But the ever-consuming monster of startup capital demands progress, so Holmes makes it work the only way she can: by bamboozling one high-profile investor after another with her aspirational language and uncanny affect. It’s these stretches in which “The Dropout” offers Seyfried the most room to play as Holmes, and it’s a terrific, transformative performance. The role originally went to Kate McKinnon, whom I fear would play it too overtly comic, too in on the joke. Seyfried, on the other hand, gets the innate absurdity of Holmes as a person but also understands that she’s the hero of her own story. It’s impersonation, to be sure, but the innate performativity of Holmes herself smooths over those bug-eyed tics to make them an organic part of the character. After all, Holmes is a weird woman, who slathered on even weirder affectations to keep the old white businessmen she was hypnotizing off-balance.
But frustratingly, a lot of “The Dropout” can’t match Seyfried’s hell-for-leather frequency, chiefly due to how much they have to stretch out events to fit the show’s eight-hour runtime. (Seven episodes were provided for review.) The first three episodes teeter dangerously towards apologia for Holmes’ misdeeds, characterizing her as driven by past traumas or lost in the thrall of her pseudo-abusive domestic relationship with Sunny—the same mid-aughts #girlboss posturing that allowed her to pull the wool over the eyes of so many well-meaning investors and pundits. Meriwether and the writers make the critical mistake of trying to answer the question, “Who is Elizabeth Holmes?” when they should really be asking, “Why Elizabeth Holmes?”
Episode four (“Old White Men”) comes closest to entertaining that latter question, as we skip ahead to a post-recession 2010, when Theranos is courting retail healthcare pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens to host “wellness centers” across the globe. Finally, we escape Holmes’ point of view to follow a gaggle of hapless, late-middle-age Walgreens execs trying to size her up and figure out whether Theranos is the real deal. Alan Ruck’s Jay Rosan is perplexed by the company, but pays himself on the back for elevating a female CEO; Josh Pais’ Wade Miquelton is even more dubious, but wary of missing out on a miracle startup because “they’re the only thing making money right now.” Showalter frequently frames them in wide shots huddled in front of buildings or dashing between cars, leaning hard into the innate farce of the whole thing—a creaky economic world terrified by enticed by the promise of the new, even if it all might be smoke. Turns out that, even for American capitalism’s top minds, FOMO is far too enticing to ignore.