In last week’s review, I posited John Carreyrou’s Wall Street Journal exposé as the beginning of the end for Theranos. That’s technically true, but this episode reminds us that journalism is often ephemeral; a story is only as powerful as its tail is long. This was especially true in the Trump era, when the media sought to make a scandal of every presidential tweet. “She’s stalling until people forget,” John (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) says of Elizabeth (Amanda Seyfried). And we would’ve forgotten. It’s easy to forget all that isn’t currently being beamed into our eyes. That notion, it turns out, is an important one in The Dropout’s take on Elizabeth Holmes.
“Lizzy” begins with Elizabeth spinning the article, lambasting John as a misogynist who “clearly has an issue with women in power.” Hilariously, she compares herself to the likes of Amelia Earhart and Rosa Parks, regaling board members with tales of the mean messages she’s been getting on social media. She puffs up her male investors. They’re the good ones, they’re allies—“of me,” she says, “of women as a whole.” She emerges from the exposé mostly unscathed, her board and the Walgreens deal intact.
As John attempts to prolong the story by getting Tyler (Dylan Minnette) on record, Erika (Camryn Mi-young Kim) opts for the less sexy solution by contacting the CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services). “It’s boring,” she says of the regulatory agency. “Elizabeth can’t spin boring.”
She’s right. When CMS finds a “gross failure of management” at a Theranos lab and shuts it down for two years, Elizabeth realizes she can’t simply cut through red tape. She can’t call bureaucracy a liar or a misogynist and move on. Closing the lab impacts the money. When the money is impacted, the shareholders are impacted. When the shareholders are impacted, she can no longer pretend that nothing is wrong. What she can do, however, is pretend that she never knew something was wrong.
The lengths to which she’ll take this performance manifest in the episode’s best scene, a vicious, cleverly written tête-à-tête with Sunny (Naveen Andrews). It opens with Sunny as we’ve come to know him, as an abuser and a manipulator. He’s been “looking over old texts” from when they first met. It’s “romantic,” he says, but Elizabeth cuts through the bullshit: “Are you threatening me?” Because he is. He’s implying that he’s kept all their correspondence, and that if he goes down she’ll go down with him. But the cold, calculated CEO he helped to create has evolved into a creature he can no longer control. She begins to smother him, to ladle on faux concern: “Are you saying we did something wrong?” she asks theatrically. “Or did you do something I don’t know about?” She can help him. She can get him good lawyers. “Sunny, what did you do?”
He’ll need her help. Nobody likes him, after all. And she’s got the entire board, some of the most powerful men in the world, eating from her hand. When it dawns on him that she’s setting him up to be the fall guy, she reverts into the bright-eyed teenager she was when they first met. “You taught me everything I know.” It will be so emotional when he transitions out of the company. “You’re good,” he says, a relinquishing of the power he thought he still had over her. He will stay with her until the company breaks even. He will leave, but first he will help her rebuild. She bends at his knee, offering him one last moment of power. But he’ll be gone by the following morning, sent to slaughter by the board to be Theranos’ sacrificial lamb.
As a role reversal, it’s incredibly effective. As Sunny seethes and gesticulates, grasping desperately after the power he knows he’s lost, Elizabeth stays calm and measured, as if she were speaking to an unruly employee. Andrews plays Sunny here not just as helpless, but as surprised—he never thought her capable of this kind of cold-bloodedness. “There’s nothing inside you,” he says to her as she moves out of his house. “I invented you inside my head, I made you up, you’re not real. You don’t have feelings. You aren’t a person. You’re a ghost. You’re nothing.”
I like this tirade because of how confused it is. It mirrors the frustration of those who write or read extensively about Elizabeth Holmes. It represents the need to try and make sense of this inscrutable woman, who is either the simplest person to ever exist or the most complex. The Dropout’s been most compelling when viewing Elizabeth from the outside, but it’s also grown more confident as the character has morphed into the CEO that’s been reported on extensively. That makes sense; there’s more to work with.
But The Dropout floundered when navigating the murky details of her early life, falling back on TV tropes to try and find that spark of humanity. One detail the writers latched onto was the sexual assault Holmes claims to have experienced at Stanford, a trauma the show returns to in “Lizzy.” After her mother, Noel (Elizabeth Marvel), criticizes Elizabeth’s deception, Elizabeth turns it back on her, referencing a conversation the two had following the assault. “You told me to just put it away and forget it,” Elizabeth says. “If you choose to forget certain things, do you think that’s lying?”
