Content warning: This article contains mentions of sexual assault.
Rotten Tomatoes’ critics’ consensus on Hulu’s “The Dropout” is unambiguous: “Amanda Seyfried’s disquieting portrayal of Elizabeth Holmes brings fresh blood to this retelling of recent history.” Tuesday night validated those judgments, with Seyfried bringing home the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Limited Series, Anthology Series or Television Motion Picture.
Most can identify the nuances that elevate Seyfried’s performance to an ostensibly great one. Her attempt at Holmes’ characteristically low voice is enough to capture its essence without feeling strained. Messy blonde hair and unnerving intensity behind Seyfried’s eyes silently illustrate a manic genius that’s just a little too manic. And particular moments of relatability (including some unimpressive sex from a nameless Stanford guy) solidify the character as a breathing human being.
However, the credit for Tuesday’s results lies elsewhere. “The Dropout” owes much of its mainstream appeal to its villainization of Elizabeth Holmes, and Seyfried has been getting kudos almost solely in that lane. Personally, I think her portrayal of Holmes is actually much more aligned with how Holmes views herself than how the world views her.
Let’s be frank; “The Dropout” was always going to be successful. Ever since Netflix’s “Tiger King” clawed through quarantine watchlists in 2020, the “limited series” formula has become a gold mine for Hollywood. Explosive successes like “The Queen’s Gambit,” “WandaVision” and “Dahmer” feed the media machine. These days, you just need a compelling-enough story, a large-enough star and a streaming service’s budget to get your project off the ground. As it just so happened, a full podcast chronicling Stanford drop-out Elizabeth Holmes was released in 2019, and SNL’s Kate McKinnon was interested. (McKinnon never finished the project, apparently leaving to, no joke, play Carole Baskin in another miniseries.)
At the same time, it’s undeniable that society and the media tend to fetishize the downfall of Silicon Valley’s power players: Mark Zuckerberg got dragged through the mud in 2018, and Sam Bankman-Fried faced a similar fate in the last two months. The obsession stems from a combination of nerd-power and nerd-otherness. On one hand, the people running these companies often turn out to be young, arrogant and frequently strange individuals — Jesse Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg in the cult classic “The Social Network” is far from accurate, but it is based truly on how the public perceives the Meta CEO. On the other hand, these individuals wield unprecedented and indescribable power over our daily lives through their products, a power dynamic that calls for dethroning regardless of their eccentricities.
I think it’s safe to say that both of these factors play heavily into the discourse surrounding “The Dropout.” It’s a depiction of the Bay Area with enough truth to placate locals (some jabs at East Palo Alto in the early 2000s, Sand Hill Road venture capital firms and even Stanford’s Title IX policy) but also with heavy hyperbole to uphold some of the quintessential Silicon Valley stereotypes. Nearly everyone is a multimillionaire, executives eat salads and dress casually at the office and, most importantly, the industry moves fast and with reckless abandon.
It is through this lens that most see Elizabeth Holmes, and by proxy, Amanda Seyfried’s nearly accurate character. But that’s not what’s really extraordinary about Seyfried in “The Dropout” — what’s really extraordinary is that the show pushes, at least initially, to present Holmes as a sympathetic character. She loves older music and dancing carelessly when no one else is looking. She is surrounded by bad role models, whether it’s scam artists like Enron and the patent-trolling Richard Fuisz or predatory older male figures like Sunny Balwani or professor Channing Robertson. And most potently of all, she is sexually assaulted just before her departure from Stanford.
Seyfried really lays into these details, and it’s that contrast to the demonization of Holmes that I think gets lost in reviews of this show. Really powerful nuance is hard to come by, but “The Dropout” achieves something resembling it. To be sure, Theranos was not a product of Holmes being a victim of her situation; she was a willing defrauder powered by megalomania and incompetence. But those moments of sympathy give the show some real force, strong enough to dig into the real problems plaguing Silicon Valley and, hopefully, to make any current self-enterprising undergraduate think twice about starting that crypto venture.
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.