With the arrival of The Dropout’s fourth episode, the miniseries is halfway over, and by now, Elizabeth is fully off the fraud deep end, and things around Theranos are fully secretive and weird to an almost comical degree (like the 3:30 p.m. dinner reservation with the code name “Project Beta” — I chuckled). Employees are more siloed than ever, enforced by a plethora of front-desk security officers. Cameras blink in every room. NDAs flow like water in a stream. And lab employees are told not to leave the lab when important meetings are going on.
It’s all bells and whistles meant to hide key information (like: the blood test technology is years away from working properly) and bring in more money, this time via a 2010 deal with Walgreens. As the title promises, this episode is chock-full of old white men. They are literally everywhere. Some of them we know already (like British head of chemistry Ian Gibbons), and some are played by such recognizable actors (hi, Alan Ruck!) that it’s possible to keep them all straight.
There are three exchanges between Elizabeth — fully embodying her new CEO armor and persona from “Green Juice,” deeper voice and all — and an old white man in this episode that encapsulates the episode and the 2010 state of scammery at Theranos quite well. They are:
Elizabeth: Did you know that [Kevin] used to work at Quest Diagnostics?
Dr. Jay Rosan of Walgreens: … Yes, that’s why we hired him.
Elizabeth: Well, between us, we have evidence that Quest is trying to duplicate our technology for themselves.
Dr. Jay: Really! What’s the evidence?
Elizabeth: I’m not at liberty to disclose that; I’m sure you understand.
This exchange made me laugh because Seyfried and Ruck’s delivery and comedic chemistry is excellent, but it also illustrates just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how far Elizabeth will go to keep Walgreens’ hired lab expert, Kevin Hunter (Rich Sommer), from seeing Theranos’s lab and surely blowing up the brewing deal by discovering the technology doesn’t yet work. She also, at one point, tries to distract Walgreens with a gift of an American flag from a war zone in Afghanistan that she has autographed. What … the fuck?!
Luckily for her, Dr. Jay is easily wowed by the buzzy Silicon Valley start-up culture and wealth and thinks Theranos’s tight security means they must have something big. Kevin, meanwhile, thinks all the security and secrecy means Theranos is paranoid and worthy of suspicion. Kevin is correct.
Elizabeth: You don’t understand the business …
Ian: And you don’t understand the science!
Elizabeth: [blank stare]
This heated scene ends with Ian being unceremoniously fired and escorted out by security to his great disbelief and incredulity and through his fevered attempts to convince Elizabeth that she cannot allow real humans to be tested with the Edison device in Walgreens stores (or “wellness centers”). He’s later rehired, after multiple lab employees say they’ll also have to be fired if Ian is, but placed at an open-plan desk far from his lab, looking very, very sad. What will he do with what he knows about Elizabeth’s plans?
George Shultz: You want an old man? I’m 90 years old.
Elizabeth: Mr. Shultz, you are a force of nature, and it’s inspiring just being in your presence.
George Shultz: I must say, I’ve never met quite anyone like you, Ms. Holmes.
This scene, at the end of the episode, sets up where Elizabeth intends to go from here — working government connections to make the regulatory path smoother for Theranos — and the power of her persuasion at this point, especially when flattering and schmoozing an old white man to get on her side.
Seyfried deploys some amazing blank stares in “Old White Men,” momentarily caught off guard by Walgreens’ desire to, you know, validate the lab and technology before agreeing to a deal and by Ian’s pleas that she doesn’t understand the science or the implications of what she’s doing (with Walgreens). Still, Elizabeth always manages to pivot (often with Sunny — who has a sleeping bag in his office? — right by her side) and tell another lie or make another deceptive move that ultimately gets her what she needs: more money.
Sunny’s $20 million from 2008 has run out by 2010, and Theranos needs more cash (for Ian’s research, Elizabeth claims when they’re fighting, but … ?!). By the end of the episode, lots of bluffing — including what was likely a total charade of Sunny and Elizabeth leaving for a flight to Boston — has secured Theranos millions in investments from Walgreens and Safeway.
But the list of people who are suspicious of Elizabeth and Theranos is ever growing. Kevin Hunter is leading the skeptical-club charge by poking around the Edison at the Walgreens and Theranos collab party, and Ian knows something is rotten in the state of Palo Alto. He may be rehired for now, but he knows, and his faith in Elizabeth and her original vision has clearly been rattled. (Ian is also, by the way, confused by the turtlenecks and the new voice.) Brendan Morris, the new engineer from “Green Juice,” is clearly sick of all the secrecy at work, and Professor Robertson, even though he ratted Ian out to Elizabeth, has at least heard the head of chemistry say the Edison does not work. If he does anything with that information as a board member … if any of these folks do anything with their growing suspicions … we shall see.
Things are heating up. But Elizabeth shows no signs of backing down anytime soon. And as for her “change the world” vision? Well, we don’t get much insight into her headspace in this episode, but her actions telegraph that she’s very much aware she’s lying her butt off to secure this new funding whether or not she’s still justifying it to herself as part of her mission to change health care for the better.
Spare Drops of Blood
• Connor Roy has entered the building! It’s always a delight to see Alan Ruck grace the screen. It’s even better when he’s singing along to Katy Perry in his car.
• Elizabeth has had three assistants in four episodes (and in the first episode, she hadn’t yet started Theranos, so that one is moot). In “Old White Men,” we meet Cynthia. Constant assistant churn isn’t typically the sign of a good manager, you know?
• The Dropout is making me realize that I do not really miss the music of the late aughts and early 2010s. Thanks, The Dropout.
• The 2010 of it all is strong this week. We got Angry Birds, Obama’s health-care plan, the recession, the war in Afghanistan, “Firework” on the radio (twice), and confusion over microgreens (“tiny salad”), but my favorite 2010 detail might be the rabid enthusiasm over an open-floor plan office. As the kids (still) say, LOL.
• Also the irony of an open-office plan at a company where it’s “against protocol to talk to anyone outside your department” is just … how were people not more suspicious, sooner!?
• Another old white man we don’t see but gets a name-drop: General Mattis has joined the Theranos board by this point in time.