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'The Dropout' dares to ask: How did Theranos get away with all this?

Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes and Naveen Andrews as Sunny Balwani in Hulu's <em>The Dropout</em>.
Beth Dubber
/
Hulu
Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes and Naveen Andrews as Sunny Balwani in Hulu's <em>The Dropout</em>.

What does she do about the voice? That's the first question, right?

Amanda Seyfried plays Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes in the new Hulu series The Dropout, based on the ABC News podcast of the same name. There's been no shortage of Theranos takes: This follows the John Carreyrou book Bad Blood and its accompanying podcast Bad Blood: The Final Chapter, Alex Gibney's documentary The Inventor, and plentiful reporting about the fall of Theranos. But for a lot of viewers, the first question will be what Seyfried will do about Holmes' notoriously low voice, which has been the subject of much speculation about its authenticity, its purpose (if it is intentional rather than natural), and the role of gender policing in how it's received and talked about.

Fortunately, Seyfried doesn't focus on mimicry, but on evoking Holmes' distinctive speaking style. It's less important that she hit the low tone than it is that she capture the way Elizabeth Holmes speaks — charismatic in its way, yes, but also kind of ... dorky? Seyfried gets it just right in the trailer around the :45 mark when she talks to a professor of hers (played by a wonderfully dry Laurie Metcalf) about what she wants to do.

When the professor says to keep trying, Holmes says, "'Do or do not. There is no try.' That's Yoda."

If you've watched the other Theranos material and listened to Elizabeth Holmes talk a lot, you will recognize her boundless but awkward confidence in Seyfried's delivery. And it's not just the way she talks, but the things she says. There's a moment very early on in the series when a interviewer asks Holmes to describe herself in one word, and she hesitates, hesitates, hesitates, before finally saying: "Mission-oriented." That weird, unconvincing blurt of business-speak, as Seyfried serves it up, is very, very Elizabeth Holmes.

There's a moment very early on in the series when a interviewer asks Holmes to describe herself in one word, and she hesitates, hesitates, hesitates, before finally saying: "Mission-oriented."

It's not all about her

Seyfried does a fine job throughout of offering not a precise impersonation of Elizabeth Holmes, but a sense of her. Nevertheless, the best parts of the series are not the parts about Holmes and her passion for riches and fame — which resembles the passions of a lot of other tech founders for riches and fame, as portrayed in other series (documentary or scripted) about, say, Uber or WeWork. That part feels very familiar.

At its best, The Dropout is about the thing that separates Theranos from a lot of these other startups, which is the fact that the Theranos technology, according to the legal proceedings against Holmes, never worked the way they said it did. Much of it isn't about Holmes at all. It's about everybody else, and about the question: How did so many people stay on the hook for so long?

Much of it isn't about Holmes at all. It's about everybody else, and about the question: How did so many people stay on the hook for so long?

Sure, the show, from Liz Meriwether (who made New Girl), looks at Holmes' early life and her relationship with her parents (Elizabeth Marvel has great fun as her mother) and brother. It traces her relationship with the much older Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews), who would eventually be her boyfriend, second-in-command at Theranos, and fellow defendant. But in those sections, it's a little more on rails and less intriguing, especially for people who have read a lot about her. The tone in the early going is uneven, too: Efforts to tackle the story of family friend Richard Fuisz (William H. Macy) and his long legal battle with Theranos don't really work; they're a little too silly, despite the presence of Macy and the great Mary Lynn Rajskub as his wife.

Stephen Fry does good work in these early sections as Ian Gibbons, an experienced scientist (unlike Elizabeth Holmes) who was part of Theranos from practically the beginning, who was fired, rehired, and then demoted from the lab he loved. But as good as he is, and as compelling as his story is, he plays it very straight and the tone of his story is sad rather than funny — so he doesn't always seem to belong in the same show as Macy and Rajskub.

Team Walgreens — Roland (Andrew Leeds), Wade Maquelon (Josh Pais), Kevin Hunter (Rich Sommer), and Jay Rosan (Alan Ruck) — finds itself in over its head at Theranos.
Beth Dubber / Hulu
/
Hulu
Team Walgreens — Roland (Andrew Leeds), Wade Maquelon (Josh Pais), Kevin Hunter (Rich Sommer), and Jay Rosan (Alan Ruck) — finds itself in over its head at Theranos.

