A parent’s brutal humiliation can be the drop of ink that stains a child’s motivation for the rest of their life. It’s where Elizabeth Holmes’ story starts in The Dropout and in showing us this pivotal moment in the early life of the disgraced Theranos founder, the series already affords us more of an insight into the inner workings of a scamming mastermind than any of its Netflix contemporaries (see unsatisfying excuse for a Gossip Girl knockoff, Inventing Anna).
Adapted from the highly acclaimed ABC Audio podcast of the same name, in the eight-episode series we see Amanda Seyfried nail the eerie evolution of Holmes from teenager to CEO: her bizarre adoption of a deepened 'public' voice, her curated girlboss aesthetic, her increasingly chilling resolve to succeed – whatever it takes.
It was always about money. In the first minutes we see Holmes as a high schooler, watching her father – a former vice president of Enron (in one of the most notorious instances of corporate fraud in US history) – beg for work from a successful neighbour. In a degrading power play, the man forces the children to stay in the room to witness firsthand their father’s desperation. It doesn’t take in-depth psychoanalysis to understand how an incident like this would create a lingering impression on any of us. Straight after, when Holmes is asked what she wants to be when she’s older, she doesn’t miss a beat: "billionaire".
Years later, she excels beyond her peers at Stanford, hellbent on creating a new and unprecedented medical invention. The result? Theranos – a fusion of the words 'therapy' and 'diagnosis' – a portable machine that can test for several diseases with no need for needles, just a pinprick of blood from the tip of a finger. It’s genius, boundary-pushing and will make her not only rich beyond her wildest dreams but a contemporary of her hall-of-fame heroes: Musk, Gates, Jobs. The only catch? It doesn’t work.
Apple founder Steve Jobs, who Holmes idolises as a teenager on a poster in her bedroom, famously avoided prioritising wealth and shunned a flashy lifestyle. The show goes to great lengths to highlight the question of what happens when riches and fame are the goal rather than a byproduct of innovation. Because for Holmes it is about winning above everything. The fact that the machine doesn’t work is a minor, unimportant detail in her eyes: a kink to be ironed out down the line, once she’s secured investor money through a rigged prototype. We see every moment she should have hit pause or admitted failure. She never does. She pushes through anyway, to her detriment – and the result is deceit, a lack of sympathy for anyone but herself, aggressive quashing of naysayers and the creation of a sociopathic, power-playing persona.
We also see the environment that seemingly made a monster. In Silicon Valley (and, of course, everywhere else) women are held to a different standard from men and the bland Zuckerberg and Jobs uniforms just won’t do for Holmes. We see her judged for a rogue hanging bra strap, a "giddy voice" and immaculate appearance. Her transformation into her final form – Holmes’ signature polished black turtleneck, which has been at the centre of many a character study – is fictionalised in a genuinely hair-raising feet-to-head scene, soundtracked by Amy Winehouse’s "Back To Black".
Holmes emerges amid a dog-eat-dog landscape of douchey, flip-flop-toting tech bros in which women, historically, have been encouraged to be stronger, meaner and want it more than their male contemporaries. She employs a Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, girlboss mentality, at some points elevated as an aspirational figure who conned the world’s most powerful men out of their millions. Early in the series we see Holmes in the aftermath of an alleged sexual assault at Stanford, which no one believes (she has since used it while testifying in court to bolster her motivation for dropping out and ploughing ahead with Theranos). She comforts her heartbroken parents: "Nothing like this will ever happen to me again." This is contrasted with another scene, where we see her contorting her face in the mirror, testing out different voices and facial expressions, or using tears to her advantage in the boardroom while puppeteering various schemes. In one shocking moment, she conducts clinical tests on hopeful cancer patients, knowing all along that the machine has never worked. It’s truly despicable.
The Dropout is fantastic, jaw-dropping television not only because of Seyfried’s manic portrayal – which teeters from fragile to terrifyingly manipulative, humanising her and then unnerving us – but because it’s fair. By the time it hurtles along to its explosive ending, you know whose side you’re on.
The Dropout airs on Disney+ on 3rd March.