(3.5/5) The Dropout is a compelling, darkly funny, and highly relevant examination of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes.
Our current streaming landscape is beginning to feel oversaturated with biopics in the limited series format - from Inventing Anna, to WeCrashed, to The Girl from Plainville. Amidst the influx of mediocre takes on the scammers and criminals of our modern age, The Dropout feels fresh because it has something to say.
The rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos is a story that encompasses so many problems of our culture. Unlike some of the earlier stories that I mentioned being made into limited series, this one feels made for TV, a necessary story to be told. The Dropout begins with Elizabeth as a college teen and chronicles her rise to the top of Silicon Valley with her medical start-up, Theranos, and eventual fall due to the fact that her idea, gathering medical data from a single drop of blood, was scientifically impossible. There’s a powerful scene in the beginning from a professor she visits to propose her idea, played by standout Laurie Metcalf. Professor Phyllis laughs, telling her firmly that this idea is illogical, and that she’s frankly deluded to think she could begin a medical company without gaining an education in medicine first (this comes full circle when this professor plays a role in taking Elizabeth and Theranos down). Despite this early warning, we watch Elizabeth Holmes scam, manipulate, and lie her way to the top, hurting countless in the process.
There are many moments throughout the series that display Elizabeth’s startlingly flawed point of view on success, and we see the influence her wealthy parents have on her mindset throughout the series. In one episode at her birthday party, Elizabeth questions what her life would be like if she decided to step away from Theranos. Her mother is shocked and repulsed, telling her that would be to basically give up her entire identity and everything that makes her successful - why would she dare do that? The toxicity and repercussions of a mindset to link one’s worth and identity to career success is a throughline of the series and a major contributor to the creation of the monster Elizabeth becomes, a highly relevant admonition to our society still so fueled by capitalist ideals and girlboss culture.
I think a major flaw of many biopics is the choice to view the subject from an outside angle, which is usually the journalist breaking the case. This never works out well because the journalist is far less interesting than the subject and typically one-dimensional. The Dropout shines because of its decision to tackle the story of Theranos from multiple perspectives. We spend the most time with Elizabeth and her partner, romantically and in business, Sunny Balwani, played brilliantly by Naveen Andrews. This pays off as the story unfolds, and we follow different perspectives that unveil the cruelty of Elizabeth’s actions. We want to understand and empathize with her, but it gradually becomes impossible. I was truly blown away by the finale, in which the extent of Elizabeth’s crimes is at the forefront. Even the unlikeable people around her who were complicit in her crimes, like Sunny and Theranos’ lawyer Linda (Michaela Watkins), beg her to show a glimpse of emotion, to understand what she has done. By the end, they are all living with the guilt of what they have been complicit in, yet the one most responsible feels nothing.
In one stunning scene, Linda chases her down the stairs of the Theranos lobby, pleading desperately for her to just show one ounce of remorse, a sign of humanity. We the audience feel the same, yearning for this character to show some sort of acknowledgment, shame, or regret - Elizabeth shows nothing. Even worse, she is happy and carefree, with a new dog and a new boyfriend, and it’s downright chilling. It’s frankly refreshing to see a series offer such an unflinching take on a white female protagonist without looking for sympathy; by the finale, she is near psychopathic, startlingly cold, and emotionless. This person we hoped might have some sort of conscience is revealed to be devoid of it completely, and it’s infuriating. The arc of her character is a product of bold and refreshing writing, and acting of course. Amanda Seyfried should and hopefully will win an Emmy for this role.
Another area where The Dropout shines is in its supporting cast. With such a complex protagonist, it would have been easy for the characters around Elizabeth to feel weak in comparison. Yet for the most part, the characters around Elizabeth are fully fleshed out, well-acted, and interesting. Sunny, Elizabeth’s lover and accomplice to her crimes, is so completely devoted and in love with her that you wonder to what lengths he would have gone for her. The scenes depicting the tight-wire balancing act of their relationship are some of the series’ strongest and most engrossing. In one hilarious moment, Elizabeth dances into his office blaring Lil Wayne’s “How to Love,” green juice in hand, doing the most painfully awkward dance moves imaginable. The scene is comedic gold because of how both actors play it - Elizabeth is genuinely trying to seduce him and is extremely awkward in the process, and Sunny is completely enamored, looking at her with sincere adoration as she dances bizarrely towards him. It’s perfection, and to see their romance end how it does is especially cutting. By its conclusion, The Dropout paints Elizabeth as soulless in a way Sunny is not, disposing of him once he’s no longer of use to her without batting an eye in the end.
Among other shining points of The Dropout are the heroes that took Elizabeth down. There is an incredibly haunting and emotional episode dedicated to her good-natured and kind lab director Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry), who ended up committing suicide the day before he was supposed to stand trial in a Theranos lawsuit. When Elizabeth finds out that he has died, she pauses..and then smiles, saying it means that he can’t stand trial against them. It’s a moment that solidifies who she truly is, and the depths of the damage she has caused. Another particularly strong episode later in the season is focused on the two Theranos Whistleblowers, Erika Cheung (Camryn Mi-young Kim) and Tyler Shultz (Dylan Minnette), two young lab assistants who decide to risk everything by speaking out about the malpractice taking place at Theranos. This storyline is both suspenseful and rich with relevant nuances, as it also highlights the class disparities at play between Erika and Tyler - Erika is a young minority woman who comes from nothing and risks everything to speak out; Tyler is a wealthy, privileged white male who got the job because his grandfather is on the board. Despite coming from such different circumstances, they form a close bond and become the heroes that spearhead the fall of Theranos, likely saving many lives by doing so.
The Dropout has much to say about class and gender, specifically how Elizabeth so fervently benefitted from her privilege and white feminism. One of her primary tactics of manipulation was charming the older white male investors into feeling as though supporting her was to support women’s rights and to not support her an act of sexism. There’s a gut-punching title card at the end of the series that reads “Female entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley still struggle to find investors in the wake of the Theranos scandal,” with one woman even asked to dye her hair so she looked less like Elizabeth. It speaks to the ramifications of her actions, how her weaponization of feminism to benefit her schemes has caused great damage to women’s places in the tech space - an already deeply male-dominated world. It’s nauseatingly ironic that a woman who so fervently weaponized white feminism would end up doing such great damage with no remorse. In The Dropout, we witness the equal parts captivating and infuriating arc of a woman who has caused great harm. It’s a compelling journey, rich with important themes, nuanced supporting characters, and invaluable lessons.