“The Dropout” raises questions with its detailed portrayals

I first heard the name “Elizabeth Holmes” in 2014, when I was 10 years old. My dad was picking me up from school and showed me a Forbes article listing her as the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire with her blood-testing company Theranos. Last January, Holmes was convicted of fraud and is currently facing up to twenty years in prison.

How did this happen? How was Elizabeth Holmes able to get away with lying to high-profile investors and putting thousands of patients at risk? “The Dropout,” currently streaming on Hulu, attempts to answer these questions by following Holmes’ evolution from Stanford dropout to scam CEO. The show stars Amanda Seyfried as Holmes and is based on the 2019 ABC true crime podcast of the same name.

For a drama, one refreshing aspect of “The Dropout” is how it leans into its comedic qualities while portraying the lives of out-of-touch Silicon Valley billionaire executives. Walgreens executive Jay Rosan (played by Alan Ruck) is embarrassingly optimistic about Theranos and decides to invest in Holmes after listening to the Katy Perry song “Firework.” Holmes’ romantic relationship with the aggressive and overbearing COO of Theranos, Sunny Balwani (played by Naveen Andrews), is disturbing and predatory, yet the viewer cannot look away whenever the pair is onscreen. The show is amazing at depicting two fundamentally flawed and emotionally stunted people finding stiff comfort in each other’s paranoia. 

The show’s technical qualities, such as its cold color scheme and sharp cinematography, elevate it even further. Not even green juice or Holmes’ bright red lipstick can liven up the muted blacks and white that frame each shot. The soundtrack is also an inspired choice, filled with 2000s indie and pop hits that Elizabeth awkwardly dances and grooves to, such as “We Run This” by Missy Elliott and “North American Scum” by LCD Soundsystem. But perhaps the shining jewel of the show’s oeuvre (setting it apart from the recent slew of fictionalized miniseries like “Inventing Anna,” “WeCrashed” and “Joe vs. Carole”) is its characterization of the elusive Elizabeth Holmes. Right off the bat, there is no sympathizing with Holmes; the show steadfastly portrays her actions as uncondonable, horrific and downright unnerving. While fake socialite Anna Sorokin might be portrayed as an aloof “girlboss” in “Inventing Anna,” Seyfried’s Holmes is cold and unforgiving. When she and her team realize that the Theranos prototype isn’t working, she repeatedly pricks her fingers for blood (just a drop!) to run the tests over and over again. She practices her infamous fake deep voice in the mirror by repeating the phrase “inspiring step forward.” In the latest episode, titled “Iron Sisters” after the movement to empower women in STEM, Holmes films an ad for Theranos while creepily staring down the camera, and subsequently attends her 30th birthday party with people who wear masks of her own face. Everything about Holmes is deeply rooted in simultaneous insecurity and delusion: She thinks she’s a genius but she knows she’s a fraud. She understands the business but doesn’t understand the science, as Stanford chemist Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry) angrily points out. 

It has also been noted that the show’s release has coincided with, and delayed, Sunny Balwani’s current trial due to its leading jurors dropping out, raising questions about how fictionalized miniseries affect the stories they portray. Theranos went bankrupt in 2018, a mere four years ago. Should there be a grace period before filmmakers pick up their cameras to document these scandals? Or will the captivation behind stories of scam artists always triumph? Perhaps biopics and fictionalized true stories should be adapted only after their subjects have passed away, ensuring that their stories are both accurately and ethically told.

The Dropout is currently streaming on Hulu, with new episodes every Thursday.

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