It’s a thesis statement of sorts for “Lizzy,” which is interested in the idea of a passive deception, of others but also of yourself. Take George Shultz (Sam Waterston), who offers John a statement “publicly recognizing Tyler’s integrity.” He doesn’t go so far as to apologize, but he muses on “how far decent people will go when they’re sure they’re right.” (Not sure how “decent” a lot of the ghouls on Theranos’ board were, but, hey, by George Shultz’s standards...) Still, it’s an attempt by the show to acknowledge how much ego and flattery factor into what succeeds and what doesn’t in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. “I just chose not to see it,” Shultz says of Theranos’ deception, “like an old fool.” George, like so many other investors, bought into the idea, the presentation, and the aura of the inventor, who told him over and over and over again that he was changing the world. It’s human to focus on what makes us feel good, but there’s no place for that in science. You’d think so, at least.
It’s both different and the same for Elizabeth. Even with Theranos gutted and on the verge of bankruptcy, Elizabeth remains happy, blaming the company’s failure on the healthcare industry just not being ready for “real innovation.” The only failure she acknowledges if her own failure to deliver. “But failure is not a crime,” she says. Linda (Michaela Watkins), herself a bloodless soldier, tries to confront Elizabeth with the real, identifiable damage Theranos has done to the patients who received bad test results, the investors who lost money, and the employees who now have a stain on their resume. “Do you have any idea what you did?” she asks. “You hurt people.” Linda’s words harken back to Ian’s and Erika’s and Kevin’s warnings about the real people on the other end of Theranos’ broken tech. It’s been an ongoing theme of The Dropout, that Elizabeth and her enablers at Theranos seemed sociopathically unaware of them. Profits over people, the American way. But Elizabeth just wants to focus on what makes her feel good.
She wants to talk about her new boyfriend, her new dog. In her deposition, she repeatedly says she can’t remember or recall the various emails and texts laid out before her. But she also lies outright, casually stating that Sunny’s departure from Theranos was mutual. And I wonder: Is it a lie for her? Or is it a fiction, one she’s willed into existence, that makes her feel good? I was intrigued by the confusion on Elizabeth’s face when her team tells her to show a sense of shame during her TV interview, as if that’s no longer an emotion she’s capable of, and the robotic way she kept saying she was “devastated,” the word suggested to her.
The implication, I’d say, is that the mask she slipped on a few episodes back is now just her actual face—like that Goosebumps story—but then we get that scream at the end, the mask slipping. I’m not sure I buy that. It feels to me like something we’d all like to believe, that the selfish CEOs and politicians of this broken country are ambiently aware of the accumulated rot and the impact of their lies. And maybe they are, but it feels as inauthentic and simplistic to me as the idea that Elizabeth’s repression of her assault is somehow related to her behavior at Theranos.
I’m not a huge fan of this current ripped-from-the-headlines trend of TV shows; they’re just shinier, more star-studded versions of the Movie of the Week flicks that used to populate basic cable. Those movies, often based on the year’s sensational headlines, tended to get major facts wrong about the crimes and the people involved. I’d wager there’s been more reporting done on a lot of these current stories, but I won’t be surprised if history is not be kind to them. I can’t assert that will be true of The Dropout, of course, but I also can’t shake the feeling that we’re still too close to the Theranos story to bring it onscreen in this way, as a summation of its crimes, its heroes and villains. And, as I’ve said many times so far in this space, the decision to try and dramatize the personal feelings and relationships and intentions of Elizabeth Holmes is weird. She is too distant a figure—too young and unreliable and aware of her own myth as it’s being spun. It’s not that I don’t think there’s a series to be made about Elizabeth Holmes, it’s just that I don’t trust one that puts her at the center of it.
I’ll reiterate: I’ve enjoyed this show. It’s well-paced, often funny, occasionally thrilling, and filled with compelling, nuanced performances. At the same time, I’m not sure I got much out of it that I didn’t also get from Carreyrou’s Bad Blood or Alex Gibney’s The Inventor. So, insofar as we need any piece of pop culture, did we need it?
- Here’s the actual Today interview with Holmes It’s treated like a failure on the show, but the final cut of it isn’t nearly so awkward. It’s actually pretty accommodating.
- Jared Leto presented Elizabeth an award at the 2015 Glamour Women of the Year Awards, where he said she was “the only person I know who makes me feel like a lazy bastard.” Fun fact: Leto is currently playing WeWork’s Adam Neumann in Apple’s own ripped-from-the-headlines series, WeCrashed. The show is meh, but he’s great in it. I’m pretty sure he’s not acting.
- Linda’s face when Elizabeth tells her she considers her a friend—some Larry David/Marty Funkhauser vibes.
- Pretty funny to have her call an Uber at the end. What went on there is another Silicon Valley horror story.
- Balwani was indicted on two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and nine counts of wire fraud. His trial is currently ongoing.
- Holmes was found guilty of three counts of fraud and one count of conspiring to defraud public investors. She’ll be sentenced in September, and could face up to 20 years in prison.
- Thanks for reading, everyone.