A Calm, Meticulous Retelling of the Most Frightening Criminal Act in The ‘Drug War’
Fairly early while watching Dopesick on Hulu, I found myself reminded of a line from Stephen King. In his novella Apt Pupil, a Mossad agent is discussing with an LA detective a series of murders, and asks him what he thinks evil will look like: “I think it will look like ordinary accountants, men with glasses and pencils calculating how next time they can kill twenty million instead of only six.” Any time the series looks at the Sackler family routinely discussion the manufacture of Oxycontin, it’s impossible not to think of that line.
Many of the crime dramas in the past decade have used the illegal sales of Oxycontin as a major storyline, if not the central plot. Justified, a series I still consider one of the best dramas of the 2010s, frequently had either Raylan Givens or Boyd Crowder dealing with its invasion into rural Kentucky. (Is Danny Strong, the show’s writer, acknowledging as much when a DEA agent visits Harlan County to see where Oxy has already become a crisis?) Other series, such as the recent ended Claws had Oxy as the central business of so many of the criminals. Having watched John Oliver for the past several years, I’ve actually seen the other side of this when it came to Purdue Pharmaceuticals and the developer behind Oxycontin, Richard Sackler. Indeed, at one point, wanting to show how menacing the rarely seen Sackler was, the show filmed footage of various actors known for playing bad-asses (oddly enough, one actor who they chose was Michael Keaton.) But having seen the first two episodes of Dopesick after a long delay, I actually think that Strong and director Barry Levenson made the perfect choice for Richard Sackler when they cast Michael Stuhlbarg to play him.
For the past decade, Stuhlbarg has made something of a career of playing nebbishy appearing villains who under the surface are very dangerous. Those who saw him play the head of the Baxter crime family in the recent series Your Honor will know what I mean. I actually got a much clearer picture of him in his work as the notorious Arnold Rothstein on Boardwalk Empire. On a series that frequently was erratic, Stuhlbarg’s work as this notorious insignificantly seeming crime figure who most notoriously fixed the 1919 World Series was always brilliant. You got the feeling that this was a man who thought his money and power in New York made him superior to his fellow gangsters; I remember that when Atlantic City don Steve Buscemi came to him with a problem, Rothstein looked at him with disdain and said: “So you want me to take this to New York? Where things actually matter?”
Stuhlbarg isn’t that openly contemptuous in his work in Dopesick, but there is a very clear sense of detachment as he goes about forcing Purdue to invest money in his new drug. The scenes with the Sackler family themselves are frightening in their own way. I can’t forget the first episode where the family meets for a conversation and talks almost entirely through their lawyer. Stuhlbarg seems so calm and banal as he pushes the manufacture of Oxy through the market, over objections from his family and his doctors. There’s something terrifying about him saying that “We have to create something for this drug to treat” or telling the early test market to double the dose if the pain medication wears off in the early test. And underlying all of this is the disregard that his family seems to have with him throughout the early episodes; did Richard Sackler create the opoid crisis because he wanted respect from his cousins?
Dopesick makes this series work exceptionally well because it illustrates that, almost from the beginning of the drug’s development everyone from Sackler on down was becoming a drug dealer. We see this where the pharmaceutical reps in the early meetings hear the new drug that they are supposed to market to doctors without even questioning the sketchiness of the FDA label, how they are supposed to lure doctors in, or that the fact that they seemed to be marketing mining communities where chronic pain is an issue and will have the most customers. One veteran rep (played by Philippa Soo) seems unconcerned with a newcomer’s questions and more whether he’s trying to get laid,
We then follow this to a West Virginia country and the local doctor Samuel Finnix. As we all know by now, this is the role that Michael Keaton is playing. Keaton, of course, has built up a career of essentially playing the working man and here is no different. He has a clinic in the county, is known to practically everyone in it, had a wife who died of ovarian cancer years ago and has no apparent social life. He cares about his patients very much. One of the patients he cares about is Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever, continuing her roll as one of the best young actresses working today) already disliked in the community for being a female coal miner, and is utterly unprepared to admit her life as a lesbian to the world. In a heartbreaking scene Betsy tries to come out to her mother while they’re knitting. Her mother remains utterly silent until she finished and then says: “I’m sorry, dear. Did you say something?” That devastating response leads Betsy to make plans that we will lead her down the path to ruin.
One of the pharma reps goes to Fannix’s office and does a sales pitch about the virtues of Oxy. Fannix is not naïve; he asks all the right questions and is reluctant to offer it. In the final minutes of the first episode, he gives the first bottle to Betsy, who has suffered an injury in the mines and who he knows well enough to know about her sexual orientation and the lack of judgment that her parents will never show. When there are problems with patients early on, he expressed doubts to the rep, and initially refuses to be lured to a conference in Scottsdale. He is finally convinced to go when he learns that a pain specialist whose articles he read when his wife was dying will be there. When he hears that doctor give a favorable recommendation to Oxy, he is finally convinced by his word, not knowing the doctor is in the drug company’s pocket, not knowing he will become one such doctor himself.
Dopesick unfolds from many time periods and places, all leading back to a North Carolina DOJ investigation being held in 2003. One counselor has just arrived; one is suffering from prostate cancer. They find themselves involved with a DEA agent who had an earlier investigation (Rosario Dawson; very restrained) who has just gone through her divorce and is in no mood to help the investigators. We follow her at the beginning of the investigation when she first discovers how quickly Oxy has taken a hold of the communities its been the center of as well as the early stages of her romance with the man who will become her husband: we don’t know yet how either ended, but I’m guessing the investigation helped gut both.
Dopesick is one of the most quietly angry series you’ll ever watch as it shows the utter disconnect between what we laughingly call the drug war and how Big Pharma was more than willing to do to create a nation of addicts. It leaves wreckage in its wake in almost the lives of the patients and even some of the people who participated in the ad to all the victims of the crimes that came as a result. The outrage, of course, comes from the doctors who don’t seem to pay mind to it; we know it will be rare for a doctor like Fennix to admit his guilt. And for those of you who think this investigation will help destroy the Sackler, keep in mind it’s now 2022 and while Purdue may be bankrupt, the Sackler fortune will barely be dented and there’s still no acknowledgement of guilt from any of them. It’s small wonder that Strong, one of the great talents in writing about our modern society (he was behind the Emmy winning movies Recount and Game Change for HBO, about the 2000 and 2008 elections respectively) and Michael Keaton, who lost his sister to the opoid crisis would be drawn to this story and turn what could have been an unadaptable book into what is clearly the outside favorite for Best Limited Series. Keaton has what may be an unobstructed path to the Emmy; I’d really like to see Dever and Stuhlbarg nominated too.
At one point Dawson tells a teenager addicted to Oxy about the crack epidemic in the 1980s that made her childhood a hell. The Oxycontin addiction has been a problem in society for a quarter of a century, and it is telling that it was never considered part of the War on Drugs. It’s subtle, but most of the addicts we see in Dopesick are white and poor. Perhaps this may be the most subtle message of Dopesick. The only way the poor in America are equal is the war on drugs is designed to destroy them both. Say what you will about the evils of heroin, but it’s a lot cheaper to OD that way and chemically there isn’t much difference. The main difference is, a lot more people got rich from Oxy — and to be clear, they were already in the one percent when it happened — they didn’t care how many people had to die as a result and in fact kept making it easier for them to do so, and the US government was more than willing to act as a silent partner for decades. You need an actor like Stuhlbarg to play Sackler. You need someone who looks like an accountant.
My score: 4.75 stars.