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The Dropout concluded with perhaps its biggest departure yet from what we know about Elizabeth Holmes, with Amanda Seyfried shedding her alter ego’s stony demeanor just long enough to deliver a pained scream — implying, perhaps, some shred of culpability in the con that took down her $9 billion company and wreaked havoc on so many lives.
Sure, it probably did not go down that way. But, as showrunner Liz Meriwether sees it, that’s all people really want from the defamed Theranos founder at this point. Her Hulu series, which chose to wrap up the narrative before the formal dissolution of Holmes’ company, could have ended in countless ways, at countless points on the timeline. So why not offer some closure that’s missing in real life, despite Holmes’ January conviction on four counts of fraud? Meriwether recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about other endings considered — a pricey trip to Burning Man, Holmes’ Husky pooping in Theranos’ abandoned office — and what she learned cramming so many perspectives into the eight-episode examination of a woman who remains one of Silicon Valley’s most complicated and infamous figures.
From start to finish, the series introduced so many characters and subplots. You could make another show about the Shultz family alone. Did you realize that would be the case going into it?
That was something I was scared of going into it. There are so many avenues that this story has, so many different offshoots. I was worried that the audience would want the same people there the whole time. But I think it ultimately added a lot of layers and scope — every episode, you’re meeting new people and there’s new parts of the story. You’re not just stuck in the same rut.
How did that impact casting conversations? There were so many people on the bench at any point. For instance, I went into the finale assuming there’d be some payoff for Michaela Watkins — whose character ultimately tries to get Holmes to admit that what she did was wrong.
I actually cast her before I had written the finale. She’s one of my favorite people, and I’ve worked with her before. I think I knew deep down that I wanted that scene for her. I just hadn’t written it yet or thought of it. As I was writing the finale, something clicked, because I knew I could trust her to be the one to say all of the things that I think you feel when you’re watching the show. That’s me, or the audience, speaking through her. That all worked out so well, because I was originally going to end the show in Burning Man.
I was going to say! Had COVID not been an obstacle, was there a version of this show that ends at Burning Man?
Yes, for a very long time I had been planning on this big Burning Man ending. Maybe that would’ve been interesting, but COVID happened — and then we were out of money. What are we going to do? Elizabeth getting into her Uber with her dog hopefully gets that same idea across — that feeling of reinvention.
What scenes came to you the easiest in the episode?
The finale was hard, all around. I was putting it off and putting it off for so long, and I think Hulu was giving me the benefit of the doubt. It got to a place where they were a little bit like Walgreens and the Theranos box. “We need the dimensions of the box!” What was really hard is that it’s an ongoing story. I never quite knew where to end it. And after the John Carreyrou article comes out at the end of episode seven, I worried about losing momentum. Once the article’s out, what else is left?
The breakup, for one.
The Sunny [Naveen Andrews] breakup was hard because I didn’t want it to come across as melodramatic. But, at the same time, it felt their relationship had been building to this point where I needed there to be some big operatic finish. As a comedy writer, I was just really scared of going too far with it.
Once Burning Man was out, how did you decide on that last scene?
It sounds very woo-woo, and I hate saying it, but I do feel like the characters take over. I was just writing what I thought was going on with Elizabeth. She runs out of the building, gets to the curb, and I was like, “What would happen now? Oh, wait, this actually feels like an ending.” It surprised me because that’s really not where I thought it should end at any point in the planning process.
In the writers room, we had talked a lot about that — this moment in real life where Elizabeth gave a talk toward the end of 2017. Someone in the audience, as she was leaving the stage, yelled out, “You hurt people!” And she heard it. That phrase stuck in our minds. We were all just desperate for some moment where she had a reckoning, where she acknowledged that something had happened — because she never really did it publicly, before the trial. That “You hurt people” moment had always been the closest thing that we had to that. I knew that phrase was important, but I didn’t want to see her on another stage because we’d done that so many times in the series. And Balto, her dog, I knew I wanted in there somewhere.
That Husky is a big part of the post-Theranos Elizabeth Holmes lore.
There was actually an anecdote in a Vanity Fair article about the dog pooping in the office. She would let the dog just go to the bathroom in the office. We were supposed to shoot that, and then we didn’t have enough time. It would’ve taken a really long time to get the dog to do that. And so there was an executive decision made, and rightly so, that we should not spend our time on that and get the scene between Amanda and Michaela to work.
Really hard to work a production schedule around a dog pooping on camera.
Nobody but me probably thought that was ever really happening. I think the whole production staff was like, “Sure, we’re going to shoot that.” But I knew I wanted to include Balto and [Holmes’ now-husband] Billy and her new life, but I didn’t want to do too much with this whole new character and her restarting again.
At what point in the process did she become a character for you and not Elizabeth Holmes?
Really quickly. I had to make that distinction in my head in order to move forward. I’ve been asked a lot, “What would you say to her if you saw her?” Really, it’s hard for me to engage with the real person — because, in my head, she’s so much of a character. If I did see her in person, I think I would run away very quickly.
What kind of discussions did you have about the pre-credits info dump about the fallout over the last five years? It could have easily gotten Old Testament-y in length.
Oh my God. It is already way too long. It’s like the Star Wars crawl! There were so many people to talk about — and, definitely, there was a lot of back and forth between Searchlight and Hulu and us. “Who do we need to hear about and what do we need to say?” If left to my own devices, it would’ve been a whole little essay about just where everybody was.
Have you engaged in the response to the show at all?
I’ve been very head-in-the-sand about everything just because I’m too sensitive. Something that I’ve learned about myself is that I’ll only hear or remember the bad things. I’ll find one offhand comment and then hold on to that.
Because of New Girl, you’ve been known as a comedy person prior to this. Has the experience changed your expectations for yourself?
I honestly didn’t think I could do it. It was hard, but it ended up just being this really exciting experience because it’s the best thing in the world to do something new — to find a new thing that you can do that scares you. They won’t all turn out well, so I’m looking forward to falling on my face.
Yeah, eventually, there is going to be a stinker.
The crawl at the end can just read, like, “I’m sorry.” (Laughs.) But I will say that limited series, as a form, is so exciting. I fell in love with the format because it’s so fun to be able to have the time and the space to dig in with characters but also know that you’re not locked into a story for years and years. As somebody who spent seven years writing a show, I know what that experience is. Just to not have to do that is great. That being said … I will do that again, please.
Of course, but there is something deeply satisfying about just being done with a project.
Amanda keeps asking me to write a second season of The Dropout. I will not be doing that.
You’ve just got to get the funding and you could do a stand-alone movie of Elizabeth at Burning Man.
Well, then I’d have to go to Burning Man — which I don’t think I can do either.
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