Though this year has seen no shortage of new ripped-from-the-headlines scam stories—three new miniseries about controversial startup founders came out in the month of March alone—The Dropout stands out in particular for its excellent performances, especially Amanda Seyfried’s transfixing turn as Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Much coverage of The Dropout has paid special attention to the recreation of Holmes’ distinctive appearance, down to her blunt red lipstick and poorly applied eyeliner. The show’s costuming plays a key role in framing Holmes as an entrepreneur working in an environment skewed toward the ambitions of men. Her habitual black suit and turtleneck may seem on the surface to simply present anonymity, but everything about that trademark outfit is designed to curtail male investors’ fears by shrouding the more obvious reminders of her womanhood, obscuring her figure and linking her to the low-key formality of the male Silicon Valley visionaries she holds as inspirational figures. It’s “Steve Jobs, but make it fashion”: A female colleague points out that while Mark Zuckerberg can get away with showing up to a photoshoot in sandals, she, as a woman, cannot.
But these are just trappings, and the same calculated hypervigilance towards the heavily gendered expectations of her field keenly informs Seyfried’s performance. What makes Holmes such an interesting figure is that, though intensely focused and driven when taking steps to further her career in biomedicine, she is not wholly consumed by her work, at least initially. She likes to dance, is passionate about learning new languages, and is eager to absorb her surroundings when traveling abroad for college. Yet even then, her enthusiasm is curtailed by her slight social awkwardness, combined with how little her ambition matches her actual experience, as she is often seen rehearsing dialogue in a mirror, walking herself through potentially fraught conversations before they take place.
As The Dropout progresses, however, and Elizabeth becomes more and more frustrated with how little investors are taking her seriously—and to be fair, they’re skeptical for good reason, as she has precious little evidence to demonstrate the actual effectiveness of her product—she becomes increasingly reliant on artifice to convey her personality to her co-workers. Every conversation she has becomes, in part, a sales pitch to keep her company intact, as she knows full well that she’s borrowing both time and money to shore up promises she and her subordinates won’t be able to fulfill. Here, Seyfried becomes arresting in how empty she appears on-screen. Her large doe eyes begin to resemble twin abysses, desperate to hang on to any vestige of integrity, and she develops a habit of repeatedly nodding whenever having a business conversation, almost as if trying to convince herself of statements she knows, consciously or not, to be untrue. In one particularly memorable scene, Holmes is shown against a similarly blank white backdrop shooting a commercial with documentary director Errol Morris, and as she stares directly into the camera in front of her, she dodges every question about her ambitions and hopes for the future, seemingly because she cannot think of a single authentic answer. Morris coaches her to talk to the camera the way she talks to her friends, but by that point, we know that Elizabeth doesn’t really have any.
This is not to imply that Holmes does not attempt to seek out some fun throughout the course of the story. She hosts a party for her 30th birthday, and, in a perversely charming scene with Naveen Andrews’ Sunny Balwani, is coaxed into dancing with him to Nick Jonas’ “Jealous.” Yet even these expressions of joy are stilted, demonstrating just how dangerously intertwined Elizabeth’s work and personal lives have become. Her dance with Sunny is marked by how uncomfortable and off-rhythm she seems when allowing herself to relax, and, in what is likely one of the most uncanny scenes in the entire series, her birthday party is marked by the appearance of several of her employees donning masks of her face with holes cut into her eyes, projecting a soulless, terrifying reflection of the hollowness of her public persona.
In the current era of entertainment, actors who profess to deliver the most challenging performances often speak about how much external work is put into allowing themselves to completely transform into their characters—take Benedict Cumberbatch refusing to bathe for his Oscar-nominated performance in The Power of the Dog, or the many times Christian Bale has transformed his body several sizes in all directions, or anything Jared Leto has done in the past decade. Good performances are often determined by their showiness, regardless of whether all the press bombast actually results in a compelling performance. That Seyfried is so compelling in delivering such an emotionally reserved performance is one thing, and is an aspect of her role that deserves praise in its own right. However, there is an under-discussed element of her performance that has gone relatively unnoticed because of how rare it is to pull off in a dramatic context: emotional blankness.
Seyfried’s ability to convey such a drastic, prolonged sense of arrested development within Holmes requires an intense amount of control and precise timing, in which even a detail so minute as the wrong vocal inflection could diminish the dramatic impact of her words. Emotional blankness is not a technique with which Seyfried is totally unfamiliar—Mean Girls saw her portray the embodiment of vapid ditziness—but that was more for comedic relief than as a serious character study. Here, Seyfried is made to direct her emotional focus into making every line sound deliberately rehearsed in its delivery, which is evident in how she purses her lips and clasps her hands at just the right moments for emphasis. Like Julia Garner in Inventing Anna—yet another recent hit streaming series about a scammer—she’s giving a performance in which she plays someone who’s always performing.
Emotional blankness as a means of characterization has often gone unremarked even in its most obvious instances, a lineage of which The Dropout is clearly aware—just look at its title, a riff on the 1967 film The Graduate, in which Dustin Hoffman played an equally vacuous post-collegiate man with just as little coherent identity or direction for the future. Though many popular uses of emotional blankness as a acting technique feature a male character used as a stand-in to diagnose some sort of societal ill—think of Ryan Gosling in Drive, or Colin Farrell and Barry Keoghan in The Killing of a Sacred Deer—in recent years, as women have been given the platform to have more of a comprehensive handle on centering their own narratives, such methods of characterization have become more common in explorations of trauma. Miranda July’s Kajillionaire and Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow, each released in 2020, feature actresses (Evan Rachel Wood and Kate Lyn Sheil, respectively) embodying these sorts of portrayals with aplomb.
Seyfried’s role in The Dropout does not allow for a clear reading as a broad articulation of a social problem, nor can it be cleanly understood as a narrative depicting the consequences of trauma. On the surface, her role as an archetypal tech CEO, a decidedly modern phenomenon, suggests the former. However, the fact that Holmes’ story is molded by her experiences navigating a male-dominated field as a woman places her in a fascinating straddling of both, particularly as her repeated attempts to dodge accountability demonstrate the broader reality that people who have been allowed to accrue a large sum of power won’t always get what’s coming to them.
In the final episode of The Dropout, we see Seyfried in the makeup chair after a failed attempt to defend Theranos’ violations of government regulations on live television. She’s been told it’s important to use the word “devastated” to convey her remorse and giving tens of thousands of people bogus test results, so she uses it, over and over again, until it’s drained of what little sincerity it might have had. She stares into the mirror, her face barren and exhausted—and, after a minute of stewing, proceeds to remove her turtleneck in a fit of frustration, undoing her bun as well. After this, she is seen in only her bra, finally confronting an image of herself in which she is free from the constraints that bind her to a public image that has become so recognizable as a result of her years of deceit. She smiles, amazed at the relief she finds in genuine honesty—and then the scene proceeds to cut back to footage of her dodging questions at the lawsuit deposition that has framed the entire series.
That her lies have become habitual to the point of shaping her personality is reflected in the series’ haunting final scene, during which she, upon realizing the personal impact of her gross mismanagement, screams in agony on a curbside, right before meeting her Uber driver, greeting him with a smile, and proceeding to pretend that everything is fine. Such an avoidance of the truth lands with a sting, which the show then proceeds to drive home by recapping just how few women have been allowed to break into the tech industry in the wake of her downfall, going so far as to point out that one woman was reportedly told to dye her hair to prevent any sort of resemblance to Holmes. The implication that Holmes may never allow herself to come to terms with the damage she has done is given that much more weight through Seyfried’s performance, which highlights just how much of her conscience has been consumed by her deflection.