Contrasting Dopesick and The Wire
What David Simon and His Visionaries Got Wrong About The Drug War
I have finally finished Dopesick. There is a lot I can say about it — the quality of the writing, the extraordinary level of the performance, what it ultimately says about the war on drugs. But I have a feeling that’s all been said in some fashion. So I would like to look at what Danny Strong and his team of writers from the series are saying about the opoid crisis and to a larger extent, the war on drugs.
Watching this limited series, it’s impossible not to think about The Wire where for five seasons David Simon and an incredible team of writers, directors and actors laid bare how the war on drugs has destroyed an American city and how so many of the institutions we have come to rely on are either so calcified that they are useless or that broken so badly that they are beyond repair. Simon covered so many angles in five seasons- the failures of the criminal justice system, the death of blue-collar work, the failures of our educational system, and the destruction of the media — that in hindsight, he almost seemed to leave the actual damage the war on drugs has actually done to America.
The overriding suggestion throughout the series was that the war on drugs has destroyed policing, politics and every aspect of American life. What seems interesting in retrospect is that Simon thought solutions were impossible or that the ones that he suggested were political suicide. The most memorable one he suggested during Season 3 came when Bunny Colvin, created a drug-free zone where dealers and addicts could sell and buy with no repercussions from the police. Then Simon fundamentally left ‘Hamsterdam’ as it was mistakenly called — alone, and concentrated on the fact that crime had dropped fifteen percent in Colvin’s district. When the brass found out about it, they could see the good that it was doing, but no one was politically willing to speak up for Colvin or the idea. He was made the sacrificial lamb and everything went back to normal. This was viewed as a tragedy because it seemed to be working.
Dopesick fundamentally argues the lie of Colvin’s solution. Colvin has effectively legalized drugs in Season 3. As Strong and Levenson make it clear, Oxycontin was a legalized drug. (The fact that it should never have been legalized is something that the series painfully clear, but I’ll deal with that in due course.) From the start, all the prosecutors are dealing with an opoid crisis that has been created by a drug that was initially being prescribed by doctors and sold in pharmacies. As Dopesick makes clear, all that did was start an entirely different set of crimes and addictions. We see countless pharmacy break-ins, people snorting in parking lots, and whole communities laid to waste because of this drug. As Bridget (Rosario Dawson) learns at a critical time, there’s a huge number of people dying when it’s the only drug they take. And as we see very clear, Oxy is fundamentally a gateway drug — in the sixth episode, Betsy (Kaitlyn Dever) desperately searching for Oxy, gets addicts to heroin which has the same chemical makeup as Oxycontin but is much cheaper. She dies of an overdose from heroin.
Another critical argument to much of The Wire is that the government at large doesn’t care about how badly Baltimore is doing because is a fundamentally African-American city and America doesn’t care if it dies. Dopesick shows very clearly the other side of the coin, and makes it clear that America has a similar attitude if white people are addicted. Strong and his writers almost certainly by choice made the lion’s share of the cast and almost all the regulars (save for Dawson) white including almost all the addicts we see; mainly Betsy and Samuel Fennix (Michael Keaton) I’m pretty sure this was a deliberate decision. By having almost all the people we see laid waste to by Oxy all being white, poor people in West Virginia, Tennessee and Maine, the writers are making a much stronger case about addiction — something that Simon basically omitted on The Wire. And that is that addiction is color blind and far more importantly, America has the same perception if fundamentally white communities are being ravaged by crime from drugs as black communities are being ravaged: that it’s the users fault and that they will not lift a finger to help you.
There are differences of course — the criminal justice system makes more money locking up and imprisoning black people on The Wire; while in Dopesick, where the drug is legal, the manufacturers and dealers are making money from selling the drug, but in either case, the government has no interest in solving the problem. You could actually make the argument that the corruption is far worse in Dopesick, because so many of the people responsible for making the drug legal and locking up the people responsible end up working for companies like Purdue. And indeed, the consequences are greater for those who try to play a higher level — at the end of prosecution of Purdue in the series, the Deputy AG who has fought for the case against the resistance of Justice ends up getting fired immediately after he refuses to revoke a plea deal.
Perhaps the most cynical argument that the writers of The Wire were making was simple — that the whole reason to legalize drugs in Baltimore was so that all of the African-American heroin slingers could make the kinds of money that the white-owned pharmaceutical companies were making for selling their pain-killers. That the only way for any kind of color-blind equality in America is to have African-Americans being able to get away with selling poison to people the same way white people do. That Stringer Bell’s real business model going forward should have the Sackler family — something that he was trying to reach for throughout Season 3. