An Astonishing Performance by Amanda Seyfried makes “The Dropout” Essential Television as Hulu Delivers Yet Another Sublime Limited Series.
I got hooked again. Hooked on another limited series. Following in the footsteps of the first season of Elizabeth Moss in “The Handmaid’s Tale” (Hulu), Cate Blanchett in “Mrs. America” (Hulu), Mike White’s “The White Lotus” (HBO) with a look back at his and Laura Dern’s “Enlightened” (also on HBO) and Elle Fanning in ‘The Great” (also on Hulu), I have just binged on Amanda Seyfried’ in “The Dropout”. You know, the story of the now defunct biotechnology company “Theranos” and its disgraced founder Elizabeth Holmes! She dropped out of Stanford at the beginning of her sophomore year to pursue her dream of obtaining multiple diagnoses from a single finger prick of blood.
Elizabeth Meriwether created the eight-part series, which she based on Rebecca Jarvis podcast of the same name, and she does a phenomenal job. Although Alex Gibney’s documentary “The Inventor” is not credited, just a glimpse of Holmes in that movie leaves an indelible impression.
After some establishing shots of her home life in the D.C area – her father was let go by Enron – “Dropout” traces Holmes’ rise from her leaving Stanford at nineteen, having convinced herself, and others, that her finger prick technology was going to revolutionize medicine in the United States. Yet, she had not done a single piece of the groundwork. She used her tuition money to start Theranos and people flocked to the new Silicon Valley startup. This included the patronage of the rich and the famous which explains, in part, why her reign lasted an incredible thirteen years from 2002 to 2015.
Why they did is a mystery. And one of the beauties of the series is that it maintains the mystery of Elizabeth Holmes and does not attempt to find any easy answers.
The Equipment at Theranos Never Worked.
Part of what makes her story so addictive is that the equipment at Theranos never worked. The device that analyzed a pin prick of blood may have generated a few “correct” numbers on a random basis and the initial ruse at Theranos was implemented to gain some time until they could replicate what they thought was genuine data. But these numbers were simply stochastic events and, when they had to give their first demo to investors, they faked it. After that moment, every lab result they released was either fabricated or obtained with larger volumes of blood using the same machines (hidden) that their major competitors Quest and LabCorp use daily.
Amanda is Terrific.
Amanda Seyfried is simply amazing. She nails Holmes’s uncomfortable stare and, gradually, that otherworldly voice. But she also gives us a real person, something that many of us may not have thought possible. Holmes’ complex relationship with her mom and dad and her long-term romance with Sunny Balwani, are beautifully handled. Balwani, expertly played by Naveen Andrews, was a Silicon Valley businessman who Holmes made COO of Theranos in return for his donation of twenty million dollars. Seyfried’s portrait of Holmes is that of an isolated individual who could be exceptionally cruel and who has no sense of loyalty. Yet she is also vulnerable and there are times when you feel sorry for her. To be honest, there were a few scenes in which, against all odds, I was rooting for her.
Superb Supporting Cast.
Then there is the fantastic supporting cast many of whom are playing famous men and women. In addition to Andrews special mention must go to:
James Hiroyuki Liao who plays Dr. Edmond Ku, one of the first employees who begins to feel that something is amiss at Theranos.
William H. Macy’s inspired turn as grumpy inventor Richard Fuisz who sued and was then countersued by Holmes over a patent.
Laurie Metcalf, giving another classic performance as no-nonsense Stanford professor Phyllis Gardner, who picked Holms for a fake the first time they met. She delivers a blistering critique, which revolves around Yoda our beloved Star Wars character (Elizabeth was a huge fan), that is one of the best moments in the series.
Stephen Fry as Ian Gibbons, Theranos’ head of chemistry, who committed suicide before being called to testify on a patent issue. It transpired that Holmes had put her name on every Theranos-generated patent, although she had not worked on a single piece of scientific data.
Kudos also to Sam Waterston as George Schultz who was on the board of Theranos and a big defender of Holmes, Kurtwood Smith, as uber-attorney David Boies, whose laid-back manner concealed a ruthless cross-examiner, Michaela Watkins as the head of Theranos’ legal team, Amir Arison as investor Avie Tevanian, Mary Lynn Raiskub as Lorraine Fuisz, Richard’s wife, and Kate Burton, superb as Rochelle Gibbons, Ian’s wife.
“The Dropout” is a magnificent package and essential viewing.