‘The Dropout’ turns a notorious woman and a scandal into entertainment of unexpected complexity | by Ella Kaplun | April 2022
The miniseries manages to complicate our view of an immoral character, while also providing a comprehensive insight into the Theranos scandal.
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW!
Hulu just released the latest episode of The stall, which marks the end of the captivating mini-series which chronicles the fall of a fraudulent health technology company Theranos and its founder Elizabeth Holmes. Based on a true story, the writers take dense, difficult subject matter and turn it into engaging, thought-provoking entertainment, steeped in emotion, humor, controversy, and thought-provoking ideas.
The show, which progresses in chronological order, begins with Elizabeth’s (Amanda Seyfried) teenage and coming-of-age periods. We see how she is abused by her family and peers; it’s an interesting strategic move to humanize such a character – and it certainly pays off, challenging what we thought we knew about the woman behind the infamous scandal. The empathetic backstory is compelling, providing useful context without bombarding viewers with irrelevant details. For example, when Elizabeth is enrolled at Stanford, she is raped by a classmate, but no one believes her. She channels this frustration into sketching out new inventions, which consequently allows her to suppress this traumatic experience and forget.
Elizabeth subsequently adopts the tactic of relying on selective memory, which becomes more relevant later on – one wonders what effect this has on the events shown on the show. During the clips of her testimony that are scattered throughout the season, Elizabeth can be heard repeatedly saying, “I don’t remember” or “I don’t seem to remember” as she skirts question after question. Elizabeth admits to this strategy when she tells her mother about the rape incident years later, at the start of Theranos’ downfall. Elizabeth recounts the advice her mother gave her, which was to forget. She asks, “if you choose to forget certain things, do you think that’s lying?” It’s one of many well-written lines in the series, and one of the only times she admits the intentionality of her actions and hints at responsibility. The tension between sympathy and the desire for her to get the punishment she deserves plays out throughout, making for a compelling viewing experience.
In addition to memory, viewers are pushed to consider the multi-faceted complexities of other subjects, such as feminism. It is explored from a variety of angles, with a focus on women in technology. As a woman, despite Elizabeth’s lack of morals and personality, I couldn’t help but root for her – it’s an underdog story. Due to Seyfried’s phenomenal performance, Elizabeth transforms from a shy presenter into an accepted member of the boys’ club. It was empowering to not only watch her present ideas to committees of powerful white men, but to be able to do so, having watched her in many weak moments and awkward interactions when she was younger. Watching her decline at the right pace and doing well, committing more and more immoral actions, was a tense undertaking, building up feelings of war until I could barely maintain any loyalty to her.
Despite the serious implications of Elizabeth’s actions, the writers also found a way to make the show lighthearted. The inclusion of levity provides a needed break from an otherwise dense storyline. Moments of humor intertwine naturally, mostly appearing in the interpersonal relationships of various characters – The stall, in addition to its star, has a stellar supporting cast that shines just as bright. There’s the charming camaraderie and competitive relationship between Theranos scientists Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry) and Brendan Morris (Bashir Salahuddin) and the wonderful rapport between mentor Judith Baker (LisaGay Hamilton) and journalist John Carreyrou launch the investigation. on Theranos.
As clever as its character relationships and performances are, its tendency to leave various plot holes unaddressed is mildly distracting. Small examples include the quiet disappearance of Theranos engineer Rakesh Madhava (Utkarsh Ambudkar) and the random reappearance of Elizabeth’s brother Christian Holmes (Sam Straley) as a new Theranos employee. Plus, there’s a noticeable lack of character development, especially when it comes to Elizabeth – but I’m not sure if that’s a fault of the show itself. It just makes it hard to watch; maybe it’s because creators are tied to reality, and there are only so many liberties they can take. Perhaps it was intentional: her lies, manipulations, and lack of self-awareness make the real Elizabeth a mystery, unable to grow. But elements of Elizabeth’s character are missing that could have been explored further – at the start of the series, the focus is on Elizabeth and her genius as a student. Yet there’s no fleshed-out transition that depicts Elizabeth taking on the role of a businesswoman and losing her passion for science as Theranos develops.
Elizabeth’s evolution into a savvy marketer and businesswoman is a bit of a rush. Seyfried’s Elizabeth manages to have a terrible character, but an incredible charm, an impressive testament to Seyfried’s acting. Seyfried captures Holmes as a socially awkward outcast early in the series, before Theranos transpires. But cut mid-season: With the utmost confidence, she negotiates deals with megacorporations like Walgreens for a product that doesn’t even exist. Yes, we see Elizabeth taking on her “girlboss” persona, with her propensity for wearing black turtlenecks, always having green juice in her hand, and using a newly acquired deep voice. However, these are all external changes; I wanted to see her mental and emotional transition into leadership as she shed her lack of confidence.
Regardless, The stall is a remarkable mini-series. It’s no easy task to base a fictional story on real events, especially when its main character is far from reliable and, not to mention, Holmes’ trial was still ongoing during the show’s inception. The stall manages to complicate our view of a complex and immoral character and situation, while providing a comprehensive insight into Theranos as a company. With a focus on interpersonal relationships, feminism and morality, The stall is not the easiest of watches, but it is certainly a reflection.