Hello again, it’s me, your trusted Inventing Anna recapper, back to cover another show about an IRL lady scammer with a kind of notorious voice-slash-accent thing. (Is this my niche now?) Yes, I’m here to recap The Dropout for you, Hulu’s new miniseries about Silicon Valley’s infamous black-turtleneck wearer (no … the other one) and blood-tech con artist, Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried). As we did with Inventing Anna, let’s all hold hands, take a deep breath, remind ourselves that this is a dramatization — not a docuseries — and dive into episode one, “I’m in a Hurry.”
In this premiere, we get Elizabeth Holmes’s origin story intercut with snippets from her July 2017 testimony regarding Theranos’s securities and medical fraud (not the real testimony, Seyfried-as-Holmes). The episode presents the tale of Elizabeth Holmes — ambitious smart wunderkind — with hints about what’s to come in terms of Elizabeth Holmes — medical and financial fraudster.
For the wunderkind origin story, we rewind to the ’90s and early aughts, starting in Houston, where Elizabeth shows off her determination and drive time and again; first, during a track race at school, then, at an awkward Christmas dinner with some family friends, where she humblebrags about getting accepted early to Stanford and being in the top 10 percent of students accepted. In what seems like it might become a series theme of “older people reacting strongly to Holmes’s perceived-slash-actual audacity,” a family friend, Richard (William H. Macy), manages to convince himself that Elizabeth thinks she’s smarter than him and gets himself into a little bit of a one-sided pissing match with the teenage girl sitting uncomfortably on his couch. It’s as weird as it sounds, made even weirder by the fact that Elizabeth’s father (Michel Gill) then has to ask Richard for financial help because he was just laid off from … Enron.
Other childhood details that make clear Elizabeth is a determined, smart cookie include her learning Mandarin of her own accord and then insisting on only speaking Mandarin at her summer immersion program in Beijing; her 7-year-old self’s sketch of an invented time machine and note to her father that she wants to “discover something new”; her repeated listening to “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)”; her insistence on joining a grad-level research group as a freshman at Stanford (and acceptance into the group when she points out a mistake one of the grad students made in the experiment!); and her obsession with some of Silicon Valley’s bigs (Jobs, Woz, Gates, Musk, etc.).
So yes, obviously, Elizabeth Holmes is smart. But she’s also in a rush (as the Alabama song and episode title tell us). The show seems to suggest that she’s in such a rush because she’s always been a bit of an outsider (she’s certainly a bit awkward in a lot of the social situations we see her in) and has something to prove, she is genuinely very clever, and she wants to have a purpose in the world while attaining the financial security and autonomy she witnessed her family falter with after the Enron blowup. (This is the implication, anyway, but from appearances, her family looks to be doing just fine financially before, during, and after Enron.) That’s a lot of motives, and how pure and real those motives are and stay once the actual fraud begins remains to be seen, though so far, The Dropout is presenting them as key elements in Holmes’s story. And we see Elizabeth apply that methodical planning brain and in-a-rush mentality to other endeavors, too, like her plot for gaining some sexual experience.
She plans to have sex over the summer before college, but instead, during her summer in Beijing, we get to meet another important player in the Theranos story: Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews), who’s in the program (though not a college student) because he wants to learn Mandarin since “China is going to be the manufacturing capital of the world.” Elizabeth and Sunny become fast friends, touring Beijing together and sharing personal stories, and the friendship continues once they’re back Stateside. This relationship — platonic at first, then romantic — is clearly going to be a focal point of the series since Sunny ends up involved in Theranos, too. Aside from a few moments of scientific excitement, it’s her interactions with Sunny that seem to add some pep to Elizabeth’s step — she’s at her most natural and at ease when talking to him, though at one point she cuts him off for a while, telling him their bond is weird because of their age difference. That very age difference could be a factor when Sunny is the person she calls after a stray bullet goes through her car window, despite their estrangement, and he comforts her and tells her he’ll always protect her — after which, they kiss.
