The Dropout Turns A Podcast About Elizabeth Holmes Into a Hulu Series. Here’s What to Know
If it feels like there have been countless projects in the works about ex-Silicon Valley prodigy Elizabeth Holmes for years, it’s because there have been. We love to see the super-wealthy fall at their own peril. Holmes was the most recent case of schadenfreude. Holmes, the highly regarded CEO of Theranos (a biotech firm that claims to have invent a machine that can run blood tests from a single drop of blood), was a celebrated figure. Theranos, which was worth $10 billion at its height, had Henry Kissinger as a member of its board. Holmes was found guilty of numerous counts including fraud on investors and wire fraud in January 2022.
Hulu Original Series DropoutTheranos is first dramatization. The Dropout is based on an ABC podcast series of the same name that started in 2019 and continued through Holme’s trial in 2022. Hulu has the first season, which covers Holmes’ journey from being a bright Stanford student to becoming the epitome of corruption in Silicon Valley.
The podcast features many Theranos scientists and employees. Listeners of the podcast will recognize some of the names, but even if you haven’t listened, the show does a good job of contextualizing the people in each era of Holmes’ life who either enabled her or tried to stop her.
It sometimes feels that the show is not necessary because it sticks so closely to the podcast. What does a dramatization add that a documentary or piece of journalism hasn’t already covered? That’s always the question when it comes to true stories like this that end up told in a dozen different forms. Studio productions can sometimes overestimate audiences’ desire for more content, just like TV series that covered Joe Exotic (a notorious New York zookeeper) and Anna Delvey (a New York scammer).
But The Dropout Elizabeth Holmes is humanized in some way. Holmes, in the cultural imagination has been reduced to a stereotype of a villain and has come out as more of an idea than a person. Although The Dropout doesn’t downgrade Holmes’ crimes or justify her hunger for power, it draws out her vulnerabilities and explains what motivates someone to that level of greed. Villains are people too—that’s what makes them so disarming.
The DropoutMany characters of the podcast are shown in this illustration
Theranos characters are present in all stories that deal with the Elizabeth Holmes case. Podcast and show follow Holmes through her life, from her childhood to her final days. Each era of Holmes’ business features new sets of people, as her intense drive and suspicious tactics drove some staffers away, while others were lured by her inflated promises. Some characters may be created to move the plot along, but most main characters and supporting characters will not. The DropoutThis illustration depicts real Holmes collaborators.
Numerous professors who meet Holmes while she’s in college appear: Phyllis Gardner (Laurie Metcalf), who warns her early on that the idea for Theranos is not feasible, and Channing Robertson (Bill Irwin), who became the first board member of Theranos. Robertson is not mentioned in season one of Dropout Podcast, Gardner is interviewed by Holmes about her 19-year-old encounter with Holmes. Gardner was a Stanford University Medical Professor. Holmes told Gardner that it wasn’t possible for her to create a microfluidic system that would test blood and give medicine. Holmes went ahead regardless.
The show also heavily features the story of Ian Gibbons, a biochemist who began at Theranos in 2005 as the company’s chief scientist. Gibbons had wanted to quit, but instead he stayed as a cancer patient and needed the insurance. Gibbons faced two choices when he was summoned to testify in Theranos’ lawsuit. He could lie in order to save his job or tell the truth and risk being fired. Gibbons committed suicide in 2013, just days before he was due to appear before lawyers.
The DropoutStephen Fry plays Gibbons with great care. Fry portrays a defeated, depressed Gibbons at the end of his own life. But, most of the time, he presents Gibbons to be a warm, intelligent, humorous, and friendly individual loved by his coworkers. It lays bare the crux of Holmes’ problem: while she spoke at length about wanting to innovate the healthcare industry and provide better access to care, the scientist who created her patents couldn’t leave his job because he would lose his healthcare.
Then there’s the crew of people who aided in the downfall of Theranos: whistleblowers Erika Cheung (Camryn Mi-Young) and Tyler Shultz (Dylan Minnette), who is also the grandson of Theranos’ most trusted board member George Shultz. As characters in the show, Erika and Tyler, both young post-grad employees, make it clear that Theranos’ fraudulence was so obvious, even these lowly employees could see. Ebon Moss-Bachrach portrays John Carreyrou (the journalist). Wall Street Journal reporter who first broke the story about Theranos’ fraud. William H. Macy, who is a fierce and furious Richard Fuisz (who enters into a patent war alongside Holmes), sports a large baldcap.
