Two-faced zealot? Fangirl? Or sociopath? You decide. HBO's 'The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley'

Category: Television

Alex Gibney’s latest documentary, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, looks into the unprecedented rise and astonishing fall of Elizabeth Holmes and her biotech company. Holmes, an insanely driven 19-year-old Stanford dropout with little medical or engineering training, launched Theranos in 2004. She promised “a world in which no one ever has to say good-bye too soon.” Proudly fessing up her needle phobia, Holmes purported to disrupt the health care industry with a compact blood-testing device that quickly performs hundreds of scans on a micro-dose of blood. Well-rehearsed speech without a blink in a strenuously forced baritone bewitched thousands of people. Apparently she was a Steve Jobs wannabe and mimicked Jobs in every way from his signature black turtleneck to management and lifestyle. Yes, she was a fangirl!

Holmes gained her stardom when magazines like Forbes, Fortune, and The New Yorker featured her confident promises to upend and “democratize” the health care industry by one pinprick of blood at a time. She was a talk-show darling and sought-after public speaker and unsuspecting audience drank the Kool-Aid immediately. She was excellent at convincing people she knew what she was doing. After all, appearance is everything for branding! Among her cult followers were a number of former government officials, Stanford faculty, and famous investors like Larry Ellison and Rupert Murdoch. She honed in on and cultivated high-ranking officials as her smoke screen so neither her creditability nor her far-fetched idea would be scrutinized by the government agencies. Curiously, her unflinching believers happened to be older men who couldn’t ask the ‘right questions’ to save their lives.

I worked with quite a few biotech startup founders as well as pharmaceutical & medical professionals in my previous career. On top of that, I’m blessed with a keen BS detector. The ridiculous number of tests this small machine claims to handle with a drop or two of finger prick blood raised a red flag for me. Neither do I buy her poor uncle story nor her claim that giving blood is the only thing she’s scared of in her life. Come on! Don’t be a baby!

Like any other tech startup founders in Silicon Valley, Holmes practiced the “fake-it-till-you-make-it” tradition, but in order to be a successful one, she ended up building a brick wall around herself that cut her off from reality. Apparently she was the best used-car salesman in the parking lot! She duped over $900 million from creditable people because she never showed them her privileged and entitled girl face. She demanded loyalty from her people, but her own loyalty lay only with fame and fortune. Forget little people and minions! With the help of her secret boyfriend, COO/President Sunny Balwani, Holmes ran Theranos with an iron fist; keeping its employees under surveillance 24/7, intimidating naysayers with NDAs and possible litigations, controlling information within and without in the name of trade secrets, and practicing unblushing nepotism. Her utmost paranoia induced anxiety and turned good and decent people away in droves. Grief-ravaged and distraught Ian Gibbons, Theranos’ most respected blood test expert, killed himself. His widow was summoned to return his computer and notebooks, but not a single word from Holmes. No wonder so many whistleblowers exposed the biggest case of corporate fraud since Enron. Her game was up!!!

“Is invention act of creation or deception?” asks Gibney in the film. Holmes did both, of course; her looks, intelligence, and charisma raised unprecedented amount of money to create her technological innovation and realize her vision. However, her deceptive nature allowed her to be incredibly flexible around her morality. She should have just concentrated her efforts on marketing/branding (the act of deception) and let her experts do their jobs to work out the kinks (the act of creation). I guess she just didn’t have the wisdom to know she can’t do both. Besides, she totally believed in her calling to do whatever it takes for “the greater good.” Here we go again! As I pointed out in my Good Girls Season 3 review, Holmes must have picked up somewhere that “lying in any shape or form is acceptable as long as it keeps the wolves from the door.”

Since Gibney focused on the psychology of fraud, deception, and self-deception, I turned to John Carreyrou’s page-turner Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup for Holmes’ family background as well as her upbringing. “I want to be a billionaire,” was her go-to answer when young Elizabeth was asked what her future looked like. Carreyrou also pointed out that her parents – Christian and Noel Holmes, nurtured her ambition and competitiveness. “The message Elizabeth took away from them is that if she wanted to truly leave her mark on the world, she would need to accomplish something that furthered the greater good, not just become rich.” Bingo! I believe that’s exactly why she a chose biotech domain, leveraging her family connections and investments chipped in by Noel’s extended family members. That’s fine and dandy, but the problem is she applied the “fake-it-till-you-make-it” culture to a blood-testing machine that spits out critical information on patients’ well being. Messing with people’s life simply is not acceptable even for the greater good. Holmes and Balwani were indicted in 2015 and if convicted, they could face decades in prison. Yet zero sign of admitting wrongdoing! No apologies, no remorse, no shame, no nothing! Neither Gibney nor Carreyrou dare label Holmes a sociopath, but there is something seriously wrong with her. What do you think?

Be sure to tune in for this mind-blowing tale of creation and deception! The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley premieres March 18, 2019 on HBO.

About the Author

Meg Mimura is a TV critic who actually watches shows zealously in search of thought-provoking and paradigm shifting human drama worth our precious time. She is a member of Television Critics Association.