Back on the “I’m going to invent something I just don’t know what it is yet” front, Elizabeth’s first idea (for a patch device that both administers medicine and monitors whether the meds are working) during her sophomore year at Stanford is shot down by Professor Phyllis Gardner (Laurie Metcalf), who advises her to take her time and enjoy her youth, but Elizabeth isn’t all that interested in the slow pace of scientific innovation. Though she’s shown to be having fun in college earlier on — smoking weed and watching Vanilla Sky, telling Sunny she loves college and likes beer, joining a sorority — her attempt at having fun (complete with practice small talk and smiles in the mirror) after the patch is shot down goes sour in the form of an alleged rape at a party. Elizabeth shuts down afterward, shunning Sunny and further spiraling when the school tells her they aren’t recommending disciplinary action because, as she tells her mom, it’s a “he said, she said” situation and “no one believes [her].” It’s a sad moment, made sadder by the advice her mother (Elizabeth Marvel; who does believe her) gives her to, basically, bury it deep and eventually forget it happened. You get the feeling a similar incident lies in Mrs. Holmes’s past, but the episode doesn’t dwell on it, instead choosing to show Elizabeth finding strength in that advice and going on to have the idea that will eventually become Theranos.
She’s inspired by her fingertip in the actual moment — as well as the size of her iPod — but the foreshadowing and inspiration have been building up all episode. First, in her and Mrs. Holmes’s queasy reactions to her pre-Beijing blood draw; then, in Sunny’s emotional story about his father’s fatal misdiagnosis at the hospital; and even possibly in the sexual assault and the desire for safety that incident breeds in her.
Though Professor Gardner shot her patch down in part because “machines make mistakes, too,” Elizabeth’s research group lead (seemingly inspired at least in part by the fact that he previously missed out on investing with two former students on what became Yahoo) Professor Robertson (Bill Irwin) and TA Rakesh (Utkarsh Ambudkar) are intrigued by the blood-test device idea. By the end of the episode, Elizabeth has dropped out of Stanford, put her tuition money into the pursuit, and rented an office in East Palo Alto, which she and Sunny furiously make out in as a voiceover investigator asks future Elizabeth about the medical danger she put people’s lives in with her fraudulent technology. So, you know, a lot has happened, and in a hurry — because as we’ve learned, that’s Elizabeth’s way.
The episode itself is a fairly standard and straightforward series premiere — there’s a lot to set up before we get into the real Theranos-fraud meat of it all — but the draw from the get-go is Seyfried’s performance. She loses herself in Holmes, and yes, that includes the voice, as well as some awkward skulking, running, and a killer “what you’re saying to me does not compute” face. Watching her inhabit Elizabeth Holmes will be fun, I can already tell.
Spare Drops of Blood
• If you’re hungry for more Theranos content, The Dropout is based on the ABC Audio podcast of the same name.
• When the family learns about the Enron meltdown, Mr. Holmes expresses his shock and disbelief at how fraudulent the company was, and Elizabeth asks, “You didn’t know?” Call me crazy, but I think this just might be a little bit of an Easter egg foreshadowing Elizabeth’s own future fraudulent company while also being the truth that her father did indeed work at Enron.
• Dr. Phyllis Gardner is a bit of a Magic 8-Ball come to life as a side character who’s full of fun little truth bombs about technology’s limitations, the reality of being a woman in science and the working world, the fleeting joy of youth, and the wonder of mail-order DVDs, but this one is my favorite: “Don’t ever quote Yoda to anybody ever again. Science is trying.”
• In case the future attire homage to Steve Jobs didn’t make Elizabeth’s affinity for the Apple man clear, the show hammers that nail hard by showing us a teenage Elizabeth’s illustrated bedroom poster of a younger Jobs and her constant listening to her iPod, which eventually inspires her blood-machine prototype size.
• I, too, get queasy at the sight of blood draws. Looking away from the screen while taking recap notes is … not easy.
If you or someone you know are a victim of sexual assault, you can call RAINN National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.