2022 is certainly turning out to be the year of the girlboss scammer, with Hulu’s The Dropout serving as the latest installment in this true crime sub-genre. The limited series is based on the ABC News podcast of the same name that investigated the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, following her from her acceptance to Stanford University to her corporate downfall.
Holmes dropped out of Stanford in 2004 to pursue being CEO at her biomedical company, Theranos. She claimed that her work would lead to a revolution in blood testing, aiming to create technology that would be able to test for hundreds of diseases with just one drop of blood. Holmes was named the first female self-made billionaire in 2015, a title that hinged on the $9 billion valuation of Theranos at the time. Later that year, The Wall Street Journal published an article that marked the beginning of the end for the company and any prestige Holmes had managed to gain—her test never worked. She was investigated by the SEC in 2018, and was convinced of defrauding Theranos’s investors in January of 2022.
In the seven episodes provided for review (of eight total), Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) is very quickly defined as someone who wants to be one of the greats. Her ambition is intertwined with her awkwardness, something that she is so self aware of that she is constantly trying to create an outward personality to get her what she wants. In Hulu’s series, her attempts at self-reinvention go from endearing to unsettling, which is not only a testament to Seyfried’s talent but to the directing and editing teams behind the camera. The gradual deepening of Elizabeth’s voice and her over-practiced corporate reassurances paint an fascinating portrait of a woman perpetually on the edge.
Though Seyfried is the true star of the show, the performances given by the rest of the cast are all compelling, especially Naveen Andrews as Sunny Balwani (Holmes’ boyfriend and business partner) and Stephen Fry as Ian Gibbons (Theranos’s Chief Scientist). Andrew’s portrayal of Balwani’s volatile personality is great on its own, and is only built upon by the calm facade he presents to the people around him; the immediate switch up between the two that slowly becomes a regular occurrence as the series progresses. In the case of Ian Gibbons, Fry does a wonderful job portraying a man with pleasant personality and desire to do some genuine good who is forced into a corner by his circumstances, and who subsequently proceeds to experience a truly depressing downward spiral. Of all of the players in Elizabeth Holmes’ game, Ian Gibbons is the one that you’re sure to feel the worst for, because Stephen Fry does such a good job of selling his misery.
While it was not the express purpose of the series, The Dropout also solidly establishes itself as a period piece of the 2000s and 2010s, especially when it comes to the rapidly evolving technology of the time. The rise of the iPhone, the death of Steve Jobs, and the general Silicon Valley boom all occur in the space of The Dropout, and that much progress happening in the background of Theranos’s failure to create something after almost a decade of work hammers home what was at stake for the company. Elizabeth, as shown here, always wants to be at the cutting edge of technology in her own right, but it’s clear that in her subconscious she believes that simply having the latest iPhone or owning a Prius in 2007 will somehow influence the universe’s direction of success for her.
It’s safe to say that The Dropout can easily snatch the crown of “Best Girlboss Show” from Netflix’s recent conwoman series Inventing Anna. To put it shortly, The Dropout is just more balanced in almost every way. Neither Elizabeth Holmes or Anna Delvey are good people, but where Inventing Anna tries and fails to make you feel bad for its titular character, The Dropout doesn’t try to drag you kicking and screaming into sympathizing with any of the people in the show; it lets you make that decision on your own.
You might feel bad for Elizabeth at first, but as time goes on, it’s clear how she trapped herself in lies and engineered her own downfall. Yet, her terrible business practices don’t take away from acknowledging the unacceptable way Sunny treats her; there is still room for sympathy towards her personal life that doesn’t have to cross over to Theranos’s bad corporate deeds. And while The Dropout tells us that Elizabeth Holmes is a villain in her own story, it also makes it clear that she is not the only one.
In another comparison to Inventing Anna, the journalistic portion of the story doesn’t feel shoehorned into the plot at all. The Wall Street Journal’s investigation of Theranos comes around at a very natural point in the story, and because it takes place during the rise of Theranos instead of retrospectively, it feels like something that truly belongs there. Characters that start off as minor players are allowed to grow with the addition of The Wall Street Journal’s involvement, and any show that is able to develop even the smallest stories in an interesting way in such a short time deserves to be applauded for it.
In the end, The Dropout does an excellent job of depicting a train that deserved to get derailed. Elizabeth Holmes is painted as a textbook example of why simply having an idea is not a good justification for dropping out of a prestigious institution of higher education, and Hulu’s portrayal of her girlbossing too close to the sun is captivating through and through. In the age of the scammer show, The Dropout is certainly worth being played.
The Dropout premieres Thursday, March 3rd on Hulu.
Kathryn Porter is the TV Intern for Paste Magazine. You can find her @kaechops on Twitter
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