“Flower Of Life” is a narrative Frankenstein, an episode stitched together from plot corks, coincidence, and ADR. Nearly every scene bloats with information, with reminders and recitations of what’s happening, what’s at stake, what’s coming up next. Near the end of the hour, after Elizabeth serenades her rapturous staff with a renewed statement of purpose, the new lab director sidles up to a total stranger to tell him that a) he is the new lab director, and b) a Halloween party is coming up and there will be a bounce house. It is so weird and inorganic, especially since there’s no apparent reason to a) introduce that character in this episode, or b) foreshadow the party and its bounce house, which we see literal minutes later. It’s indicative of the episode’s inelegance; every nook and cranny is crammed with (often unnecessary) crumbs of context and story. It’s exhausting.
There’s still plenty to like in “Flower Of Life,” and we’ll get there, but it seems more concerned with hitting its beats than reckoning with any of its ideas. The main problem, of course, is Elizabeth (Amanda Seyfried). I won’t continue to harp on my issues with turning the inscrutable, sociopathically deceptive Elizabeth Holmes into a sympathetic protagonist with an easily identifiable slide into corruption, but her emotional journey this week feels half-formed at best and desultory at worst, a prolonging of the identity change we saw take hold in the third episode.
It begins with Elizabeth meeting with TBWA\Chiat\Day, a hotshot ad agency that proposes Theranos make her the face of the company. “This is how we sell this company—your face,” they say. “They’ll trust this company because they trust you.” Elizabeth bristles at this, saying they should focus on the technology. Later, after an anxious Sunny expresses doubts about the future of both their relationship and Theranos—thus conflating the two—she begins to get insecure about her personality. Who is Elizabeth without Theranos? What is it she really wants? Speaking about her feud with Richard Fuisz (William H. Macy), she says she won’t drop her lawsuit against him because she doesn’t want him to win. She wants to win. Her brother, Christian (Sam Straley), echoes that moment with an out-of-absolutely-nowhere anecdote about a tumultuous game of Monopoly. “You wanted to win so bad I got kinda scared,” he says. In the kind of heart-to-heart that only happens on television, she asks her mom (Elizabeth Marvel) if she ever had any hobbies. “Did I ever do anything for fun?” she asks. “It’s just a company, it’s not who I am.” Her mom tells her that, yes, of course Theranos is wrapped up in her identity. “You are going to help so many people,” she says. And Elizabeth accepts this. “That’s what I am.”
It’s pat and tidy, like so many revelations on this show. It’s meant to represent Elizabeth shedding her last skin of humanity, a full embrace of CEO Elizabeth. The problem is the struggle between those poles has been mostly absent; we’ve already spent four episodes (and most of this one) watching her lie and scheme and disregard employees with little to no sense of regret. This new iteration of Elizabeth manifests during the aforementioned statement of purpose, when she exploits her uncle, using his recent death from brain cancer to posit Theranos as the path to a “world where no one has to say, ‘If only I’d known sooner.’” “I never got to say goodbye,” she says, another lie in a sea of them. (Earlier, we see her disregard a call from Christian informing her that, hey, her uncle is dying.) It’s cold, yeah (and, per John Carreyrou’s reporting, true), but this doesn’t strike me as something she wouldn’t also have done in episode one.
More impactful is her reaction to the death of Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry), who spends the hour spiraling into an booze-drenched despair after being wrapped up in Elizabeth and Fuisz’s lawsuit. As we learned in a toss-off line a while back, Elizabeth put her name on Theranos patents despite contributing nothing scientifically to the technology. If Ian were to testify as such, all of Theranos’ patents would be voided out. But Ian, who’s been blackballed from the lab he used to run, knows he’ll be punished even more should be violate the NDA he signed. (He needs the job, we learn in a lighting-quick ADR’d-in line, for the health insurance.) The stress drives him to swallow a bottle of Tylenol with a gulp of the hard stuff.
Fry, who’s been nothing if not chatty as the amiable Ian, finds some power in the searching, despondent silence he embodies in his final scenes. Elizabeth’s reaction, too, carries weight, because we watch her make a choice. She could mourn Ian, one of her first hires, or she could allow herself to feel the relief of what his death means for Fuisz’s lawsuit. She chooses the latter. Business over personal. It’s effective because Seyfried spends a few moments in that liminal space between the two. “Did you know Ian survived cancer?” she asks Sunny. Then, looking at the dragon finger puppet she wears, she mutters, “He has no wings so he has to walk.” The cryptic nature of the latter utterance is lovely because, unlike nearly everything else in this episode, it exudes a mystery and unknowability. It means something only to her. I wish we got more of that.
I also wish we got to see more of Ian’s struggles with Theranos’ evolution from startup to corporate juggernaut. His few scenes with legal crony Linda Tanner (Michaela Watkins) are effective because his heart-on-sleeve frustration clashes so clinical lawyer-speak. “I don’t know who you are!” he yells as she advises him not to testify. That sense of disorientation, of being completely unmoored from what he helped build, is heartbreaking.
But what really keeps The Dropout interesting are the performances. I’ve spent so much time complaining about the show’s portrayal of Elizabeth that I haven’t spent much time saying how much fun it is to see Seyfried manifest Elizabeth’s alien quirk. She embodies a very specific kind of not-cute weird that we don’t see onscreen too often. Shout out, too, to Macy, who’s somehow finding strains of pathos in an oily, rich patent parasite who hates everyone richer than him. The real revelation of this episode, though, is Kurtwood Smith’s turn as celeb lawyer David Boies. Here, the hard-edged Smith goes delicate, capturing the soft, condescending smiles and gentle nods of the hyper-confident Boies. Next episode, perhaps, we’ll get to see the bulldog bear his teeth.
Next week? Theranos’ Walgreens experiment begins. Since the Edisons still don’t work, they’ll use their competitor’s machines until they do. Surely this will end well.
- This episode also introduces us to Tyler Schultz, a key figure in the Theranos saga. He’s played by Dylan Minnette, who I’ll always remember as Jack’s son on Lost.
- Smith and Macy’s scenes together were absolute fire. It’s also interesting how Boies’ own finances are tied up with those of his clients. He takes Theranos shares in lieu of payment from Elizabeth, and Fuisz brings up how Boies’ autobiography was published by Miramax Books, owned by his client Harvey Weinstein. “That’s a little messy,” says Fuisz. There’s a whole series in that, too, I bet.
- The quickest way to get people to respect you, Christian, is to tell them you graduated from Duke.
- Not many laughs in this episode—come back, Michael Showalter!—but the awkward laughter after Sunny tells people to “get the fuck out” if they don’t agree with Elizabeth’s vision was very funny.
- Sunny is Dracula at the Halloween party. Very subtle. Pfffft.