In this week’s episode of “The Dropout”, there are three main narratives at work, and while they all cross and build upon one another, they’re also distinct in tone in a pleasant manner, as if we’re getting three separate storytelling genres in one episode. We’ve got a buddy-comedy investigative film in the vein of 21 Jump Street and All the President’s Men. There’s a horror movie here, replete with dark nooks, quiet stairwells, and a dramatic tune (there’s even a jump scare using Elizabeth’s face!). We also have an empowering #WomenInScience biopic.
By the end of “Iron Sisters,” each of these tales has begun to converge into one, namely, Theranos’ impending demise. But first, Richard is the one leading the Club Skeptical push to bring Elizabeth and Theranos down in October 2013, which is bad for us and Dr. Phyllis Gardner (whose unhappiness with the fact that her life path has intersected with Dr. Richard Fuisz’s in this way knows no bounds).
As strange as his motivations for Elizabeth were and possibly still are (even his wife, Lorraine, has abandoned him), he’s getting stuff done now, cold-calling and hooking Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou (Ebon Moss-Bachrach); showing up at a bereaved Rochelle Gibbons’s doorstep (you might think she’d blow Richard and Phyllis off, but she’s relieved and wants to burn Theranos to the ground); and Although Richard is irritating, it is satisfying to witness him, Phyllis, and Rochelle working together to uncover Theranos’ scam.
The investigation into Theranos is gaining ground, with lab director Mark (Kevin Sussman) coughing up some dirt due to his Hippocratic oath, and Tyler Shultz (Dylan Minnette) and Erika Cheung (Cameron Mi-young Kim) summoning Carreyrou at the close of the episode.
Tyler and Erika are the “Iron Sisters” scream queens from the horror film “Iron Sisters.” Aside from being briefly starstruck by an Elizabeth sighting, Erika’s “something is wrong here” sense begins to tingle almost as soon as she signs her monstrous NDAs and is told she shouldn’t tell anyone (after she told her father) that she is working at Theranos (he’s excited because it’s her first job—give her a break!).
Erika collects signs that things aren’t right at Theranos as she walks down dimly lit corridors and pokes around eerily silent labs (the most amusing was Tyler handing her a piece of masking tape to cover her computer camera “so they can’t watch you,” but there’s also more serious stuff, like malfunctioning Edisons and being told to cherry-pick data and not ask questions). She’s had enough when she’s forced to provide a real-life patient not-completely-verified results during the Thanksgiving shift… He identifies the Siemens machines on which the Walgreens samples are processed. The Siemens logo is obscured with a Theranos sticker that may be readily removed. Scammers from Theranos, are you serious? Just saying, book smarts don’t always equate to common sense smarts.
Erika is outraged that actual individuals are being implicated in this, and she wants to gather additional evidence. Tyler isn’t persuaded Elizabeth is aware of the situation (cue Erika rolling her eyes at Tyler’s Elizabeth blinders)… Until, at Elizabeth’s 30th birthday celebration, he tries to talk to his grandfather (the George Shultz) about it, and Elizabeth interrupts them, coldly shuts down his queries, and then demands that he perform the terribly awkward song he wrote for her again the second he finishes the first rendition. Tyler brings a lot of privilege to the table — something Erika points out to him when she explains her fear of losing her job — which may not endear him to everyone right away, but Minnette brings charisma to his performance, and damn if I didn’t feel bad for the kid when he had to play that god-awful song twice for an evilly smiling Elizabeth on acoustic guitar. Plus, it all triggers his conscience, leading him straight to Erika’s door, where the two officially join forces to try to right the Theranos wrongs. Unfortunately, this costs them both their jobs and Tyler’s relationship with his grandfather (who sides with Elizabeth, mainly because he is too caught up in the notion that Theranos is doing something absolutely good for humanity), but there is still hope for our young heroes.
This brings us to the final story of “Iron Sisters,” the one that gives the episode its name and once again tackles the thorny “Elizabeth Holmes, Feminist Icon/Women in Science Hero/Fighter of Sexism in Tech” issue that runs through the entire Theranos saga (in The Dropout, most directly so far in “Green Juice”). The #IronSisters ad campaign, onstage Stanford interview, and Elizabeth’s 30th birthday party all show how intertwined Elizabeth and Theranos have become, and they all — along with some of the buddy-comedy investigation and horror-movie elements — address the well-publicized and accepted idea that Elizabeth is a breaker of glass ceilings and champion of her fellow female scientists.
Elizabeth’s appointment as a tech/healthcare CEO could be meaningful. Even though The Dropout has previously admitted that she may have started with good intentions, it does not buy into that fairy tale in “Iron Sisters.” Instead, it demonstrates how false and even insidious symbolic accomplishment can be when taken at face value. How George spins Erika’s attempted whistleblowing as bad form/poor repayment for all Elizabeth has done to support young women in science; how people, in general, seem enamored of and wowed by Elizabeth based on her being a groundbreaker, even though that broken ground is made up of lies and decep; how people, in general, seem enamored of and wowed by Elizabeth based on her being a groundbreaker, even though that broken ground is made up of lies and dece
“She is the CEO; she understands what’s going on,” Erika wisely observes. “Why do you believe she’s unaware of what’s going on at her own firm?”