The Dropout: Holmes, the Tragic Hero
Hulu’s newest hit, The Dropout, created for television by Elizabeth Meriwether, centers around the rise and fall of Theranos founder/fraudster, Elizabeth Holmes. It’s surprising not in the fact that it’s genuinely good television, but in how it portrays Holmes as someone who is, well, real. This should be the first goal of any creation- make your central character someone who feels like a real person- but, in stories dealing with real life characters such as Holmes, such a goal can be hard to achieve, considering that most everyone watching the show comes in with a preconceived idea of who the main character is meant to be.
To resolve this concern, Meriwether adopts a simple but undeniably effective tactic in telling Holmes’ story- make her a tragic hero.
What is a tragic hero?
The tragic hero, a term coined by Aristotle, is a character who begins as sympathetic and well-intentioned, but is destroyed in some form by their central flaw. They are often aspirational figures who start from a place of morality, only to lose their sense of right/wrong as their flaw becomes increasingly prominent.
What separates a tragic hero from a traditional hero is largely in how the flaw manifests. With traditional heroes, their festering flaw only hurts themselves and doesn’t ripple out. Similarly, traditional heroes tend to overcome and/or admit their flaw by story’s end, therefore succeeding and arcing towards a positive resolution. Tragic heroes, on the other hand, contain a flaw which tends to hurt others, as well as themselves. Traditionally, pride is the flaw of the tragic hero, and it manifests in a way which blinds the character to the hurt they’re causing others.
What is Holmes’ flaw?
A key detail about the tragic hero is that they can have multiple flaws, but these flaws should root in one, singular flaw. Holmes has a lot of flaws- she’s a serial liar, puts too much expectation on herself, and views people as pawns. Though any of these traits could be a central flaw, they all root in her unbridled ambition. She’s so undeniably driven to succeed, so fully sold by the American dream, that she begins to ignore the people she’s hurting in her quest for world-changing levels of success. She ignores any advice that could derail her aspirations, and becomes so singularly focused on her goal that she effectively disconnects from her own sense of morality.
Of course, this change doesn’t happen overnight. So…
How does Holmes’ flaw develop?
This is another aspect of the series which I love- at first, her ambition is presented as rather endearing. We meet her as a freshman college student who doesn’t fit in due to her extraordinary aspirations. She’s constantly ridiculed for her lofty goals and driven attitude, and we naturally feel sympathy for her as a result- who among us hasn’t had a dream shot down by naysayers? The pilot episode, for the most part, doesn’t make Holmes out to be a liar at all. Instead, it portrays her as a misunderstood but rightfully ambitious young woman who believes she has the chance to change the world for the better.
After the pilot, we see the emergence of the Elizabeth Holmes we were promised. In a tightly methodical form, we watch as Holmes’ once endearing ambitions are corrupted in a variety of manners. There are external factors which lead to this corruption (one gut-wrenching scene has her hospitalized father telling her to go to a business meeting rather than visit him), as well as internal factors. As pressure mounts on Holmes and her company to provide outcomes for investors, she is constantly forced to choose between either letting her company sink, or keeping it afloat through lies which, though seemingly small at first, naturally snowball. Unable to admit her own lies are, well, lies, Holmes begins to develop this sharpened sort of cognitive dissonance, and this is where we see the flaw overtake her.
By the end of Episode 3 (“Green Juice”), Holmes’ flaw has completely overtaken her. She has lied to a variety of investors, abused her employees, and fired anyone who doesn’t completely believe in her scientifically impossible dream — all in the name of her personal ambition. Within just three episodes, The Dropout has taken Holmes’ once-endearing sense of purpose and shown audiences how, in unmitigated form, such drive can create a toxic and inescapable tunnel vision, one which your reality differs from that of others.
Now that we know how she’s made into a tragic figure, the next question is…
Why Make Holmes a Tragic Figure?
This is a fair question- why would you make a billionaire who ruined the lives of thousands, lied for millions, and never apologized, into a sympathetic character? The simple answer is: it’s a TV show- we need to root for someone through the story. The more complex answer, however, takes us back to the original purpose of the tragic hero.
When tragic heroes fall, it isn’t out of random failure- it’s born out of their central flaw. As a result, audience watch the failure not as purely depressing, but as informative- a theme is effectively stated. For example, when Oedipus blinds and exiles himself, the audience is horrified but also learns the story’s central theme: that one ought to respect, not deny, fate. In the tragic hero’s defeat, a valuable message is powerfully carried to the audience: no matter your standing, we can all fall to our flaws.
This is why, I imagine, Meriwether and her creative team sought to make Holmes into this relatable, once-endearing figure. If the show began and Holmes was immediately painted as the morally bankrupt liar which she’s expected to become, the audience is offered a more comfortable portrait, but isn’t offered the chance to see her as anything other than this caricature-esque villain. By forcing the audience to see themselves in Holmes, however, Meriwether is able to make the show’s themes surrounding ambition hit considerably harder, all by abiding to the tragic hero structure.