This post briefly mentions sexual assault.
I’ve been working in tech for years and years. I grew up around IBM engineers. The first and most brutal lesson I learned was: don’t try to hide shit. You’ll always be found out, plus higher-ups are normally understanding about a lapsed deadline or missed feature, as long as you explain matters. (If they aren’t, you don’t want to work for them.)
This is a lesson Elizabeth Holmes never learned when she shepherded the doomed health tech company Theranos into the world, and ultimately was found guilty of fraud, will have to pay a whopping $425 million to victims, and will be heading to jail for at least 11 years.
Let me be clear and upfront: more often than not, I can’t stand true crime or even true crime docudramas, even if they’re focused on con-artist women. (It is worth underscoring that the justice system definitely did set Holmes up as an example, partially because she was a woman, because wealthy tech men rarely face those sort of repercussions.)
These works are traditionally about empathizing with a sociopath. Are the actual biographical facts of these people enormously complex? Of course. However, writers explicitly finesse what they see as characters. They want you to feel for the protagonist, to understand why they did what they did, which means making them sympathetic individuals, even if the protagonist robbed folks of billions of dollars for what was a terribly-idealized medical invention and did so solely for adulation and glory. Writers are always willing to do that because it makes for more resonant drama.
“Machines make mistakes. Especially when humans operate them.”
To rewind a bit:
This is a stunning drama. Amanda Seyfried is one hell of an Elizabeth; she’s Elizabeth amplified, for better or for worse. The rest of the cast is astounding: Naveen Andrews (LOST) as Elizabeth’s somewhat controlling boyfriend; Sam Waterston as an investor, Stephen Fry as a Theranos employee, plus William H. Macy, Bill Irwin, Laurie Metcalf and more. It’s all expertly overseen by Elizabeth Meriwether, who wrote the underrated film NO STRINGS ATTACHED, and more than a few episodes are directed by Michael Showater (STELLA).
The production design is so on-point — just watch the progression of Seyfried’s hair throughout the show, the unwinding of her braids. Note all of the early naughts bits of tech, all of the idiosyncratic candy-coated Apple devices that facilitated their revival.
However, I think it’d be better a better show if it were further removed from Elizabeth Holmes.
I know people like this exist because I’ve obviously dealt with and interacted with them and I know people exploit others without feeling any repercussions. (A tale as old as time.) I’m (mostly) fine with fictionalized folks who are like this. (See: BETTER CALL SAUL, for example.)
I do not like to be reminded that these folks exist in real life, that these stories are (mostly) true.
“We delete outliers. That’s what we do.”
Dramatic fiction is usually a cautionary tale, warning you against the ills of the world and others. True crime shows you the face of the worst of humanity, then — more often than not — tries to make you feel for them, that they aren’t terrible people, but they have bad impulses, and others get wrapped up in them.
Well, yes, but their protagonist still acted on those impulses.
“This is an inspiring step forward. This is an inspiring step forward.”
There’s a moment in the first episode of THE DROPOUT where such an impulse happens. It’s heavily implied that 19-year-old Elizabeth has been raped. There’s one exchange where a roommate asks another roommate whether they believe her. Obviously, when it comes to abuse, belief is a big issue, and that’s the crux of Holmes’ narrative; you never know whether to believe her, or whether you should believe in her. She’s fundamentally an unreliable narrator. (I’ll also note: this is obviously a terrible way of using that narrative device to explore her persona because the last thing those who have been sexually abused is to be disbelieved, but we’ll set that aside since that whole subplot is mostly ignored after being brought up.)
I’ll reiterate that, despite that, this is a finely-crafted show. In the third episode, you see when Elizabeth becomes who the world would know as the face of Theranos, and it’s such a startling BREAKING BAD-ish moment where she literally drinks the juice and pitches her voice down to sound like the Elizabeth Holmes we’re familiar with. That said, it still makes me feel dirty for watching it, which I did mostly because Holmes is back in the news because of a recent interview.
“You don’t have feelings! You aren’t a person, you’re a ghost, you’re nothing, you’re not real!”
Granted, I was able to push through the true crime facets and ‘enjoy’ the show based on its own merits, but like I said: I felt like a worse person for doing so, but sometimes consuming media will make you feel like a monster, and with good reason.