In this video, Elliot describes “The Dropout” as being overly sympathetic to Holmes. I only have watched some of the first episode, but even from that, the amount of sympathy was striking. I went back to Elliot’s video to see if he’d commented on that, since I had forgotten if he, and sure enough, he did.
The main example of sympathy I noticed was that they go out of their way to portray her as an awkward nerdy girl. They show her failing at athletics when young, listening to music alone in her room and dancing awkwardly, and getting made fun of by a mean girl clique when she’s trying to take her studies seriously when spending time in China. My interpretation is that they want to portray her as smart in order to frame things as a tragedy - actually smart girl makes bad life choices. Another example of sympathy is they show her dad crying after he loses his job at Enron. I think they want to show her as having some sort of reasonable motive for being money-focused. I also think the writers may believe that people won’t want to watch a show that’s just about a terrible person being terrible.
They could have gone in an entirely different direction. They could have portrayed her as an intellectual mediocrity who lusts after money and power, and started with scenes showing her lying, being deceptive, manipulating people, but instead they gave us a sympathetic origin story first.
BTW I looked to see if I could find anything quickly about her intelligence and came across this article based on an interview with a psychiatrist who knew her (note: he wasn’t her psychiatrist, just a psychiatrist*):
3. When Asked Scientific Questions, Holmes Talked About Her Famous Ancestors
Fuisz has a dim view of her business and technical skills and views her as a con artist. As he said, “First of all, [Theranos’s] business makes no sense. Medical testing is not a profitable business and Theranos is selling tests at below-market prices. Also, the girl has no scientific education. She is not very intelligent. She is more con than substance. She was interested in ‘How do you con people?’ Not ‘How do you win with substance?’”
Fuisz argued that when questions were raised about her technical knowledge or business acumen she changed the subject to her illustrious ancestors. As he told me
With her family’s background – [her great, great grandfather, Christian R. Holmes, was a surgeon who had Cincinnati General Hospital named after him and married the daughter of Charles Fleischmann who founded the yeast company and was her great, great, great grandfather] – why is she so insecure? That family background was part of the con. She would be introduced and when questions were asked about her scientific knowledge or business acumen, these family members would be brought up.
Holmes’s con job clearly worked on [Donald L. Lucas, a very influential venture capitalist who helped her out]. As he said in the Berkeley interview
She had no background in business, and so it’s quite presumptuous for somebody to say, “I’m going to be president of the company.” But there’s an important distinction. That’s what I felt when I [first] met her. After spending a lot more time with her, I learned her great-grandfather was an entrepreneur and started Fleischmann’s – packaged yeast. It was very successful. So that was one side, that’s the entrepreneur side, but she was in the medical side. Ah! It turns out later, the hospital very near where they lived is named after her great uncle who was involved with medicine. So she came by both of the two talents necessary here, one medicine and the other entrepreneurship, quite naturally. You could just see it the way she handles things, the way she thinks.