“Heroes” isn’t as structurally or thematically developed as other episodes of The Dropout, but it does toy with an idea that’s as interesting as anything we’ve seen on the show thus far. It arises when Elizabeth tells George Shultz that she asked Rupert Murdoch, media mogul and Theranos investor, to “kill” The Wall Street Journal’s imminent exposé on her company. Amanda Seyfried’s casual delivery is key; she speaks to George as if she’d asked Murdoch to pick up her laundry or set up a dinner reservation. Murdoch told her his hands were tied, and she relays this to George with such genuine puzzlement. “I don’t understand why he can’t just make a phone call,” she says, the shadow of a laugh in her voice.
What this demonstrates isn’t just a shattered ethical compass, but a total lack of one. It’s a sign of Elizabeth’s age, sure, but also the combination of a privileged upbringing and an early immersion into power—the unimpeachable power that only billionaires can know. There are no levers that she can’t pull, and there is no conscience telling her not to pull them. People with money protect other people with money. So when Murdoch tells her no, it’s not frustration she feels, but confusion.
But, ethics and conscience aside, Elizabeth is simply immature in her approach to power. Contrast her with David Boies (Kurtwood Smith), who knows that it’s best to massage levers rather than yank them. Presented with the details on the upcoming Wall Street Journal story, he expresses his respect for journalism and his work representing the New York Times before calmly, cynically noting that there are “tactics we can use to suppress negative stories.” His delicate delivery belies the cruelty of those tactics, which involve intense intimidation, financial bullying, review bombing, and all manner of reputational threats. He wants the story axed as much as Elizabeth—he’s got money tied up in Theranos, too—but he knows you can’t just kill an exposé like this in the public square. (Boies would later be fired by the Times for his involvement in an “undercover operation” to smear the victims of his client Harvey Weinstein. John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter behind the Theranos exposé, called Boies a “thug” in interviews.)
George, concerned by Elizabeth’s casually fascistic attitude, gives her a speech about how Ronald Reagan, a “great man” by his estimation, “listened to the wrong people” and thus saw his reputation tarnished by the Iran-Contra scandal. “If mistakes were made,” he implores her, “it might be time to consider if you have the right people around.” He’s talking about Sunny (Naveen Andrews), but Waterston’s near-desperate delivery also signals a creeping mistrust in Elizabeth herself. Has he completely misjudged this smart, pretty, deeply awkward blonde girl?
I’ve criticized this show’s flimsy efforts to dramatize the corruption of Elizabeth Holmes, a talented liar and unreliable narrator, but now that she’s reached her final form she is an undeniably interesting character. Before, her lies about the technology existed to prolong its development; now, it’s as if she believes them to actually be true. When Sunny informs her that the labs are a mess now that Mark (Kevin Sussman) has turned whistleblower, Elizabeth tells him they need to “stop fighting fires by creating fires,” that they need to fix the root of the problem. “What is the root of the problem?” she asks, prompting a stunned reaction from Sunny that says what she no longer seems to understand: The root of the problem is that the tech doesn’t work and probably never will. But that seems beyond Elizabeth now. Now it’s just about sustaining the myth of Theranos. When Sunny reminds her she’s on “all those emails” that detail the depths of their fraud, she refuses to acknowledge the truth: “I don’t always read all of my emails.”
It’s that myth, after all, that’s got her on magazine covers, on the Harvard Medical School Board of Fellows, on President Barack Obama’s Presidential Ambassadors for Global Entrepreneurship program. Seyfried’s Elizabeth sits with Bill Clinton, Joe Biden, and Charlie Rose thanks to some amusing, Forrest Gump-ian editing.
But as her star rises, John Carreyrou (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) speaks to doctors whose patients received false readings from Walgreens’ Theranos machines. One patient, for example, racked up thousands in medical bills after a Theranos test told them they were having a stroke. But his story begins to fall apart as quickly as it comes together. Sunny convinces two of the three doctors who spoke to John to back out of the story. After bringing on Murdoch as an investor, Elizabeth attempts to undercut him by publishing an op-ed in the paper (here’s that op-ed, if you’re interested). Journal Boies and the Theranos legal team, meanwhile, hound and threaten Mark until he deletes the hundreds of incriminating emails he planned to give to John. And Tyler (Dylan Minnette) isn’t returning his calls, what with Linda Tanner (Michaela Watkins) showing up at his grandfather’s house with talk of lawsuits. His grandmother, Charlotte (Anne Archer), saves the day by getting George’s lawyer on the phone without Linda’s knowledge. That lawyer urges him not to sign the various documents they’re throwing before him.
It’s Tyler’s steadfastness that helps save John’s story. That, and a tense meeting between John, Boies, and Theranos’ lawyers wherein Boies lets it slip that the Theranos labs contain Siemens machines and that not every one of their tests is run on proprietary technology, a statement that adds credibility to the accounts of fraud in John’s story.
So it gets published and, if you’re reading this, you’re probably already aware of its impact. It’s a win for working class scientists like Erika, for the patients who received bad test results, for the millions more who also would have if the fraud had remained unexposed. But The Dropout shrewdly reminds us that Theranos may never have been exposed if it wasn’t for Richard Fuisz (William H. Macy), a petty, bitter millionaire with a personal grudge. Tyler, too, would’ve cracked if it wasn’t for the wealth and power of his bloodline. More often than not, abuses of power are exposed only when they impact the powerful.
- Kudos to director Erica Watson, who found ample tension and anxiety in her staging of non-telegenic activities like deleting emails, faxing papers, and staring at computer screens. An entertaining and occasionally thrilling hour.
- Fuisz gets a few ecstatic moments to celebrate the exposé’s release before his laughs die out and he remembers he’s alone, his wife having left him in the throes of his revenge. A pathetic end for a pathetic man. (Such a great performance by Macy, though.)
- Nice work by Minnette, who looks as if he’s being tortured every time he’s forced to lie to his grandfather about the Wall Street Journal story.
- Phyllis (Laurie Metcalf) bumps into Elizabeth at a Harvard event, where she gets to remind her that Theranos’ imminent scandal won’t just impact her, but all women in science. “It’s not just you,” she says. “It’s never just you.”
- Elizabeth calling Sunny “tiger” reminded me of this text exchange between the two that was revealed during her trial.
- “Fuck you, Carreyrou!” Catchy, that. Here’s his original story from 2015.
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