that she no longer seems to notice that her humanity has left her, and in a critical scene near the end, she is incapable either in public or private admitting any wrongdoing. How much of this is real and how much of this is pure denial is impossible to say. But when the end credits roll at the end of the series, I find it completely plausible that Elizabeth was capable of going to Burning Man with her new boyfriend while her company was being dismantled.
Perhaps I have made The Dropout seem relentlessly dark. It’s not. There are segments, indeed, entire episodes that are hysterical. The fourth episode of the show, when Elizabeth and Sunny basically con Walgreen’s into signing a pharmaceutical deal without ever letting them see the test results, is hilarious from beginning to end. We know the lies that are going on behind the scenes, and everyone in Walgreen’s wants to back away. But the man in charge of tech (Alan Ruck, actually giving a performance worth nominating) keeps trying to convince his bosses that “every tech has flaws’ and “they’ll work it out.” He sells him on the very idea just as the company is about to drive off the lot, because he wants to seem hip. (He thinks by listening to Katy Perry every days as inspirations he’s ‘with it’, which is just so out of date.)
And William H. Macy’s performance (which was worthy of an Emmy nomination) as the old family friend who basically helps bring down Theranos more or less out of pique than any real desire to the right thing (at least at first) was a work of comic genius. For much of the first few appearances, he seems like a complete and utter egomaniacal loser, desperate to cash in on his successful friend’s bonus. He also seems petty as he repeatedly says the only reason Holmes gets in the front door is ‘because she’s pretty and blonde,” an argument which, sad to say, honestly does sound at least partially due to Theranos’ success. But eventually he manages to get the man who gives the basics for The Wall Street Journal article because of the fact that he’s a doctor and both men took the Hippocratic Oath. “First do no harm,” is said at one point, and it’s very clear that Elizabeth Holmes never even heard of that oath, dismissed it because Yoda didn’t say it.
Seyfried may have been the only cast member to receive an Emmy nomination, but all of them were brilliant. In addition to everyone I’ve mentioned in previous reviews Sam Waterston’s work as George Shultz was blindingly good, as a great political mind that was blinded to the reality because of Elizabeth’s flair, and it cost him his family. (Sadly, we learned he died never having spoken to his grandson again.) Laurie Metcalf was brilliant as Phyllis, the only person who had Holmes’ number from the beginning. Kurtwood Smith does a brilliant stint as Theranos’ attorney who learns far too late just how deep the water is, and Michaela Watkins has a serio-comic role as Linda, the corporate lawyer who keeps putting out fires right to the end, and ends up going down with the ship.
The Dropout lays out detail by detail every method of how Elizabeth Holmes created a company that was supposed to be a symbol of everything good about Silicon Valley and ended up being one of the biggest frauds in history. What it did not do was explain just what happened while Theranos grew to turn Elizabeth Holmes from a relatively normal, even empathetic human, to a soulless monster who even at the end could not admit she’d done anything wrong. But maybe that’s not something we can ever understand. The more robotic Holmes became, the more I was reminded of the cold dispassionate work of Michael Stuhlbarg as Richard Sackler in Dopesick, who calmly and efficient created the opoid crisis for the sole purpose of making his already billionaire family even richer or Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s work as Travis Kalanick in Super-Pumped who built up one of the most successful companies in history, proud of his anger and rage all the way down — though of course, all that happened to him was that he lost his company. Does immense wealth make you inhuman or do you have to be inhuman to be a Master of the Universe? We need to answer these questions, and shows like The Dropout have to keep asking them.
My score: 5 stars.