I’ll be blunt. The Dropout, the latest limited series romanticizing Millennial con artists and fraudsters, wants to have it both ways. It wants to portray Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried), the CEO of the now defunct Theranos, as a woman playing tough in the Boys Club World of Business, but also as a victim.
She’s a victim of circumstance because her father was an executive at Enron and the family lost everything and had to turn to someone for help. She’s a victim of a sexual assault in college at Stanford that affected her. She’s a victim of an abusive relationship with her older boyfriend, Sunny Balwini (Naveen Andrews) who the series seems to portray a xenophobic view of brown-skinned men as predators. She’s a victim for being too young and innovative. Her college professors like Phyllis Gardner (Laurie Metcalf) didn’t want to listen to her because she was too young. Wealthy investors and board members like Don Lucas (Michael Ironside) considered her timid and weak because she wore clothing that revealed her slim body.
But Holmes, who was recently convicted of fraud of her investors but not of the common people whose lives her common put at risk, is no victim. She’s a psychopath. Watching the 2018 HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood, I got the sense she was a narcissist psychopath. At her office, they made it a priority that the doors would automatically open for her and the footage of her walking through with a casual stroll in her black turtlenecks is obviously someone who believes in three ways of doing things – the right way, the wrong way and the way they do them.
You get the sense in the third episode of the first three episodes that have streamed so far that Holmes is becoming apart as the psycho is unleashed. People who believed in her vision of a machine that could test one droplet of blood for any and everything are pitted against each other. She’s created a workspace in which someone is afraid to cough or sneeze without being berated.
And she’s slowly developing that voice. That voice has been at the center of a lot of parody. It sounds like a cross between Mira Sorvino as Romy in Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion and Joyce Hyser’s obviously fake voice as a teenage boy in Just One of the Guys. It’s like a tween whose voice hasn’t cracked yet trying to pretend to be their father calling the school to tell them their child is sick when they want to play hooky.
There hasn’t been much of that voice so far, but Seyfried does have the blank deer-in-headlights gave Holmes seemed to have in many photos. Seyfried is two years younger than Holmes and is playing her from her late teens on. I’m not really sure if she’s the right choice. Kate McKinnon was originally cast before dropping out to play Carole Baskins.
When watching The Inventor four years ago with my ex at the time, we were both in agreement Holmes used her innocent girl looks along with investors limited knowledge of technology to make money. She’d flash a smile at some middle-aged man and he’d whip out his checkbook. Most of the events so far take place after the Dot-Com Bubble burst but maybe Holmes were able to convince people that others had done it wrong, they were going to do right. It’s all trial and error. Facebook worked. MySpace worked for a while. Yet Friendster and CollegeClub both screwed up.
And that’s what Holmes was banking on. At Theranos, she assembled a Who’s Who board of director. But there’s little of that shown so far. Most of what we do see in the first three episode is the rise and the beginning of the problems. I can’t get over how ludicrously silly William H. Macy looks as Richard Fuisz (a doctor, inventor and businessman) with a receding hair forehead that looks like you can project an IMAX movie on it. Fuisz does have a receding hair line but he looks so old and grouchy that he’s got his 911 on speed dial anytime someone comes close to his property.
The very underrated Elizabeth Marvel plays Holmes’ mother, Noel, whose so busy trying to uphold her All-American WASP Housewife role that even after hearing her husband has lost his job and their money following the end of Enron she asks the family who wants an afternoon snack.
You can also see how Holmes and Balwani had a spark that led to their relationship. Andrews plays Balwani sympathetic and as a good person to know at first before things begin to crack. I don’t know if he was abusive or not. But the series seems to be going down that road as Holmes and her defense used that during the court proceedings. Andrews brings the same charm he brought to his role on Lost.
But so far, the series seems to want to make the argument for those who don’t know the whole story that Holmes was just ignorant of what her company was capable of. It should be noted that even though Holmes was recently convicted earlier this year, Balwini still faces pending criminal charges. Reportedly Holmes won’t be sentenced for another six months. I can understand Hulu’s desire to get this out lickity-split before waiting till 2023. They took a big risk producing it while the trial hadn’t even started. And her conviction is publicity they couldn’t buy.
It’s going to be very interesting to see how the rest of the series handles the Theranos saga or even if they mention the trial except in passing closing titles. Is it an attempt to sway her sentencing? I know in many criminal cases, they usually wait until the others are adjudicated to pass sentence on those already convicted.
That being said as a former courts and crime reporter, I’ve seen people like Holmes before. Whatever happened to them before they committed their actions can be taken into account. But this wasn’t someone who took money because it was there in a time of weakness. This was someone who perpetuated a lie that risked people’s lives. I’ve covered Ponzi schemes that drew communities apart and even resulted in heart attacks and strokes for those affected.
For anyone who knows what happened to those people who tested their blood or even certain people who worked at Theranos in the lab or on those on the board will find little sympathy for Holmes and her tunnel vision. Actually, tunnel vision isn’t the right phrase. She had delusions of grandeur. And they hurt other people.
What do you think? Please comment.