Notes on The Dropout

After a phenomenal debut with one of the best seasons of television in the 21st century, the American Crime Story anthology slowly drifted off my radar. I got partway into the second season, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, but it didn’t grab me the same way as the original. Season three (or possibly two) was supposed to be about Hurricane Katrina, and that was delayed before being reworked into this year’s Five Days at Memorial. Finally, we have Impeachment: American Crime Story, and I haven’t seen it yet. In the meantime, I have The Dropout.

This is, to my knowledge, the first fictionalized dramatization of the Theranos story, something I hadn’t really paid attention to as it was happening. I saw headlines and tweets about the atomic destruction of a female Silicon Valley-style CEO and could just feel the radiation of vindictive sexism. It’s why I waited months to sit down and watch The Dropout, despite it being the soundest follow-up to Hulu’s Dopesick. The whole thing just made me uncomfortable, and I didn’t want to know how the storytellers were gonna wrestle with these layers of complexity – on top of the messiness of true crime.

Indeed, The Dropout is based on an ABC podcast of the same name, but I have to remember that it’s white-collar true crime, and that’s a different ballgame. There’s also surprising profundity in the borrowed title, as it’s where Elizabeth Holmes’s story begins and ends. She’s a postmodern disruptor, someone who witnessed the success of Steve Jobs and sought to emulate it down to the fashion sense. Starting with dropping out of Stanford, each of her questionable decisions can be traced back to an ethic of “He cheated, why can’t I?” As someone whose bible growing up was Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew, I could relate – and it was startling.

Of course, I only wanted to cheat my way into Hollywood, by coming in from angles like Felicia Day or Rachel Bloom. These people didn’t use their school connections to climb a ladder, they put their product out and it sold. I wasn’t quite so successful nor cunning, but then again, my trade wasn’t health care. This is one of two mistakes The Dropout places on Elizabeth’s lap, with the other being a failure to meaningfully consider that she’s also a female disruptor, which becomes inherently appropriative.

In one of the show’s many jaw-dropping scenes, Elizabeth is on the phone with her board members in a panicked montage, where she refutes the bombshell Wall Street Journal article by claiming the writer is sexist. She compares herself to Rosa Parks. This is where the inevitable downfall begins, but The Dropout is pretty much Goodfellas throughout. Elizabeth Holmes is a character under constant pressure, and one of the central concerns of the show is how she weasels out of her problems every time.

While gender plays a trickier role in that, there’s a sense that the Silicon Valley ethos was never meant to shake hands with medicine. The “fake it till you make it” routine here gambles with human lives instead of smartphones. It’s an unsustainable business that somehow sustained for a decade. All the while, we witness the creation of an infrastructure around that business – Theranos itself. Very quickly, the presence of security personnel turns workspaces into prisons. Hierarchies build on hierarchies, crying employees are shuffled toward the exit. As far as I’ve seen, it’s the first dramatization of the making of a toxic workplace, gifting us a procedural logic to all the labor abuse headlines.

Which brings us to Sunny Balwani, of course. People familiar with this story will know him, but I didn’t, and the show introduces him gently. He seems like a nice guy whose only flaw is an interest in a much younger woman. Well, Naveen Andrews imbues this man with such menace that it actually kept me from binge-watching the show. I’d think “Hmm, next episode?” and then think of Sunny Balwani. This is the guy we read about, like Scott Rudin, who’s yelling at people and making threats. He’s a coiled spring, ready to explode at all times. Scary when quiet, scary when loud.

A lot of the drama in the second half comes from the whistleblowers who uncover the malpractice. This must have presented another creative challenge, because I think it’s easy for a viewer to think, “In this situation, I’d definitely do the right thing,” when that’s statistically likely to be untrue. Some of them put their families at risk, and others their job, and the show is careful to spare them sufficient time to weigh those stakes – even if it comes down to a single monologue, as in the case of Erika Cheung.

The Dropout didn’t need heroic characters to be compelling, conjuring surprising drama between villains, but feels all the more complete for it. In doing so, it also offers showcases for an unbelievably deep bench of acting talent, including old favorites like Kurtwood Smith, Michael Ironside, Alan Ruck (who, along with the other Walgreens executives, is hilarious), not to mention a naturally hilarious Utkarsh Ambudkar, a shit-eating turn from Michaela Watkins, and the always-welcome Rich Sommer. Stephen Fry and Sam Waterston are heartbreaking. You’ll also see Anne Archer, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and William H. Macy. I think that Andrews deserved an Emmy nomination, but I’m glad Seyfried is a lock.

I used to get sour about these sorts of roles, because I think that portraying a real-life person brings an additional – and needless – dimension into the assessment of performance: how close to the genuine article? But it’s why you cast Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs instead of someone who simply looks like Steve Jobs. And as a matter of fact, if you liked the movie Steve Jobs, this is basically a sequel. It’s what happens next. Through business trickery and stage magic (which certainly required smarts), Jobs created a system vulnerable to abuse and the next generation abused it.

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