The Walgreens problem

Where The Dropout finds its groove is where it leans into the drama, and sometimes the darker comedy, of questions like how Holmes got "wellness centers" into a chain the size of Walgreens when her tech didn't work. How does that happen? Surely, they had the capacity to determine that she wasn't able to simply put a machine in front of them, prick a finger, and have it perform routine bloodwork.

This plays out in an darkly funny middle stretch that spotlights four exceptional and reliable actors: Alan Ruck as "Doctor Jay," the Walgreens executive trying to get Holmes' wellness centers approved; Josh Pais as Wade, Jay's more skeptical boss; Andrew Leeds as Roland, Wade's right-hand man; and the always welcome Rich Sommer as Kevin Hunter, a lab expert brought in to make sure everything is legit. This section of the tale wisely turns to one of the oft-asked questions about Theranos — why didn't anybody know something was wrong? -- and reframes it around the truth, which is that a great many people knew something was wrong. The question is not why nobody knew; it's why the people who knew were not able to stop Holmes' ascent sooner.

Greed, for lack of a better word, is boring

Getting too deeply into the question of what makes greedy and grasping people act greedy and grasping can be surprisingly dull. Greed is fundamental; it explains itself. The Dropout doesn't suggest that Holmes is an uncomplicated person or has led an uncomplicated life: it deals with the sexual assault she reported when she was in college, and it portrays Balwani as a bully and a manipulator, which was part of her defense at her trial. But it resists any conclusion that these are the reasons she was deceiving people about the tech.

She was deceiving people because she wanted, wanted, wanted — she especially wanted to do something huge that would make her the Steve Jobs of health care. (The degree to which society would be better off refusing to give money to anybody who wants to be the Steve Jobs of anything is intriguing to contemplate.) And wanting to do something huge that will make you rich is not new and not that interesting; that's the part you will see in other series, whether you see it in Uber's Travis Kalanick, or WeWork's Adam Neumann, or even Anna Delvey.

What can be more interesting, and more damning, is looking at how all of the safety mechanisms that might have kept Theranos from getting so far — even to the point where it was returning flawed or unreliable results to real patients — failed to function. Wouldn't employees realize something was wrong? Wouldn't they feel obligated to say something? Wouldn't doctors? And wouldn't investors want to see the tech work before they invested? And doesn't the government have some capacity to regulate all this? Yes, yes, yes to all these things. And yet.

And that's where The Dropout is strongest. There is a moment when a young employee realizes she's being asked to ignore problems in the testing of a Walgreens patient, and she simply can't believe it. She keeps repeating that the patient is a real person, because to her, it's obvious that nobody would extend tech puffery to the point where you're giving somebody a misleading blood test result. When she realizes she's wrong, does she want to do something about it? Of course. But that's only the first step.

More than anything, she's protected by other people's greed and pride. Once she has investors who have given her their money, they naturally aren't eager to hear that the tech is no good, or to have the word spread that the tech is no good.

Elizabeth Holmes, as portrayed here, has so many protectors — a ton of money, a credulous press, political allies, a security apparatus that genuinely scares people, a team of ruthless and powerful attorneys — that she can stay ahead of the many people who know perfectly well that she does not have a machine that can do what she says it can do.

But more than anything, she's protected by other people's greed and pride. Once she has investors who have given her their money, they naturally aren't eager to hear that the tech is no good, or to have the word spread that the tech is no good. Once she has men like George Shultz, played here by Sam Waterston, who have vouched for her to their powerful friends, they definitely don't welcome the idea, either in the wallet or in the ego, that they got it wrong. Especially not really wrong, dangerously wrong. In some ways, the wronger they are, the harder it is to get them to admit it.

Seyfried is good; she captures this very unusual woman effectively. But the parts that try to explain her too much are the parts that drag. Where The Dropout finds its voice is not in excavating this brand of wrongdoing, but in despairing at how vulnerable we are to it.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.