Elaine Montilla is the founder of 5xminority , a TEDx Speaker, and the Assistant Vice President...Read More
A familiar voice opens the latest episode of The Dropout, Hulu’s series about the fall of the infamous blood-testing start-up Theranos: “You founded this company 12 years ago, right? Tell them how old you were.” It’s former President Bill Clinton, praising the company founder and figurehead, Elizabeth Holmes, as played by Amanda Seyfried. “I was 19,” Seyfried replies in Holmes’s near-parodic baritone, to a wave of admiring laughter and applause.
Clinton isn’t played by an actor. It’s the actual former president. And he isn’t the only one on tape praising Holmes, with Seyfried there as digital stand-in. Then–Vice President Joe Biden also gets screen time, wisecracking about the innovative wunderkind. Even Charlie Rose, the since-disgraced interviewer, appears beside Seyfried, his trademark black background mixing with Holmes’s all-black wardrobe to make her appear almost Oz-like as a floating head.
By using real tape of the three men, The Dropout doesn’t just remind us of how close Holmes was to the arbiters of power in America. The show blurs the same lines the founder herself did.
What is fact and what is fiction? When does fake-it-until-you-make-it become simply fraud? And as that fraud is sold as a Silicon Valley fairy tale, where do the boosters of a hopeful mission become complicit in hurting people?
Holmes’s interviews with Clinton, Biden, and Rose were all in the summer of 2015. By October, though, she and Theranos were reeling after The Wall Street Journal reported that the company’s technology simply didn’t work. Seven years later, Holmes is awaiting sentencing after conviction of fraud.
The Dropout isn’t alone in chronicling scammers these days, though it’s perhaps the most compelling and nuanced entry in the genre. Three other recent shows with star-studded casts follow wealthy grifters from the 2010s: WeCrashed, starring Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway as the WeWork founders; Super Pumped, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Uber’s Travis Kalanick; and Inventing Anna, featuring Julia Garner as the fake socialite Anna Delvey.
Why are these stories dominating our screens right now? And what does this moment reveal about American culture? Sophie Gilbert, Megan Garber, and Shirley Li discuss while recapping what they’ve appreciated about The Dropout:
The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Sophie Gilbert: We are here to talk about The Dropout. The Hulu series stars Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos, the infamous tech company that crashed rather famously starting around 2015 and was revealed to essentially be a multibillion-dollar fraud. But that isn’t the only scammer show on television these days. There’s Apple TV+’s WeCrashed about WeWork’s husband-and-wife founders Adam and Rebekah Neumann. There’s the Showtime show Super Pumped about the rise and fall of Uber’s founder. And of course, there’s Netflix’s Inventing Anna about the socialite scammer Anna Delvey.
Why are we so fascinated with the rise-and-fall, scammer narrative these days? And what do these shows reveal about American culture at the moment? Before we get into that, though, let’s start with The Dropout. Megan, could you remind people a little bit about who Elizabeth Holmes is and what exactly happened to Theranos?
Megan Garber: Theranos was a blood-testing company that Holmes founded in 2003 which, at its peak, was valued at $9 billion. The company’s product was devices they developed—or, as it would turn out, claimed to have developed—where they could run more than 200 diagnostic tests with, as one of the taglines went, “a single drop of blood.”
A big part of the mythology of Theranos had to do with Elizabeth Holmes herself. She founded the company as a 19-year-old Stanford dropout and was quickly hailed as a business icon. She was treated in a lot of places as the next coming of Edison or Tesla or Steve Jobs. But in 2015, The Wall Street Journal came out with a really damning article that Theranos’s central technology simply did not work. And the company, both as a business and as a myth, fell apart. Holmes and the company’s COO, Sunny Balwani, were indicted for fraud. Balwani’s trial is actually taking place right now, and at her own trial two months ago, Holmes was convicted of fraud. She’s currently awaiting sentencing.
Gilbert: A long time ago, I watched the Alex Gibney documentary on Theranos, but I don’t think I was fully aware to what extent it was a complete and utter scam from the beginning. And so I appreciated The Dropout’s elucidation of that fact, while also appreciating the fact that it’s created by Liz Meriwether, who created New Girl. It’s a lot funnier than I was expecting! Shirley, what did you think of the show?
Shirley Li: The Liz Meriwether factor is also something I love about it. Some review called Elizabeth Holmes an “adorkable” character, much like Miss New Girl herself.
Gilbert: Oh no. (Laughs.)
Li: But what did I think of the show in general? When I first started it, I didn’t find it as compelling as I would find it later in the season, especially in relation to all of the other scammer shows. For one thing, it is really busy. Just listening to Megan try to sum up what happened with Elizabeth Holmes … There’s so much there. But as I watched all of these other shows at the same time, I liked The Dropout more than I thought I would. It had a good balance between focusing on Elizabeth Holmes and on the impact this company had, which is something a lot of these other scammer/start-up-culture shows often miss in favor of highlighting the founders.
