Try as I might, I just can’t stop myself from watching The Dropout late into every night, my jaw swinging wildly like a lantern in high wind, my knuckles as white as my faux Edwardian nightwear (look, we all of us have our foibles). My God, it’s riveting, and not only because Amanda Seyfried’s uncanny impersonation of the convicted biotech fraudster Elizabeth Holmes is so astonishing (when I look at pictures of the real Holmes now, she seems wrong to the degree that I find myself wanting the real her – Seyfried – back). Basically, all my special interests are to be found here: madness, messianism, hubris, groupthink, willed blindness and, above all, pathological dissimulation. Exhausted as I am, it’s really quite the tonic.
But still, it wasn’t until episode four that I knew I was in the presence of greatness. This is a show for our times: a minor masterpiece that tells not only the story of one compulsively dishonest and possibly borderline insane young woman, but of the culture that allowed her to flourish for so long. And since this culture – a realm in which any brave soul who dares to point out that the latest emperor is wearing only a pair of budgie smugglers and a little paper crown currently risks losing both his sanity and his livelihood – is not going anywhere fast, The Dropout would seem to be more than your average box set. It provokes as much as it excites; it chastens and alarms as much as it titillates. Also, in a delicious reprise of his role as Connor Roy in Succession, it has Alan Ruck as a ridiculous and vainglorious Walgreens executive who drinks every last drop of the (over-priced, bright green, fully organic) Holmes Kool-Aid.
In the episode in question, Holmes has long since failed to secure the backing of a pharmaceutical company for her Edison device, a machine that is supposed to be able to detect all manner of health conditions using only a single drop of a patient’s blood. She needs new funding. But where to get it? She knows very well that her little plastic boxes don’t work, and that any deal risks the discovery of this. Yet still she presses on, each new lie designed only to cover the last. And so it is that she approaches the old (and old-fashioned) American pharmacy chain, Walgreens. Wouldn’t it like to have “wellness centres” in each of its stores? A tranquil little room away from all the toothbrushes and Tylenol in which shoppers can relax while they take a fast and “empowering” blood test? (Whatever her other failings, you have to admit that Holmes was ahead of the curve when it comes to “wellness”, a word that, in 2010, when this bit of the action takes place, was unknown to those to whom she uttered it.) Walgreens executives are duly invited to Palo Alto to visit the offices of her company, Theranos, for talks.
What follows is played for the blackest comedy. It’s pathetic to see how desperate Dr Jay Rosan (Ruck), its vice president for health, is to appear down with the Silicon Valley kids – to the point where he insists that it really doesn’t matter if his company’s scientific expert is not allowed to inspect Theranos’s labs. Something about Holmes’s “vision” – her mantra is that the Edison has the power to disrupt the American healthcare system – speaks to him. Or perhaps I mean that it scares the pants off him. Rosan cannot see beyond her black polo neck (a nod to her idol Steve Jobs) and the hip Japanese restaurant to which she takes him, his partial vision portrayed here as having been born almost entirely of the fear of irrelevance. A new generation has arrived, with new ideas that his generation doesn’t understand. What he forgets, of course, is that sometimes a failure of understanding is not a sign of slowness or stupidity, but of a fault in the very idea the brain is struggling to grasp. As every journalist knows, the obvious question is often the best question.
Your willingness to give this series a go may depend on how much you already know about Holmes. Personally, I haven’t listened to the podcast on which it is based, nor have I seen HBO’s documentary about the woman who by 2015 Forbes had named as the youngest self-made billionaire in the US (there is also a book by the Pulitzer prize-winning reporter John Carreyrou). But this show is so beautifully stitched together, and so wonderfully performed, I’m not sure prior knowledge is much of a problem. The series is attentive to the facts, but it also takes you beyond them to feelings. Inference is everything, a creeping mood that reveals how it must have felt to work at Theranos, where wishful thinking stood proxy for science, where lies and secrecy ruled, and where employees were expected to, and often did, behave as if they had joined a cult.
Holmes’s deep, phoney-seeming voice is well known, but here you see her practising it in front of the mirror. “This is an inspiring step forward,” she says, again and again, sounding like a Speak & Spell toy. Small moments suggest how different she is from other people: a person who is without morals, and who does not experience emotion in the normal way. On seeing the purple plastic oven that belongs to a colleague’s small daughter, she’s baffled. Why doesn’t the little girl bake in a real oven? she wonders. The back-story is here: the father who worked at Enron; the rape that she claims happened while she was a student at Stanford (she dropped out of the university to start Theranos, hence the series’ title). But these things are never made to seem like mitigating circumstances. A fraud is a fraud is a fraud.
Seyfried is exceptional: like the old men (George Shultz, Henry Kissinger) she persuaded to join her board, you can’t take your eyes off her. She gives Holmes a weird marsupial energy, all popping eyes and hunched shoulders; a strange, swaggering gait; an internal emptiness that her mimicry of a successful entrepreneur only makes the more stark. But there are brilliant performances all over the place.
Stephen Fry is – honestly! – so convincing as Ian Gibbons, the genial British biochemist who came to work for Holmes early on, and who killed himself when things turned bad. He walks like a scientist, and talks like a scientist, and even listens to opera like one (I should know: I’m the offspring of just such a man). And Naveen Andrews is just right as Sunny Balwani, Holmes’s creepy former lover and partner in crime (while the real-life Holmes awaits sentencing, his trial is due to begin imminently). Balwani is an international Svengali in rimless spectacles, jeans and crisp white shirts, and his sinister side emerges slowly, until it can no longer be ignored.
But, of course, pretty much everyone does – ignore it, I mean. A collective blindness falls like nightfall whenever Holmes is in the vicinity, and the great drama of this series lies first in the horror of that, and then in waiting for the arrival of those heroes who will endeavour against the odds to click the light firmly back on.
The Dropout is streaming now on Disney+