What ‘The Dropout’ Gets Right About Elizabeth Holmes
Cunning liar? Hopeless idealist? Ruthless businesswoman? Elizabeth Holmes is all of these things and more.
There’s a scene in the first episode of The Dropout that makes it abundantly clear how the series will treat its central character.
— Content Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Dropout and mentions of suicide. —
A teenage Elizabeth Holmes, played perfectly by Amanda Seyfried, is dancing alone in her childhood bedroom, possibly for the last time. In a poetic piece of foreshadowing, she’s just witnessed her father break down over the loss of his job at Enron, an energy company that collapsed in 2001 after being exposed for defrauding investors.
Her dancing to Alabama’s ‘I’m In A Hurry (And I Don’t Know Why)’ is awkward and stilted, but intentionally so. Fists and lips clenched tight, she’s really giving it everything she’s got. She pauses only to make intense eye contact with a poster of revered Apple founder Steve Jobs for an uncomfortably long time.
It’s cringey to watch, but the scene isn’t a cheap attempt at embarrassing Holmes — even if it does a pretty good job of it. It’s an attempt to give some humanity back to a person who’s been memed to hell and back (like we had any choice, what with the voice and the turtleneck and the haunting, unblinking eyes) so that we might begin to reckon with the gravity of her actions in real terms.
And it’s not the only time viewers will be subjected to Holmes’ awkward and deeply earnest dance breaks — they punctuate pivotal moments in her arc from visionary to villain. Each one serves a purpose, chipping away at the mythology Holmes created around herself and her company so that we might see her for what she really is: a loner, an oddball, an outsider. A bit of a loser, actually.
Who Is Elizabeth Holmes, Really?
Hosted and researched by ABC News chief business, technology, and economics correspondent Rebecca Jarvis, along with a team of seasoned news writers and producers, the podcast is the product of a multi-year investigation that forms an unflinching look at “an unbelievable tale of ambition and fame gone terribly wrong”. It’s a big-picture analysis of the forces that enabled Holmes’ decade-long fraud and the eventual downfall of her medical technology company, Theranos.
The TV series, on the other hand, brings things down a notch. It tries to get inside her head and understand her motivations for defrauding investors with technology that — spoiler alert — never actually worked. It’s no mean feat, given Holmes, who’d spent a good chunk of her career courting glossy magazine profiles, became uncharacteristically shy when the Feds started sniffing around.
“I felt a responsibility to think about her as a human being,” showrunner Elizabeth Meriwether (New Girl) told Fast Company. “I think it’s actually more challenging to engage with her as a human being and to think about how I connected with her and didn’t connect with her. I felt that was an important part of the story, because I noticed that people were tending to think of her as distant from them, as a satire, as just the voice and the turtleneck and not engaging with the ways that she’s one of us.”
What’s revealed is a person so hell-bent on achieving one very specific kind of success — the kind enjoyed by the Jobses and the Bezoses and the Dorseys — that she’d rather get there by brute force than find the people and the passion that could help her achieve it legitimately.
Case in point: in the series’ fifth episode, Holmes is attending the wake of her uncle Ron Dietz — the same uncle who purportedly inspired her foray into medical innovation, despite dying around a decade after Theranos was founded. At the gathering, her brother, Christian (Sam Straley), muses about a family trip to the Dietz’s home and a game of Monopoly gone wrong years earlier.
“You freaked out, ‘cause you lost and, like, ran through the screen door,” he says. “You wanted to win so bad. I got kind of scared.”
In a rare moment of introspection, Holmes toys with the idea of giving it all up, trying for a fleeting moment to convince herself that her company — her deception — is not who she is. But when she’s back in Theranos’ glossy Silicon Valley office, Holmes is informed her long-time collaborator, Dr Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry), has died by suicide. She’s shocked by the news, sure, but her eventual response is chilling: “We won. Ian can’t testify now, and Richard has to settle. We won.”
Great Power, Great Responsibility
Elizabeth Holmes is smart, there’s no doubt about that. She clearly has drive and a peculiar brand of charisma that’s highly effective when it’s deployed against men in their mid-forties and older. She’s also a contradiction: not a full-blown, unfeeling psychopath, not a completely innocent party.
What The Dropout seems to understand is that while these qualities made her successful — even if that success was ill-gotten — they also meant she spent many of her formative years as an outsider, struggling to find common ground with her school and college peers.
In one such scene, she practices small talk as the party she’s presumably practising for rages outside the door of her college dorm room. Later, when she’s practising her notorious baritone voice, it’s clear she still doesn’t quite understand who she is in the mess she’s created for herself. Seyfried’s uncanny physicality means that, in those moments, Holmes is somehow wildly relatable and yet utterly perplexing.
But The Dropout doesn’t sympathise or fawn the way some scammer stories do. It isn’t impressed by what Elizabeth Holmes almost got away with. Rather, it recognises that forcing your way in isn’t the same as fitting in, and it considers what someone with that win-at-all-costs mindset might have achieved if she’d found a cause and a community that could help her do it properly.
The Dropout is now streaming on Disney+.
Kristen Amiet is a writer and editor who lives and works on Gadigal land. She writes about everything from pop culture to food and personal finance.