Spoiler alert! The following post discusses important plot points and the ending of “The Dropout.”
One inspiring step forward, and three steps back.
In the final scene of “The Dropout” (all eight episodes now streaming on Hulu), disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) was left screaming in a parking lot, waiting for an Uber.
Moments before, Holmes fled the newly shuttered office of her biotech startup, which promised to revolutionize the blood-testing industry with needle-free technology that didn’t actually work. Thanks to whistleblowers at the company and reporting by the Wall Street Journal in 2015, it was revealed that Theranos had knowingly supplied people with false or faulty test results, leading to lawsuits by investors, patients and pharmacy partner Walgreen’s.
In January, Holmes was found guilty on four of 11 counts of fraud and will be sentenced in September. Meanwhile, former Theranos executive Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani (Naveen Andrews) – who is also Holmes’ ex-boyfriend – is now on trial for his role in the company’s deception.
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“I knew I didn’t want to get into the trial and the legal aftershocks of what happened,” says “Dropout” creator Liz Meriwether (“New Girl”), who was more interested in how Holmes has continually transformed her identity. The finale charts Elizabeth and Sunny’s desperate attempts to save face before their relationship and Theranos implode. She soon starts dating now-husband Billy Evans (Garrett Coffey), drops her trademark black uniform and low voice and adopts a more carefree, outdoorsy persona, as well as a dog.
With Evans, “there seemed to be a real pivot,” Meriwether says. “I wanted to dramatize that change in her, and what that change meant.”
Meriwether answers more of our biggest questions about Holmes and her stranger-than-fiction downfall:
Was Elizabeth Holmes confronted by Theranos’ lawyer about hurting people?
In the last few minutes of the finale, Theranos lawyer Linda Tanner (Michaela Watkins) informs Elizabeth that investors including media mogul Rupert Murdoch have jumped ship, and urges her to declare bankruptcy. Linda confronts Elizabeth about the tens of thousands of misleading blood tests, telling her point blank, “You hurt people.”
Although she is a composite character, Linda is “really standing in for a lot of employees that lost their jobs and felt they had been duped by Elizabeth and Sunny,” Meriwether says.
That climactic confrontation is also based in part on a panel in which Holmes participated. “As she was leaving the stage, somebody from the audience yelled, ‘You hurt people,'” Meriwether says. “We knew we wanted to have that moment in the series somewhere, but we didn’t want to have her giving another talk, so I gave it to Linda. With Elizabeth, there is a need to have a moment where she acknowledges what happened and what she did.”
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Did George Shultz really hide a lawyer inside his house?
Much of the latter half of the season focuses on Theranos whistleblowers Erika Cheung (Camryn Mi-young Kim) and Tyler Shultz (Dylan Minnette), the grandson of former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz (Sam Waterston). George invested in Theranos, and upon learning that Tyler may have spoken to a journalist, hides Linda inside his house and surprises his grandson with a threatening new nondisclosure agreement.
“The part where George springs a lawyer on his grandson – that part is real,” Meriwether says. “The story is full of moments we can’t really believe.”
Did Elizabeth’s family friend actually help bring her down?
One of the more surprising supporting characters in “Dropout” is the resentful Richard Fuisz (William H. Macy), a medical inventor and Holmes’ childhood next-door neighbor, who clashes with her in the first episode before she heads to college. Just as depicted in the show, Fuisz really did feud with Holmes for years, snagging a competing patent and later contacting journalist John Carreyrou (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) of the Journal and alleging Holmes and Balwani committed fraud.
“There are some imagined scenes, but for the most part, that is the story,” Meriwether says. “I was so fascinated by this man who hung on for so many years and decided to (go after) her. It really blew my mind that he’d known her as a child.”
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Did Phyllis Gardner really team up with Richard Fuisz?
Another standout supporting player is Stanford University professor Phyllis Gardner (Laurie Metcalf), who dismisses Elizabeth’s flimsy early concept for Theranos. She tells her that medical science is all about trial and error, with no shortcuts. Phyllis reappears later in the season as she and Richard team up against Elizabeth with Rochelle Gibbons (Kate Burton), the widow of a Theranos scientist who committed suicide.
“It really sparked my imagination, this story of three really different people who find friendship over their mutual dislike of Theranos. I was so drawn to that group,” Meriwether says. “But then Phyllis, for me in the series, became the voice of women in the sciences and other female founders, (underlining) the effect that Elizabeth had on a field that is so male-dominated. In the end, that’s what Phyllis says to her: ‘You’ve hurt a lot of women trying to (start companies) just by causing this scandal.'”
Were those dance moves and creepy masks real?
“Dropout” highlights the quirkier side of Holmes, whose infamous Yoda wall and affinity for green juice are both true. The show’s many scenes of Elizabeth dancing and singing privately are also rooted in fact.
“That’s based on an anecdote from the podcast ‘The Dropout,’ which the series is based on,” Meriwether says. “Ana Arriola (Nicky Endres), who was one of the employees at Theranos, saw Elizabeth in her car before work one morning dancing to a hip-hop song by herself when she thought no one was looking. It was one of the only descriptions of what Elizabeth would potentially be doing alone, so I just built on that idea.”
Another eyebrow-raising image is from Elizabeth’s 30th birthday party, where guests wore masks of her face with the eyes cut out. “That’s a real (moment),” Meriwether says. “I don’t know if she held on to them, but there were masks of her face at the birthday party that people were wearing. I don’t know if they’re still out there – if anyone still has one, I’d love to see it.”