“I believed in her,” chemist Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry) says of tech mogul Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) midway through the Hulu docudrama The Dropout. “I looked in her eyes and I thought… I thought I could see the future.”
Ian is far from the only person to believe this of Holmes, whose company, Theranos, promised to revolutionize health care with a device, the Edison, that would run multiple tests from a single drop of blood. The cult of personality around the black-clad young woman helped attract heavyweights like former secretary of state George Shultz (Sam Waterston) to the company’s board, and The Dropout digitally inserts Seyfried into clips of the real Holmes being lauded by Bill Clinton and Joe Biden.
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But Holmes was a fraud who could never get her miracle machine to work — and managed to keep this fact hidden for years from board members, investors, and eventually from the very real people who were relying on Theranos’ creation to inform their medical decisions.
Between The Dropout, Netflix’s con-woman tale Inventing Anna, Showtime’s Uber origin story Super Pumped, and Apple’s upcoming WeWork miniseries WeCrashed, we are nearing Peak Scammer TV. More often than not, these stories involve the tech sector run amok, trying to reinvent things that already exist and somehow making them worse in the process. (Even Anna Delvey spends an episode of Inventing Anna helping her boyfriend pitch his dream-journal app.) At one point here, Holmes quotes Mark Zuckerberg’s famous “move fast and break things” mantra, and The Dropout continually illustrates how easy it is to break things and how hard it is to get them right.
Revelation-wise, there’s little that’s new in The Dropout, especially if you listened to the podcast of the same name that inspired it. But showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether and Seyfried do an excellent job of unpacking how Holmes slipped into con artistry, step by step, and how she managed to fool so many people for so long. Meriwether is best known for creating the Fox sitcom New Girl, which at first might seem an odd match for a ripped-from-the-headlines account like this. But throughout, it’s not hard to view The Dropout as a tale of adorkability’s dark side. In early scenes set around the time Holmes began attending Stanford, Seyfried plays her(*) as enthusiastic but socially challenged — “I don’t feel things the way other people feel things,” she admits later to Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews), the much older man she falls for on a trip to China — and an idealist who believes she can make the world a better place. (We also get a reminder early on that corporate chicanery didn’t exactly originate in Silicon Valley, as Elizabeth’s father is working as an executive at Enron when that company goes bankrupt over accounting fraud.) When she’s alone, she’s fond of dancing and/or singing with awkward abandon, and she dreamed up the Edison in part out of her own fear of getting her blood drawn. And on a sadly ironic note, she can’t get anyone to believe her after she’s raped by a fellow student, though she would soon be able to pull the wool over the eyes of powerful men like Shultz or venture capitalist Don Lucas (Michael Ironside), continually covering for the failures of the Edison.
(*) Originally, Kate McKinnon was set to play Holmes, but she dropped out before filming began. (Those needing a true-crime fix with her will have to wait for Joe vs. Carole, Peacock’s scripted version of the Tiger King story.) McKinnon and Seyfried are close in age, but it’s hard to imagine McKinnon playing Holmes at 18 without it feeling like a comedy sketch.
Holmes starts out as a believer herself, convinced that the Edison is just a step or two away from working, and that she — and, after she brings him in as COO to fend off a challenge by her board members, Sunny — just has to keep the company funded long enough for the crucial breakthrough to happen. As a result, the early episodes have a lighter, caper-like tone. They don’t necessarily invite you to root for the Theranos team, but they have fun showing the mechanics of how Holmes and her cronies pulled off various deceptions. The fourth episode, aptly titled “Old White Men,” is a particular treat, with Alan Ruck playing a Walgreens executive desperate to combat his fears of aging and irrelevance by teaming up with this exciting new venture, and Rich Somer from Mad Men as a consultant crying in vain that the empress has no clothes.
After a while, though, Holmes becomes less a believer in the project than in her own rising celebrity. Yes, Seyfried does the voice — the improbably deep register, halting cadence and all — but in a much more interesting and convincing way than Julia Garner mimicking Anna Delvey in Inventing Anna. Part of the trick is that she doesn’t start out so deep, but rather takes it on as an affectation — a way for the confrontation-averse Holmes to feel like she should be the one giving orders to employees who keep pushing back about problems with the Edison. And as she learns to take control, she starts to become dangerous, and The Dropout pivots into more of a horror story, showing Holmes and Balwani’s ruthless attempts(*) to silence potential whistleblowers like Ian, Shultz’s grandson Tyler (Dylan Minnette), or new employee Erika (Camryn Mi-young Kim). Throughout, Meriwether and chief director Michael Showalter hurl an army of familiar character actors like Fry and Waterston at Holmes to capture just how easy it was for everyone to fall under her spell.
(*) In her trial, Holmes pinned most of Theranos’ worst deeds on Balwani. Naveen Andrews plays him as aggrieved and malevolent, even as the show treats them as partners in crime, rather than her as a naive young woman bullied into bad deeds by her nasty boyfriend.
The first three episodes of The Dropout premiere March 3 on Hulu, with additional installments streaming weekly. I’ve seen seven of the eight episodes.
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