HBO’s new documentary on Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced foundress of tech start-up Theranos, presents itself as a profile of one individual in a long American tradition of maverick innovators, ill-fated and otherwise. But as I watched “The Inventor,” I couldn’t avoid the sense that I was watching an unusually arranged fairy tale.

Holmes’s story begins in her teenage years, although she also made sure to seed the myth of a unique and portentous childhood, in which books, not other children, were her only friends. At 19, Holmes founded Theranos, a health-care technology company aimed at building “a world in which nobody has to say goodbye too soon,” in Holmes’s words. "Theranos" was meant to be a combination of "therapy" and “diagnosis,” although it bore a sonic resemblance to the Greek thanatos, meaning death — and why not? Eluding death was, after all, part of Holmes’s confidently stated purpose.

Of course, the same can be said of most medicine. What made Holmes’s quest to defy death so fantastical was the magical element at its core. With only a minuscule amount of blood, Holmes claimed — just a fingertip’s pinprick, like Sleeping Beauty on her spindle — a mysterious, proprietary black box could screen for dozens of diseases and disorders. Holmes would never disclose exactly what went on inside her mysterious machines, insisting that she was entitled to her trade secrets.

That never seemed to bother her investors. The venture capitalists who poured money into Theranos and eventually made Holmes a billionaire seemed to have been mesmerized by her charisma, and the tale she wove around herself. Holmes presented herself as an unblinking, resonant-voiced visionary who was at once detached from ordinary human affairs (the repetitive Steve Jobs get-up, she explained, was partly due to her disinterest in choosing clothes each day) and yet passionately devoted to the basic matter of human life: blood. She referred her investors to her lineage — entrepreneurs and people in the health-care profession — to cite a bloodline, as it were, which culminated in her own ambitious undertaking. She was uncanny, certain of her destiny, morally serious and blatantly, emphatically special. After all of that mythic self-invention, a little more magic inside a black box was only fair.

Holmes’s personal mythology blended, in other words, with her mythic product. For a while each seemed as plausible as the other. Part of the reason for the fairy-tale-like lifts and turns in Holmes’s story is Silicon Valley, which thrives on — and demands — such yarns; even the WiFi-connected, $700 juice-press guy peddled an inspirational, semi-tragic story about how his own personal aptitude and intuition for freshly pressed juice had birthed the iMac of juicers. That stands to reason, as capitalism itself aligns with such “great man” theories of history, which locate the source of all change and innovation in the biographies of particularly special individuals.

But capitalism, for all its pretense of cold rationality, also shares an affinity with magic. As Holmes’s case demonstrates, the flow of money in capitalism, especially where venture capital is concerned, often comes down to animal spirits, the nameless instincts and urges that provoke trust and optimism and spring much more from inarticulable interpersonal magnetism than rational consideration. From these wellsprings of emotion come fountains of wealth, which itself seems to multiply without the production of anything in particular, like Rumpelstiltskin spinning hay into gold. Nevertheless, Holmes gained not only riches, but also real power. “Capital is at every level an eerie entity,” scholar Mark Fisher wrote. “Conjured out of nothing, capital nevertheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity.” With only a personal spell and a magic machine, Holmes became a billionaire (on paper, anyway), a well-connected political fundraiser, a chief executive whom employees admired and feared and who affected the health and well-being of many people.

That there was never anything there just meant that Holmes’s power both was and wasn’t. When it was, it was because of a certain enchantment; when it wasn’t, it was because the enchantment had been drained away by the penetration of cold, rational investigation. She was never really an inventor, but rather a skilled magician — an American tradition indeed.

Read more: