What’s striking about The Dropout is its sheer scale. In one sense, the Disney+ miniseries is very much of a piece with a growing genre of dramas and documentaries about scammers, con artists, and grifters of every flavour: the obvious comparison is something like Inventing Anna, the recent Netflix series about Anna Delvey, another young woman who fooled almost everyone around her through sheer force of will alone. They’re both biopics ripped from headlines, both true-crime series that drag the label away from dour stories of murder, and both see their lead actor affect the idiosyncratic voice of their subject.
But The Dropout stands apart from Inventing Anna – as well as documentaries like Jobfished and The Tinder Swindler, or WeCrashed, the upcoming Apple TV+ drama that comes closest to The Dropout but still falls short – is quite how huge the fraud at its heart became. Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) built a $9 billion company promising revolutionary medical technology she couldn’t deliver. In 2015, she was the youngest female billionaire in America; now, she’s facing up to twenty years in prison. It’s a sharp rise – and an even sharper fall – that can’t be matched by just any given fraudster.
Holmes’ company Theranos (a portmanteau of “therapy” and “diagnosis”) claimed to have invented a device that could automate and miniaturise blood testing, performing a full sweep of tests with just a single drop of blood – needing only a fingerprick. If it worked, Theranos machines would make at-home medical tests cheaper, more convenient, and more accessible to potentially millions of people: The Dropout sees Holmes describe a vision for a world “where no one ever has to say ‘if only I’d known sooner’, a world in which no one ever has to say goodbye too soon”.
Theranos promised life-saving technology it didn’t have and couldn’t deliver: when it went into business anyway, it faked lab results and invented diagnoses. Patients would be wrongly led to believe they had conditions they didn’t, or that they were healthy when they weren’t. Class action lawsuits against Holmes argue that the incorrect test results lead to patients seeking inappropriate treatments, delaying necessary ones, and racking up huge medical bills. It set back genuine efforts to innovate blood testing, too, other ventures losing out on funding just by virtue of Theranos existing. For all that Holmes wanted to disrupt and democratise healthcare, The Dropout emphasises, in the end she did nothing of the sort.
One of the underlying questions to The Dropout is how Holmes got away with it for as long as she did. The series begins in the early 2000s, around when Holmes dropped out of Stanford and founded Theranos, but much of it occurs in the wake of the 2008 final crash and resulting recession. People buy into Theranos with dollar signs in their eyes; on the rare occasions when someone does become suspicious of Holmes and contemplates whistleblowing, their doubts about the company are always tempered by financial insecurity. “It’s not just an email,” one lab technician says. “It’s my job, it’s my rent.”
What the series also makes clear, though, is that so much of what Theranos did was the norm rather than the exception. Every example of success that they’re met with – that Elizabeth imitates and aspires to – would have and often did the same thing. Larry Ellison boasts about the corners he cut with internet startup Oracle; Elizabeth quotes Mark Zuckerberg’s maxim “move fast and break stuff”; the spectre of Steve Jobs hangs over them all. Part of it is just an imperfect storm, conditions that could only exist there and then in the wake of the recession and in the midst of that early 2000s fascination with entrepreneurs – most of it is just the nature of capitalism. (Something The Dropout is quite astute on is depicting how incestuous that world can be – Theranos was celebrated for having “the most illustrious board in U.S. corporate history”, seats held by high-profile politicians, lawyers, diplomats, businessmen and doctors, Republicans and Democrats alike, the profit margin always the most important thing.)
It’s that perspective that underpins The Dropout’s character study of Holmes, a person defined by the unbearable weight of ambition with only one way to express it: her company. Holmes becomes inextricable from Theranos, and the corporate culture ranges from the vapid and empty jargon (health clinics become ‘wellness centres’, inspired by Apple’s genius bars) to a full-on cult of personality. “This isn’t just my job,” she intones in that affected baritone. “This is my religion. This is who I am. Anyone who doubts my company doubts me. Does anyone here doubt me?” Its image was her image, one a metonym for the other, and in the end she was the only person who mattered there: at the same time Holmes ignores pleas not to “test that machine on people, human beings”, Theranos pushes ahead with an advertising campaign centred around her face, her dream, her story. “People will trust this technology because they’ll trust you,” says one marketing executive. “Theranos is you.”
Amanda Seyfried is magnetic as Holmes, deftly capturing her transformation from alienated college student to powerful CEO. It’s a layered performance – literally, at times, as The Dropout tracks Holmes’ different constructed identities, from the affected baritone to the black turtlenecks, but Seyfried does a compelling job paring those [layers] back, that brittle callousness giving way to a glassy-eyed vulnerability you can tell Holmes doesn’t quite recognise in herself. At times The Dropout leans a little too heavily on biographical detail and superficial psychology – there was, apparently, a childhood game of Monopoly that Holmes was scarily intent on winning – but Seyfried is always there to elevate the material in those rare moments it doesn’t quite land. (Even then, that’s not to dismiss the writing – its early coming-of-age movie intercut with deposition hearings structure is smart and fun – but more of a comment on some of the hallmarks of biopics more broadly.)
There were plans, early on, for Holmes to be played by Kate McKinnon, and Adam McKay is currently working on a feature film with Jennifer Lawrence. After watching this, both are difficult to imagine: much like Theranos is Elizabeth Holmes, The Dropout is Amanda Seyfried.
The first three episodes of The Dropout will be available to stream on Disney+ from Thursday 3 March, with the remaining five episodes released weekly. I’ve seen 7 of a total 8 episodes before writing this review.