Television

The Dropout Is a Show About How Girlboss Anthems Will Ruin Your Life

The Hulu series is ostensibly about Silicon Valley, but really it’s a cautionary tale about pump-up jams.

Amanda Seyfried as Elizabeth Holmes, staring directly into the camera in her signature black turtleneck, her eyes glassy, a pair of Beats headphones photoshopped onto her head
Photo illustration by Slate. Images via Hulu and benzoix/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes, the heroine of the Hulu miniseries The Dropout, is acutely aware that she’s following in the footsteps of the Silicon Valley titans who preceded her, trying to recreate their stories as well as their success. She goes to Stanford not to get a degree, but so she can drop out, the way Bill Gates and Elon Musk and her idol Steve Jobs did. Her parents, who have scraped together their last funds to send her to college (her father, a former vice president at Enron, was wiped out when the company collapsed), are horrified, but she can already hear the clock ticking, the odds of being a teenage prodigy running rapidly down to zero. She knows what she is destined for, and she won’t let anything sway her from the path—not emotion, not the law, not even the complete failure of Theranos’ would-be revolution in medical testing.

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The legend of Steve Jobs is Elizabeth Holmes’ lodestar, but there’s another constellation guiding her along the way, made up of the songs she uses to lift her spirits when times get tough, and to brag on her successes when they finally start coming. They’re songs that tell her that she’s the one, that she’s got what it takes, that nothing should come between her and her goals. But they also drown out the voices that might tell her to think twice, that perhaps she’s not succeeding because she’s really not good enough, or because her miracle product has never actually worked. The songs on The Dropout’s soundtrack aren’t just a perfect millennial time capsule. They’re part of the delusion that sustains her, and that she eventually spreads to others: the belief that just being in business with Elizabeth Holmes makes them part of something special. It’s all about the feeling, until the music stops and all the chairs are gone.

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The reciprocal relationship between Elizabeth’s practical goals and the inspirational anthems she uses to urge herself towards them is established the moment The Dropout picks up her story. A teenage Elizabeth is driving her younger brother home from school, and he forces her to pop out the CD she’s using to teach herself Mandarin, because she’s already got her eye on a future doing business in China. He sneers as he flips through a folder full of what he sees as try-hard girly music—Dido, a Lilith Fair compilation—but she reaches past his objections and pops in a disc, hand pounding the steering wheel as she sings along to Alabama’s “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why).” During a quick break in the chorus, she turns to the passenger seat and proclaims, “This is a great song.”

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As the camera scrolls past green suburban lawns dotted with plastic Christmas decorations, the song seems to offer a promise of escape, a dream of being anywhere other than here. But a while later, after her dad has broken down in tears telling her he’s ruined, it serves a very different function. Her awkward attempts at comforting him spurned, Elizabeth retreats to her room and cranks up her boombox, fists pounding at her sides as the drums kick in. There’s a desperation to the way she dances, a mixture of fury and yearning, but it’s as uninhibited and dorkily unselfconscious as you might expect from someone who’s never been to a school dance. The closest thing she has to a partner is a poster of Steve Jobs, whom she practically supplicates herself in front of, placing her palms on it as if she’s trying to commune with his spirit, or absorb his energy from afar.

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Elizabeth is, as Alabama says, in a hurry to get things done. (The real Holmes listed “I’m in a Hurry” as her favorite song in her high school yearbook.) And it’s the combination of technology and music, as realized in the iPod, that carries her forward. She uses those iconic white earbuds to shield her from uncooperative classmates in the Mandarin immersion program where she meets Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews), who would become her lover and alleged partner in crime, and when she’s sexually assaulted at Stanford, it’s the device that offers her comfort. (The Dropout establishes early on that Elizabeth doesn’t really have friends, and when she tells her mother she’s been assaulted, her best advice it to put it behind her and move on.) Sitting alone in her dorm room, she blasts Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Y Control,” and as singer Karen O wishes she could “buy back the woman you stole,” Elizabeth runs the MP3 player’s stainless steel casing over her neck like it’s an ice cube on a hot day. It’s then that she has the inspiration that will define her life, and Theranos’ entire doomed existence: a small rectangular box, its smooth surface marked by minimal controls, that “could always be with you, and will keep you safe.”

