Type keyword(s) to search


Dead Ringers Has TV's Best (and Loosest) Take on the Sacklers

Pop culture has set its sights on the Purdue Pharma owners, and no portrayal is more fitting than Dead Ringers' horror version.
  • Jennifer Ehle in Dead Ringers (Photo: Niko Tavernise/Prime Video)
    Jennifer Ehle in Dead Ringers (Photo: Niko Tavernise/Prime Video)

    The recent Supreme Court ruling to block a settlement deal that would have shielded the Sackler family from civil litigation over their former company, Purdue Pharma, and its role in the opioid epidemic came at an opportune time for Netflix. The Sacklers were in the news again just as the streaming platform premiered Painkiller, a limited series about the origins of the opioid crisis via Purdue marketing OxyContin for use as a prescription painkiller. Inspired by Barry Meier’s Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic, the Peter Berg-produced adaptation centered on a series of fictionalized protagonists but identified the Sacklers specifically as the culprits at the root of the problem.

    This put Painkiller in good company, as several TV shows, documentary series, and feature films have all taken aim at the Sacklers in the last few years. Hulu's Dopesick told a similar story as Painkiller, with Michael Stuhlberg taking the role of Richard Sackler (Matthew Broderick plays the role in Painkiller). Alex Gibney's two-part HBO documentary Crime of the Century laid out a criminal case against the Sacklers, while Laura Poitras' Oscar-nominated documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed focused on artist/activist Nan Goldin and her efforts to get museums and other institutions to remove the Sackler name from their buildings.

    These films and TV series made painstaking effort to dig into the rich and complicated history of the Sackler family, the layered villainy that surrounded the development and marketing of OxyContin, and the insidious ways the family has tried to launder their public reputation through arts philanthropy. They all succeed, some of them incredibly well. But nothing has depicted the insidious confluence of obscene wealth and callousness to public harm that has characterized the Sackler story as effectively or creatively as Dead Ringers.

    From the outset, the hook of Dead Ringers was reimagining David Cronenberg's sinister 1990 film by gender-flipping the twin gynecologist characters, played by Jeremy Irons in the original and by Rachel Weisz in the Prime Video series. Weisz is of course outstanding in the dual role, blending intimidating brilliance with infantile codependence, playing two women on a collision course with the realization that they can't live with or without each other. There's another standout performance in the series, though: Jennifer Ehle as Rebecca Parker, the billionaire investor who puts both her money and bullying business tactics behind the Mantle sisters as they try to get their proposal for a paradigm-shifting birthing and reproductive research center off the ground.

    Rebecca Parker isn't meant to be a stand-in for a Sackler. Not solely, anyway. Series creator and showrunner Alice Birch says she based the Parker family on several inspirations. "We talked about the Sacklers," Birch told Vulture. "The Tetra Pak family. Both me and Susan Stanton had written on Succession, so we talked about that family quite a bit." And while you can see shades of the fictional Roy family in Rebecca's Munsters-esque extended circle, one particular biographical detail does tie Rebecca to the Sacklers most specifically. "She's responsible for a f*cking opioid crisis," Elliot Mantle says of Rebecca a few scenes before she's introduced. "She's Satan fishing dollars out of corpses."

    When we finally meet her, Rebecca doesn't disappoint. Ehle plays her as not just amoral but anti-moral. She despises Beverly's pitch for the birthing center, not because it's bad medicine or even bad business but because it bores her. She's repulsed by what she sees as Beverly's nauseating altruism as she speaks about helping women and the brutal system that's currently in place for reproductive healthcare. "You're asking for $16 million," Rebecca sneers. "That's fuck-all to me, but I was expecting more than sad-sack expressions and silence."

    Meeting Rebecca's family in Episode 2 is an even more eye-opening experience. Her circle includes her ex-partner (a wellness guru) and her new husband (a caricature of beta-maleness); their gaggle of blonde children who do things like ask for roe from the table and sing practiced renditions of "The Scientist"; her business-minded lawyer and future-tech-obsessed business partner. And then there's McKenzie (Allyson Kloster), the sour-faced scion of the branch of the family responsible for the opioid crisis.

