December 12, 2022

Disaster Unfolds and Seyfried Shines in “The Dropout” (Review)

Note: This review was originally published on SiftPop in April 2022.

The story of Elizabeth Holmes and her fraudulent company Theranos has been discussed in the news for years, and with Holmes’ trial having just completed and her sentencing still to come, this is the perfect time for a biopic series to be made.

Image courtesy of Hulu

This is Hulu’s The Dropout, which is based on a podcast of the same name. The Hulu series stars Amanda Seyfried, who is giving the best performance of her career so far as Holmes, a Stanford dropout who founded Theranos, a company which strives to make revolutionary health technology that will supposedly be able to test for a multitude of diseases and conditions simply from a drop of blood. Those who have followed this story know that that technology didn’t exist at the time, and still doesn’t, which makes Theranos’ recruitment of powerful men (mostly former politicians) to its board even more impressive.

Over the course of The Dropout, Elizabeth Holmes goes from an aimless student (a descriptor I’m sure many of us will find relatable) to one of the youngest self-made billionaires in history, an extremely stark transformation over the course of a decade. The series charts the course with care — of course, it doesn’t have time to depict everything, so each of the eight episodes is set in one of the years, over the course of Elizabeth’s journey from 2002 to 2018. It acts as a time capsule, signifying each small “era” of the 21st century with the pop music you would have heard on the radio at the time, and in this way it ends up being somewhat nostalgic.

At the start of her journey, Elizabeth is smart, but inexperienced business-wise. She’s still overcoming social awkwardness, and jumping straight from freshman year in college to owning your own company that you claim will “change the world” is quite a big leap. In her quest to be taken seriously, she pushes herself to the brink and tries to make herself seem more masculine, including the infamous tactic of lowering her voice when in a business setting. With the help of her much older and more experienced boyfriend Sunny Balwani (Lost’s Naveen Andrews), Elizabeth becomes ruthless, and willing to do whatever it takes to preserve her company and her good name.

Image courtesy of Hulu

When you hear the story on its own, it can be hard to remember Elizabeth is just a person. The Dropout is a very human story, and while the series is strategic enough to avoid evoking too much sympathy for deeds which are objectively wrong and harmful, you can understand her ambition, and recognize why she pushes herself to the very brink. On top of all that, she’s charismatic — it makes sense why people would follow her ideas and want to be a part of it, even though we (the audience) know exactly why they shouldn’t. It’s an interesting moral quandary that persists throughout the eight-episode limited series.

Seyfried is just one of the many stars who leads this series, many of whom play real people who participated in these events. William H. Macy (Shameless) plays Richard Fuisz, a physician who becomes convinced that Elizabeth stole one of his patents; Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird) plays Phyllis Gardner, one of Elizabeth’s former professors; Alan Ruck (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) plays Jay Rosan, a representative of Walgreens; and Stephen Fry (The Hobbit) gives the series’ second-best performance as Ian Gibbons, a biochemist who becomes entangled in Theranos’ tangled web of deceit. Fry’s role in the series is heartbreaking, and serves to emphasize the real-life tragedies that lies can bring.

Things get ugly and intense in The Dropout, but it only gets more riveting as it goes on. Though we know the broad strokes, the specifics and inner workings are fascinating, and I often found myself genuinely intrigued by elements and terms that would never have interested me before. Parts of it feel simplified for a TV audience, but that makes complete sense — and the series has such an excellent sense of tension that I’m more than willing to forgive its liberties.

The Dropout is streaming on Hulu.

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