If the first three episodes of Hulu’s The Dropout occasionally seemed as if they might be a bit too sympathetic to Elizabeth Holmes (played, brilliantly so far, by Amanda Seyfried), the fourth episode presented us with Elizabeth in full supervillian mode.
Gone was the socially awkward but well-meaning Elizabeth. Now speaking with her trademark deep voice, wearing her black turtlenecks, and possessing the wide-eyed stare of someone who rarely blinks, Elizabeth spent the fourth episode conning Walgreens into investing in her worthless blood testing machine. When she wasn’t manipulating the Walgreens execs, she was coldly firing poor Ian Gibbons (Stephen Fry) and only bringing him back after the rest of the lab team threatened to quit in protest. Of course, it wasn’t Elizabeth who placed the call to Ian and asked him to return. It was Sunny (Naveen Andrews) and, when Ian returned, he was taken out of the lab and given a desk job.
Yes, it quickly became obvious that Theranos had changed a lot since the previous episode. Security was everywhere, befitting a company that claimed to have come up with revolutionary technology. People in different departments were not allowed to talk to each other. The earnest and free-wheeling atmosphere had been replaced by a slick but curiously impersonal office. Even the quote from Yoda now felt out of place. Yoda would have been fired for asking too many questions.
Of course, the majority of the episode dealt with Elizabeth and Sunny’s attempts to sell their “wellness center” concept to Walgreens. It was an obvious con but the Walgreens execs eventually fell for it. One of them, Jay Rosen (Alan Ruck), fell victim to Elizabeth’s flattery and a belief that Elizabeth represented the future. (In a rather endearing scene, Jay compared Elizabeth to a Katy Perry song.) Another exec, Wade Miquelon (Josh Pais), initially understood that Theranos’s claims were too good to be true but, ultimately, he set aside his concerns when it appeared that Theranos might make a profitable deal with CVS instead. Only Kevin Hunter (Rich Sommer) was able to see through Theranos and, ultimately, his concerns were ignored. Ruck, Pais, and Sommer were all wonderfully cast and they all did a good job of showing how Elizabeth, Sunny, and Theranos were able to con so many people who should have known better. By the end of the episode, Elizabeth has tricked former Secretary of State George Shultz (Sam Waterston, radiating gravitas as only he can) into joining the Board of Directors. While the Walgreens corporate leaders performed an endearingly dorky version of What I Like About You, Kevin Hunter curiously looked at the Edison blood testing machine and Elizabeth coldly looked at him.
After being so disappointed with both Inventing Anna and Pam & Tommy, I resolved to be a little bit more cautious when it comes to overpraising the early episodes of The Dropout. And I do think you could probably make the argument that devoting an entire episode to Walgreens is an example of how a miniseries will occasionally drag a story out and will devote an entire episode to something that could have been handled with just one five-to-ten minute scene. But, when you’ve got a cast this good and writing this sharp, it almost doesn’t matter. Director Michael Showalter did a wonderful job of balancing the cringey humor of the Walgreens plotline with the more emotional moments in which Ian Gibbons dealt with his frustrations over the direction in which Sunny and Elizabeth took Theranos. Even if you don’t already know the details about what ultimately happened to Ian Gibbons, Stephen Fry’s performance will still break you heart. Fry plays Gibbons as a man who, despite advancing age and poor health, refuses to surrender his idealism. That makes him a good scientist but also the perfect victim for Elizabeth and Sunny’s syle of manipulation.
Old White Men was a well-done episode, perhaps one of the best that I’ve seen so far this year. I look forward to seeing where the show takes us next week.
You always have great insights, as your Walgreens analysis shows…we loved this series because it kept throwing us off balance with the characters and their motivations, which at times can seem like you are supposed to feel sympathy, before that rug is pulled out…
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