The Dropout is a comedic masterpiece, capturing all that is wrong with our culture

I try as I can, I can’t stop staring The stall late into the night, my jaw swaying wildly like a lantern in the strong wind, my knuckles as white as my fake Edwardian sleepwear (look, we all have our weaknesses). My God, it’s captivating, and not just because Amanda Seyfried’s unsettling impersonation of convicted biotech fraudster Elizabeth Holmes is so stunning (when I look at pictures of the real Holmes now, she looks fake to the extent where I find myself wanting the real her – Seyfried – back). Basically, all my particular interests are found here: madness, messianism, hubris, groupthink, willful blindness and, above all, pathological dissimulation. Exhausted as I am, it’s really very invigorating.

But still, it wasn’t until the fourth episode that I knew I was in the presence of greatness. This is a show for our times: a small masterpiece that not only tells the story of a compulsively dishonest and perhaps borderline insane young woman, but of the culture that allowed it to flourish for so long. And since this culture – a realm in which any brave soul who dares to point out that the last emperor only wears a pair of parakeet smugglers and a small paper crown currently risks losing both his sanity and his livelihood – does not go anywhere quickly, The stall would seem to be more than your average box set. It provokes as much as it excites; it chastises and frightens as much as it titillates. Also, in a delightful reprise of his role as Connor Roy in Succession, it has Alan Ruck as a ridiculous, conceited Walgreens executive who drinks every last drop of Holmes’ Kool-Aid (overpriced, bright green, all-organic).

In the episode in question, Holmes has long been unsuccessful in getting backing from a pharmaceutical company for his Edison device, a machine that is supposed to be able to detect all sorts of health conditions using a single drop of human blood. ‘a patient. It needs new funding. But where to get it? She knows very well that her little plastic boxes don’t work, and that any deal risks finding out. Yet it still continues, each new lie designed only to cover up the last. And that’s how it gets closer to the old (and old-fashioned) American pharmacy chain, Walgreens. Wouldn’t she like to have “wellness centers” in each of her stores? A quiet little room away from all the toothbrushes and Tylenol where shoppers can relax while they get a quick, “empowering” blood test? (Whatever his other faults, it must be admitted that Holmes was ahead of the curve when it came to “well-being,” a word which, in 2010, when this part of the action takes place, was unknown to those at who she pronounced it.) Walgreens executives are duly invited to Palo Alto to visit the offices of her company, Theranos, for interviews.

What follows is played for darkest comedy. It’s pathetic how desperate Dr. Jay Rosan (Ruck), its vice president for health, is to appear with the kids of Silicon Valley – to the point where he insists that no matter if his company’s scientific expert is not authorized to inspect Theranos laboratories. Something in Holmes’ “vision” – his mantra is that the Edison has the power to disrupt America’s healthcare system – speaks to him. Or maybe I mean it scares him. Rosan can’t see past his black polo neck (a nod to his idol Steve Jobs) and the trendy Japanese restaurant she takes him to, his partial vision depicted here as born almost entirely out of fear insignificance. A new generation has arrived, with new ideas that their generation does not understand. What he forgets, of course, is that sometimes a lack of understanding is not a sign of slowness or stupidity, but of a flaw in the very idea that the brain is struggling. to enter. As every journalist knows, the obvious question is often the best question.

Your willingness to try this series may depend on how much you already know about Holmes. Personally, I haven’t listened to the podcast it’s based on, nor seen the HBO documentary about the woman who in 2015 Forbes had named the youngest self-made billionaire in the United States (there is also a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Carreyrou). But this show is so beautifully put together and so wonderfully performed that I’m not sure prior knowledge is much of an issue. The series is attentive to the facts, but it also takes you beyond the feelings. Inference is everything, a creeping mood that reveals what it must have felt like to work at Theranos, where wishful thinking took the place of science, where lies and secrecy reigned, and where employees had to behave, and behave often as if they had joined a cult.

Holmes’ deep, false voice is well known, but here you see her practicing it in front of the mirror. “This is an inspiring step forward,” she says over and over, sounding like a Speak & Spell toy. Small moments suggest how different she is from others: a person with no morals and who does not feel emotions in the normal way. Seeing the purple plastic oven that belongs to a colleague’s granddaughter, she is baffled. Why doesn’t the little girl bake in a real oven? She wonders. The backstory is here: the father who worked at Enron; the rape she claims took place while she was a student at Stanford (she dropped out of college to start Theranos, hence the series title). But these things are never made to look like extenuating circumstances. A cheat is a cheat is a cheat.

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Seyfried is exceptional: like the old men (George Shultz, Henry Kissinger) she persuaded to join her board, you can’t take your eyes off her. She gives Holmes an uncanny marsupial energy, all eyes sparkling and shoulders hunched; a strange, swaggering gait; an inner void that his mimicry as a successful entrepreneur only makes even more striking. But there are brilliant performances everywhere.

Stephen Fry is – honestly! – as compelling as Ian Gibbons, the brilliant British biochemist who came to work for Holmes early on and killed himself when things went wrong. He walks like a scientist, and talks like a scientist, and even listens to opera as such (I should know: I am the offspring of such a man). And Naveen Andrews is perfect as Sunny Balwani, Holmes’ creepy former lover and partner-in-crime (while the real Holmes awaits sentencing, his trial is due to begin imminently). Balwani is an international Svengali with rimless glasses, jeans and crisp white shirts, and his sinister side slowly emerges, until it can no longer be ignored.

But, of course, just about everyone does it – ignore it, I mean. A collective blindness falls like nightfall whenever Holmes is around, and the great drama of this series lies first in the horror of it, and then in waiting for the arrival of those heroes who will strive against winds and tides to rekindle the light firmly. to.

The Dropout is now streaming on Disney+

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Daniel K. Denny