Why did I feel bad for laughing at THE DROPOUT?

Close up on a woman's eye as she holds a tiny vial of blood up to camera.
Image: Disney+ (© 2022 Disney)
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Content Warning: This post briefly discusses suicide in the context of THE DROPOUT, which represents a real event where someone ended their own life. If this is likely to be triggering or upsetting for you, please do not read and seek professional help if you need it.

There’s a moment of exquisitely-tuned cringe comedy in THE DROPOUT episode 2 where I literally could not stop laughing. A potential investor has shown up at Theranos’s office, unannounced, and the lab team is scrambling to re-assemble the device so it can be shown while Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried, who is spectacular in the show) tries to delay him.

In the commotion, a tray containing vials of blood is smashed and spilled over the shirt of key scientist Rakesh (Utkarsh Ambudkar.) The team scurries to clear the floor while Rakesh panics, asking if the blood has been tested for syphilis, HIV, etc. As venture capitalist Don Lucas enters the lab, stalking around the benches like a superannuated bull living out a Clint Eastwood fantasy, we can see Rakesh through a window, hurriedly swapping shirts with a colleague.

Episode 2 is where THE DROPOUT’s flavour of fremdschämen really hits its stride. There’s a late-night sequence in Theranos’s office where Holmes, Rakesh, Edmond Ku (James Hiroyuki Liao) and Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry) jump up and down with linked hands and chant “we have sepsis! We have sepsis! We have sepsis!” There’s business meetings where Holmes’s personal assistant has to rush in with a can of ant spray. The episode ends with Holmes leaning out of the car of boyfriend-turned-business partner Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) and bellowing drunkenly at pedestrians, “I’m gonna change the world!”

In places, the show’s mise-en-scène might’ve been lifted from the original UK version of The Office. A scene in episode 4 sees a Walgreens executive dashing into a colleague’s car for a rushed conversation, pleading with him to invest in Theranos. Maybe if Elizabeth Holmes’s scam had taken place ten years earlier, he’d have unironically quoted Des’ree rather than Katy Perry.

This couldn’t have happened, though. The story of Elizabeth Holmes is a uniquely Obama-era Silicon Valley tale. I am convinced that no other environment could have produced Theranos. It was borne of the unique confluence of avarice from the rich and economic distress for everyone else, a kind of libertarian optimism-by-vibes that marked the early days of modern juggernauts such as Facebook and Twitter and the iPhone, and, of course, the US’s ultra-conservative healthcare policies where unemployment and unemployability can literally mean death. Holmes always framed her deception in noble terms, selling the vision of a world where “no one ever has to say goodbye too soon.” At a time when the political mood music was roughly that of a set of Upworthy headlines, this was like catnip.

The show knows this, presenting a world that’s just far enough in the past to be recognisably bizarre. We see Holmes waiting in line for an iPhone on launch day, cheering at Steve Jobs cosplayers and people walking out with their new iPhones. We see Holmes’s parents and family friends-turned-enemies having disputes in the entrance halls of their hideously oversized and tasteless McMansions. There is a steady background drumbeat of economic decline and financial desperation. Much of Theranos’s internal tussling manifests in glaringly-lit open plan offices with inane motivational quotes in huge lettering on the walls, and ‘collaboration booths’ set into the walls like little Wendy houses for adults. Holmes (again unironically) quotes Mark Zuckerberg’s “move fast and break things” mantra. The show’s atmosphere is as thick as the vials of blood Holmes draws. Even Anne Nikitin’s score encapsulates the zeitgeist, with anodyne and generally optimistic synth arpeggios slowly becoming moodier and more metallic and taking on an invidious tone as the series progresses and more people get hurt.

And that’s what this is: a drama about something that actually happened, where people came to actual harm. Elizabeth Holmes may be the show’s ‘protagonist,’ but THE DROPOUT does not let her off the hook. One scene near the end of the final episode in Theranos’s deserted offices really hammers the point home, with the company’s (now-unemployed) legal counsel chasing Holmes out of the office, calling after her, “you hurt people, Elizabeth!”