The podcast’s source material is closely followed by the show, even down to how many episodes it has. For example, the first podcast season has six episodes and the second has seven. There are not yet any details on whether the season 2 of the podcast will have additional seasons.
Crafting Elizabeth Holmes’ signature look
It is a big draw of The Dropout is seeing how Amanda Seyfried portrays Holmes, specifically when it comes to what became Homes’ signature look: wild eyes, frizzy hair, bright red lipstick, and a baritone voice. While Seyfried’s impression is not exactly subtle, it is convincing. He is adept at portraying Holmes in all her weirdness. Seyfried runs and dances like an acrobat, wears horrible Christmas sweaters and has no other life than school. Then she begins her business, which leaves little for life. Her practice routine involves practicing small talk before a mirror. She has a lot of friends who are old billionaires. Green juice is her constant drink.
At this stage, the idea that a Silicon Valley CEO is an alien futurist weirdo is just a common meme. Holmes was a perfect example of this, as she literally modeled her outfit after Steve Jobs. But The DropoutTracks how Holmes reached that point. It is not possible The Social Network, which remains the definitive work on greed in Silicon Valley but never offered details about Mark Zuckerberg’s personal life or an explanation for why he is the way he is, The Dropout lays the groundwork so Holmes’ actions make sense. When Seyfried as Holmes leaves an important investor meeting to rush to see her dad in the hospital, he croaks from his hospital bed “Why are you here? You have work to do.” And you begin to see how she turned out the way she did.
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It reveals what the show doesn’t do and what it does.
There is no docudrama that can compare to this. The Dropout, there are going to be parts of the true story that don’t make it into the dramatized version, and there are going to be plot points that are made up for the sake of entertainment. There is no way for anyone to find out what was discussed behind closed (bullet-proofed) doors in the Theranos office.
Aside from Seyfried, the show’s second lead is Andrews as Balwani, who served as the president and COO of Theranos starting in 2009. Balwani was an entrepreneur in the software industry, but he didn’t have any scientific training, making his arrival at Theranos a bit confusing for employees. In real life and on the TV show, neither Theranos employees nor investors knew Holmes and Balwani had been in a romantic relationship for a while.
Holmes and Balwani met when Holmes was 38 and she was 18. They were studying in Beijing. This is In Dropout, their initial meeting is portrayed as sweet—Holmes is awkward and takes the program much more seriously than her peers, and Balwani appreciates her seriousness. They never have a romantic relationship, even though Holmes already has the first Theranos location. For the first few episodes of the show, much of their relationship is surprisingly wholesome, with Balwani acting as a protector for Holmes, who’s already in over her head. He uses her status to secure better room in a hospital for Holmes’ father. Another scene shows him making sure she gets dinner. The reality is probably more influenced by Andrews and Seyfried’s performances than their actual performance. But then again, we don’t really know. However, we do have some ideas about their oddities. Text messagesThey were also revealed at court.
Holmes was also present during her trial. Witness testimonyBalwani physically and sexually assaulted her throughout their relationship. This is what puts The Dropout in something of an awkward place, because while it’s important to believe women about their abuse, Holmes has revealed herself to be a serial liar. Balwani however was well-known for having a temper in the office. DropoutThey also make it clear that Holmes is losing his temper towards him. While it doesn’t depict their relationship as necessarily abusive, it does make it clear that their relationship was not a healthy one. (The show does depict the true story that Holmes was raped at a frat house at Stanford University, and that the school didn’t lodge any punishment at the perpetrator. Holmes was a real person. A police reportAbout her attack in 2003, when she was just 19 years old.
The podcast does not include some information related to Theranos’s downfall. The podcast reports that Tyler Shultz, a whistleblower, first reported Theranos’ demise to the New York State Department for Health using an anonymous alias. He then spoke on record with Theranos. WSJ. Although it doesn’t appear on the show, this does obscure the fact that so many people tried to bring down Theranos from many different angles.
John Ioannidis of Stanford is not mentioned in the show. He was amongst those who first openedly challenged Theranos. Ioannidis also wrote an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2015 criticizing Theranos for its like of peer reviewed work and the secrecy around how it’s technology actually works.
It doesn’t matter if The DropoutIt will give you new insight into Holmes depending on what information you have about the case. It does provide some memorable performances as well as an exploration of Silicon Valley’s wild and bizarre world.