Of all this season’s limited series based on high-profile incidents of chicanery, “The Dropout” stands out. More than Showtime’s Uber show, Apple’s WeWork show, or Netflix’s Anna Delvey show, Hulu’s look at the life and career of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes feels as though it has a certain point-of-view on its subject. And that subject – Holmes, as played by Amanda Seyfried, and the culture that made her – finds brilliant expression in the series’ music choices, overseen by music supervisor Maggie Phillips. Rarely in recent memory has a pop soundtrack been leveraged so effectively, and so eerily, to underscore points the show is making.
Consider, for instance, a scene in which a pre-fame Holmes is waiting outside the Apple Store on the day of the iPhone’s release. Holmes, who idolized Steve Jobs, is in a giddy reverie as Feist’s “1234” plays; the song will, for a certain subset of viewers, instantly conjure memories of the Apple ad campaign in which it featured. It’s the theme song of the Apple lifestyle, and recognizing it is a sort of coded handshake between Jobs devotees.
Later in the series, Holmes welcomes potential partners from Walgreens to Theranos headquarters while KT Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See” – a somewhat vacuous melody of empowerment familiar from its use in “The Devil Wears Prada” – plays. (It had been on the Walgreens executives’ car radio in-universe, and carries over to underscore their first meeting). Holmes, here, is presenting herself as the star of her own movie, and is about to uncork on the pharmacy execs a pitch that relies vastly more on the charm of an inspiring story (wouldn’t it be great if Holmes had the sort of protagonist qualities of a person who could change the world?) than on scientific data.
And they’re open to it. The Walgreens episode is a clever depiction of the ways in which Holmes’ particular characteristics worked on a community of investors hungry for a good narrative; Alan Ruck’s character, the corporate VP who ends up striking the deal between Walgreens and Theranos, is shown early in the episode listening to Katy Perry’s “Firework,” the inspirational song that, in being about everything, is about nothing at all. Hearing it, by chance, after Holmes has told both Walgreens and fellow potential partner Safeway that they don’t understand her vision, Ruck’s character suddenly attempts to salvage the deal. Wouldn’t it be nice to believe Holmes’ invention could work – that, indeed, she was a firework of potential?
The crumminess and disposability of much of the music underscoring the series lends a sense of the culture through which Holmes moved, and her fundamental lack of sensibility or taste. In a scene where Holmes is attempting to get back in the good graces of her boyfriend (Naveen Andrews), she cues up Lil Wayne’s adult contemporary junk-classic “How to Love” and dances to it. Seyfried’s performance of Holmes’ ungainly physical presence in this scene is moving and strange all on its own. Holmes, here, is urgently seeking reassurance, expressing her insecurity through an attempt to be endearing – for she doesn’t trust herself to be seductive – that lands in extreme oddity. But the song, with its slightly off vocals and its lyrics about alienation and loneliness, compounds meaning, too, showing Holmes’ ability to find within the prosaic and the artless a deep human strangeness.
Elizabeth Holmes, here, is proudly corny: She wants to be loved, so she plays “How to Love” (and mimes some vaguely hip-hop-inflected dance moves, making herself the butt of the joke). In another dance she shares with Andrews’ Sunny Balwani, both parties don paper masks of Holmes’ face, left over from a party, and rage to Nick Jonas’ “Jealous.” The psychodrama of envy for the way Holmes presents as a youthful genius is always implicit between them, but they lean on music to literalize it. Earlier, Holmes is inspired by the music of Alabama and listens, in her teen years, to “Steal My Sunshine,” and in young adulthood to Passion Pit. Theranos parties play Kesha’s sleaze anthem “Die Young,” or MC Hammer. She’s a literalist thinker for whom the world is a place to be conquered, making her an ideal listener for the silliest sort of pop music.
Holmes was, from her earliest moments in the public eye, more of a pop figure than a scientist: The thrilling story of her having potentially achieved something was more attention-getting than the boring fact of her not having done so. And “The Dropout” uses music to depict the vapidity of her world, the blunt-force power of platitudes. Often, so-called needle drops on television can stand in for emotional texture or character development; here, they work in tandem with the rest of what the show is up to.
Much about “The Dropout” is exceptional, starting with Seyfried, who is simply on another level: The star doesn’t merely transform but excavates, finding sorrow and loneliness and need within a figure whose obviously outre personal presentation would be where many actors might stop. The writing and direction is clever and deft, avoiding making sweeping statements about What Theranos Means For Our Economy and allowing us to come to those conclusions ourselves. But Phillips – a prolific supervisor who’s worked on everything from “Mr. Robot” to “Normal People” – deserves special mention for conjuring a moment, a mood, and a sense of Holmes, all without distracting us from the show Seyfried is putting on. The music here does what it’s supposed to, drawing out and deepening what’s already happening onscreen. “The Dropout” sidesteps and evades cliche at every turn. Its soundtrack embraces it, to show us the mind of someone who can only understand herself through fiction.