It was a good idea, after all. Affordable, non-invasive, at-home blood tests offering real-time analysis? That’s a good idea, especially in a country where healthcare is often expensive and inaccessible. It came from Elizabeth Holmes, a Stanford dropout whose good idea ballooned into a company with a $ 9 billion valuation. In 2015, the truth about Holmes’ technology — that it did not work — was revealed. Books, podcasts, and documentaries emerged, each plumbing the depths of the founder’s deception. This past January, she was convicted of four counts of fraud. She faces up to 20 years in prison.
But Theranos? It’s still a good idea. In a Silicon Valley where crypto now reigns, that means something. It makes Theranos one of the more complex and nuanced tales of Silicon Valley deception. Theranos isn’t the Juicero. It could’ve helped people. And Holmes, a female CEO in a sea of tech bros, was easy to root for, even with that curiously deep voice and unnerving, unblinking stare.
Amanda Seyfried stars as the eccentric Holmes in Hulu’s The Dropout, which devotes its first three episodes to Holmes’ evolution into the icy, turtlenecked wunderkind who famously urged herself to “show no excitement,” “speak rarely,” and “call bullshit immediately.” Seyfried finds shades of that future intensity in her portrayal of a teenage Holmes who resists the frivolities of her peers in her efforts to be taken seriously at Stanford and approaches ugly expressions of emotion — her father sobbing, for instance — with a mix of curiosity and pity. When a family friend asks what she wants to pursue, she replies matter-of-factly: “I want to be a billionaire.” Seyfried’s delivery is loaded: to someone who worships tech giants like Steve Jobs, a word like “billionaire” represents not wealth but a rarified social standing. Millionaires are simply rich; billionaires change the world.
It’s an appealing performance, but there’s a tidiness to these early episodes that flattens the peculiarities of Elizabeth’s journey. The cultivation of her early patents are glossed over with brief conversations about the “beauty” of microfluidics and long, meaningful stares at the tip of her finger. More time is devoted to exploring her relationship with Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews, sporting a pronounced paunch), an aimless, much older tech millionaire with whom she develops a romantic relationship. Seyfried and Andrews have chemistry, but there’s a familiarity to the scenes of their courtship, a lack of danger, that fails to capture the truly odd vibes of their union. That same sense of familiarity extends to her hapless early meetings with venture capitalists. Elizabeth’s story is one of a kind, yet these scenes feel redolent of other biopics.
What works better is the nuance of evolution itself. Elizabeth’s hardening is portrayed as multi-tiered. Drawing upon Holmes’ testimony last year, the show posits Sunny as abusive and controlling, a corrupting presence who saw in Theranos (and Elizabeth) an opportunity to backdoor himself into renewed relevance. More culpable (and more interesting) is Silicon Valley, where a hype-driven culture forces creators to overpromise (and often deceive) in their efforts to get the money that can help them deliver. And finally there’s Elizabeth herself, whose faith in her own technology is both admirable and delusional, propelled by a hubristic tendency to believe her own hype. It’s Silicon Valley in a nutshell — pressure, money, ego — but the danger is that not everyone who fakes it will eventually make it. We’re told in the opening minutes that the technology does not work, so what these episodes set up is an exploration of just how far one company can fake it. That bodes well for what’s to come.
So, too, does The Dropout‘s sense of humor. Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer, The Big Sick) makes up for the show’s lack of visual panache by interweaving the drama with striking, darkly comic images — a Theranos machine malfunctions, burping up a dribble of blood — and characters who represent the absurdities of startup culture and the ultra-wealthy. There’s the fratty tech bros, of course, but there’s also a Buddhist philosophy-spouting Larry Ellison (Hart Bochner) and William H. Macy’s Richard Fuisz, a parasitic patent collector and friend of Elizabeth’s parents who throws a wrench into her narrative out of pure spite. Macy’s slimy, dead-eyed turn drips with bored malice; he’s exactly the kind of petty, brutal tyrant you’ll find in a pocket of the US where people have more money than sense.
He’s more than just a foil to Elizabeth, though. In this context, he symbolizes Silicon Valley at its most rotten. He symbolizes the creator who gets rich off the promise, not the fulfillment of that promise. And it’s there the story of Theranos exists, in between the promise and the fulfillment, the idea and the execution. Consider the brief scene where Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry) brings up how Elizabeth listed herself as an “inventor” on the patent applications for Theranos’ blood-testing device, despite her not being involved in “any scientific way” in the creation of the actual product. What does that say about Elizabeth? And, in the end, just how different are she and Fuisz?
- The Dropout is based on the ABC News’ podcast of the same name. I’d also recommend John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, which many consider the definitive Theranos text.
- One of the best exchanges comes at the beginning of episode three, when customs asks Sunny what his occupation is and he replies, “I do not have one.” Again, we’re confronted with this question of what one actually does.
- Showalter’s comedy chops really coming through in the episode two sequence where Elizabeth makes everyone give dozens of finger-prick blood samples. The bandaged fingers and piles of bloody tissues? Hilarious.
- What’s going on with this soundtrack? We’re bopping recklessly between ’90s nostalgia (LEN), ambient (Julianna Barwick), country (Alabama), dance-pop (Robyn), and a whole bunch of late-aughts indie (Passion Pit, Wolf Parade). Choose a vibe and stick with it.
- That said, Seyfried’s Gumby-like dance moves are a delight.
- Elizabeth: “I do not feel things the way other people feel things.” I hope they tease this thought out more because I’m not really seeing it in Seyfried’s performance yet.