This week’s episode of The Dropout opens with Elizabeth Holmes staring at a camera.
She’s got the black turtleneck on. She’s speaking in the voice. She’s doing the un-blinking stare. She’s a bit awkward whenever she has to talk to anyone but that awkwardness now feels much more calculated than it did when we first met her. Offscreen, we hear the voice of famed documentarian Errol Morris telling her which camera to look at. Elizabeth tells Morris that she’s a huge fan of his work. Though we don’t see Morris’s reaction, he certainly sounds thrilled by the compliment. Of course, those of us who have been watching The Dropout from the start and who have also watched Alex Gibney’s documentary about Holmes, can guess what it probably the truth. In all probability, Elizabeth Holmes had never seen any of Errol Morris’s documentaries. For the most part, Elizabeth Holmes doesn’t appear to have had many interests beyond maintaining her carefully constructed public persona. When Errol Morris makes mention of friends, a look of confusion crosses Elizabeth’s face. Friendship is something that can only be shared between real people and, at this point, there’s nothing real about Elizabeth Holmes.
Friendship is a recurring theme throughout the sixth episode of The Dropout. In fact, the episode returns so frequently to the theme that, for all of the show’s strengths, it actually runs the risk of getting a bit heavy-handed. George and Charlotte Schultz are busy preparing Elizabeth’s 30th birthday party and they ask Elizabeth who they should invite. They ask her who her friends are. Elizabeth laughs and replies that the Schultzes are her friends. The Schultzes laugh it off but to Elizabeth, her relationship with the Schultzes and the other members of the Board are really the only thing that she has. For her, friendship is all about the validation of being praised by older, powerful people and, as this episode shows, men like George Schultz had a need to feel as if they were supporting her “good” work and ensuring that their final legacy will be a positive one. Mix that with the stubborn refusal to admit to one’s mistake when one is old, wealthy, and well-connected and the end result is the type of environment that’s perfect for someone like Elizabeth Holmes.
Indeed, the only vaguely real relationship that Elizabeth has is with Sunny and that relationship is one that she insists on keeping a secret. (Though Charlotte instinctively understands what’s going on with Elizabeth and Sunny, George is clueless and complains, to Elizabeth, that Sunny just doesn’t have enough class. In this case, George is right.) In this episode, we see a bit more of Elizabeth and Sunny’s life together. Sunny is resentful and manipulative. Elizabeth needs him because she needs someone to actually be the bad boss while she’s busy shooting commercials and hanging out with the board of directors. They enable each other, with Elizabeth almost using Sunny’s amorality as a shield from having to deal with the consequences of her own behavior. If Elizabeth seems to be in deep denial about the extent of her fraud, Sunny seems to be convinced that he will always be able to outsmart anyone who tries to uncover the truth. (Of course, as the show has repeatedly demonstrated, Sunny isn’t really that smart.)
Meanwhile, over the course of the episode, a much more unlikely friendship develops between Richard Fuisz, Phyllis Gardner, and Rochelle Gibbons. All three of them are linked by a common desire to see Elizabeth revealed as a fraud. Richard feels that Elizabeth treated him disrespectfully, Phyllis is offended by Elizabeth’s faux feminism, and Rochelle saw first-hand how Elizabeth and Sunny drove her husband to suicide. Throughout the episode, the three of them try to get a Wall Street Journal reporter interested in the story but they struggle to find concrete evidence of Elizabeth’s fraud. William H. Macy, Kate Burton, and especially Laurie Metcalf brought some much-needed moral clarity to last night’s episode. In the past, I’ve complained that, as played by William H. Macy, Richard was almost too cartoonish to be believed but, as of last night’s episode, I stand corrected. Richard is just as socially clueless as Elizabeth but, unlike Elizabeth, he has no idea how to use that to his advantage. Instead of being cartoonish, Macy’s performance is instead a perfect counterpoint to Amanda Seyfried’s more tightly controlled performance as Elizabeth.
And finally, the episode’s most important friendship was the friendship between two new Theranos employees, Tyler Schultz (Dylan Minette) and Erika Cheung (Camryn Mi-Young Kim). Erika began the episode in awe of Elizabeth, just to discover that Theranos was faking results and that the Edison was just a repurposed Siemen machine. Tyler and Erika took on the role of whistleblowers, just to discover that no one — especially not Tyler’s grandfather, George — had any interest in listening. In the end, they both ended up losing the jobs. That’s not a big deal for Tyler, who is a scion of the establishment. For Erika, an idealist who shared much in common with the pre-Theranos Elizabeth Holmes, it’s very much a big deal. As this episode makes clear, people will look the other way if it means being able to pay the rent and put food on the table. It takes true bravery to do the right thing when you actually need the job, as Erika does. Erika does the right thing and asks the right question and ends up by escorting out of Theranos by security guards.
There was a lot going on in this week’s episode but, ultimately, what I’ll always remember was Elizabeth’s birthday party, which featured the elderly members of the American establishment all wearing expressionless Elizabeth Holmes masks. It was a sight of almost Cronenbergian horror. Things only got more awkward as Elizabeth and George demanded that Tyler sing a song that he had written in honor of her birthday. Of course, by this point, Tyler knew that Elizabeth was a fraud and Elizabeth knew that Tyler knew. It was truly a moment of supreme cringiness but also one that apparently actually happened.
The episode ends as it began, with Elizabeth Holmes staring straight at a camera and announcing that Theranos is the future. #IronSisters!
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