There are three main plots at work in this week’s episode of The Dropout, and while all of them intersect and build upon one another, they’re also distinct in tone in a fun way — like we get three different storytelling genres in one episode. We’ve got a 21 Jump Street/All the President’s Men, not-really-buddies buddy-comedy investigation movie. We’ve got a horror movie, complete with dark corners, quiet stairwells, and a suspenseful score (there’s even a jump scare involving a mask of Elizabeth’s face!). And we’ve got an inspiring #WomenInScience biopic.
By the end of “Iron Sisters,” each of these stories has started to meld into one, that of Theranos’s imminent fall from grace. But first: In October 2013, unfortunately for us and Dr. Phyllis Gardner (whose frustration with the fact that her life path has intersected with Dr. Richard Fuisz’s in this way knows no end), Richard is the one leading the Club Skeptical charge to bring Elizabeth and Theranos down.
Weird as his initial motivations re: Elizabeth were and possibly still are (even his wife, Lorraine, has left him), he’s getting shit done now, cold-calling and hooking Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou (Ebon Moss-Bachrach); showing up at a bereaved Rochelle Gibbons’s doorstep (you may think this would mean she’d blow Richard and Phyllis off, but actually she’s relieved and wants to burn Theranos to the ground); and contacting Theranos employees via LinkedIn to provide Carreyrou a primary source or two. Richard is annoying, but it’s still satisfying to see him, Phyllis, and Rochelle working to expose Theranos for its fraud.
Phyllis and Richard’s bickering adds some comedic relief to these scenes, but the important takeaways are really that the investigation into Theranos is gaining ground, with lab director Mark (Kevin Sussman) coughing up some dirt due to his Hippocratic oath, and Tyler Shultz (Dylan Minnette) and Erika Cheung (Cameron Mi-young Kim) calling Carreyrou at the end of the episode.
Speaking of Tyler and Erika, they’re our horror-movie scream-queen stars of “Iron Sisters.” Aside from being momentarily starstruck by an Elizabeth sighting, from nearly the moment new lab employee Erika signs her monstrous NDAs and is informed she shouldn’t tell anyone (after she told her dad) that she is working at Theranos (he’s excited because it’s her first job—cut her a break!), her “something is wrong here” sense starts tingling.
As she travels down ill-lit hallways and pokes around eerily silent labs, Erika collects signs that things are not right at Theranos (Tyler’s handing her a piece of masking tape to cover her computer camera “so they can’t watch you” was the funniest, but there’s more serious stuff, like malfunctioning Edisons and being directed to cherry-pick data and not ask questions). When her hand is forced into giving a real-life patient not-totally-verified results during the Thanksgiving shift, she has had it … and discovers the Siemens machines the Walgreens samples are being run on. The Siemens logo is covered by a very easily removed Theranos sticker. Seriously, Theranos scammers? Book smarts don’t always = common-sense smarts, just sayin’.
Erika is distraught that real people are roped into this and wants to collect more evidence. Tyler isn’t convinced Elizabeth knows what’s going on (cue Erika rolling her eyes at his Elizabeth blinders) … until he tries to talk to his grandpa (the George Shultz) about it at Elizabeth’s 30th-birthday party, and Elizabeth interrupts them, coldly shuts his questions down, and then demands that he play the painfully awkward song he wrote for her again the second he finishes the first rendition. Tyler brings a lot of privilege to the table — something Erika points out to him when explaining the panic she feels at the prospect of losing her job — which may not endear everyone to him right away, but Minnette brings charisma to his performance, and damn if I didn’t feel bad for the kid when he had to play that god-awful song on acoustic guitar for an evilly smiling Elizabeth twice. Plus, all that clicks his conscience into place and sends him right to Erika’s door, and the two officially team up to try and right the Theranos wrongs. This, unfortunately, costs both of them their jobs and Tyler his relationship with his grandpa (who sides with Elizabeth, partially too caught up in the story that he himself is participating in something unequivocally good for humanity with Theranos), but hope lies ahead for our young two heroes.
This brings us to the last story of “Iron Sisters,” the one that gives the episode its title and once again tackles the sticky “Elizabeth Holmes, Feminist Icon/Women in Science Hero/Fighter of Sexism in Tech” issue that’s an inextricable part of the whole Theranos story (in The Dropout, most directly so far in “Green Juice”). The #IronSisters ad campaign, onstage Stanford interview, and Elizabeth’s 30th-birthday party all showcase just how intertwined Elizabeth and Theranos are by this point, and they all — in conjunction with some of the buddy-comedy investigation and horror-movie elements — address the well-publicized and accepted idea that Elizabeth is a breaker of glass ceilings and champion of her fellow women in science.
Again, Elizabeth as a tech/health-care CEO may be symbolically groundbreaking. But The Dropout doesn’t blindly buy into that fairy tale in “Iron Sisters,” even as it has previously acknowledged that she may have started with good intentions. Instead, it shows us how hollow and even insidious that symbolic achievement can be when it’s just accepted at face value. How Elizabeth’s telling of Phyllis’s long-ago rejection of her (still not actually a working product!) idea is so easily cast as jealousy and sexism, and made Phyllis the villain; how George spins Erika’s attempted whistleblowing as bad form/poor repayment for all Elizabeth has done to support young women in science; how people generally seem enamored of and wowed by Elizabeth based on her being a groundbreaker, even though that broken ground is made up of lies and deception; how a whole ad campaign is built around Elizabeth busting through that glass ceiling and fostering a friendly working environment for women in science despite the fact that we also see her, time after time, fully engaging in Theranos’s fraud, lying to people’s faces, and making veiled and not-so-veiled threats.
As Erika astutely says, “She is the CEO; she knows what’s going on … why do you think she doesn’t know what’s going on at her own company?”
Yeah. Great question, Erika!
Spare Drops of Blood
• Carreyrou refers to Theranos as a “unicorn,” which makes me think of the WeWork documentary, which makes me think once more about the lovely scam culture we live in.
• Theranos employees get $10 a tube for donating blood to the Theranos lab. The “give blood, sweat, and tears to your work” thing really came to life at Theranos in a way that you could not write better if you were making it up from scratch.
• The sight of everyone at Elizabeth’s 30th-birthday party wearing masks of Elizabeth’s face with the eyes cut out sent chills down my spine. The later sight of Elizabeth and Sunny dancing in their living room in the same masks is equally disturbing (but also funny).
• “I don’t dance,” Elizabeth claims at her party. Liar! IMO, Elizabeth’s dancing is her best attribute.