'The Dropout' nails the ending – even though Elizabeth Holmes' story isn't over
Warning: Spoilers about the last episode of The Dropout ahead.
The most important image of Elizabeth Holmes that you see in The Dropout is of her running away.
Late in "Lizzy," the eighth and final episode of Hulu's series about the fall of the blood-testing startup Theranos, Holmes has seen the company collapse in the wake of an investigation by The Wall Street Journal. She has broken up with her boyfriend and second in command, Sunny Balwani, as the two prepare to try to put the blame on each other. But the CEO, played by Amanda Seyfried, isn't slowing down: She has gotten a dog and a new boyfriend and is insistent that she is going to keep it moving. That's her plan: Keep it moving, keep it moving.
In the mostly empty Theranos offices, she encounters Linda, the (now former) company lawyer played by Michaela Watkins, whom Holmes can't stop asking for help, even though Linda no longer works for the company now that she isn't being paid. Linda, who carried out some of Theranos' ugliest tasks earlier in the series, now has no job and a tarnished reputation (all of which she brought on herself). Holmes utterly fails to read the room; she wants to talk to Linda about the boyfriend, the dog, getting through all this messiness, all with a smile. But Linda reminds her of the enormous mess she's made, eventually saying to her, "You hurt people." Holmes bolts.
She runs away, literally, through the big glass doors, down the stairs, out the front door of the building, pulling the dog behind her, as Linda calls after her that she hurt people. She runs, and then she spends a moment screaming, just screaming as hard as she can, and then she calmly climbs into an Uber with her bright smile back on, and that's the end.
There's an obvious way to structure a story about a figure like Elizabeth Holmes: she builds herself up, she's on top of the world, and then she has a dramatic downfall. It's your basic tragedy. (Not "tragedy" in the colloquial sense; "tragedy" in the traditional narrative sense.) The problem with that structure and this story is that in real life, the "downfall" of a rich white entrepreneur who gets caught being dishonest or misleading, who hurts employees or customers, who creates a poisonous environment — it's rarely all that dramatic. The real Elizabeth Holmes married a rich guy and is still rich. She was convicted of defrauding her investors, but it remains to be seen whether she'll see jail for very long, or at all.
It's a trap to try to make any of these messy startup stories — whether they are about Holmes, or Adam Neumann at WeWork, or Travis Kalanick at Uber — satisfying, schadenfreude tales for this same reason. Not that much happens to these people, in all honesty. So The Dropout builds not to Holmes' fall from grace as a CEO or a billionaire, but to a scene in which you watch her flee under pressure. The climax is not the fall; it's the moment when you learn who she is, what her flaw is, why her downfall won't stick. You learn why it won't change this version of Elizabeth Holmes, and why she'll never admit what she did.
Because the idea of The Dropout is that while Holmes was raised by connected people, wanted desperately to be rich, was hugely ambitious, went all-in on a destructive Silicon Valley culture, and was stubborn to the point of absurdity, there was something particular in the way she processed her past that paved the way for the person she became.
Specifically, the series seemingly posits in part that Holmes took her mother's misguided (but very common) "move on, forget it" advice following her college sexual assault and expanded it into a "move on, forget it" attitude about her own bad acts. She developed the ability to entirely separate the past from the future, to sever any connections between those two things at any time. And without a connection between now and later, there is no connection between actions and consequences, and without that, there is no real room for a conscience to operate. It's incredibly sad, because it starts at the point where she is harmed, and it moves forward to how she harms others. But it doesn't frame that progression as absolution, only as an insight about one of the things, perhaps the many things, that went wrong to allow her to become the person she became.
The Dropout builds not to Holmes' fall from grace as a CEO or a billionaire, but to a scene in which you watch her flee under pressure. The climax is not the fall; it's the moment when you learn who she is, what her flaw is, why her downfall won't stick.
This insight is not the only thing that made The Dropout good, by any means, but it is an example of what shows like this need if they're going to be good. They need a reason to exist — something to say, something talented actors and a smart script can put across. And it can't just be that the person is hateful, because that's not interesting, particularly with someone who's already cast in the public imagination as a villain. It also can't be something that feels like it's making excuses for the inexcusable, because that becomes a contrarian morality tale of a different kind.
What has made The Dropout the most successful of this run of "startup that went terribly wrong" shows is that within its writing is a series of ideas — about corporations like Walgreens and how they miss every red flag, about people who cannot admit they have been had like George Shultz, and even about lawyers who wind up self-destructing in the heady power-trip atmospheres of Silicon Valley. And the cast, Seyfried especially, has been up to the task of making all those ideas fully real.
It's hard to nail the ending of a series about a story that not only doesn't have a complete ending yet (and won't, at least until Holmes is sentenced) but that will probably not be very satisfying when it does. But they did it here, because they steered away from the downfall as the biggest reveal, and toward the revelation of how a feared CEO can turn out to be, above all else, too scared to face what she's done.
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