The show is mostly tasteful at presenting how Theranos (and Holmes) hurt people. The harassment of witnesses, former employees, and journalists’ sources. Holmes firing someone spuriously at a company Christmas party. The company’s machinations and secrecy tearing families and friends apart. The depressive spiral of Ian Gibbons that led to his death by suicide. (This is particularly well-handled by episode 5 director Francesca Gregorini, who wisely veers away from schmaltz, and instead trains her camera on Fry’s countenance in the doldrums.)

What I wish the show did more, though, is a real effort to interrogate the harm that Holmes and Theranos did to the public at large, and allow us to root for the unrelenting work that whistleblowers inside the company did to expose them.

We do see one particular sequence where Theranos conducts a trial in Tennessee on terminal cancer patients with a prototype that doesn’t work. This is something that actually happened, but in THE DROPOUT, it’s treated as little more than a plot device, to provide a pretext for chief design architect Ana Arriola (Nicky Endres) to quit on the spot in a fiery exchange in Holmes’s office. According to their own testimony in the podcast, Arriola had actually raised the alarm about the trial before it actually happened, and was told not to intervene; after being given an ultimatum by Holmes, they ultimately tendered their resignation (to “go be a full-time chef for [their] family” according to a colleague.)

Dramatic licence is inevitable with any kind of docudrama. But I’m not sure how I feel about how the show abbreviates major events and makes use of composite characters in service of drawing focus to what it’s most interested in—exploring Elizabeth Holmes herself. While this may make for better drama, I’m not sure it serves the wider moral fable. Seyfried plays Holmes with a kind of knowing vulnerability, as we witness her drying her tears in the middle of Episode 3 and practicing her trademark deep ‘business’ voice in front of a mirror. In many ways, THE DROPOUT is the rise and fall of Theranos as seen from the inside, through the eyes of Holmes, presented as a larger-than-life farce.

What’s the problem, then? I think there are two things at play here. The first is that in reality, Holmes almost never let her façade drop: she was someone who projected supreme confidence in perpetuity to the public, and used this to advance her lies. It was only through the moral conviction and bravery of people like Arriola, Erika Cheung, Tyler Schultz, Dr Phyllis Gardner, and Rochelle Gibbons (Ian’s widow) that Theranos was ever exposed.

It’s understandable that the show pays more attention to Elizabeth—it’s called THE DROPOUT, not THE WHISTLEBLOWERS. But in a wider conversation about the scandal, we cannot ignore the fact that the warning signs for Theranos were all there—and yet many of the monied elite still fell under Holmes’s spell and cut large cheques to keep Theranos awash with cash. Maybe they believed in the mission. But as someone who’s deeply interested in technology ethics, I keep coming back to Jenn Schiffer’s remarks at XOXO in 2016: “We cannot let people advance tech for their own selfish reasons while they pretend that they’re doing it for everyone.”

This brings me to the second thing that left a sour taste in my mouth with THE DROPOUT: the tension between it needing to function as a drama and as a documentary. At times, the show falls back on dramatic shorthand to provide an emotional journey for Elizabeth Holmes. For example, in episode 3, a visit to the Genius Bar to replace Holmes’s damaged iPhone goes wrong when the technician accidentally reformats the phone rather than backing it up. Holmes quotes her later when she is sobbing in front of Theranos’s board, begging not to be replaced as CEO: she ‘did everything right,’ she ‘followed all the steps,’ and so forth, in a moment of dramatic symmetry that I suspect was manufactured for the show.

This is a problem inherent to the true crime and docudrama genres. But what does this say about how we interact with real events that have been dramatised for entertainment?

True, the show does not turn Elizabeth Holmes into an anti-hero, or worse still some Robin Hood-like figure who duped clueless billionaires out of cash. Indeed, the show is at its strongest when it is angry with Holmes, and with her enablers. But will viewers go away feeling empowered to put their foot down and blow the whistle when they see their employer doing something blatantly immoral? Or are people queueing up THE DROPOUT on Disney+ because they, like so many of us, are messy and live for drama?

And what good is that going to do to stop the next Theranos from coming along and causing so much harm?