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Gilbert: I’ve had an uneasy feeling watching The Dropout—in large part because of Amanda Seyfried’s performance—of liking Elizabeth more than I should. And I think it brings up a question, which is: Do these kinds of shows risk glamorizing the scammer and the art of the scam? Did you have that feeling with any of these shows?
Li: I felt that way about Inventing Anna. The show kept putting her in a wardrobe that was more put together than the real Anna Delvey/Anna Sorokin, whereas I feel like The Dropout did a better job of keeping [Holmes’s] hair looking not quite together and her costuming just a little bit frumpy. She wasn’t glamorous. We were projecting something onto her.
Gilbert: That’s a really interesting point about Elizabeth Holmes in this show. She didn’t style herself as such an obvious construction by herself. She was told by other people that she needed to be that to be a success. And so in some ways, she’s less transforming herself to sell an image than she is trying to fit an image that she’s trying to sell.
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Li: In the case of all of these figures, they had a vision of themselves as something: Travis Kalanick wanted to be an asshole, wanted to create bro culture at Uber. He slicked back his hair. He creates an image for himself. Anna Delvey certainly had an impression of what she wanted to be. Elizabeth Holmes went in thinking that she could follow the playbook of all of these other college dropouts before her—she thought she could just dress as casually as Mark Zuckerberg, and if she followed that playbook, people would respect her. She had to be told that there’s a double standard for women. She’s clever enough to follow a new playbook once it’s presented to her, but she did not come up with this persona on her own until she realized that there was another one that she should be exploiting instead.
Garber: When we say Elizabeth Holmes, do we mean the character as presented on the show or do we mean the real-life character? One of the things that’s so interesting to me about these shows is that the lines between fact and fiction really are blurring together. The creative decisions made with these shows so often seem to live in the aesthetics of melodrama and camp. But they’re taking these stories that happened in real life and with real victims and real people.
That was such a big part of the Theranos reporting when it first came out. They were inflicting their lies on real medical patients, and that was part of the outrage. And so we’re talking about these real-world stories, and yet we’re watching them rendered as styles that are as far removed from reality as possible. So you’re seeing these shows play out as melodrama and everything feels hyper-real and larger than life and a little bit cartoonish. And obviously, that was intentional on the part of the creators. But I also wonder what it was intended to do and what it was maybe intended to skirt a little bit, because when you put this real story in the realm of camp, you’re letting yourself kind of have it both ways. You’re telling the true story and you’re capitalizing on the interest in these news stories, but you’re also giving yourself freedom to just do whatever you want to with the narratives in question.
Li: These are people who succeeded off of the images that they sold, images that got amplified through magazine covers and wishy-washy awards about breaking the status quo or the glass ceiling or whatever. And then their downfall has yielded even more stories being written and reported. And then it all got filtered back to Hollywood, thus tethering them further to the narrative of celebrity. It’s odd when a show makes me feel like I’m supposed to be rooting these people on but also condemning them at the same time.
What I appreciate about The Dropout is that the show does have a heightened kind of humor to comment on how weird Elizabeth Holmes is, but also how weird start-up culture is. And as the show goes on, it gets a little bit more somber and becomes less about her awkward social skills or how weird Silicon Valley is. It ultimately gets to a point where it’s not just about her; it’s about the impact.
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Gilbert: With so many companies with so many scams, celebrity is really inextricable from success. “Fake it till you make it,” right? And perhaps Theranos was only as successful as it was because of the kind of mystique around Elizabeth Holmes, which urges questions about giving these people television shows. Inventing Anna has a Martin Shkreli character! (Laughs.) Are we adding to the pile? Are we risking further giving scammers a high profile they want?
Garber: It’s hard because the point of so many of these shows is that these quaint divisions we have between reality and branding fade away at a certain point. I found myself thinking about this book, The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova, which is fascinating. It’s all about the history and the psychology of scammers. And she points out that confident people tend to particularly thrive in times of turmoil, times of disruption, times when people feel especially vulnerable and unsettled. Scammers will often feel the need that people have to feel reassured, to feel that the world is coherent and whole and sensible. And through whatever lies they choose to tell, they will give that sense of security.
And so these are also questions of vulnerability and precarity. Part of why we’re seeing such a flood of these shows right now—even though, like you said, Sophie, we’re also creating it, too, by being audiences—is because we have this other blurred line between producer and consumer now. And these scammer shows are flooding us all at once because they get at these questions of why the world in general feels precarious and uncertain. They’re trying—sometimes with mixed results—to interrogate those questions and acknowledge that kinetic sense of uncertainty that viewers feel.
Gilbert: For a lot of these shows, the period they focus on is the Lean In early 2010s, the moment of Sheryl Sandberg and the “girlboss.” We had this slightly baffling, girlboss adaptation of Cruella at the end of last year, which really harkened back to a theme that I think we hadn’t thought about for a while, which was this idea of the high-achieving, burning-people-in-her-wake heroine who was was lauded in the 2010s as sort of the archetype of female success. Three of these series have women at the center: Julia Garner plays Anna Delvey in Inventing Anna. Anne Hathaway plays Rebekah Neumann in WeCrashed, and Amanda Seyfried plays Elizabeth Holmes in The Dropout. So let’s unpack this. How do we feel about the girlboss now? Is there anything left to root for?
