Who was Elizabeth Holmes when no one else was looking? Hulu’s new series ‘The Dropout’ pulls back the curtain

March 1, 2022, 4:30 PM UTC

Elizabeth Meriwether, the television producer who rose to fame from the television series New Girl, knows what it’s like to get in a little over your head. It’s one of the reasons she connected with the story of Elizabeth Holmes—that along with sharing the same first name.

“I started New Girl when I was 29, and so I had experience being young and in a position of power before I sort of knew what I was doing,” she tells me. 

Meriwether is the showrunner for Hulu’s new limited series, The Dropout, based on the podcast of the same name by ABC News’ Rebecca Jarvis. The series, which stars Amanda Seyfried as Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes and Naveen Andrews as Theranos COO Sunny Balwani, airs this Thursday.

Meriwether and I sat down at the end of last week to talk about power, gender, scrappiness, and fraud. Mostly, our conversation revolved around who Holmes might have been as a human being—the person and thoughts behind the woman facing up to 20 years in prison for fraud who has largely become a symbol of Silicon Valley culture gone wrong. 

“I was just really trying to look for clues on who she was when she was alone, who she was when nobody was looking,” Meriwether says.

Amanda Seyfried, pictured, plays Elizabeth Holmes in Hulu's new limited series on the rise and fall of blood testing startup Theranos.
Amanda Seyfried, pictured, plays Elizabeth Holmes in Hulu’s new limited series on the rise and fall of blood testing startup Theranos.
Beth Dubber—Hulu

The show spans a 12-year period of Holmes’ life and navigates a slew of investors, employees, advisors, and whistleblowers who play a role in the rise and demise of a startup that promised to deliver test results with a single drop of blood. But the scenes that stick out most are those of Holmes alone: Staring out the window of her office after firing one of her first employees; dancing to hip hop in her car, thinking no one was looking; or repeating sentences to herself in the mirror over and over, in what feels like a reach for confidence. The very first scene of the show is Holmes at age 11, running on a track far behind everyone else, refusing to quit until she crosses the finish line. The show, of course, is dramatized; and the creative expression is obvious. But the sentiment, and some of the precise language and scenes, Meriwether pulled out directly from research: Details and pieces of Holmes’ life from The Dropout podcast, or exchanges from texts between Holmes and Balwani that emerged during the trial.

“I’d spent years kind of trying to figure out what those conversations would be and just really trying to imagine what that relationship was,” Meriwether says of getting access to Holmes and Balwani’s personal text messages when the trial commenced about two-thirds through the production process. “It was happening while we were shooting. So I was staying up late at night going over hundreds of text messages … Trying to cut and paste and take things that I thought were interesting.”

Meriwether says she took creative liberty in depicting how Homes’ gender was intertwined with her rise to power as the youngest self-made billionaire in the world (per Forbes, 2015), as well as her downfall. “I don’t really know what she was thinking or doing,” Meriwether says. 

At the same time, you can feel that dichotomy throughout the series—Holmes as the only woman in the room, feeling the need to prove or change herself to be taken seriously. Scenes also depicted times she may have used gender, and an aura of innocence, to her advantage as things began to turn sour. “I think gender is a part of the story. I don’t think it’s the whole story,” Meriwether notes. 

When Searchlight Television first approached her about the show, Meriwether says she was skeptical about whether there was anything new to bring to the table. At that point, there had been podcasts, a book, a documentary, and thousands of articles. But she ultimately decided that an in-the-moment, human look at Holmes could add to the conversation. “That’s a story that I felt like hadn’t been told as much,” she says, adding later: “I don’t have answers. I think I have more questions.”

After all the research and the filming, what questions did she still have? For one, Meriwether says she can’t understand what was running through Holmes’ head when she decided to go ahead and put Theranos devices into Walgreens stores—”knowing that real people were going to get their blood tested with it. That’s something that—it was really hard to access that moment with her and what was going on in her head… I still struggle with that.”

The Dropout offers a glimpse at who the woman behind the red lipstick and the Steve Jobs-esque black turtleneck might really be. It’s no exact portrait, but it does feed our curiosity in the question many of us have been asking for years: Who was Elizabeth Holmes, really?

See you tomorrow,

Jessica Mathews
Twitter: @jessicakmathews
Email: jessica.mathews@fortune.com
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