The Dropout showrunner reveals how the show almost ended — and it has to do with Burning Man
Warning: This article contains spoilers about the series finale of The Dropout.
The Dropout has finally graduated.
Throughout its eight episodes, the true crime limited series has charted the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and her ill-fated biotech startup, Theranos. In Thursday's finale, which jumps between the events of 2015 and 2017, things finally come to a head for Elizabeth (Amanda Seyfried) and her romantic and business partner Sunny Balwani (Naveen Andrews) in the wake of the damning Wall Street Journal report on Theranos. The relationship between the two disintegrates about as fast as the company does, and viewers are introduced to Holmes' infamous dog Balto and new paramour Billy as Elizabeth seeks to distance herself from the company's scandals.
A postscript informs us that the two became parents in 2021, and later that year, Holmes was found guilty of three counts of fraud and one count of conspiring to defraud public investors. Balwani was indicted on two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and nine counts of wire fraud. His trial began last month.
Ahead of the finale, EW caught up with showrunner Liz Meriwether to dissect the big breakup between Sunny and Elizabeth, unpack the finale, and reveal the way the series almost ended.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I imagine that one of the hardest parts to create for the finale would have been the breakup between Sunny and Elizabeth. What was that process like?
LIZ MERIWETHER: Yeah, it was really hard for me to write the finale. I was putting it off for a long time. As a writer coming from comedy, I'm really scared of making anything too dramatic, and of tipping things over into melodrama. But I also knew that we needed a big operatic fight between them. It felt like something had to kind of break. And so, I struggled into the last minute with writing that big fight breakup scene, because it was also just like, you know, they've been together for 12 years, what is it that they still need to say to each other? What is it that they don't know about each other yet? I just had so many questions and [was] kind of trying to figure out where they both were emotionally. And I landed on him getting to some realization that she had never really loved him. And I don't know if that's at all what she actually felt, but it felt right for Sunny to kind of get to that place. It was hard. Those were definitely very hard scenes to write for me.
Another great moment in that final episode is the confrontation between Theranos lawyer Linda Tanner (played by Michaela Watkins) and Elizabeth, where she throws all of the things she did back in her face. Is that moment supposed to serve as a proxy for the audience's feelings about Elizabeth?
Definitely. As I was writing it, I was like, "Oh, this is me. I'm talking to her." I initially was going to end the series at Burning Man and try to kind of play around with the idea of reemerging with a new identity or convincing yourself that you've atoned for your sins and kind of emerging from the ashes as a new person. And by the way, I've never been to Burning Man, so I don't know if that's actually what it's about, but I thought that would be a cool way of showing somebody struggling with their identity and struggling with what they've done, and feeling like they could keep going forward. And then COVID happened. And at that point we spent all of our money and everything. So I was at a place where I was like, okay, so we're not going to Burning Man.
And then we cast Michaela Watkins as Linda, and I love Michaela, and I've worked with her and she's a friend. So I felt like, okay, Linda can say these things, and then it sort of just started forming the idea that the scene could be a lot simpler, that it could just be one person actually saying to Elizabeth's face, "You hurt people." And then Elizabeth, just getting in an Uber. [Laughs]
I think the Linda scene was also inspired by... there was a talk that Elizabeth gave right at the end of the company. And as she was leaving the stage, somebody yelled out, "You hurt people." And, in the writers room, we always said that needs to be in the show. And, I also knew that we'd done a lot of talks and panels and she's up on stage a lot in the series. So I didn't really want to do that again, but I love that idea of somebody just, in a way where she can't get away, somebody saying "you hurt people" to her face. So that became that Linda scene.
We finally get briefly introduced to Balto, the infamous dog that Holmes reportedly told people was a wolf. Did you play around with having more of Balto, and getting into the wolf thing?
Yeah. I mean, we did talk about having Balto in the show more, and that had been another idea floated in the writers room at one point of ending with her at a dog park saying that Balto was a wolf. So that was something that we had talked about. I was also very fascinated with Balto and just with the idea that she, after all this, while all of it was happening, while all of everything was falling apart, that she got a puppy. So, we definitely wanted it in the show. I think it ended up being in a little bit less than [we] initially thought Balto was going to be in there, but I had to put him in.
Walk me through those final days of shooting. What was that like for everyone?
For most of the shoot, I was on a remote feed because of COVID and also I had just given birth. So, it was like a mixture of those two things. I did go to set. We did shoot things out of order, but we did block shooting. And by the time we shot the final scenes of the eighth episode, we had to have the set cleared because it had been abandoned. So we ended up, I think, shooting that stuff on the last day anyway. I think that scene that we shot with Linda and the scene with the Uber, I think that was, if it wasn't like the last day, it was one of the very last days that we were shooting. And I actually physically went to set for that, which was great.
I was so happy to be there. I was just always in awe of Amanda throughout shooting, but I think by the end I could just see she had that sort of like marathon runner look in her eyes. So it was like, "I'm really close to the finish line and I need to get wrapped up in one of those shiny blankets." But up to the very last moment, [she was] just giving everything she had. And to shoot that breakdown outside before she gets into the Uber on the very last day of shooting is just incredible.
I know you did months and months of tireless research before then spending even more time actually making the show. Are you ready to be done with Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos saga?
I am done. I am completely done. Never to return. [Laughs] I will say, after having done New Girl for seven seasons, I know what it feels like to really, really commit to years and years on a show and its characters. And there's something amazing about a limited series where you can really just focus for a set amount of time and then move on. And I'm very happy to do that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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