In The Dropout, figurative and literal masks abound. There’s Amanda Seyfried’s mimicry of Elizabeth Holmes’s peculiarly smudged makeup and many-pitches-lower voice, put-upon affectations that Holmes adopted so the men of the tech, biomedical, and finance worlds would read her as conventionally feminine (the red lipstick) and also take her seriously (that gruff tone). And then there is the actual, mass-produced mask of Holmes’s face that is distributed at the 30th-birthday party thrown for her by the enthralled, grandfatherly, sycophantic George Shultz (Sam Waterston), who delights in being surrounded by Elizabeths. Each mask is a kind of artifice — a persona that can be put on and taken off at will — and each captures the duplicity at play within the initially well-meaning, ultimately pitiless founder of Theranos.
The Dropout plays with this duality all series long via its soundtrack, with song choices that comment on these characters and their increasingly selfish actions while simultaneously communicating their hidden desires and prevailing fears. Consider the confessional nature of Alabama’s “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why)” and how strange it is that this ’90s country track is a high schooler’s hype song; the almost repellently earnest “Firework” by Katy Perry, its self-empowerment message inherently available for co-opting; the melancholy of David Bowie’s “Heroes,” equally yearning and self-defeating; and the sneering judgment of Dom’s “Living in America” and LCD Soundsystem’s “North American Scum” (the latter also featured, appropriately, as a favorite of Kendall Roy’s on Succession). All Theranos (falsely) needed was a drop of blood to tell its patients who they were, and in a bit of complementary mirroring, all The Dropout needs is a needle drop to reveal itself to us. It’s such an effective technique, that in its finale episode, when The Dropout stops using its soundtrack to speak for its characters, the identity void created by that musical absence is just as revealing.
Premiere episode “I’m in a Hurry” begins with a collection of scenes that presents Holmes at different ages, tracing her from the unrepentant, fallen-from-grace CEO being deposed in July 2017 — a framing device that continues throughout the series — all the way back to the middle schooler placing dead last in a track meet but still running to the very end. The series picks up linearly with Holmes as an awkward high school senior in 2001, listening obsessively to “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why)” and using the song’s can-do attitude (and her father’s firing from the fraudulent Enron) as fuel for her own forward progress. After fleeing from her father’s office as he starts to cry about his downfall, Holmes dances alone, gracelessly but emphatically, in her bedroom to Alabama. She stomps her feet, she thrusts her arms forward while planting her lower half; it’s all very Elaine Benes at the holiday party. Most tellingly, Holmes makes a kind of pleading pose before a poster of Steve Jobs hanging on her wall, and then aligns her body with his as Alabama lead singer Randy Owen exclaims, “Oh, I rush and rush” — she wants to be him, and her body cannot hide that desire.
The connections between the music we listen to and the way we respond to it are explored throughout “I’m in a Hurry,” which uses songs to chart Holmes’s progression as it zooms through her high school and Stanford years. When she fails to make new friends in China during her summer-immersion program, the scene is set to Len’s “Steal My Sunshine” (“And of course you can’t become if you only say what you would have done/So I missed a million miles of fun”). As she refuses to dance with the much older Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) despite their growing closeness, we hear the Sparklehorse song “Gold Day,” whose lyrics speak to their age difference and Balwani’s patriarchal, absorbing treatment of Holmes (“Good morning, my child/Stay with me a while/And evaporate in the sun”). By the time Holmes is at Stanford, she’s practicing how to make small talk in the mirror and remaining completely stoic during sex with her boyfriend, who ironically sings along to Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body” and doesn’t notice Holmes’s disinterest. And after she is sexually assaulted at a sorority party, the first time she experiences joy again is via her iPod, which Seyfried languorously caresses along her face and neck while listening to the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Y Control.”
Karen O raging “I wish I could buy back/The woman you stole” certainly sounds like a guiding ideology for Holmes, who would eventually be worth $4.5 billion at 30 and named “the world’s youngest self-made woman billionaire” by Forbes, before the Wall Street Journal’s reporting helped topple her empire. The use of “Y Control,” juxtaposed with Holmes’s practically seduced response to the latest Apple technology, evokes that earlier Jobs-poster dance while also embodying The Dropout’s dual deployment of its music. Sometimes the song’s lyrics are what we’re meant to take away from a scene, sometimes it’s what the characters are doing as that music plays, and sometimes it’s both. Consistently, though, The Dropout’s soundtrack highlights and facilitates moments as candid as Holmes’s jutting jaw or Balwani’s hand talking — glimpses underneath their masks of altruistic wunderkind/savvy CEO and devoted mentor/exacting COO.
