The series takes a smart, humanistic approach to the Elizabeth Holmes controversy, which is sure to make for an intriguing season.
The first episode of Hulu’s The stall, based on the true story of the downfall of Elizabeth Holmes and her fraudulent health-tech company Thernanos, begins with a fictional video recording from 2017 that shows a disheveled Holmes as she prepares to share her testimony. When the judge asks if there’s a reason she can’t tell the whole truth, the camera pans to her face as she begins to speak, and the scene ends before we hear what. whether it be. The next shot also features a recording, but this time it’s from a few years ago and Elizabeth is shown walking around her $9 billion business. The ominous tone created in these two scenes immediately drew me into a clever and complex first episode, which offers a promising start to crafting a portrayal of such a controversial character.
To give you some background, if you’re not familiar with the Holmes scandal: As a Stanford dropout around 19, Holmes founded a very successful biomedical company, Theranos, which created fast and effective blood tests home. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but it’s safe to say that due to fraud by investors, doctors, and patients, this company no longer exists. But the first episode just hints at what’s to come, instead focusing on the controversial woman’s past. So far, given the approach taken in the first episode, it looks like Holmes’ rise and fall will be captured through a humanistic lens. Amanda Seyfried’s Holmes is portrayed as a complex, troubled and driven individual, bolstered by Seyfried’s raw and compelling performance.
Show creator Elizabeth Meriwether experiments with foreshadowing throughout the first episode. We follow Elizabeth through different periods of her life, with the knowledge of what is to come looming above our heads. In a revealing scene, Elizabeth goes to the doctor with her mother, Noel (Elizabeth Marvel), to get her blood drawn, but her mother can’t even stay in the room to watch. Holmes looks uncomfortable and scared. It’s a short scene, but Seyfried’s compelling performance makes it important in the development of the overall storyline.
It is evident that Elizabeth remains true to herself throughout her childhood: she is determined, brutal (wrongly), clumsy, proud and driven by her ego. His way of conversing with others is atypical; for example, as she prepares to spend the pre-college summer abroad, Elizabeth approaches her emotionally unavailable mother to tell her that she might be sexually active this summer. Elizabeth’s delivery is stiff and simple, as is her mother’s response. She remains expressionless and lacking in motherly affection as she curtly reminds Elizabeth to stay safe and beware of men. This conversation signifies the nature of most of their interactions, which are very transactional.
Elizabeth also exhibits poor social skills when her family visits their friends, the Fuisz couple (William Macy and Mary Rajskub). His mother pushes his father, Chris (Michel Gill), to ask Richard Fuisz for financial help after he is fired from a fraudulent company (the omen is too real). As the whole family sits in their lavish living room, Elizabeth and Richard engage in a tactless conversation: she insults him by insinuating that his business model is corrupt. Ultimately, her rude behavior creates unnecessary tension and embarrassment as Richard and his father discuss a delicate situation.
Shortly after the Holmes family meets Richard, we see Elizabeth in a Chinese immersion program the summer before her freshman year at Stanford. As her roommates are casually hanging out and chatting in their room, Elizabeth interrupts them to shamelessly criticize them (in Mandarin) for not speaking Mandarin. It created an interesting contrast as I recoiled from Elizabeth’s lack of social conscience, but also regretted being laughed at and treated like an outcast.
As Elizabeth isolates all potential age-appropriate friends, she hooks up with a middle-aged man, Sunny (Naveen Andrews), who happens to be a millionaire. Having a grown adult in a student-oriented program should be the first red flag, but they form a close (and scary) bond. They practice Mandarin in Elizabeth’s room while her roommates prepare for the game before heading out. They also share their aspirations and secrets: Elizabeth tells Sunny that her focus on the biomedical industry is driven by her interest in helping people – a stark contrast to her cold, antisocial exterior.
Once at Stanford, few changes. Elizabeth is focused and isolated, and takes every opportunity to learn. However, she has an annoying boyfriend whom she cares about no less and a sustained long-distance friendship with Sunny (who travels to India but eventually returns home to Stanford). “Eyes open, shower trolley on bed, Justin Timberlake in background” Sex is the closest thing to seeing Elizabeth as a cliché student. She spends the rest of her free time developing inventions and participating in a university-level research group led by Professor Robertson (Bill Irwin), which is a testament to her aggressive perseverance and genius intellect. In the group, Elizabeth comes up with an idea for a company that aims to provide therapy and diagnosis (the same language she uses to describe Theranos later). While Professor Robertson is interested, Elizabeth’s ego is knocked down a few notches when she speaks with doctor Phyllis Gardner (Laurie Metcalf), who rejects her outright and reminds her to appreciate being 19.
Elizabeth tries to follow Gardner’s advice, but it turns out she doesn’t quite know how to act at her age. she has to practice basic social cues in the mirror before going to a party. It is implied that during this party, Elizabeth was roofed over and raped, although there is no indication as to the identity of the rapist. Elizabeth is simply shown behaving in a drugged way and the next scene is her attempt to fight the consequences. The producers’ decision to skip over this critical event left me puzzled, but I see the benefits of focusing more on the aftermath of the rape. It is equally important how a survivor reacts to this trauma, in addition to how they choose to heal.
Elizabeth’s initial response is agony because no one believes her. In a state of anger and depression, she calls Sunny and tells him to stay out of her life and that their relationship is inappropriate (which seems to be the only positive to come from this scene). However, she also channels her helplessness into motivation, and it is during this depressed time that she comes up with the idea for Theranos.
The trauma also elicits some sympathy from her mother, who holds her hand during the hearing, says she believes her and offers sage advice. However, when her mother shuns Elizabeth after she awkwardly tells her she loves him in front of a dumpster, it reminds us of the true nature of their relationship.
The episode skips two years forward and we see that Elizabeth has formed Theranos’ plan. She recruits Professor Robertson and his partner Rakesh (Utkarsh Ambudkar), and they rent offices in Palo Alto. Elizabeth goes to her parents’ house hoping to acquire her first investors and also announces that she is considering giving up. The show ends with Elizabeth nearly hit by a stray bullet as she sits in the parking lot outside her new office. She is shocked and shaken, and calls none other than Sunny (who is back at Stanford). At a time when she is vulnerable, Sunny pretends to be her protector and they begin to kiss. (Ew.) A recording of a judge questioning Elizabeth about the inaccuracies and harmful nature of her product, Theranos, plays in the background. Ah, the parallels.
The first episode is promising; there’s an established arc, visible irony and foreshadowing, stellar acting, and a very good soundtrack. If you’re not fully aware of the story this show is based on, my advice is don’t look for it. Although I know the story well, I can imagine how captivating it must be to follow the mystery and contemplate the clues given to us so far. The nuances this episode unpacks suggest just how multifaceted the story is; the show isn’t necessarily there to attack Holmes, but rather to assess the story from a human perspective, which is sure to make for an intriguing and complex season.