“The Dropout” Makes Me Feel Bad For Elizabeth Holmes, And I Don't Like That
Like a lot of TV about scammers, it’s fun to watch. But if you think about who you’re rooting for, it sours considerably.
It was just a few years ago that the “summer of scam” had us all by the throats with a few now-infamous cases: Anna Delvey’s New York It Girl posturing, Elizabeth Holmes’ Theranos failure, and Adam and Rebekah Neumann’s WeWork collapse.
Despite the fact that a new docuseries about a scammer appears every 15 minutes, I still love them. I inhaled Generation Hustle, The Inventor, and WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn. There’s comfort in seeing someone’s awful plan fall apart and schadenfreude in watching rich players lose their money. These documentaries feel far less ethically dubious than the true crime content that gets made even though a victim’s living relatives likely don’t need a real-life cold case to go viral 20 years after the fact.
Now, all within a few weeks of one another, fictionalized TV series about these scandals are coming out. In February, Netflix premiered Inventing Anna, and Showtime launched Super Pumped, about Uber’s egotistical CEO. Later this month, Apple TV+ will premiere WeCrashed, featuring Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway as the Neumanns. But the latest, and perhaps the best reviewed of the bunch, is Hulu’s miniseries based on the Theranos scam, The Dropout, which premiered earlier this month. (There’s also a feature film about Holmes in the works starring Jennifer Lawrence.)
Docuseries about scam artists are comforting because they represent what we’d always like to be true: that there’s no real way to get rich quickly and illegally without consequences. The moral is that there’s value in following the rules, even if the rules are largely arbitrary. These days, if you try to, say, swindle millions of dollars from the women you’re dating while pretending to be a wealthy heir, Netflix will likely make a documentary about you that everyone will talk about for a week. Viewers learn about the scammer’s bad behavior, the scammer gets their comeuppance, and nobody will get tricked by them ever again.
That narrative satisfaction is really all we have; documentaries about scammers rarely lead to the kind of societal and institutional change that would prevent these scams in the first place. There will always be legal loopholes and gray areas; there are still plenty of investors willing to give wunderkinder money for their weird businesses that I’m still not convinced actually exist. (You cannot tell me that anyone has ever actually eaten one of those Daily Harvest flatbreads that come in the mail and look like a shrunken, molding bath mat. I don’t want to eat anything that gets hurled at my front door at 7 in the morning.) At least these exposés offer payback in the form of public shame.
When these stories are dramatized, though, things get sticky. A documentary allows for a layered exploration of a scam: what led to it, how it unfolded, and who knew but didn’t stop it. But a miniseries or movie about a scam usually forces the audience to side with the scammer, prioritizing personal motivation over systemic failures. Hulu’s eight-episode series about Theranos, The Dropout, is maybe the clearest example of this. Holmes (played deftly by Amanda Seyfried) is the plucky if flawed protagonist in the story of her own downfall. We follow her as she goes from precocious Stanford student to overwhelmed CEO who ignores the pleas of others when her blood-testing tech goes awry.
The viewer spends most of the series’ early episodes watching her try — with earnest effort! — to get Theranos off the ground because she wants to do some good in the world. Her mother hates needles! Her parents are in financial straits! She’s preternaturally gifted in academics! She’s Tracy Flick but wooden! The Dropout ultimately wants you to root for her. That’s not because there aren’t any other sympathetic characters; it’s because the show tracks her step by step as she makes some of the worst decisions of her entire life.
The Dropout has been well reviewed, and, yes, it’s a pretty good TV show, though your enjoyment may vary, depending on your scammer-related ennui. But it’s also boring for people who already followed the case in the news, read John Carreyrou’s deeply reported book about the downfall of Theranos, Bad Blood, binged The Dropout in podcast form, or watched The Inventor in 2019. It’s boring because you likely already know what happened, and so the journey has to be the destination. Many people watching the show already know the company didn’t really function, that the technology never worked, and that Holmes and her coconspirators are likely to face legal consequences for their malfeasance. So what’s left for a dramatization to explore? Nothing beyond the humanization of someone who maybe doesn’t deserve it.
Throughout the series, the show tries to explain how Theranos got so out of hand for Holmes. Was she predisposed to being a scam artist because her father was laid off from Enron, one of the most famous business scams of the 21st century? Was it because she was an overachieving misfit who didn’t know how to have a social life so she poured herself into her work and couldn’t accept it being anything less than a success? Or maybe it was because she banked her college tuition on Theranos and had to keep the lie going? Or maybe it was the fault of Theranos’s unqualified president and COO, Sunny Balwani, a much older man who probably shouldn’t have been courting a 19-year-old?
There are a thousand possible victims for every scam we hear about, but in fiction the focus usually ends up being on the person who ripped everyone off. It makes for effective drama because it’s much more interesting to get in the mind of a villain, especially if we get to watch the transition into darkness. But what makes The Dropout any good is the same thing that makes it frustrating to watch: Holmes is given an empathetic edit (the kind, mind you, that browner, Blacker, poorer offenders never get; white, wealthy, conventionally attractive CEOs are front and center in these shows for a reason).
Of course, not everyone read the news articles and the book, listened to the podcast, and watched the documentary. The Dropout will be many viewers’ first encounter with the story. But if you have engaged with other steps of this IP farming, the retelling gets mundane, especially when most of the context and complexity have been stripped away. And frankly, I don’t want to feel sorry for Holmes. I don’t really want to spend more time understanding why she did what she did. I already know why she did it: It’s always a predictable mix of greed, ego, and usually some institutional wealth. My empathy is finite, and I don’t feel like burning it on another white lady hustler who just happens to have Vanellope von Schweetz eyeballs.
The other thing scammer documentaries accomplish is to lay the wrongdoing out so clearly that I, the viewer, feel like I could never possibly fall for such a scam, like all these rubes. Who, me? Join a cult? One that promised me joy and money and success and community? There’s no way; surely I, a woman who wore her pants backward for 14 hours the other day, could never be so silly as to join something like NXIVM. It’s obviously not true; just about anyone could land in the clutches of someone intent on taking advantage of any weakness they see. But structural and moral clarity are key to good docuseries, highlighting the values these opportunistic bad guys betrayed in order to get money, or influence, or usually both.
But the fictionalized versions? They suggest that we could maybe have been the scam artist ourselves. Seyfried’s Holmes is a placeholder for the audience, the way a lot of white protagonists in fiction are treated. Just like you, she has dreams, a strong work ethic, a family she cares about, a desire to put good in the world. Just like you, sometimes her best-laid plans don’t work out. And just like you run the risk of failing, she did too. Yet Holmes was charged with fraud for taking more than $700 million from investors. Her net worth was, at one point, estimated to be around $4.5 billion. Theranos’s tech didn’t work at all the way the company claimed; patients changed their medications and health plans based on incorrect blood results, and one person even received a false positive HIV test. Her desire to succeed led to real, tangible medical danger and misinformation — not to mention all the people who lost their jobs and investments in a company doomed from the beginning.
Even if she might be repentant, Holmes isn’t a folk hero led astray. She swindled millions; meanwhile, I took two mouse pads from the BuzzFeed News offices and I’m still waiting for someone to come to my house and forcibly remove them. The Dropout, like a lot of TV about scammers, is fun to watch and will probably scratch an itch. But if you spend even a little bit of time thinking about who you’re rooting for, it sours considerably. Not everything has to be relatable, you know. ●