Theranos is really cookin’ in The Dropout’s second episode, and we even get to see the fraud begin in earnest! Exciting for the dramatic narrative of the show; sad for the real-life implications. I’m not wild about the framing device of Elizabeth’s 2017 deposition interview, but it’s used sparingly in this episode, at least, and sets up the main action of “Satori”: the development of Theranos’s first prototype and Elizabeth’s fundraising quest.
So far, The Dropout is sticking with the idea that Elizabeth Holmes started with good intentions and went crooked when she was backed into a corner by the difficulty (some might say “medical and technical impossibility”) of making those good intentions and noble goals a reality. Whether or not you believe it IRL, it seems to be the reality of the dramatized world of the show, and baby, the Theranos team is all-in on Elizabeth’s “change the world” vision when we join them in 2006. The unsubtle subtext throughout the episode is that everyone at Theranos cares so much about their work that they will literally give their blood to it. At this point, many of them still think they’re doing good to change the world of health-care accessibility.
But Elizabeth needs more than just her team of scientists, her parents and family friends, and Professor Robertson to be all in. She needs the pharma-slash-money folks to help fund the research. But the pharma companies won’t even meet with her until she has a working prototype … which she can’t develop until she has more cash coming in. That’s a pickle, alright. One that Robertson advises her to fix by going after Silicon Valley VC money.
Despite pumping herself up with Missy Elliott tunes in the car — listen, I want an Emmy for Amanda Seyfried for her depiction of Elizabeth Holmes’s dancing, which has popped up in both episodes of the series so far and is nothing short of magnificent — Elizabeth’s pitches around town do not go well. She manages to get Don Lucas (Michael Ironside) to show up to Theranos, almost loses him when the prototype doesn’t work, but pulls a pitch out of thin air and scores a meeting with Larry Ellison (of Oracle) as a result. Larry Ellison (Hart Bochner) and his boat and his hype guy are the epitome of tech-bro douchery, but Elizabeth walks away from the interaction jacked up to “GTFM (get the fuckin’ money!)” and with a promise from Ellison that he’ll get her a meeting with Novartis, and if she can show them a working prototype, he and Don Lucas are in.
Which brings me to the prototype. Now, we all know that the prototype — what Elizabeth was selling — did not work reliably. Eventually, this is obviously a huge problem, in that it resulted in Holmes defrauding investors and giving patients false medical information, thus potentially endangering their lives. At this early stage, though, and for most of the episode, it’s merely part of the scientific process.
“Science is slow,” head of chemistry Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry) — who comes to Theranos with his own traumatic medical-testing baggage — reminds Elizabeth. But as we know, Elizabeth is in a hurry. Her father’s insistence that she leave his hospital bedside and get back to work gives us insight into her pressurized mentality, and I guess the rest of it is just the desire to make money and change the world — not atypical motivators, to be sure, but also a little … broad. But as I reminded us at the start of these recaps, this is a dramatization, not a docuseries, and it’s certainly not a tell-all by Elizabeth Holmes, so “make money” and “change the world” it is.
Anyway, the slow science is mainly worked on by Rakesh, Elizabeth’s former TA, Gibbons, and electrical engineer Edmond Ku (James Hiroyuki Liao) and his team, who are hard at work on the prototype. I’ll spare you the hilarity of me attempting to explain the actual science and instead highlight that during the first demo at the lab, the prototype crashes and a drop of blood drips from the slot where the sample card goes in, making the slot look like a vampire’s mouth after a particularly juicy snack. Wonderful imagery, show. Just wonderful.
Otherwise, what we all really need to know is that the prototype doesn’t work for a while, then it does work! One time! (Rakesh doesn’t have sepsis, FYI.) But then it doesn’t work again once the team is in Switzerland to meet with Novartis, and despite Elizabeth milking a sales team member and herself for blood samples and Edmond spending all day and night on a video call (ignoring his family), it continues not to work and even catches on fire at one point.
But! Here’s where the scamming begins! Elizabeth — with Rakesh as an uneasy accomplice and the help of one of the lab guys back in Palo Alto — fakes the demo for Novartis, using the results from that one sepsis test that did work.
“What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” is a question Elizabeth poses a few times throughout “Satori,” even having her assistant put the words on a paperweight, and there are two ways to interpret that question: One speaks to the egotistical certainty that you cannot fail because you are impervious to failure, the other speaks to the drive that pushes someone who knows that failure is not an option for them because of the consequences that failure will bring. Which camp Elizabeth falls into is still TBD, but we now know what she’ll do not to fail: She’ll lie, and she’ll rationalize the lie by saying that she knows the prototype can and will work.
She does seem to feel a little guilt over it, getting too drunk at the Theranos Christmas party (after securing series B funding of $165 million) and spilling the secret to Sunny. By the end of the episode, while Edmond has discovered the demo fakery and confronted Rakesh about it, Elizabeth and Sunny are cruising down the street in his Lamborghini, and she seems unburdened by the guilt once more, after having shared it with Sunny and also told him that she loves him (he replies, “I know,” which is not really ever a good sign, is it?).
Speaking of, “Satori” provides an update on Sunny and Elizabeth’s relationship, which she is keeping a secret from everyone at Theranos (the condoms on the coffee table and making out in front of open office blinds are, like, pretty obvious), though her parents know. Sunny continues to play the muddled role of lover, cheerleader, and older protector, and now, secret-keeper and after-the-fact accomplice. The “after-the-fact” part seems important — he doesn’t judge Elizabeth for it and is oddly keen on being the only one she entrusts her secrets to, but she made that fake demo call all on her own.
Elizabeth has now crossed the line into scam territory, and at least four people know about it. Something tells me the one who’s ill at ease (Edmond) is not long for Theranos’s world. At least he’s got his family and the smarts to know that his daughters should not be baking in a real, adult-size oven to keep him company.
Spare Drops of Blood
• Another episode, another comment about a character running weird (in “I’m in a Hurry,” it was Young Elizabeth; in “Satori,” it’s Edmond). Are The Dropout writers working through some past trauma or trope of smart people being mocked for their lack of athleticism?
• If recapping streaming dramas about real-life scammers is becoming my niche, then acting in them is Kate Burton’s: she played Nora Radford in Inventing Anna and pops up in The Dropout as Rochelle Gibbons.
• Utkarsh Ambudkar has great comedic timing and also great meltdown chops on display when a tray of blood vials spills all over him. More UTK in everything, please.
• There’s something hilariously on the nose about the fact that Elizabeth gets to be the ruthless CEO who can literally demand actual blood from her employees. It’s all fun and games until Tommy can’t feel his fingers.
• The Silicon Valley tech-bubble-entrepreneur-genius-bro tropes are strong in The Dropout. This episode gives us plenty, but my fave is Rakesh telling Edmond: “We’ll be geniuses, and you’ll be able to tell this story at a conference, wearing flip-flops.”