Written by: Heidi Shepler | October 12th, 2021
Dopesick (Danny Strong, 2021) 3½ out of 4 stars.
It’s fitting that the new series Dopesick premieres two weeks before Halloween, because it shares many of its tropes with the horror genre. There’s the sleepy town, the vulnerable but lovable protagonists, and the dread that creeps in at first and then attacks with overwhelming force. The season takes place from the conception of Oxycontin in 1986 through the federal case brought against Purdue Pharma in the early 2000s. The story of the drug and its devastating effect on nearly everyone who encounters is it is told nonlinearly, increasing the audience’s feeling of powerlessness. We know exactly what’s going to happen, because we’ve already witnessed the aftermath. That doesn’t make it any easier to watch.
The opioid crisis is hardly as dry as other historical dramas might be, but creator Danny Strong has spared no pathos in creating dynamic characters all the same. Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton, The Protégé) is a small-town widower who staves off his loneliness by alternately filling the roles of doctor, therapist, and father figure in his Appalachian mining community. Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever, Booksmart) is caught between pride in her trailblazing work in the mines and her desire to live openly with her girlfriend. Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson, The Water Man) is a dedicated DEA agent who recognizes the looming crisis immediately, but is stymied at every turn by bureaucracy and corruption. And Michael Stuhlbarg (Shirley) is in full force as Richard Sackler, the mastermind behind Oxycontin.
Sackler is possibly the most infuriating character in Dopesick, because he must know—surely a man as intelligent and strategic as he is must know the consequences of his actions—yet he never wavers from his own talking points. The man is a sentient brick wall. Is he a megalomaniac, replacing a white pill with a white whale? A scene early in the series suggests that obsession may run in the family, but this seems like a hollow explanation. Is he a sadist, a mass murderer in an expensive suit who delights in killing thousands of people from afar, and making money while he does it? Maybe, but even this doesn’t feel like the whole story.
No, what makes Sackler so effective as an antagonist, and Dopesick so truly horrifying to watch, is that he’s just an executive looking to maximize his company’s profit margin. He sees an opportunity, knows that he can massage the legal system to get what he wants, and just does it. The audacity is breathtaking, but once the profit machine starts churning, the results feel inevitable. The brutality of his greed, and his absolute refusal to be held accountable, feel uniquely American. He sincerely believes that his wealth and status protect him from any and all consequences, and he’s absolutely right.
How is it possible, Dopesick asks us, that a pharmaceutical company was able to sell a narcotic as if it wasn’t dangerous? And then it shows us just how easy it was to manipulate an already vulnerable American health care system. Sales reps for the company don’t know that the propaganda they’re feeding doctors is false, or if they do know, they turn a blind eye. Physicians trust that the medical journals the sales reps reference are legitimate, not realizing that the studies are funded by the drug company.
Early episodes (there are eight, total) also undermine any feelings we as an audience member might have that it couldn’t happen to us. Betsy is injured on the job. When she finally calls her doctor, he prescribes a low dose of Oxycontin, believing it to be safer than other narcotics. Soon she develops a resistance to the low dose, which prompts her doctor to double her dose, again because he believes it’s safe. Betsy is severely addicted before the bruising from her original injury has faded. Her struggle is heartbreaking because she’s not a faceless addict or somehow morally inferior for becoming addicted. She is failed by every medical and regulatory authority figure in her country. In a later episode someone else is nearly forced by a nurse to take Oxycontin despite repeatedly refusing. Oxycontin, the series seems to suggest, is coming for us all. It’s only a matter of time.