Each episode offers up a new morsel of evidence. In second episode “Satori,” Holmes does a modified version of the Robot, soldier marches, and shoulder shimmies around Theranos’ office to Missy Elliott’s “We Run This,” trying to internalize the lyric “This chick is a sick individual” in order to secure funding. Later on, she’ll fire her assistant, Miriam (Kate Comer), for going into her phone and inviting Balwani to the Theranos office, but there’s also a sense that the assistant’s glimpse of her boss dancing had already put her on the chopping block — Holmes’s moment of vulnerability certainly couldn’t be shared with a subordinate.
The only person with whom Holmes truly shares herself is Balwani, and The Dropout’s best musical moments capture the shifting dynamics between the couple as set to song. In third episode “Green Juice,” Holmes’s new Jobs-inspired look is revealed alongside Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” perhaps the series’s most on-the-nose choice for its simultaneous grandiose and ominous tone, as the camera tilts upward to Balwani handing Holmes a glass of the once-despised titular drink. In “Flower of Life,” director Francesca Gregorini re-creates the stutter-step flow of Holmes’s interaction with that Jobs poster by means of her dancing toward Balwani to Lil Wayne’s somewhat paranoid “How to Love” (“Now you’re sitting here in this damn corner/Looking through all your thoughts and looking over your shoulder”), and her kneeling at his lap is a position the two will return to in finale “Lizzy.” Sixth episode “Iron Sisters” elevates the couple through music to their most self-involved and seemingly untouchable, with a grueling scene in which Holmes forces Schultz’s increasingly suspicious grandson Tyler (Dylan Minnette) to twice perform a birthday song he wrote for her with lyrics that compare her to Nikola Tesla, the religious figure Noah, and — of course — Jobs.
Seyfried’s furious gaze and tight grin, coupled with Minnette’s palpable fear and shaky voice, make the scene a two-minute horror movie in which Tyler’s praiseful lyrics (“You will change the world, Elizabeth/Elizabeth, the vision/Elizabeth, the brave/Elizabeth, the great”) serve the same buoyant function for Holmes as “We Run This” once did. If The Dropout is using music to tell us who these characters are, then Tyler’s song serves as both fantasy and irony: Holmes would change the world, but not in the way she intended. There is an unnerving atmosphere to a subsequent scene between Holmes and Balwani at their mansion, where they furiously and unreservedly dance to Nick Jonas’s “Jealous” while trading one of the birthday-party masks back and forth, but that scene’s surreal quality almost seems ancillary. Through Tyler’s song, director Gregorini and writer Wei-Ning Yu had already made their point about who Holmes has convinced herself she is.
All of that leads to “Lizzy,” the finale of The Dropout that takes us through the downfall of Theranos; Holmes and Balwani’s breakup (the depiction of which should secure Seyfried and Andrews Emmy nominations); and Holmes’s rebranding as “Lizzy” as she falls in love with a younger, seemingly unaware-of-her-past guy, adopts a Siberian husky, and takes on a fresh persona as a wellness-conscious, leaving-it-all-behind-her new mom. There’s no music during the scene in which Holmes and Balwani spar, guilefully sliding threats toward each other until Balwani realizes he’s been outmaneuvered by the “girl” he once loved. And there’s no music later when Michaela Watkins’s Linda, who used to be in-house counsel for Theranos, literally chases Holmes out of the abandoned office (“You hurt people!”); when Holmes collapses on the sidewalk in an animalistic scream, her teeth bared and her whole buddy shuddering; or when she unnervingly rearranges that feral expression into one of calmness and friendliness for her arriving Uber driver.
The omission of songs in “Lizzy” contrasts well with the intertitle information that Holmes, a week or so before Theranos formally dissolved on September 7, 2018 (leaving 800 people unemployed and evaporating $700 million in investor money), attended the Burning Man festival with her new boyfriend. When it was time for Holmes to face the music, so to speak, she fled to a desert rave where primordial electro and inflamed effigies are meant to signify rebirth and renewal. The Dropout doesn’t depict this trip (due to budgeting and COVID limitations, says series creator and showrunner Liz Meriwether), but it didn’t need to. We can imagine for ourselves the kind of effort and evasion that goes into crafting Holmes’s new version of herself, thanks to the musical foundation the series provides and the final end-credits song choice of St. Vincent’s “Pay Your Way in Pain” (“I, I wanna be loved/Pay, pain/Pray, shame”). “It’s that moment when you can look inside yourself and know just who you are,” Hart Bochner’s Larry Ellison had said to Holmes when explaining the Japanese concept of satori, and The Dropout’s soundtrack is the key to that self-awareness — or lack thereof.