Woof, this is a heavy one, y’all. What working at Theranos does to poor Ian Gibbons … well, it’s pretty tragic. (Content warning for discussion of suicide in this recap.)
The important context going into this week’s episode of The Dropout is this: Chaos is reigning supreme at Theranos in 2013 in “Flower of Life”; it remains a semblance of controlled chaos, but still. Theranos is bleeding (LOL) money year after year. The technology still does not work (in fact, at one point, it explodes in Sunny’s face), and Walgreens is $140 million in and pushing Elizabeth to commit to a launch deadline for the Theranos and Walgreens wellness centers.
With all that in mind, this episode can be summed up by the following four d’s: delusion, desperation, doubt, and deception.
On the delusion front, Elizabeth, flailing yet bullshitting as ever, is blowing off calls from her brother (who now works at Theranos as what appears to be an incompetent and bumbling associate director of strategic initiatives) and Sunny and George Shultz by claiming she’s “actually about to go into a meeting” when she’s not. She’s more focused on a new logo and mourning Steve Jobs at a marketing meeting than she is on the fact that her technology doesn’t work and she’s promised Walgreens a September launch date. There are moments when you can see all the pressure burns her out, but the hole she’s dug is so deep she doesn’t know what else to do but keep digging at this point — and it seems she’s deluded even herself into believing her lies will just magically birth working tech into existence. Or that Sunny will magically get things operating right since he’s in charge of operations. Or that she will magically not be the very public face of this company. (As a side note, does she know she can magically put her iPhone on silent?)
Also deluded? Elizabeth’s old neighbor Richard and the patent lawsuit he and Theranos are embroiled in. Their blood and ego feud remain strange, all the stranger because he’s had an issue with Elizabeth since she was a teenager, and it culminates in some truly unhinged acting by William H. Macy and the devilish smirks of David Boies (Kurtwood Smith), famed Harvey Weinstein lawyer (ugh). Look, Richard is right to be suspicious of Theranos, as we all know, but the fact that he’s been obsessed with Elizabeth and avenging some perceived slight for many years at this point is just … ick.
In the realm of desperation, we’ve got Sunny and Elizabeth, increasingly desperate over the nonworking tech and Walgreens deadline and the friction it’s causing in their relationship. And we’ve got poor Ian, who remains employed at Theranos for the health insurance despite having absolutely no work to do there. He’s dragged into the aforementioned lawsuit because his name is on the patents with Elizabeth’s.
Torn up over the Catch-22 he faces (if he testifies and tells the truth, he’s breaking his Theranos NDA, and they could sue him; if he testifies and lies, he’s committing perjury; and if he does what Theranos wants and gets a doctor’s note saying he’s unwell, he could never work again), Ian spends the episode spiraling, drinking heavily, and ultimately overdosing on Tylenol and alcohol and dying by suicide. As Elizabeth points out (in a moment that seems as if it’s going to be an emotional human one for one tiny moment before she coldly pivots back to business matters), Ian survived cancer. But he did not survive the mental anguish working at Theranos put him through. That is fucking awful and sad.
Doubt runs through the episode, too, as various characters grow more suspicious of Theranos, and even Elizabeth and Sunny have moments of doubting that they can deliver. Before Ian’s death but after her Uncle Ron’s, Elizabeth gives thought to Sunny’s suggestion that they “just stop” (their relationship and Theranos). At Ron’s funeral, where her parents brag about her and gloat over the fact that everyone is intimidated and jealous she showed up on a private plane (again, they are at a funeral; this hardly seems appropriate), she searches for some assurance that she once had hobbies and that she isn’t her company (which ties back to the Elizabeth Holmes–centric campaign her new marketing firm wants to pursue). Mrs. Holmes does name some childhood hobbies but balks at the idea that the company isn’t who Elizabeth is, which … is not a healthy mentality.
The pep talk doesn’t seem to cure Elizabeth’s doubts in the moment, but she — of course — recommits to her fraud on the way back to San Francisco, coming up with a plan (and bringing us to the fourth d: deception). The plan? They’ll launch in phases, starting with Phase One, which entails busting open a Siemens blood-testing machine (which Sunny has already done), tweaking it a bit, and passing it off as a Theranos machine in the Walgreens wellness centers. The fraud — it just gets bigger and bigger each episode.
Things circle back around to doubt as the episode ends with Elizabeth giving a rousing speech to her troops (which include new intern Tyler Shultz, George’s grandson, who is hilariously warned by Brendan Morris to “get out” as they cross paths in the lobby) that includes the lines: “This isn’t just my company … This is who I am. And anyone who doubts my company doubts me. Does anyone here doubt me?” A real pivot from where she started the episode. She also debuts the new Theranos logo (inspired by the flower of life) and gives lip service to the company mission of making sure “no one ever has to say goodbye too soon,” which is really twisted when you think about Ian, how his wife had to say goodbye too soon because of how tormented he was over Theranos, and how hard he railed against the Walgreens partnership, which is the very occasion this new logo, slogan, and speech are marking. Sick.
As it does each week, Club Skeptical gains new members who doubt the validity of Theranos and Elizabeth: Brendan seems to either have quit or been fired; Ian’s wife knows Elizabeth didn’t contribute a lick of scientific work to those patents; and Richard (whose ego-driven feud with Elizabeth will never not be weird), forced to settle the lawsuit but not one to let things go, calls up his old pal — and ours — Yoda-hater Dr. Phyllis Gardner from the show’s premiere! Who tells him that Elizabeth “has always been a fraud.” And that’s that … until next week, anyway.
Spare Drops of Blood
• “If I settle now, I’m the shmuck!” Richard, dude, you have been the schmuck since we met you in the show’s first episode.
• “Flower of Life” brings us the return of Amanda Seyfried–as–Elizabeth-Holmes dancing! Thank you, TV gods.
• For those keeping track at home, Henry Kissinger has joined the Theranos board.
• At the Theranos Halloween party, Elizabeth is dressed as a wizard. A nice visual reminder that she clearly believes more in magic than science at this point.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline to speak to someone: 1-800-273-8255.