Elizabeth Holmes’ origin narrative is intercut with clips from her July 2017 testimony exposing Theranos’ securities and medical fraud in this premiere (not the real testimony, Seyfried-as-Holmes). The story of Elizabeth Holmes, ambitious intellectual wunderkind, is told in this episode, with pointers as to what’s to come in terms of Elizabeth Holmes, a medical and financial fraudster.
For the wunderkind origin story, we go back to the 1990s and early 2000s, starting in Houston, where Elizabeth demonstrates her determination and drive time and time again, first during a track race at school, then at an awkward Christmas dinner with some family friends, where she humblebrags about getting accepted to Stanford early and being in the top 10% of students accepted. In what appears to be the start of a series about “older people reacting strongly to Holmes’s perceived-slash-actual audacity,” a family friend, Richard (William H. Macy), convinces himself that Elizabeth thinks she’s smarter than him and engages in a one-sided pissing match with the teen girl sitting uncomfortably on his couch. It’s as strange as it sounds, and it’s made much worse by the fact that Elizabeth’s father (Michel Gill) has to beg Richard for financial assistance after being laid off from… Enron.
Elizabeth’s 7-year-old self’s sketch of an invented the time machine and note to her father that she wants to “discover something new”; her repeated listening to “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why); her insistence on joining a grad-level research group as a freshman alumnus; her insistence on joining a grad-level research group as a freshman alumnus; her insistence on joining a grad-level research group (Jobs, Woz, Gates, Musk, etc.).
Elizabeth Holmes is, without a doubt, astute. She is, however, in a hurry (as the Alabama song and episode title tell us). The show implies that she’s in such a hurry because she’s always felt like an outsider (she’s certainly awkward in a lot of the social situations we see her in) and has something to prove, that she’s genuinely bright and that she wants to have a purpose in the world while achieving the financial security and autonomy that she saw her family achieve after the Enron scandal. (At least, that’s the insinuation; from all appearances, her family appeared to be in good financial shape before, during, and after Enron.) That’s a lot of motives, and it has to be seen how pure and sincere those motives are and remain once the actual fraud begins, though The Dropout is portraying them as crucial aspects in Holmes’s story so far. Elizabeth also uses her systematic planning brain and in-a-hurry attitude in other undertakings, such as her intention to obtain some sexual experience.
Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) is in the program (though not a college student) because he wants to learn Mandarin because “China is going to be the manufacturing capital of the world.” She plans to have sex over the summer before college, but instead, during her summer in Beijing, we meet another important player in the Theranos story: Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews), who is in the program (though not a college student) because he wants to learn Mandarin because China Elizabeth and Sunny become fast friends while visiting Beijing and sharing personal tales, and their bond lasts even after they return to the United States. Since Sunny is also engaged with Theranos, this relationship — platonic at first, then amorous — is definitely going to be a main feature of the series. Aside from a few scientific thrills, Elizabeth’s encounters with Sunny appear to put a spring in her step – she’s at her most natural and at ease while chatting to him, though she does cut him off at one point, telling him their bond is strange because of their age difference. Despite their estrangement, Sunny is the person she contacts after a stray gunshot flies through her car window, and despite their age gap, he calms her and tells her he’ll always protect her — after which they kiss.
Back on the “I’m going to invent something, but I don’t know what it is yet” front, Elizabeth’s first idea (for a patch device that both administers medicine and monitors whether the meds are working) is shot down by Professor Phyllis Gardner (Laurie Metcalf) during her sophomore year at Stanford, who advises her to take her time and enjoy her youth, but Elizabeth isn’t interested in the slow pace of scientific innovation. Though she’s seen to be having fun in college earlier on – using pot and watching Vanilla Sky, telling Sunny she loves college and likes beer, and joining a sorority — her effort at having fun after the patch is shot downturns sour in the form of an alleged rape at a party. After that, Elizabeth closes down, shuns Sunny, and spirals even further when the school says they won’t propose disciplinary action because, as she tells her mother, it’s a “he said, she said” issue and “no one believes [her].” It’s a heartbreaking moment, made all the more so by her mother’s suggestion to bury it deep and forget about it (Elizabeth Marvel; who doesn’t believe her?). Mrs. Holmes may have been involved in a similar occurrence in the past, but the episode chooses to focus on Elizabeth finding strength in that counsel and moving on to develop the idea that will eventually become Theranos.
At the moment, she’s inspired by her fingertip — as well as the size of her iPod — but the foreshadowing and inspiration have been building up throughout the episode. First, in her and Mrs. Holmes’ uneasy reactions to her pre-Beijing blood sample; then, in Sunny’s dramatic account about his father’s deadly hospital misdiagnosis; and, possibly, in the sexual assault and yearning for safety that episode inspires in her.
Professor Gardner dismissed Elizabeth’s patch because “machines make mistakes, too,” but Professor Robertson (Bill Irwin) and TA Rakesh (Utkarsh Ambudkar), Elizabeth’s research group leader (seemingly inspired at least in part by the fact that he previously missed out on investing with two former students on what became Yahoo), are intrigued by the blood-test device idea. By the end of the episode, Elizabeth has dropped out of Stanford, invested her tuition money in the pursuit, and rented an office in East Palo Alto, which she and Sunny furiously make out in as a voiceover investigator questions future Elizabeth about the medical danger her fraudulent technology put people’s lives in. So, you know, a lot has occurred, and it’s all happened in a rush — because, as we’ve discovered, Elizabeth is like that.
The episode is a fairly normal and basic series debut — there’s a lot to set up before we get into the meat of the Theranos-fraud story — but Seyfried’s acting is the hook from the start. She loses herself in Holmes, which includes the voice, skulking, running, and a killer “what you’re saying to me does not compute” expression. I can already tell that watching her as Elizabeth Holmes will be entertaining.