The Dropout Review – Another Stunning Portrait of a Great American Fraudster | Television
OWe barely had time to catch our breath after the anti-romance whirlwind that was Inventing Anna, the story of super-scammer Anna Sorokin, who turned an innate understanding of upper-class ways into a life of abundance among New York’s wealthy elite. (until they find out they’re the ones funding it). Now we have The Dropout (Disney+), the story of the other big fraudster of recent years, Elizabeth Holmes, founder of the medical company Theranos. He claimed to have developed technology that would revolutionize blood testing and, with it, an important part of the American healthcare system. In 2015, Forbes named Holmes the country’s youngest self-made female billionaire, after Theranos was valued at $9bn (£6.75bn). His downfall, once rumors of cheating began to circulate, was precipitous. She is now out on bail pending sentencing for wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
Unlike Inventing Anna, which was a heady, soapy rush that enjoyed its protagonist’s glamor and wasn’t too bothered by the need to investigate his motives, The Dropout plays him straight. Perhaps too direct – there are times when a bit of levity as the impossibilities pile up wouldn’t hurt – but all in the service of a story that blows your mind just as completely as Sorokin’s.
The storytelling is largely linear (a big relief after Inventing Anna’s back and forth and the general fashion of importing tension via flashbacks and flash-forwards rather than actual writing). And so – brief opening scene of his pre-trial deposition aside – we meet Holmes for the first time as an 11-year-old, running so slowly in a race that the rest of the runners have gathered at the finish line to wait, while the teacher begs her to give up. She doesn’t, of course.
There we have the essence of our anti-hero and this eight-hour miniseries. One is determined to succeed, the other determined to make his messages clear every step of the way. See also: mother painstakingly portrayed as egocentric and cold; father better, but categorically vice-president of the accounting firm Enron, which caused a scandal. It touches on all the traditional beats: mapping the origins of Holmes’ special interest (the mother’s fear of needles); a montage of rejections as she tries to secure her initial funding; the disaster in the lab as the last potential investor rounds the corner; her mesmerizing walk around the room as she arrives in her first luxury hotel suite as CEO (never mind that Holmes is from a wealthy, well-connected family and is, we can safely assume, well used to hot water and gathered curtains).
So The Dropout is a heavy beast, but saved by two things. The first is that it’s simply such a good story that you’d have to give it real hammer blows to kill its fascination. Because – I’m sorry, didn’t I say? A small detail often escaped the mind of the inventor as well – the technology did not work. Not correctly. It worked a few times in a modest way, just enough to give those involved hope but, crucially, not the day they showed it to investors. Holmes faked the results which he apparently vomited in front of them. From there, there is no going back.
Its second savior is the solid cast, led by Amanda Seyfried as Holmes. It’s an extremely deft performance (even before she had to pull off Holmes’ famous vocal evolution), which manages to balance all the disparate elements of a woman who seems, by all accounts, to have been a very strange mix. She was obviously smart but slow to realize the value of “soft” skills, direct but charming, hyper-focused but chaotic. Seyfried makes it all work and gets our attention – even our sympathy – as Holmes’ desperation to make a name for himself and prove that his intelligence and drive are worth something tangible slides ever closer to corruption and lies.
Along the way, the show tackles issues that may have motivated Holmes to act the way she did — constantly proving herself the equal of the men at Stanford University, having to go up against the tech bros of Silicon Valley, getting caught by an older male manipulator, Sunny Balwani (played Naveen Andrews). But that doesn’t suck at the fact that there was really only one person who built Theranos — literally from scratch, as it turned out — and knocked off the $9 billion mark.