By David Daniel
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. Knopf, 325 pp, $27.95. The Dropout Hulu television miniseries (episodes 1-5). Reviewed by David Daniel.
In a 2018 60 Minutes segment on health technology company Theranos, its young CEO and founder Elizabeth Holmes is seen in a snippet of videotape as she appears before the SEC to answer questions brought against her on charges of fraud for scamming investors. Unlike the composed, well-put-together figure who graced magazine covers and was the face of a new generation (and gender) of tech billionaires, Holmes looks frayed, almost crazed. Hulu’s current original series The Dropout opens with a recreation of the video footage, as Holmes, played by Amanda Seyfried, seems to be trying very hard to remember who she is and why this terrible thing is happening to her. It may be one of the few authentic expressions the Silicon Valley wunderkind ever displays; most of the rest, we discover, are masks, simulacra of emotions rehearsed before a mirror.
With Holmes and Theranos having become a veritable cottage industry—the subject of the Hulu series, a bestselling book by Wall Street Journal investigative reporter John Carreyrou, an HBO documentary (The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley), several podcasts, and an Apple Studios feature film forthcoming with Jennifer Lawrence—the essential details of this high-profile bunco are familiar. Child of an accomplished, purpose-driven family, highly intelligent Elizabeth (she spent one teenage summer in Beijing learning Mandarin), seemed to have the right stuff to achieve her ambition to help humankind and “become a billionaire.”
And she started fast. A President’s Scholar at Stanford as a freshman in 2002, a time when the push for women to pursue STEM studies was ramping up, she chose chemical engineering. Impatient with the learning pace, she lobbied her professors to allow her to take part in research usually reserved for graduate students. Over the Christmas break that first year, when her proud father told her there was a Ph.D. in her future, she was clear: No Ph.D. “I want to make money.” Before long she had an idea for a new method of assaying blood for medical screening using microfluidics and announced her intention to leave school. She asked her parents to use the tuition money they would save to fund a startup. Hesitantly, they agreed. They wouldn’t be the only people unable to say no to their high-reaching daughter.
Over the next several years Holmes created a blood diagnostics company which she called Theranos (derived from “therapy” and “diagnosis”). She proved to be a relentless worker with a convincing zeal for her visionary technique and a knack for getting others to go along. There are always people looking to make fast money, and she found them. Early investors included venture capitalists Donald Lucas and Tim Draper and Oracle’s Larry Ellison. In time she had scores of others, and some of the America’s most powerful men—veritable masters of the universe—sitting on the board and backing her every idea.
One of Silicon Valley’s ironies is that in a world dedicated to zeros and ones, the outward manifestation is bricks and mortar, the fancier the better. From cramped rented space on the gritty “wrong” side of Palo Alto, Theranos went through a considerable growth spurt, a series of transformations that jumped in size and elegance. Photogenic, charismatic, Holmes became the fresh face on the covers of Fortune and Forbes, was profiled in Time, Inc., Fast Company, Wired, and dozens of other forums. She was compared with earlier generation entrepreneurs like Gates, Zuckerberg, Musk, and her hero Steve Jobs (whose image would in time influence the Theranos’ corporate culture and the way Holmes dressed and even talked). The fabled green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock was on. Investment money poured in. Rupert Murdoch ventured $125 million. High profile investors included the Waltons, Bob Kraft, and many others, won over by Holmes’ allure. Major companies like Safeway and Walgreens struck deals with her. So, what was Holmes, a college dropout, pitching to savvy backers? Early on, beyond conceptual designs and some aspirational tech-talk, there wasn’t much. Basically, herself.
That might have been Holmes’ greatest achievement. In 2015 Theranos sold shares in a fund-raising round that valued the company at north of $9 billion, and Holmes’ personal worth was said to be near $5 billion. A great American success story. Such stuff as dreams are made on. But . . .
Not all was what it seemed. Within the company, obscured in its steep and publicized upward trajectory, there were worrisome signs. Demands made of employees’ time and commitment were unrelenting. There was no work/life balance; if you were loyal to the company, it was all grind. Turnover was a swiftly revolving door. Divisions of the company that were engaged in the same R & D were kept apart, forbidden to share information. And there was a growing atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia and downright menace. Everyone entering the building was made to sign an NDA. Visitors had to be accompanied by security guards. All doors were locked and security cams were everywhere. The company kept high powered lawyers on retainer. The reason given was to protect Theranos’ revolutionary technology from spying eyes. The reality was very other.
In late 2005 the Wall Street Journal began publishing stories that raised questions about the company’s claims and practices. Written by Pulitzer-prize winning investigative reporter John Carreyrou, the articles brought much-needed scrutiny and bared some of the cracks in Theranos’ carefully constructed façade. Bad Blood is the expanded version of Carreyrou’s investigations. Systematic, carefully researched and documented, reading at times like a John le Carré novel, the book exposes the company’s deceptions.
By keeping his focus on the people, he creates a very human story, enmeshed in a particular period of time and tumult in the life of a global technology boom. At the outset, with the brief family history and Holmes’ legitimately impressive traits, it’s possible to feel admiration and sympathy. Before long, however, the reader experiences growing uncertainty, then astonishment, dismay, and ultimately outrage. The tale spins out a web of Silicon Valley intrigue that has one rooting against Holmes and Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani (Holmes’ COO and secret romantic partner) and their adversarial high-priced lawyers; rooting for brave employees who risk much to come forward; and hoping for some measure of justice.
The Dropout, which launched on Hulu on March 6th, covers much of the same ground, but it adds what the visual medium can do so well. With the luxury of time (when completed in early April the series will have run for eight hour-long episodes) the series adds depth to Holmes’ early life, and highlights telltale moments in her development. We see the bright young Elizabeth’s curiosity and enthusiasm for science and a determination to make something of herself. We find her witnessing her dad’s humiliation when he is blindsided by being fired from job (at Enron, interestingly; which he sees as a fraud). We’re shown the impact of the job loss on the family. We get to go with Elizabeth on a summer program to Beijing where she wants to study Mandarin (and hopefully lose her virginity, she tells her mother). Being a nerd, with the social skills that implies, she’s lonely there, an outcast from peers, practicing social moves before a mirror (which is humanizing, because: who hasn’t done it?). It’s in Beijing that she finds an awkward parallel in Sunny Balwani—whose impact on her future will be major. Bonding over microfluidics and their loneliness, they make a tenuous connection, Soon we find her at Stanford in her one and only year. Skimped on in Bad Blood, this is shown to rev up the impetus behind her eventual career.
For an actor it’s a demanding role, given Holmes’ transformation from nerd to self-made billionaire, and Amanda Seyfried gives a nicely modulated performance. By turns awkward, edgy, bombastic, arrogant, sinister, she delineates the character’s inner struggles: nice girl vs. martinet; hype or substance. We’re show her radical makeover to a young woman comfortable with selling her vision, which ultimately means expertly selling herself.
By now a feature we’ve come to expect in a creative television series, there’s a smart use of music, with judicious snips of song to carry forward and comment on the action. Early in episode one, Alabama’s “I’m in a Hurry (and don’t know why)” prefigures the young Holmes’ hellbent quest that, in time, will have her blazing in the bonfires of the vanities.
Playing their strengths and working within the limitations of each medium, both The Dropout and Bad Blood pull us into a very American story of Theranos’ and Holmes’ rise and fall.
The Dropout is available on Hulu streaming, and the final episodes air on successive Thursday nights. Here’s the trailer: