Sunday, June 11

The Dropout Recap: Adult Supervision

The Dropout

Green Juice

Season 1

Episode 3

Editor’s Rating

4 stars

Photo: Beth Dubber/ HULU

If episode two found Elizabeth taking her first major step into scammery at the Novartis demo, “Green Juice” ups the fraud ante in a big way. Lots of things escalate in the show’s third episode, and it’s somehow simultaneously both a slow burn and whirlwind — it’s a bit muddled feeling for much of the episode, but the culmination is a hell of a payoff. By the end, Elizabeth has transformed into the Elizabeth Holmes persona we’re all most familiar with: black suit and turtleneck, red lipstick, low bun, black eyeliner, even deeper timbre of voice, and a green juice in hand (placed there by Sunny, perhaps a reference to Elizabeth’s real-life testimony that Sunny wanted to create a “new Elizabeth” during their relationship). This despite saying she “hated” green juice earlier in the episode. So how does she get there?

Well, in the summer of 2007, Elizabeth is CEO of a buzzy Silicon Valley start-up with a lot of momentum and VC money backing it, and with that comes more attention (like inclusion in Inc.’s “30 Under 30” alongside Mark Zuckerberg, he of the soccer sandals) — so that means it’s time to deal with the fact that Elizabeth is a young woman swimming in the sharky Silicon Valley boys’ club.

The Dropout doesn’t shy away from that fact and acknowledges how it might make things tougher for Elizabeth and Theranos, but also resists (so far) casting Elizabeth as some kind of feminist hero because of it. Elizabeth being a young woman in the male-dominated tech world does present obstacles — from comments about her weight from Don Lucas, who brunches with her every weekend like a father, to the revenge scheme family friend Richard Fuisz cooks up “just for fun” to delusionally teach Elizabeth a lesson — and maybe that was part of her motivation to take Larry Ellison’s advice to be a more aggressive leader (act more stereotypically male) and choose to go with fraud as the way forward in episode two. It certainly motivates her in “Green Juice,” as she gets both praise for her young woman CEO status and advice on that front from poached Apple designer Ana Arriola (Nicky Endres) and expresses a hyperawareness of the tightrope she’s walking. She’s particularly sensitive to not letting people think she needs her boyfriend’s help (never mind that no one knows Sunny is her boyfriend, though they live together by this point).

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But the show manages, in “Green Juice,” to acknowledge that reality without letting Elizabeth off scot-free. She spends the episode confronting the knowledge that she cannot afford one misstep, that her often disheveled appearance and youth and womanhood (and the combination; see: Zuck’s aforementioned soccer sandals) means an uphill battle in terms of gaining respect in the boardroom and industry … while also getting herself in deeper and deeper with lies.

Theranos still doesn’t have a working prototype and is not close on any pharma contracts. Yet she baldly lies to Avie Tevanian (Amir Arison) and the rest of the board about these issues, pursues a Pfizer validity trial (with terminal cancer patients!) even though she knows the tech won’t perform, pits her engineers against one another, and starts spying on and siloing the Theranos employees in various ways. Eventually, after Avie resigns and tells Don Lucas to “start asking questions,” the board calls for a vote of no confidence in Elizabeth as CEO.

It may seem patronizing that the board tells Elizabeth she needs adult supervision, and the optics of them all being middle-aged white men (once Avie departs) only adds to that perception. But also, we can clearly see she is drowning and grasping at lies and deception as her life preservers. So … is it patronizing? Or would any board come to the same conclusion? Or are both things true and inextricable here? Anyway, Elizabeth cries and apologizes and admits she’s in over her head and that they’re right; she does need help. Then she pitches her preferred solution: bring on “an old friend” who will bring in $20 million and act as COO as long as she stays CEO; “he’s” already had the idea to scratch pharma and carve out their own space in retail.

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This struck me as a calculated move, a play on the old men’s sympathies for the young woman standing in front of them crying about her dream and asking for help (seemingly inspired by the Genius Bar associate who cried when she accidentally erased Elizabeth’s phone). And it works! The board is convinced. It seems like Elizabeth knew it would, or at least knew it was her best, last-ditch chance to hold onto her company when she gets home and pitches the idea to Sunny, who hasn’t heard it yet (though she told the board he was already in). They smile at each other, their earlier relationship turmoil (which got physical and ended with both of them in tears) forgotten. Sunny, who has spent the whole episode languishing and feeling dismissed — by the discriminatory airport security guys and Elizabeth alike — is in.

The point is, multiple truths can be at play: Elizabeth can have been groundbreaking and fresh as a young woman tech CEO who had to break into a boys’ club and deal with sexist, ageist attitudes in her quest to build her company and a fraudulent scammer. And I’m glad that the show isn’t saying it’s all one or all the other because ignoring either aspect does no favors to telling a full story here.

The episode closes with Theranos moving into the new office (with new engineer Brendan Morris, played by Bashir Salahuddin, and his new prototype, the Edison); a cut of Elizabeth’s 2017 interview confirming that by the end of 2008, Sunny came on board as COO and she bought back some shares and had a controlling stake in the company; Richard being served papers; Rakesh and Edmond hanging out, both no longer employed by Theranos. Here’s hoping Edmond’s daughter made them a yummy Easy-Bake Oven treat to comfort them. It’s the least they deserve.

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• This episode is rife with early-mid aughts gems: old Blackberry devices, the release of the first iPhone, the popularity and derision surrounding the Prius, Passion Pit, and Amy Winehouse. What a time.

• In a big “fuck you” to Dr. Gardner from episode one, “Do or do not. There is no try. — Yoda” is plastered on the lobby wall of the brand new Theranos office. Considering what Dr. Gardner said about science being all about trying, this feels like a pretty clear signal that Elizabeth has fully entered scam land and has left all pretenses of serious science behind.

• Maybe we should be keeping track of all the people who are officially suspicious of Elizabeth; it’s a growing list. As of this episode’s end, we’ve got Avie, Ana, Edmond, Rakesh, and Ana’s whole design team having left Theranos, and all with their scammer spidey senses tingling to various degrees.

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