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The Dropout proved satisfying by finding something new to say about Elizabeth Holmes

  • NPR

    Liz Meriwether's Hulu adaptation of the Theranos story found a way to deliver fresh insight into Holmes, something that other tech shows like WeCrashed and Super Pumped haven't been able to do with their disgraced founders. As Linda Holmes points out, "there was something particular in the way (Holmes) processed her past that paved the way for the person she became. Specifically, the series seemingly posits in part that Holmes took her mother's misguided (but very common) 'move on, forget it' advice following her college sexual assault and expanded it into a 'move on, forget it' attitude about her own bad acts. She developed the ability to entirely separate the past from the future, to sever any connections between those two things at any time. And without a connection between now and later, there is no connection between actions and consequences, and without that, there is no real room for a conscience to operate. It's incredibly sad, because it starts at the point where she is harmed, and it moves forward to how she harms others. But it doesn't frame that progression as absolution, only as an insight about one of the things, perhaps the many things, that went wrong to allow her to become the person she became. This insight is not the only thing that made The Dropout good, by any means, but it is an example of what shows like this need if they're going to be good. They need a reason to exist — something to say, something talented actors and a smart script can put across. And it can't just be that the person is hateful, because that's not interesting, particularly with someone who's already cast in the public imagination as a villain. It also can't be something that feels like it's making excuses for the inexcusable, because that becomes a contrarian morality tale of a different kind."


