The Dropout: Hulu Makes Itself A Force To Be Reckoned With In Its Newest Real-Life Depiction
The Price Of Ambition And Its Repercussions Are Put In The Spotlight With Elizabeth Holmes’ Rise And Fall From Grace
Early on in the first episode of Hulu’s newest ripped-from-the-headlines limited series, The Dropout, Elizabeth Holmes, the titular protagonist, dances her worries away to Alabama’s I’m In A Hurry (And Don’t Know Why) as the pressures of the world begin to cave in on her. What, at first, seems like just an expendable song choice quickly becomes a scathing critique of Holmes’ greatest vulnerability: impatience. Whether it’s fooling the board for more funding or tricking employees into signing full-proof NDAs, Holmes is in full throttle in her quest to become the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, the former of which she goes through painstaking detail to emulate. This is a person rooted down by her own twisted sense of ambition. A person who ignores everyone’s advice to slow down, who will do whatever it takes to see her company succeed and her bank account grow, no matter who gets hurt along the way. It’s through this ambition that we come to understand Holmes, understand what makes her tick and what drives her forward. This is where The Dropout succeeds, where Inventing Anna fails. With Holmes, we’re given a fully-fledged, questionable being that isn’t restricted to only her faults. Even when her lack of empathy for human beings begins to mirror that of a sociopath, we still understand Holmes, sympathize with her even. Part of this is due to Seyfried’s career-best turn as Holmes (nailing the disgraced CEO’s stoic and awkward stature as well as her faux baritone voice), and part of it is how her story is paced.
When we first meet Elizabeth, she’s just an ambitious teenager, oppressed by her fellow peers because of her off-kilter ways and high intelligence. We truly feel for her as she does her best to put herself out there to socialize with fellow students on a study abroad trip to China. Her attempts are only met with further rejection and alienation, something she fears will follow her to Stanford. Luckily for her, but unfortunate for her future victims, she soon meets Sunny Balwani (played by a fiercely intimidating Naveen Andrews), ex-tech CEO and future lover and business partner of Holmes. Rich, mysterious, and most importantly, intelligent, he’s everything Holmes thinks she needs. Little does she know that as their sometimes abusive relationship develops over the subsequent years, Balwani will become the primary catalyst for her inevitable downfall. Seyfriend and Andrews play the destructive couple with such distinct conviction that the lines between fact and fiction begin to blur, offering a detailed depiction of brawling lovers that leaves the viewer stunned and speechless. Both are at the top of their game, and it shows through their palpable chemistry and strident back-and-forth. If you were to tell me years ago that Sayid from Lost and Sophie Mamma Mia would both turn in award-worthy performances playing lovers and business partners, I would have dismissed you outright. Now, I’ve never been happier for something I never knew I needed.
But the glory doesn’t stop with just Seyfried and Andrews. The Dropout understands that there’s much more at play in the downfall of Theronas than just the roles of Holmes and Balwani. With a sprawling ensemble filled with newcomers and veterans alike, there isn’t a single role that isn’t utilized optimally in the entire series. From the three-episode arc of Dylan Minnette’s Tyler Schultz, the grandson of a prominent board member, to the more substantial role of Stephen Fry’s beaten-down chemist Ian Gibbons, there’s not a single player that’s wasted when it comes to telling how such a revolutionary idea in medicine ended up being an embarrassing national scandal. While most real-life limited series opt to minimize or downright eliminate the roles of supporting players, The Dropout embraces the scope of its too-crazy-to-be-true story, allowing each character and their fictionalized counterpart to shine. Just as its many predecessors, particularly When They See Us and, more recently, The White Lotus, The Dropout makes another strong case for the inclusion of a limited series ensemble category for such awards as the Screen Actors Guild or Critics Choice. While other limited series falter by skimming over the smaller details of their jaw-dropping, true stories, The Dropout relishes the more trivial aspects of its astonishing subject, offering a fully-realized depiction of a story that demands to be told.
But even in all its glory, The Dropout trips from time to time in its eight-episode run. With prominent relationships such as the ones shared between Holmes and her start-up team, the show rushes crucial points, forcing these underdogs to share intimate and emotional scenes, all without really earning emotion or meaning. Connections such as Holmes and Balwani eat up the majority of screen time even when the show has already established their relationship and its volatile impact on the demise of Theranos. By the end of the series, I was left wondering just how much screen time was devoted to plot points that had already been well-developed and where that time could have been used to flesh out or develop other supporting characters or their arcs. While I cherished every second Andrews and Seyfried shared onscreen, I can’t help but wonder how the show would have been had other subplots and side characters been given this time to further develop, to flourish in the bask of filmmaking sunshine. Another grievance I came to hold against the show is in its final scene. After eight grueling and captivating episodes, the infamous rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes comes to a jarring halt, leaving the viewer begging for more in the worst possible way. Yes, the end title text, obligatory for every piece of media based on a real-life event, fills in the blanks for certain unresolved plot points. So while the limited series comes to a fitting conclusion of a now-disgraced Holmes clawing at some form of self-reinvention, one can’t help but feel that the writers simply forced us to this endpoint, as if skimming over a few crucial developments to end up there.
In a world where billionaires seem to reign free (even allowed to buy prestigious social media platforms, apparently), there’s no doubt that there’s something satisfying about watching the downfall of one of these conglomerates due to their greed and corruption. But with most limited series, viewers are only given a single side of these all-too-real figures, often leaning towards their subject’s bad side. With The Dropout, Seyfriend and company have provided a three-dimensional portrait of a young woman way in over her head but too stubborn to slow down or ask for help. If anything, Hulu’s latest stunner is a dissection of impatience and its (sometimes deadly) consequences. As the great Randy Owen once said, “I’m in a hurry to get things done…All I really gotta do is live and die.” If only Elizabeth Holmes had taken this advice.