Sleekly crafted, ably narrated and finely acted out by its cast, Elizabeth Holmes’ saga of deception keeps you hooked till its closure
Elizabeth Meriwether’s true crime series outlining the life of disgraced young entrepreneur Elizabeth Holmes portrays its subject as nothing short of brilliant. Over eight episodes, the last of which dropped this weekend, Holmes is by turns brilliantly bright, charming and smart. She is also impeccable when it comes to conning people and living a life of lies till luck runs out, besides manipulating millions into trusting her claim that she’s out to change the world.
For those who came in late, Elizabeth Holmes was 19 when she founded the multibillion startup Theranos in 2003. As CEO of the company, she fooled investors, patients, the media as well as a significant portion of the American medical community into believing her company had successfully invented a technology that could revolutionise blood testing. Theranos managed to scale a valuation of around $10 billion within a decade, with the media hailing it as “a revolutionary company that threatens to change healthcare the same way Amazon changed retail or Apple changed the cellphone”. As an introductory line gushes early on in the first episode of the series, Holmes was “America’s youngest self-made billionaire”.
The downward spiral began in 2015, after medical researchers and professors raised concern over how authentic the Theranos technology actually was. Palpable damage was also done by a series of articles two-time Pulitzer Prize winner journalist John Carreyrou wrote in The Wall Street Journal questioning Holmes and Theranos. Holmes’ net worth started sliding till it plunged to near-zero and, following a slew of sanctions and lawsuits, Theranos was dissolved in September 2018. Holmes was 34 when her career as a billionaire entrepreneur ended just as meteorically as it had taken off.
That bit is a well-documented slice of current affairs. Meriwether gets down to narrate the story of Holmes with the disadvantage that it had been abundantly reported in the global press at the time of its occurrence, which is not very long ago. Plus, there have been information sources as Carreyrou’s book, Bad Blood: Secrets And Lies In A Silicon Valley Startup, and the ABC News podcast of the same name on which The Dropout is based.
Series creator Meriwether circumvents the hitch by going beyond what straight documentation of events have depicted so far in various media, and adding the hue and tone of fiction to real life. Importantly, she taps into the obvious asset at hand to craft a USP for her show — her protagonist. The Dropout imagines Elizabeth Holmes as nothing short of a bizarre mire of complexities. The young entrepreneur is surely one of the most intriguing protagonists to have been created for American streaming space lately, and Meriwether couldn’t have taken a better casting call than Amanda Seyfried for the role.
Seyfried’s physical likeness with Holmes is all too uncanny. Where the actress hits bullseye is in the way she imbibes the markedly awkward body language. If you have heard Holmes on videos, you would be aware about the popular contention that she deliberately deepened her voice while speaking in public. Seyfried uses that trait impressively, to switch between different modes of her character — from a public celebrity who oozes confidence while addressing investors, statesmen, mediapersons and gathered audiences with gravitas to the young girl who is more casual while speaking to her partner Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews), her parents or her core team at Theranos.
It is a trait that is perhaps born out of a young girl’s persistence to prove a point to a world that won’t take her seriously, at the same time driving her to a space where she becomes obstinate about winning any which way. The story brings this aspect out poignantly in a scene where Holmes and her father (Michel Gill) discuss a letter she wrote to him as a little girl. “Dear Dad, what I really want out of life is to invent something new… something that mankind didn’t know was possible to do,” goes the gist of the letter that her father sentimentally frames and keeps on his table. Meriwether uses such moments of tenderness all along to humanise her controversial protagonist, successfully adding layers to the disquieting reality of her persona.
Meriwether however manages to take the story beyond mere depiction of events and character analysis. She draws attention to the broader fallout that the momentous criminal fraud left in its wake. In one of the later episodes, shortly before Theranos collapsed, Holmes has been nominated an honorary Fellow of the Harvard Medical School Board. She is seen trying to start a conversation with the acclaimed pharmacologist Dr Phyllis Gardner (played Laurie Metcalf), also a Fellow at the institution. The latter, though, has heard of The Wall Street Journal expose, and her scorn for Holmes is apparent. “When the scandal comes out, what do you think happens to all the women who want to start companies? What happens to them? This is not just you. It’s never just you,” Dr Gardner tells Holmes, the disdain in her voice being amply clear.
The screenplay throws in such hard moments as reminders all along as Holmes’ heady run unfolds, to quietly keep underlining how the young achiever slowly lost control of her life and mission. Meriwether has roped in a battery of writers (Wei-Ning Yu, Hilary Bettis, Liz Hannah, Liz Heldens, Dan LeFranc and Sofya Levitsky-Weitz), most of whom have penned a single episode. The diverse writing helps create a variety in mood and tone to mark the various phases of Holmes’ life. Yu serves effectively as Story Editor, too, maintaining a coherence in the storytelling process.
Sleekly crafted, ably narrated and finely acted out by its cast, Elizabeth Holmes’ saga of deception keeps you hooked till its closure. As the show wraps up, Sunny’s words to Elizabeth in a scene of the final episode rings in your ears: “You’re not real. You don’t have feelings. You’re not a person. You’re a ghost.” But more than laying bare the soul of one fraudulent entrepreneur, the show triumphs as a disturbing reminder of the times we live in, one when the lust for easy money and quick success has all but consumed everything else that should ordinarily define life.
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