Not all badass women are created equal. Some are downright scary in their mix of ambition, persuasive power and lack of empathy. Exhibit A: Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried). The Stanford dropout and 2003 founder of the billion-dollar pharmaceutical Ponzi scheme Theranos, is a very bad badass. Based on the ABC News true-crime podcast, the miniseries executive produced and frequently directed by Michael Showalter (“The Eyes of Tammy Faye”) dives in to the making of a modern monster in a messy blond bun and a Steve Jobs black turtleneck.
The eight-episode format stretches out the Horatio Alger story that begins in a hurry, and gets perhaps the closest to what makes Holmes tick in the early days. A studious nerd behind thick glasses with a galumphing gait, this daughter of an emasculated Enron exec (Michel Gill) and a controlling mother (Elizabeth Marvel) strives and strives again to achieve her place among the pasty white male tech pantheon of Jobs, Larry Ellison and Mark Zuckerberg.
Like Facebook or Apple, Theranos emerged from a university incubator. The germ of an idea at its core had the potential to change health care — a multi-factor blood test available from a pin prick with rapid results. For the needle-phobic, like me, Elizabeth and her mother, Theranos promised to be a game-changer. There’s only one problem, but it’s a big one: As we discover in episode after episode, Holmes has no idea how to achieve the technical results she promised — and finds her true talents in separating investors from their money, expanding her company and becoming the tech cover-girl from Forbes to Fortune to Inc.
As a character, Holmes comes in and out of focus over the course of the drama, which loses its urgency in its midsection. It lacks the cliffhangers that hook a binger to continue with the next episode, and the next. The series regains its narrative drive toward the end as her Ponzi scheme crashes, toppling the many male board members and investors — from the 60th U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz (a wonderfully blustering Sam Waterston), who prided himself as a judge of character, to the desperate-to-be-hip Walgreens execs (a buddy comedy of internal white boy politics pairing dramedy stalwarts Alan Ruck and Josh Pais).
Naveen Andrews (“Lost”) stands out as Holmes’ much-older partner, companion, playmate and doormat, Sunny Balwani. The businessman, who met the much younger woman while she was still a Stanford student, ultimately invests $20 million in Theranos to keep Holmes in power and join the firm as chief operating officer. Too bad the operations side is total quicksand – and Holmes has dumped him into it.
Balwani is much clearer in his attraction, adoration, frustration and anger with Holmes, who does remain somewhat of a cypher despite Seyfried’s commitment to this twitchy latter-day Hitchcock blonde. With those big blue hypnotic eyes, the actress holds the audience’s gaze as Holmes held those of her investors, while trying not to surrender her agency until the legal breaking point.
There’s a major supporting cast and they’re not wasted. Stephen Fry connects as the heartbroken head of chemistry who sees his lab, and the role of science, squashed in the start-up frenzy – and his soul along with it. Laurie Metcalfe stings as the embittered Stanford teacher whose refusal to mentor Holmes only ignites the younger woman’s ambition. A deliciously repugnant William H. Macy plays the obsessed next-door neighbor whose intense envy of the young woman’s success leads him to secure a patent that messes with her plans – and a long-term legal duel with collateral damage. Add in other grace notes — Kate Burton, Michael Ironside, Bill Irwin, LisaGay Hamilton and the wily Kurtwood Smith – and the show offers a delightfully complicated human landscape.
As we face the fallout of Zuckerberg and Facebook gobbling all competitors and accelerating the growth and spread of lies and disinformation, Theranos seems like a guppy. In the end, we hardly know fraudster Holmes any more than we knew Zuckerberg after “The Social Network.” And maybe that’s the point: that the first self-made female billionaire’s drive to succeed at any human cost has erased the girl who dreamed of saving people from their fears of phlebotomy.
But isn’t her heartlessness just a sign that she’s succeeded in becoming one of the boys? A certain core humanity – as we even see in the nerds in the lab – is buried too deep, if not missing, and it has to be gone in order for her to proceed so ferociously toward her ultimate goal. As Oracle mogul Larry Ellison (Hart Bochner) schools her on his yacht, a core of cold-hearted, inhumane ruthlessness in pursuit of success is required, as it is by all the others like her. They’re monsters.
“The Dropout” premieres on Hulu on March 3.