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Elizabeth enters her entrepreneurial phase to the sound of Missy Elliott’s “We Run This,” whose syncopated swagger is so irresistible that it pulls even her awkward body into line. It hasn’t been that long since she was flailing her limbs to Alabama, but when she cranks up the music in Theranos’ new office space and starts getting down, it’s with a grace and confidence we’ve never seen before. Somewhere along the way, she picked up some moves. (It’s the only scene in the series where star Amanda Seyfried worked with a choreographer instead of inventing her own dorktastic dances.) Inside the song’s headspace, she’s everything she dreams she can be, and for a moment, we see her that way too. But the façade cracks the moment her new assistant walks in the door and breaks the spell, and she has no more luck with the young tech bros she hits up for financing, who shred her confidence with pointed questions and sexist asides about where to stick a microneedle.

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It isn’t until she meets with Don Lucas (Michael Ironside) that she happens on what will become her winning formula: flattering the vanity of older men. The elderly investor, then in his 80s, raises the same objections as Elizabeth’s generational peers—namely that she has no experience, no product, and no potential customers. But instead of pitching Don on her vision of the future, she sells him the image of his own past, when he was young and willing to take risks. The companies that control the testing market, she tells him, are “ancient,” “archaic,” “dinosaurs”—and if he sides with them, what does that make him?

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In essence, she’s offering him what the songs offer her, a sense of boundless possibility and freedom—particularly the freedom of being a young white woman. There’s a special kind of liberation carried by that soaring female voice, the kind of weightless release that makes you want to belt out a song by Kelly Clarkson or Taylor Swift no matter how far outside their core demographic you might lie. (My family knows to fall silent when “Since U Been Gone” comes on the radio and let me have my moment.) Even the Black gay narrator of the Pulitzer-winning Broadway musical A Strange Loop sings about taking inspiration from his “Inner White Girl”: “They get to be wild and unwise … they get to make noise, they get to mesmerize.”

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By The Dropout’s third episode, Seyfried has adopted Holmes’ comically artificial CEO voice, a lugubrious bass designed to stamp out any trace of feminine uncertainty. But the beginning of the next episode, “Old White Men,” finds one of her future investors heading in the precise opposite direction. We’re introduced to Walgreens executive Jay Rosan (Alan Ruck) the same way we met Elizabeth: fiddling with a car stereo behind the wheel. But instead of speaking Mandarin, his voice leaps upward as he’s belting out Katy Perry’s “Firework” in a shaky falsetto. Like Don Lucas, Jay Rosan’s glory days are long past—when he brings up his own startup, a colleague cuts him down with, “When was that, the ’90s?” But he hasn’t forgotten the high of starting something new, and being around Elizabeth brings it all back. Instead of questioning Theranos’ fundamentals, he takes her side, because he can’t stand the idea of being one of those past-his-prime guys who just doesn’t get it. “Either we get with the kids or we’re old,” he pleads with his boss, who’s understandably reluctant to invest after Holmes refuses to allow the Walgreens team so much as a peek inside Theranos’ labs. “If we walk away, they’ll run right over us.”

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Katy Perry is a powerful drug, and The Dropout isn’t even the only recent series about ill-fated tech ventures to make that observation. In WeCrashed, Jared Leto’s Adam Neumann is obsessed with Perry’s “Roar,” to the extent that his harried assistant darts ahead of him to make sure it’s playing when he walks into WeWork’s offices. (This is, apparently, accurate.) But you heed her siren song at your peril. One of the best, and slipperiest, aspects of The Dropout is how seductively sticky the tropes of the iconoclastic tech upstart are. Even if we didn’t go in knowing how Theranos’ story ends—that is, with Holmes convicted on multiple counts of fraud—the series opens every episode with her testifying to her own misdeeds. And yet when the consultant Walgreens has hired to verify the company’s technology starts pointing out all the ways they’re dancing around FDA compliance, he still sounds like a whiner, a nattering nabob nipping at the heels of greatness. You almost have to force yourself to remember that he’s in the right.

