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petite blonde woman – lips ringed in postbox red lipstick – stands on a table in front of a rapt crowd, telling a story about an uncle who liked crosswords, who taught her to play football in his yard, who died of an incurable cancer. This loss, she explains, means she dreams of “a world where no one has to say goodbye too soon”. A pause; she liked how that sounded. And – the crowd are getting excited now – this is the world she is creating, she says. “This is my religion. This is who I am. Anyone who doubts my company, doubts me.” The crowd screams; some of them are sobbing. No one doubts her company. “No!” they call out. “No!”

Meet Elizabeth Holmes, the Theranos founder and blue chip scammer whose name has become shorthand for Silicon Valley hubris – and whose twisted American-Dream-gone-wrong is now the discomfiting substance of a 10-episode Disney+ series, starring Amanda Seyfreid as the swashbuckling, sociopathic turbo-nerd Holmes. In the above scene, she is nothing short of terrifying.

The story of Theranos has become a modern morality tale. The biotech company – founded by the 19-year Stanford dropout Holmes in 2003 – racked up millions in VC funding and a $10bn valuation based on spurious claims that its tech could conduct extensive medical tests on a single drop of blood; in reality, the tech barely existed and results were often falsified. But the great, good and loaded were convinced – her company was a ‘unicorn’ (tech speak for a billion dollar valuation) and she was the rarest unicorn of all: a photogenic female billionaire. In 2015, a Wall Street Journal investigation triggered the beginning of the end and this January, Holmes was found guilty of three counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

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The Dropout charts Holmes’ journey from obnoxious Stanford dropout to talismanic CEO in compulsive, layered detail; the show is first and foremost a character study. We start in her childhood, where Holmes, a humourless and unlikeable teenager gyrates to mid-90s pop in her bedroom, making eyes at a poster of Steve Jobs, and tells family friends, “I don’t want to be president, I want to be a billionaire”. She has no friends of her own and no wonder: she is clinical and lacking in humanity (“I’m considering becoming sexually active this summer,” a pale, determined, teenage Holmes blinks at her aghast mother, played by Elizabeth Marvel).

At Stanford, an incubator of tech despots, she develops the shape of the idea that later becomes Theranos. She drops out and recruits classmates and professors to work with her. Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) a controlling though pathetic man almost 20 years her senior, lurks, sometimes offering counsel, sometimes shagging her in her office. She treats him appallingly.

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Start-up life is hard: Holmes barely eats, her office, where she is both shagging and sleeping, is also being colonised by ants, and the team cannot get the tech to work. She is constantly being exposed by VCs who point out she is trying to start a biotech company with “essentially a high school degree”. But eventually, ambition overtakes. She and a few acolytes falsify the results of tests, raise $165m in funding and the stage is set.

The fraud ramps up, Holmes reinvents herself as a female Steve Jobs in black polo necks and slacks, and the hype explodes, even as the lies flow like effluent and Theranos dissidents (like the chemist Ian Gibbons, a lugubrious Stephen Fry) are sacked and silenced until the whole thing is exploded by John Carreyrou (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) at the Wall Street Journal. You know what’s coming but the tension is exhilarating, although the best episodes focus on the young Elizabeth and provide clues (although not excuses) for what happens later.

Indeed, the show lives and dies on Holmes; Seyfried plays her well, presenting her as arrogant, unpleasant, uncool in her younger years, homely in long shorts and sandals and quoting Yoda like he is an Eastern philosopher. As Holmes shimmies up the greasy pole of corporate malfeasance, Seyfried adjusts her pitch: now, Holmes is gripped by a single-minded vision, megalomania beaming from big blue eyes. The robotics get worse: she practises social interactions in the mirror, and attempts to assemble a personality based on clues supplied by others. “Did I ever do anything for fun?” she asks her mother at one point, who looks blank. Anyone who has ever seen Holmes on screen will observe the mannerisms – the creepy, toothy smile, the voice – are mastered. Other performances – especially Fry, Andrews, an antic William H. Macy as Richard Fuisz, an old neighbour with a grudge – are strong but it’s all about Seyfried, really.

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Crucially, her Holmes is pitiful but never pitiable, comical but never funny; the show never exonerates her. Unlike the soapy, silly Inventing Anna – the current Netflix show dramatising the tale of Manhattan faux-ialite Anna Delvey, who scammed friends and banks out of hundreds of thousands of dollars – which is enthralled by the myth of Delvey, reinventing her story as that of a sort of dark ‘girlboss’ fairytale, The Dropout is not so crass. Holmes is the villain.

In some ways, Silicon Valley is too – a camp villain, offering a heightened, stereotyped snapshot of its boom age, where tech bro investors in cycling kit called the shots, and people stood on the decks of yachts called ‘Wind Gypsy’, talking about satori. All the false idols of this universe are men in Priuses and Patagonia bodywarmers, whose names Holmes drops like a lovestruck teen (Jobs, Zuckerberg), and in such an environment, women must ‘lean in’, the prevailing feminist orthodoxy of the time (a philosophy of which the show is implicitly, lightly scornful). Holmes does this all willingly. She even buys a Patagonia bodywarmer.

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Elizabeth’s infiltration of the boy’s club is one of the reasons the series supplies for why she succeeds: namely, that male politicians, VCs and scientists are in thrall to this petite blonde. Certainly, these men do seem enchanted – but there’s more to it. For a start, the Theranos vision is extraordinary, albeit totally fabricated (imagine, for a moment, the possibilities of a cheap healthcare revolution in a country where the issue is seemingly unsolvable). The possibility to make vast sums helped. But never forget, Holmes is not passive, not just a set of big blue eyes. She is an active agent of chaos, a dweeby megalomaniac who capitalised on Silicon Valley’s twisted, ambitious, fake-it-to-make-it culture. Indeed, if there is a moral of the story, it is this: don’t run a company based on the sort of cod philosophy you’d have printed on a wall, a T-shirt, or in Elizabeth’s case, a paperweight, reading, meaninglessly: “What would you attempt if you knew you couldn’t fail”.

The show is at times silly, its dialogue overblown, with pop music used to signpost feelings rather than imply an atmosphere. But in many ways this also feels fitting: start-ups and Silicon Valley are by their nature quite… naff, cultish, uncool. And The Dropout spotlights the worst case scenario of giving a sociopathic nerd the keys to a kingdom.

The Dropout is on Disney+ from March 3



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