What makes a psychological thriller so appealing? Well, everyone loves a slow-burn, tension-building series with elements sprinkled here and there that make you think, “Wow, that is nuts.” That’s exactly what Hulu’s “The Dropout” delivers. Except, of course, there’s one key aspect: It’s a real story.
The rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of Theranos, has been well documented in the last few years. There’s been a book, documentary and podcast detailing the journey of the disgraced entrepreneur, not to mention the buzz created during Holmes’s trial in January earlier this year, where she was found guilty of seven of her 11 charges of fraud. “The Dropout,” adapted from the podcast of the same name, puts Holmes and her story back into the spotlight, this time highlighting facets of her early life that previously had little color.
From the get-go, it’s clear that a young Holmes had big dreams that she wasn’t willing to compromise on. The first two episodes of “The Dropout” cast Holmes as a girl who seemed way beyond her years, rejecting the typical “college experience,” getting into graduate research groups as a freshman and, most importantly, starting a relationship with a much older man. The relationship between Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried, “A Mouthful of Air”) and her Chief Operating Officer Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews, “Lost”) — who, mind you, is nearly 20 years her senior — had been mysteriously vague in previous documentation and was only touched on when Holmes alleged during her trial that the relationship had turned abusive.
The show’s genius can be attributed to two major elements. First, the psychological, thriller-esque framing. The first three episodes of “The Dropout” that have been released mainly serve as a build-up to the image of Elizabeth Holmes that most viewers are familiar with: The one with the Steve Jobs look and fake deep voice. Yet even in that exposition, we can clearly see snippets that foreshadow the end. In the first episode, there’s a dramatic shot of Holmes looking at her finger, then to her iPod — and so it begins.
In the second episode, billionaire Larry Ellison (Hart Bochner, “Too Old to Die Young”) tells Elizabeth about how he secured his tech company’s first contract: ignoring the software that didn’t work and focusing on “getting the fucking money.” Finally, the third episode sets up the point of no return. Holmes showcases a demo by faking positive test results for a group of investors and then proceeds to test the (faulty) prototype on actual cancer patients. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Though Holmes’s schemes are found out by her board by the end of the three episodes, she pulls in her lover Sunny to come to her rescue with money and a new board position, saving Holmes’s position as CEO and setting up the part of her story that most of us are familiar with by now.
The second show-stopping element is the casting. Amanda Seyfried showcases her acting range brilliantly in her portrayal of Elizabeth Holmes. Seyfried captures the elements of Holmes that established her as an ambitious young woman: maturity beyond her years, extreme focus and a bluntness that lends itself to a sort of callous charm. Those same elements are what set up Holmes for inevitable disaster as her desire to prove herself spirals into a world of fraud. Naveen Andrews delivers as Sunny Balwani — the rich older mentor to Holmes — as he navigates the tumultuous, odd dynamic of their relationship.
It’s impossible to discuss another show about a rich female fraudster without mentioning Netflix’s “Inventing Anna,” a whirlwind, glitzy drama about a fake European heiress who swindled New York’s elite yet captured the viewers’ awe. Unlike “Inventing Anna,” however, “The Dropout” plays things extremely straightforward. Did Holmes get where she did by taking advantage of a broken system? Maybe. Should we be applauding her for that? This show doesn’t think so. Those watching already know that Holmes’s technology never worked and that she tricked investors into believing that her faulty invention could save lives. The show’s title reflects as much. Holmes was never truly an entrepreneurial mastermind or the world’s youngest self-made billionaire. In the end, she was just “the dropout.”
Daily Arts Writer Swara Ramaswamy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.