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We love these myths too much to let them go. And after all, weren’t millennials like Holmes raised to believe that every one of them is special and unique? (Never mind that their boomer parents were the ones handing out those unasked-for participation trophies.) But the flipside of being told that you have greatness within is that you’re a failure if you never realize it. At a particularly low moment, Elizabeth smashes her coveted iPhone in frustration, and strikes up a conversation with the woman on the other side of the Genius Bar while she’s waiting for it to be fixed. Like Elizabeth, the Apple worker is a college dropout working in tech, but she’s just killing time while she figures out what she wants to do with her life. Elizabeth is mesmerized by the idea that a person could reach adulthood without having their entire life planned out in advance. “You can do anything you want,” she observes with clinical fascination. “Nothing you do will matter, because you don’t really care. You have no ambition. You don’t want to do anything important. You’re just a person.” She means it as a compliment, but the younger woman is crushed. No one wants to be just a person. They don’t write pop songs about being content with who you already are, settling comfortably into the middle and calmly watching others pass you by. If you’re not on top, you’re nothing.

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Eventually, Elizabeth’s legend grows big enough to inspire songs of its own. At the party to celebrate the closing of the Walgreens deal, one especially hyped-up executive graces her with a karaoke rewrite of the Romantics’ “What I Like About You” called “What I Like About Blood.” (I don’t know that I have ever seen the furiously sweaty energy of a midlevel sales conference captured more acutely, nor do I wish to.) And when she turns 30, Tyler Shultz (Dylan Minnette)— the 22-year-old grandson of smitten investor and former Secretary of State George Shultz—pens a tender ballad in her honor. By the time her birthday party rolls round, Tyler has discovered that Elizabeth is a fraud and Theranos has been throwing out reams of test results to make their machines seem far more accurate than they are. But he’s compelled to perform for her anyway, his voice straining as he coos fawning lyrics like “You can see the future in a drop of blood … Elizabeth the great.” Like Jay Rosan’s, his voice slips into its upper register, but instead of liberating, his falsetto comes off as a sign of weakness, supplication. When Elizabeth tells him to play the song again, he sheepishly complies.

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While music is still propelling Elizabeth’s professional accomplishments—even as the good ship Theranos heads for the regulatory iceberg, she’s rallying the troops with MC Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit”—it’s failing in her personal life. In one especially cringe-inducing (and meme-generating) moment, she tries to strike a romantic mood with Sunny by playing Lil Wayne’s “How to Love,” creeping towards his desk as he arches an interested eyebrow. (That small gesture suffices to tell you they’ve previously been intimate to the song.) But her movements are goofy, almost parodic, like she’s aping the dancers in a music video rather than coming up with her own moves.

It’s not until after her birthday party that she and Sunny find their groove, for what will be the last time. At the soiree itself, they’re handing out masks of Elizabeth’s face, a literally on-the-nose representation of how much those in attendance want to be her. When she and Sunny go back home, they take one with them, and take turns slipping it on as they dance to Nick Jonas’ “Jealous.” It’s a sublimely bizarre moment, and an indication of just how far Elizabeth’s public persona has separated from the person herself. But it’s also oddly tender, as if they’re briefly able to distance themselves from the thing they’ve created and just be themselves. It’s the last time we see Elizabeth the way she was in her bedroom, gawky and untutored but also free from others’ expectations, her arms waving languidly in the air.

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As Theranos moves into its death spiral, Elizabeth no longer has time for music, and in the end, it deserts her completely. In The Dropout’s final scene, she’s finally confronted with the harm she’s done by Theranos’ corporate counsel Linda Tanner (Michaela Watkins), who practically chases her out of the office yelling, “You hurt people!” Elizabeth slips in her cherished Airpods to drown out the accusations, but for once, we don’t hear anything—just the amplified sound of her own panicked breath. There’s no more myth to escape into, no story left except the one The Dropout has been telling along. It’s the story of a person created and consumed by a culture where the promise of results is more enticing than the results themselves, where if you don’t want to fade into nothingness you have to be extraordinary. I’m in a hurry. We run this. Baby, you’re a firework.

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