    Beverly means to tiptoe around the whole opioid thing, not wanting to slap the hand she wants to feed her, but McKenzie, like Rebecca, can sense Beverly's moral queasiness, and they both zero in on it like birds of prey. "Are you really gonna blame the guy who makes the gun for every potato-faced mistake of a human who blows his brains out on their front porch?" McKenzie challenges, a moral justification that may be worded more colorfully than Richard Sackler's instruction to "hammer on the abusers in every way possible" but is just as pitiless.

    If Birch and her team of writers ("Two," the episode set in Rebecca's home, is credited to a teleplay by Ming Peiffer) had merely drawn these parallels from the Parkers to the Sacklers via dialogue, that would have been bluntly effective. But it's the details and the aesthetics surrounding Rebecca and her family that make this portrayal of the Sacklers stand out among the recent depictions. Rebecca prods and punctures Beverly's altruism from one end of a gothic dining-room table. The room is barely lit. It feels like we're in a vampire's lair. Director Sean Durkin pushes close on the characters' faces while servers pour kombucha champagne and set plates of sea urchin on the table, the accouterments of wealth underscoring its immoral, Ayn Randian justifications.

    Rand was actually one of Ehle's inspirations when it came to creating her character. When questioned about Rebecca's Sackler adjacency, Ehle noted, "I thought more about an Ayn Rand hero. I thought she would think of herself as a John Galt — she has a mandate to create wealth and enjoy doing it. I didn’t think so much about real people but I did think about some objectivism, to take the whole trickle-down theory to make it into almost a religion."

    The effectiveness of Rebecca as a Sackler-esque figure lies not in how accurately she can be mapped onto Richard Sackler or any of his family members. Instead, Rebecca serves as a terrifying depiction of predatory wealth. She expresses a viciousness and hostility towards not just humanity but those who would dedicate their lives to improving the human condition. To Rebecca, Beverly's intentions to use her considerable genius to help women is disgustingly holier-than-thou.

    It's only Elliott, with her talk of harvesting ovarian tissue to help indefinitely delay the onset of menopause, who perks up Rebecca's ears. Perverting science to offer the promise of eternal youth and beauty to the women absurdly wealthy enough to afford it is exactly the kind of medicine that gets Rebecca's engine running. Every time Elliott mentions something they could be doing (genetic engineering of embryos, say) but are being held up by ethics, morals, or the law, Rebecca and her family of predatory capitalists lean in harder. This isn't a 1:1 comparison to Purdue Pharma's efforts to reconceptualize the concept of pain as something that could be eradicated through long-term opioid use, but both share the same motivating concept: the real money is in promising big. Tell them they can stay young forever. Tell them they can be free of pain. You'll make billions.

    Dead Ringers feels constantly a step or two away from becoming full-fledged horror. This is seldom more true than when Beverly and Elliott have immersed themselves within the circles of hell occupied by the likes of the Parkers. Later on in the season, the Mantles travel to Alabama to meet Susan's family, whose history of harmful, racist, misogynist medical practice offers its own window into the evil that festers within generational wealth. That episode, scripted by Susan Soon He Stanton and directed by Karyn Kusama, becomes essentially a ghost story.

    Horror fiction isn't about establishing documentary truth. The history of the Sackler family is most responsibly and doggedly told by documentarians like Alex Gibney or even shows with fictional elements like Dopesick and Painkiller. What horror does best is cut through the specifics to get to the most elemental parts of a story like the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma: fear, predation, obscenity, cruelty. Birch and her team tell the story of the world the Sacklers inhabit, one twisted by money and power and accountability to no one. Rebecca Parker is realer than real, and her effect on the world has been devastating.

    Dead Ringers is streaming on Prime Video. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Dead Ringers, The Crime of the Century, Dopesick, Painkiller, Alex Gibney, Alice Birch, Karyn Kusama, Sean Durkin