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Painkiller Takes Furious Aim at the Sacklers and the OxyContin Epidemic

Uzo Aduba shines as a righteous investigator who tries to take down Purdue Pharma.
  • Uzo Aduba in Painkiller (photo: Keri Anderson/Netflix)
    Uzo Aduba in Painkiller (photo: Keri Anderson/Netflix)

    When it comes to depicting the ongoing opioid crisis in this country, the massiveness of scope is daunting. Any attempt made to tell this story (and there have been several in recent years) has to take on the Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, who pushed OxyContin on an unsuspecting public starting in 1996. Then there's the medical establishment that overprescribed the drug, the individuals whose lives were destroyed by it, and the people who tried to prosecute the Sacklers for their crimes. With Painkiller, the six-part series on the origins of the crisis, director Peter Berg and writer-producers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster understand the responsibility to tell a comprehensive story. They also understand that there is something uniquely infuriating about the crime that the Sacklers perpetrated, and that anger permeates the entire series. Even when Painkiller is blunt in its characterizations or indulgent in its style choices, there's a pure fury that holds the center together.

    And there’s plenty to be furious about. Based on the book Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic by Barry Meier and the New Yorker article "The Family That Built an Empire of Pain" by Patrick Radden Keefe, Painkiller makes it clear that OxyContin wasn't a drug that was developed with benevolent ambitions, only for its manufacturer to lose its way in the pursuit of profits. The aims were predatory right from the start.

    Richard Sackler (Matthew Broderick) needed to come up with a "wonder drug" to rescue the family's fortune from their mounting debt, and they needed to wildly over-promise on the drug's benefits so everyone would feel the need to have it or prescribe it. OxyContin, they said, was going to eliminate pain, and every concern raised during the drug's development about addictiveness or how long-term prescription of an opioid is a terrible idea was secondary to Sackler being able to make that promise.

    Sackler and his entire bumbling, squabbling, amoral family are enough to get anyone in a fighting mood. Painkiller channels that emotion into the fictional character of Edie Flowers (Uzo Aduba), one of the federal prosecutors who dug into the OxyContin problem and ultimately tried to mount a prosecution against the Sacklers. That prosecution resulted in a watered-down settlement for Purdue (if you don't already know who the individual responsible for sinking that prosecution is, you're in for one hell of a jump scare). The series is framed by Flowers recounting this investigation, a defeat that clearly scarred her. But while her energy for that fight may have been sapped, her rage at the Sacklers is still hot enough that she refuses to sit in the same chair that Richard Sackler was once deposed in.

    Aduba's narration persists throughout the six episodes, a choice by Berg and the showrunners that admittedly contributes to the general inelegance of the series. But in a story with so many varied aspects — the addicts, the doctors, the sales reps, the Sacklers, the investigation itself — that narration is more beneficial than it might be in a different type of show. Rather than holding the audience's hand, Aduba's voiceover plays more like stern instruction: Keep your eyes on the prize. Don't get sidetracked.

    That "eyes on the prize" ethos plays into the show's structure, too. While the series itself is fictionalized, each episode opens with the parents of real-life children killed by OxyContin addiction and abuse. As depicted in the show, the addicts are people who went to their doctors in pain and walked out with a prescription for what Flowers calls "heroin in pill form." Thousands became addicted. Painkiller composites a family, the Krygers, to represent the hundreds of thousands devastated by OxyContin. The story is familiar: Glen (Taylor Kitsch) gets injured on the job, is prescribed oxy, gets hooked, and things get very bad for him and his family. There's an inevitability to these scenes that can feel airless, even as the performances are strong. In particular, Jack Mulhern (Mare of Easttown) is tremendous as Glen's stepson Tyler, who represents the guilt and the devastation that oxy addicts' families had to go through.

    As shattering as the Krygers' story is, though, Painkiller is at its most effective when its target is on the perpetrators. Plenty of blame gets heaped on the sales force and the doctors, and for good reason. One Purdue Pharma sales rep’s (West Duchovny as Shannon Schaeffer) indoctrination into OxyContin sales under the tutelage of the terrifyingly confident and amoral Britt (Dina Shihabi) is played like if The Wolf of Wall Street were about an escort service. Flowers herself even refers to Britt as Shannon's "madam" at one point.

    The sales reps push, cajole, flirt, and bully their way from doctor's office to doctor's office, convincing too many medical professionals who should have known better to not only prescribe OxyContin, but to prescribe it in massive numbers. There is nothing remotely subtle about these sales scenes; Shihabi plays Britt like a coked-up demon of predatory capitalism. But the showrunners know that Purdue's aggressive sales push was the tip of the spear that led to the OxyContin crisis escalating so sharply in the late '90s, and subtlety on this point wouldn't necessarily be a virtue.

    There isn't much that's subtle about Painkiller, from the predatory sales reps to the craven spinelessness of regulators like Curtis Wright (played by Harpster himself), who rolled over on the FDA approval of OxyContin and then took a job at Purdue Pharma shortly thereafter. The Sacklers themselves are portrayed as a pack of garish buffoons unfit to do anything productive for society and constantly melting down about the state of their billion-dollar empire.

    Matthew Broderick plays Richard Sackler as an obstinate dunce whose brilliant idea to market his completely irresponsible "wonder drug" as the solution to human pain has a kind of evil cleverness to it, sure. But it's a brainstorm as simplistic as looking at one of those charts of smiling-to-wincing faces that you point to at the doctor's office to indicate how much pain you're in. Sackler wanted to sell the notion of living pain-free; he pointed to the happy face on the chart and told people "we can give you this." Then he profited wildly when his product delivered the exact opposite.

    It's enraging to watch this play out, even in a fictionalized form, which is why the show keeps coming back to Edie Flowers. She takes a sledgehammer to the Sackler story, knocking down the walls and exposing their every amoral business decision. Through Flowers, Painkillers finds its point-of-view, righteously angry but not pious. Aduba grounds her character in this fury. The moment it clicks for her that this burgeoning opioid epidemic is the crack epidemic that decimated inner cities a decade or more prior is galvanizing for her and the audience.

    Depicting a story of villainy and harm as vast and ongoing as the opioid crisis is a serious challenge. Shows like Dopesick, Alex Gibney's Crime of the Century, and Laura Poitras' feature film All the Beauty and the Bloodshed have tackled OxyContin and the Sacklers from their own angles. Painkiller is steeped in rage and frustration, but motivated by the enormity of the harm wrought upon hundreds of thousands of people.

    The series ends, unfortunately, with one of its weakest decisions: a moment of imagined catharsis at the expense of Richard Sackler that is both wholly insufficient and yet shamefully, if fleetingly, satisfying. Painkiller can feel like that at times: fleetingly satisfying in its fury. The show is by and large a shout into the void, but there's value in the shouting.

    Painkiller premieres with all six episodes on Netflix on August 10. 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: Painkiller, Netflix, Matthew Broderick, Peter Berg, Uzo Aduba