Theater of Cruelty

The role model who fell

TV SERIES: The Dropout
Regissør: Elizabeth Meriwether


Stories about scammers, preferably from reality, are easy to be fascinated by. We are currently in an ever so small wave of them, including the series inventing Anna and the documentary The Tinder scammer , both on Netflix.
The Dropout at Disney + has – perhaps not surprisingly, since it is also a drama series – most in common with the former. The series tells the story of the American technology founder Elizabeth Holmes, played by Amanda Seyfried. In January, she was found guilty on four of eleven charges of fraud and conspiracy and risks up to 20 years in prison when sentencing later this year.

Holmes was the founder and CEO of the health technology company Theranos, which she founded at the age of 19 in 2003. She led the company until it was dissolved in 2018, in the wake of The Wall Street Journal and whistleblowers uncovering highly questionable aspects of the technology. Theranos allegedly relied on.

The entrepreneurial dream 'catch 22 »

The fall was obviously big. Holmes was a highly profiled entrepreneur/business manager and a role model for many. In 2014, Theranos was valued at $9 billion, and the following year, Forbes magazine named Holmes America's richest self-made female billionaire. At 31, she was also the youngest.

Her original business idea was undeniably good. Theranos (the name combines "therapy" and "diagnosis") was to create a small machine that could perform around 200 tests for various diseases based on just one drop of blood, later redefined as "a few" drops, from a small prick of the fingertip. The possibility that, with this, more people will discover disease at a much earlier stage than they otherwise would have, sounds like a not inconsiderable step forward for humanity. But even if the intentions may have been good enough, the series gives the impression that Holmes – who left Stanford University to invest fully in the company – was more concerned with becoming a new Steve Jobs than with the concrete medical and technological aspects of the project.

On the other side of the meeting tables sit graying white men with an intense fear of missing out on 'the next big thing'.

The biggest problem was that the company never got the prototype to work. There also seems to be a kind of "catch 22" here: You need a lot of money to develop the necessary technology, while potential investors demand promises that it actually works. But Holmes was obviously adept at raising huge sums of money and could eventually boast former ministers such as Henry Kissinger and George P. Schulz among his board members. Moreover, this type of investment is often based on trust in someone's visions and promises before concrete results can be seen.

Nevertheless, this scandal led to white lies gradually turning into more large-scale fraud, which included the covert use of other companies' laboratory equipment and far less reliable test results than Theranos claimed to be able to provide. And this was about people's health, especially after Theranos' "wonder machine" Edison was put into use through a collaboration with the pharmacy chain Walgreens.

The Dropout

Although the story of Holmes and Theranos has been widely discussed in the media, it is certainly interesting to have it presented in drama format. It is difficult to know how much is made up in the fictionalisation, but presumably one finds part of this in the depiction of the relationship between Holmes and his partner (private as well as professional) Ramesh "Sunny" Balwani. The Dropout is however based on a podcast of the same name, and it is also recommended to watch Alex Gibney's documentary about Holmes from 2019, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, which is available on HBO Max. With somewhat different emphasis, the documentary and the drama series complement each other, while the many common points of contact suggest that The Dropout does not take too many artistic liberties.

The series skilfully and effectively makes use of the long format's ability to switch between different narrative perspectives. Holmes is not exclusively portrayed as unsympathetic, but as other characters gain more space in the narrative, she and Balwani become equally antagonistic. Actress Seyfried initially bears no striking physical resemblance to Holmes, but manages to capture her appearance impressively. This applies not least to the characteristic dark way of speaking, which Holmes seems to have acquired in order to appear with sufficient weight, perhaps especially towards the many rich and powerful men with whom she negotiates.

Controlled employees

The Dropout paints a disturbing picture of the (un)culture in Silicon Valley, which went a long way – or is still going? – out to "fake it till you make it", to put it in objectionable Norwegian. On the other side of the meeting tables are usually graying white men with an intense fear of not keeping up with the times – and thereby missing out on "the next big thing". If you are the kind of person many people want to believe in, it is not at all impossible to build a solid castle in the air.

This is a story about a young woman who seeks success in a male-dominated world, with corresponding setbacks for women's standing and opportunities after her fall. But although Elizabeth Holmes undoubtedly appeared as an important role model, it has also been pointed out that she would hardly have come as far if she had not been a white woman.

Particularly disturbing is the series' description of Theranos' almost total control over its own employees in the form of surveillance, strict confidentiality agreements and lawsuits against those who would express themselves critically about the company's operations. This is not without a certain irony, all the while the management complains about the authorities' attempts to limit their "free" capitalist activities through various rules and controls – in parallel with the fact that they treat their employees as if Theranos belonged to the old Soviet Union.

 The Dropout is available on the streaming service Disney+.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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