Evaluating a woman's appearance parallel to her accomplishments is sexist and therefore discouraged in good faith conversations about her skill. But if there were ever an exception to this rule, Elizabeth Holmes is it, as "The Dropout" reminds us.
In the space of three episodes we watch Amanda Seyfried, best known for bright performances in films such as "Mamma Mia" and "Les Miserables," exact Holmes' transformation from a shaggy young woman sleeping in her office to a black-clad, buttoned-down tech CEO by passing her through a series of filters. First, she capitalizes on her youthful pluck to persuade rich old men to stake her venture. Then she lures a maverick brain away from Apple who advises the sloppy entrepreneur to step up her style game, explaining that fashion is her armor.
Wardrobe and hair are only one side of the makeover. The width of her gaze, her restricted facial expressions and, famously, the timbre of her voice, Holmes changed all of it to fit the picture of a 21st century disruptor. Seyfried follows this model, adding in her own sense of human frailty.
This makes one of the saddest moments in "The Dropout" its creepiest, as Seyfried's Elizabeth weeps following a violent encounter with her business partner and lover Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews, who is a full glass of iced chill in this part). Through her tears Seyfried's Holmes discovers her new way of speaking. She stares in a mirror and rehearses a prepared pitch in ever-deepening tones until she has calibrated the delivery she desires, repeating the same word with escalating force and decreasing humanity: "Forward. Forward. Forward."
None of it sound or feels organic or fully human, which is how Seyfried distills the disconcerting essence of Holmes. The actor's low voice doesn't match her face; her electrified eyes seem to operate on a separate current from her mouth. She embodies the self-described innovator who radiates enough of a granite-hard faith in her vision to distract from the fact that she hasn't made anything.
"The Dropout," adapted from a popular podcast by "New Girl" creator Elizabeth Meriwether, is part of an expanding buffet of scam artist tales that includes Netflix's "Inventing Anna" and Showtime's "Super Pumped," taking on the rise and fall of Uber founder Travis Kalanick, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt..
On March 18 Apple TV+ enters this game with "WeCrashed," starring Jared Leto and Anna Hathaway as WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann and his wife Rebekah.
It's natural to contrast this series with "Inventing Anna" given the story's rudimentary similarities. Each is about a young blonde woman who talked their way into influential circles and parted vastly powerful people from more cash most of us will see in our lifetimes.
Holmes' grift, though, places her in another league entirely. Unlike Anna Delvey, Elizabeth Holmes had a pedigree from which to launch. She dropped out of Stanford at 19 and she charged into the field of biotech, imitating the work philosophy and style of Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison.
Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes in "The Dropout" (Beth Dubber/Hulu)Through her company Theranos, which drew its name from combining the words "therapy" and "diagnosis," Holmes took a potentially game-changing proposal – the invention of a device that could provide low-cost, early detection of diseases and infections with a drop of blood – and released it to the public before it worked. At the height of its fortune, Theranos was valued at $9 billion, making her the world's youngest self-made billionaire.
She's also the daughter of a failed Enron executive, and a young woman whose focused determination made her a pariah among her peers. All told, Holmes provides a riveting, multilayered psychological profile to explore.
This is why the Hulu series is one of several looks at her, preceded by Alex Gibney's damning "The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley" and to eventually be joined by Adam McKay's treatment for Apple TV+, "Bad Blood," with Jennifer Lawrence translating Holmes for audiences. It isn't merely the magnitude of her crime that's fascinates. It's also the enigmatic personality of criminal.
"The Dropout" will be tough to top, or even match, because of the way Seyfried, along with Meriwether and her writers, marry the visible facets of Holmes' put-on with her skewed ethical paradigm. She's a study in toxic ambition, a woman willing to punish herself and crush others in her grueling quest to succeed. Early scenes from her school days depict a noble version of will, but fame and pressure mutate it into something more sinister.
Precisely capturing a subject's physical quirks is the heart of impersonation, but Seyfried takes her depiction several steps beyond this by realistically depicting the calculations that resulted in Elizabeth Holmes that was convicted on four counts of fraud in January. The actor steadily evolves her portrayal from that of an enthusiastic teenager to the 30-something executive who refuses to accept that she's conning everyone, despite the lies and deceptions she deploys to prevent the world from finding her out.
She and Meriwether also plausibly find humor, even joy, in this story without asking us to excuse Holmes or feel sorry for her. Rather, through resourceful musical cues and scenes of Seyfried's manic awkward dancing, it constructs a picture of someone who searches manufactured sources and images for meaning and direction. A scene where she's jerking rhythmically before a poster of Steve Jobs as if in worship could be an entire chapter of a book.
Another, when she gets brushed off by a respected professor (Laurie Metcalf) at Stanford who tells her that her billion-dollar idea could never work, stands out as a sinister turning point. The professor was right, but Holmes is 19 when this happens – an age where Yoda's wisdom and Mark Zuckerberg's example makes more sense than the hard truth offered by science.
Throughout the show the producers make effective use of pop songs in the narrative, with some selections intentionally hitting the nail on the head with foreshadowing, like Holmes' adoration of Alabama's "I'm in a Hurry (And Don't Know Why)" and others like Missy Elliott's "We Run This" lighting the chasm between who Holmes is and how the world sees her.
Every story like this that's worth its salt tells us something about the conditions that create someone like Holmes, which "The Dropout" does by populating Holmes' story with the extensive stable of players who embody those who helped construct and maintain the lie, whether intentionally or inadvertently.
And it's not shy about naming names, from former heads of state, including George Shultz (Sam Waterston), who were too proud to admit they'd invested in and vouched for a fraud to the likes of Richard Fuisz (William H. Macy), her next door neighbor who made a fortune off of patenting medical inventions who claimed that she stole his idea.
Stephen Fry is heartbreaking as the chief scientist who sets the moral bar for his team and strived to make Theranos' machine, The Edison, a reality. Eventually he and everyone around him are cast aside in favor of go-along-to-get-along newcomers, although one of them ends up being the person to blow the whistle.
The show's larger ensemble is stacked with stalwart performances from the likes of Utkarsh Ambudkar, Alan Ruck, Dylan Minnette and Michaela Watkins.
Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
But it is Seyfried who lays out the very human reasons Holmes is who she is and does what she does without drilling it down to one particularly thing. Maybe she was a unique thinker who unwisely leaped over the years of failed experimentation inventors pour into every success. Perhaps she was simply a brilliant study, the way all con artists are, knowing what to say to the right people and knowing enough to make them to do the work required to leap to the next layer of influence.
It could be that she's an ambitious person who knew her failure as a woman would be penalized more harshly than a man with an equivalent urge to make a mark on history. It could be that she didn't care a bit about how her actions would make it even harder for female entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers to get a foot in the door.
The genius of "The Dropout" is its comfortable way of holding all of those views at the same time, and in ways that make a person appreciate the scope of crime – and, better still, the extraordinary pleasure of watching Seyfried and the rest of the actors recreate this case with genuine confidence.
The first three episodes of "The Dropout" are streaming on Hulu. New episodes premiere weekly on Thursdays.
More stories like this:
- Jury: Elizabeth Holmes is guilty
- Atrocious journalism in "Inventing Anna"
- From unicorn darling to cautionary tale
- The SEC vs. Silicon Valley