The Second Episode of the Bill Gates Netflix Documentary Is the One to Watch
Netflix has released a new three-part docuseries attempting to peer into the mind of billionaire Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates. Aptly titled Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates, the three-hour series ebbs and flows between Gates’s upbringing in affluent Seattle, the founding of Microsoft, and the present public health work he and Melinda Gates are doing with their namesake foundation.
Each of the three episodes has moments worth watching, including the first—a non-glamorous hour of television that turns discussions of human fecal matter into an educational look at the sanitation challenges facing developing countries. But, as some reviews have pointed out, director Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for “Superman”) transitions perhaps too abruptly and frequently from the various periods in Gates’s life. It’s for this reason that skeptical or time-strapped viewers should select the second episode, as it’s the most focused and insightful glimpse into the way Gates thinks.
The episode begins with a reenactment of 13-year-old Gates and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen digging through a dumpster to find source code for the PDP-10 computer. It’s appropriate foreshadowing of what’s to come: an exploration of Gates’s teenage years and his complicated partnership with Allen.
You very much get the sense in this episode that Gates’s career was shaped by his adolescence. His middle school friendship with classmate Kent Evans highlights the beginnings of Gates’ interests in business. (I’ll bashfully admit there’s a neat montage of historical moments juxtaposed against Gates discussing the influence of Fortune magazine.) “What kind of impact could you have? Should we go be generals? Should we go be ambassadors?” he says. “This idea that some people were super successful, that was interesting. What did they know? What did they do? What drove those kinds of successes?” These sorts of scenes come closest to telling us how Gates actually does think.
The episode veers away from Gates’s youth at times, at one point touching on his friendship with fellow billionaire Warren Buffet. Another plot line focuses on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s mission of eradicating polio. But eventually it delves back into Gates’ high school years, when he began to foster a friendship with the slightly-older Allen after the tragic, accidental death of Evans. It was then, in the 1970s, when Gates and Allen began picking up side-gigs as computer programmers, leading to the eventual founding of Microsoft and the personal computer revolution.
There’s amusing insight into those early years at Microsoft, when Gates and Allen shared a cramped apartment in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “We had a lot of fun,” Gates recalls in an interview. “I had never gotten drunk and Paul got me drunk. Paul was into Jimi Hendrix and there was the song ‘Are You Experienced?'” These scenes also do a good job of illustrating the burgeoning differences between him and Allen—the latter had hobbies outside of coding, like guitar and science-fiction, while Gates is presented as a fanatical hard worker who “didn’t believe in vacation.”
The subject of Gates and Allen’s deteriorating relationship has been the subject of much speculation, and Guggenheim’s portrayal of it is both intriguing and mournful given Allen’s death in 2018. Additional interviewees who knew both, like Melinda, really hammer this point home in the final 10 minutes, as you get a sense of missed opportunities to reconcile between the pair. But speaking of missed opportunities, Guggenheim asks Gates if he had any regrets over Allen, but Gates apparently doesn’t answer, and the camera cuts away.
Overall, the second episode of Decoding Bill Gates gives viewers the most well-rounded look at the experiences that shaped its subject’s career and world view. We’ll leave the reviews to the critics, but in terms of pure entertainment and insight into one of the most successful entrepreneurs in modern history, this is the hour of the series to check out.
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