    • The Dropout showed that Elizabeth Holmes is an extreme product of "Millennial Exceptionalism": "Out of the halcyon days of the 1990s economic boom and Clinton era came a generation told we could do anything," says Allison Keene. "Hack comedians still mine this 'everyone’s a winner' mentality, but it was a cultural force at the time. Essentially, you (likely white, privileged child) could achieve your dreams by sheer force of will, by visualizing it (a la The Secret), by leaning in. In The Dropout, this all fits Holmes perfectly. She’s a smart and motivated overachiever from an upper-middle class family who simply doesn’t understand and cannot accept failure." Keene adds: "Since failure was not an option, Holmes just created a reality where she won. Her brother brings up in an earlier episode how she could not accept losing when they played Monopoly as children. She also comes to realize that she never did anything for fun—everything was always about achievement and productivity. In her mind, to fail here on this kind of stage would erase her. Without success, who even is she? What value does she have? It’s a common millennial crisis."
    • The decision to try and dramatize the personal feelings and relationships and intentions of Elizabeth Holmes was weird: "I’m not a huge fan of this current ripped-from-the-headlines trend of TV shows; they’re just shinier, more star-studded versions of the Movie of the Week flicks that used to populate basic cable," says Randall Colburn. "Those movies, often based on the year’s sensational headlines, tended to get major facts wrong about the crimes and the people involved. I’d wager there’s been more reporting done on a lot of these current stories, but I won’t be surprised if history is not be kind to them. I can’t assert that will be true of The Dropout, of course, but I also can’t shake the feeling that we’re still too close to the Theranos story to bring it onscreen in this way, as a summation of its crimes, its heroes and villains. And, as I’ve said many times so far in this space, the decision to try and dramatize the personal feelings and relationships and intentions of Elizabeth Holmes is weird. She is too distant a figure—too young and unreliable and aware of her own myth as it’s being spun. It’s not that I don’t think there’s a series to be made about Elizabeth Holmes, it’s just that I don’t trust one that puts her at the center of it."
    • The Dropout's needle drops offered insights into its characters: "In The Dropout, figurative and literal masks abound. There’s Amanda Seyfried’s mimicry of Elizabeth Holmes’s peculiarly smudged makeup and many-pitches-lower voice, put-upon affectations that Holmes adopted so the men of the tech, biomedical, and finance worlds would read her as conventionally feminine (the red lipstick) and also take her seriously (that gruff tone)," says Roxana Hadadi. "And then there is the actual, mass-produced mask of Holmes’s face that is distributed at the 30th-birthday party thrown for her by the enthralled, grandfatherly, sycophantic George Shultz (Sam Waterston), who delights in being surrounded by Elizabeths. Each mask is a kind of artifice — a persona that can be put on and taken off at will — and each captures the duplicity at play within the initially well-meaning, ultimately pitiless founder of Theranos. The Dropout plays with this duality all series long via its soundtrack, with song choices that comment on these characters and their increasingly selfish actions while simultaneously communicating their hidden desires and prevailing fears."
    • The Dropout music supervisor Maggie Phillips on putting together a soundtrack that included Katy Perry and Lil Wayne: On Alan Ruck memorably singing Perry's "Firework" at the start of Episode 4, Phillips says: "We wanted a song that my mom would know and a 20-year-old would know because it’s a song you still hear on the radio now — a song that stood the test of time from that period, something that screams 2010 but also feels somewhat relevant, and something that is believable that this guy would hear it on the radio and keep it playing, or he would have actually selected it himself. We were in the Obama era — music was more hopeful, music was something to build us up, to give us hope, to make us aspire and feel good. (Theranos) was a lot of the blind leading the blind, and all their musical choices were helpful, aspirational tunes. Most of the music choices, except for a few, are all more fun, hopeful and speak to that part of the story and not to the hidden underbelly, which the original score does."
    • The Dropout finale editor Steve Welch on crafting the final scene: “There was initial discussion about making it dreamier, making it feel more in her head, more echoey dialogue, or making it a little bit hazy. What we discovered is we didn’t need to do any of those things,” he says. “It probably has a lot to do with Amanda’s acting. Her eyes do different things than the real Elizabeth Holmes’. She’s really able to do that wheels-turning thing. Doing it that way, for me, gave it sort of this intimacy, that it almost it was like what’s going on in her head is almost more present than what’s actually happening in the room.”
    • Camryn Mi-young Kim joined The Dropout without any TV or movie credits: "Getting this part was a long process," says the Erika Cheung actress. "I’ve been acting and auditioning for a while, but it’s tough in this industry. In order to make a name for yourself, you have to work, but in order to work, you need to already have a name. When this audition came along, I wasn’t sure if I was gonna get it given the people who were attached. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they went with someone who had a little more information about themselves online. (Laughs.) It was very surreal when I got the call that I booked it. I’m very lucky." Kim didn't speak to the real Erika Cheung, so she prepared for her role watching Cheung's Ted Talk. Kim says it wasn't hard to play a Theranos lab employee since the set was very realistic. "When I walked onto the set, I felt like I was in a real lab," she says. "The detail in the production design was insane. I had to touch pipettes. I had to move around fake blood. I didn’t get any Bill Nye training, but the environment they created felt real enough that hopefully it translated onscreen."
    • Amanda Seyfried found filming the final scene to be "terrifying": "I love binging shows, and if the last scene of an eight-hour miniseries isn’t satisfying, it leaves just a bad taste in my mouth," she says. "So I knew how important it was. There was something that needed to happen that wasn’t necessarily written, or it was written, and I didn’t necessarily know how to portray it, because there’s so many possibilities. And I just needed to trust myself."
    • Creator Liz Meriwether and Amanda Seyfried discuss the finale: Seyfried says to fully play Elizabeth Holmes she had to “disconnect from the facts that this really happened," adding: “It’s weird territory when you’re playing a real person who did f*cking real things that were not good,” she said. Seyfried took advice from co-star William H. Macy, who told her: “Our responsibility is to our character.” For Seyfried, as Elizabeth’s circumstances became dire, “the ease of the relationship” with the character became “more of a challenge.” As for the final scene, Meriwether says, “I wanted to show her reinvention, and the idea that she was going to keep going — but as somebody else. I kind of liked that it wasn’t in some big, dramatic way — that it was just an Uber driver. I guess I wanted to show how easy it is sometimes to kind of become a new person.”
    • Meriwether on casting many comedic actors and how The Dropout didn't change after Amanda Seyfried joined following Kate McKinnon's exit: "It was a constant conversation with our casting director Jeanie Bacharach and Hulu about whether we were going too far into the comedy world with casting," Meriwether says of casting comedy actors like Stephen Fry, Laurie Metcalf, Michaela Watkins and Utkarsh Ambudkar. "I felt, and I still feel, that really great actors play the moment. Some of the funniest aren’t doing 'comedy.' We should try for a joke and see how it feels and then pull back on it if it felt like we were going too far. One of the amazing things about Amanda is that she has the sense of play that a comedy actor has and isn’t afraid of trying something completely different." As for Seyfried joining the show, "the scripts didn’t really change. Kate had gone into the project wanting to play the character dramatically, and when Amanda came, the tone didn’t change. We were pretty close to shooting, but looking back, I don’t know how we got so lucky. Her performance, even after being in editing with it — I’m still surprised by things she did."
    • Meriwether on the Burning Man alternate ending and the difficulty of wrangling so many interesting characters: "That was something I was scared of going into it," Meriwether says of having a slew of compelling characters, such as the late Secretary of State George Shultz. "There are so many avenues that this story has, so many different offshoots. I was worried that the audience would want the same people there the whole time. But I think it ultimately added a lot of layers and scope — every episode, you’re meeting new people and there’s new parts of the story. You’re not just stuck in the same rut." Meriwether says she had planned a Burning Man ending "for a very long time," but COVID happened — and then we were out of money. What are we going to do? Elizabeth getting into her Uber with her dog hopefully gets that same idea across — that feeling of reinvention." Meriwether adds: "The finale was hard, all around. I was putting it off and putting it off for so long, and I think Hulu was giving me the benefit of the doubt. It got to a place where they were a little bit like Walgreens and the Theranos box. 'We need the dimensions of the box!' What was really hard is that it’s an ongoing story. I never quite knew where to end it. And after the John Carreyrou article comes out at the end of episode seven, I worried about losing momentum. Once the article’s out, what else is left?"

    TOPICS: The Dropout, Hulu, Amanda Seyfried, Camryn Mi-young Kim, Elizabeth Holmes, Liz Meriwether, Maggie Phillips, Steve Welch, Music and TV, Theranos