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Li: The girlboss identity is certainly a deeply flawed one. And you see through these series and the real-life stories they’re based on that the people who were able to exploit that narrative were people who already had a leg up. The girlboss identity was something that white wealthy women could exploit. And they could tell themselves that what they were doing was furthering modern feminism.
And I think something that’s been interesting about these shows—even if they convey it in ways that are better in some shows and worse in others—is the idea that all of these women and all of these other scammers had messiah complexes because they were rising at a time when people really believed that if you never quit, if you leaned in, if you got over your imposter syndrome, you could succeed.
Gilbert: The thing that we have seen more recently—after the time period these shows are set in—is the rise of influencer culture. When you talk about the backlash to this specific brand of feminism that the girlboss movement enshrined, it made me think about Kim Kardashian’s recent comments, which were vilified very quickly. She was interviewed about being an entrepreneur and she said: “Get your fucking ass up and work. It seems like nobody wants to work these days.” And the response was, shall we say, not generous. (Laughs.)
She is a woman of enormous privilege and beauty. She comes from her wealthy family. Obviously, she’s had hard moments in her life, as everyone has, but it felt a little dismissive of all the women who are working “effing hard,” shall we say, without the benefits that she had. And it’s fascinating to me to see the backlash to that image so quickly, because it was something that anyone could have said 10 years ago and not had the same response.
Li: It shows that the women who are able to become girlbosses already had the means to become girlbosses. But it also shows the cruelty of the idea itself, that if you didn’t work hard enough, then there was something wrong with you. If you didn’t become a girlboss, then you were doing something wrong. And I think that’s perhaps one of the reasons the whole structure collapsed. It’s not just about speaking up at meetings. It isn’t about blowing past imposter syndrome and ignoring it. It’s harmful to think that if you didn’t follow those girlboss rules, you were failing all of feminism somehow.
Gilbert: It’s fascinating to watch these shows after two years of the pandemic, too, because one thing we’ve seen in that time is the flattening of ambition for women. They’ve had to do so many other things during this time, like double as teachers and coronavirus-test administrators. And all the extra pressures have basically made work difficult. I mean, I’ve certainly felt some of it myself. Ambitions we used to have professionally have crumbled under the need to just cope and get through the day. And so it’s interesting to confront this girlboss idea now, this idea that if you can’t, you’re just not wanting it bad enough. You’re just not trying hard enough.
Garber: One element of The Dropout that I’ve found myself retroactively appreciating is the way that so much of the Elizabeth Holmes mythology was built on the fact that she already had access to power structures. There’s literally an episode called “Old White Men.” And she did work hard. For sure. But she did that within the context of already having access to privileges that most women could never even dream of having. She exploited that power, and she was in turn exploited.
You could argue that a lot of those people saw in her kind of an easy token. Or she reminded them of their daughters and granddaughters. Perhaps they saw someone slightly vulnerable and in need of help. There’s just a lot going on that I think The Dropout, to its credit, really does explore. And Elizabeth Holmes the character as presented on the show has this interesting tension. She really does work hard. She really does have ambition. But she is also immensely helped by all of these wealthy, powerful, mostly white people who have decided to take her under their wing. And I find that tension really fascinating in the show.
Li: Yeah. The girlboss identity was maybe inspiring for some people, but it was ultimately an excuse for a lot of these men to sign on to her board and demonstrate their own allyship.
Gilbert: Have we learned anything from this glut of scammer television? Is there any redeeming lesson that we can take away? Or is this scam just integral to American art? I mean, it’s Harold Hill. I was reading Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country this year, and I had to put it down because Undine Spragg is so awful. And that is going to be a TV show eventually on Apple TV+, directed by Sofia Coppola. Content is king. It is this tale as old as time that we keep not learning from. It’s just perpetuated again and again in different forms. Is there anything to take from The Dropout?
Garber: I’m really interested in the questions these shows are trying to get at, so I do appreciate the fact that they exist. We’re reminded every day about the totalizing power that lies themselves have. We have Trump’s Big Lie. We have conspiracism, which has always been an element of American culture but has so much power right now—more than it used to. And then you have sort of subsidiary questions about branding and influencers and the lines between what’s real and what’s fake, especially in digital worlds. These are the elemental anxieties of this moment that we are all navigating together. And I appreciate when art and entertainment try to tackle them, even when I want it to be more nuanced.
Gilbert: Yeah, this is one of the fundamental questions of our time. And in that sense, I don’t think it’s wrong to expect slightly more focused interpretations rather than big chaotic, scammy fun. And I think The Dropout succeeds more than the other three scammer shows. It knows the stakes of the story it’s dealing with.
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