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The Dropout Offers Conflicting Views of Controversial Woman

Who is Elizabeth Holmes, exactly? Over the course of the last decade, she’s been a lot of things: Tech genius, business guru, girlboss, pioneer, fraud, con-woman, pariah. When she burst onto the scene as a twentysomething wunderkind and the eccentric leader of multi-billion-dollar medical startup Theranos, her quirks made her feel unique—her baritone voice, penchant for green juice and black turtlenecks, and unblinking, thousand-yard stare simply read as the Jobs-ian tics of your average Silicon Valley trailblazer. Then, of course, we learned it was all a lie: Theranos wasn’t the revolutionary blood-testing miracle it was advertised to be, and Holmes wasn’t a prophet. (And, according to rumor, that characteristic voice is also a fake.)

“The Dropout,” Hulu’s latest contribution to the streaming world’s current glut of limited series about doomed startups and con artists (see also: Netflix’s “Inventing Anna,” Showtime’s “Super Pumped,” et al.), falls prey to many of this nascent subgenre’s failings. It’s too long and convoluted by half, and sometimes drops a couple of balls when juggling its oversized ensemble cast. But one thing that show creator Elizabeth Meriwether (“New Girl”) and director of the first four episodes, Michael Showalter (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”), understand about Holmes’ story is that it’s innately ridiculous that people fell for her schtick in the first place. And when “The Dropout” becomes more interested in Holmes as an antagonist in America’s story than the protagonist of her own, the miniseries shines a little bit brighter. 

Running parallel to other nonfiction accounts of Holmes’ rise and fall (Alex Gibney’s revelatory “The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley”) but chiefly based on the ABC News podcast of the same name, “The Dropout” starts as an underdog biopic of Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) before unfurling into a broader indictment of the circumstances that led to Theranos in the first place. We first see her as a kooky, outcast, overachieving chemical engineering student at Stanford, not yet the low-voiced weirdo of her adulthood but still with a Cheshire-cat smile and absurdly-scheduled life plan. “I’m planning on being sexually active in college,” she matter-of-factly tells her mom, before practicing her sorority-girl “woo”s in the mirror. Flashbacks show her as a gangly grade-schooler, determined to run to the finish line in gym class even though she’s laps behind in last place. She’s the daughter of an Enron executive (Michel Gill), witnessing the fallout of her father’s career due to corporate fraud firsthand. One gets the impression that the lesson she took from that wasn’t not to lie; it was to not get caught. 

Still, inspired by the jeans-and-turtleneck vibes of Steve Jobs and her own impatient lust for greatness, Holmes drops out of Stanford as soon as she imagines a one-of-a-kind idea for a mobile blood-test machine and finds a lover/benefactor (Naveen Andrews’ wily, menacing Sunny Balwani) who can bankroll her dream. The problem, of course, is that her idea is literally ahead of its time: the technology isn’t there, as a cadre of benefactors (Bill Irwin’s Stanford prof and Theranos board member Channing Robertson) and exhausted Theranos scientists (Utkarsh Ambudkar, James Hiroyuki Liao) are wont to tell her. Years pass, and no number of tests and modifications will make it work.

But the ever-consuming monster of startup capital demands progress, so Holmes makes it work the only way she can: by bamboozling one high-profile investor after another with her aspirational language and uncanny affect. It’s these stretches in which “The Dropout” offers Seyfried the most room to play as Holmes, and it’s a terrific, transformative performance. The role originally went to Kate McKinnon, whom I fear would play it too overtly comic, too in on the joke. Seyfried, on the other hand, gets the innate absurdity of Holmes as a person but also understands that she’s the hero of her own story. It’s impersonation, to be sure, but the innate performativity of Holmes herself smooths over those bug-eyed tics to make them an organic part of the character. After all, Holmes is a weird woman, who slathered on even weirder affectations to keep the old white businessmen she was hypnotizing off-balance. 

But frustratingly, a lot of “The Dropout” can’t match Seyfried’s hell-for-leather frequency, chiefly due to how much they have to stretch out events to fit the show’s eight-hour runtime. (Seven episodes were provided for review.) The first three episodes teeter dangerously towards apologia for Holmes’ misdeeds, characterizing her as driven by past traumas or lost in the thrall of her pseudo-abusive domestic relationship with Sunny—the same mid-aughts #girlboss posturing that allowed her to pull the wool over the eyes of so many well-meaning investors and pundits. Meriwether and the writers make the critical mistake of trying to answer the question, “Who is Elizabeth Holmes?” when they should really be asking, “Why Elizabeth Holmes?”

Episode four (“Old White Men”) comes closest to entertaining that latter question, as we skip ahead to a post-recession 2010, when Theranos is courting retail healthcare pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens to host “wellness centers” across the globe. Finally, we escape Holmes’ point of view to follow a gaggle of hapless, late-middle-age Walgreens execs trying to size her up and figure out whether Theranos is the real deal. Alan Ruck’s Jay Rosan is perplexed by the company, but pays himself on the back for elevating a female CEO; Josh Pais’ Wade Miquelton is even more dubious, but wary of missing out on a miracle startup because “they’re the only thing making money right now.” Showalter frequently frames them in wide shots huddled in front of buildings or dashing between cars, leaning hard into the innate farce of the whole thing—a creaky economic world terrified by enticed by the promise of the new, even if it all might be smoke. Turns out that, even for American capitalism’s top minds, FOMO is far too enticing to ignore.

“The Dropout” occasionally understands that the real appeal of Elizabeth Holmes’ story isn’t what makes her tick, but how she leveraged America’s love of narrative into a smoke-and-mirrors success story. And at its best, it uses a cavalcade of incredible supporting players to convey that tantalizing conflict between cold, hard facts and the buzzy, fuzzy success story Holmes sold everybody. William H. Macy (in a balding prosthetic so huge it looks like that Nic-Cage-in-"Next" hair meme) is a standout as patent hound and sputtering Holmes nemesis Richard Fuisz, who takes his pursuit of Holmes all the way through a messy divorce. The same goes for Stephen Fry’s kind, hapless Ian Gibbons, the principled scientist whose faith in Holmes’ work eventually (and tragically) traps him between nondisclosure agreements and a federal subpoena. Sam Waterston and Michael Ironside both shine as, respectively, US Secretary of State George P. Schultz and initial Theranos VC Don Lucas, both men hoping to launder their legacy by helping a nice, pretty young blonde woman save the world. The cast expands even further as the show blazes through the years and zeroes in on different perspectives, eventually landing on Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou (a sedate Ebon Moss-Bachrach) as the show reaches the inevitable “Spotlight” portion of the proceedings.

But for all the individual highlights “The Dropout” offers, it fails to cohere into a streamlined whole, which is more than a little frustrating. For every scene where the writers grow ever closer to the point—tech startups are an enormous house of cards that the right person can exploit through big promises and, in the case of Holmes, identity politics—there are three that waste time picking at Holmes’ inscrutable outer crust, only to find little underneath the surface. It’s the kind of psychologically-hollow character a superb actress like Seyfried can make a true meal out of, and other game actors can bounce off beautifully. All that’s missing is a little more economy of storytelling, and a consistent angle to take on the whole Theranos fiasco. As is, it feels like a vial of blood spinning in a centrifuge: full of possibility, but a bit dizzying to watch.

Seven episodes screened for review.

Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Staff Writer for Consequence. He is also a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and Critics Choice Association. You can also find his byline at RogerEbert.com, Vulture, The Companion, FOX Digital, and elsewhere. 

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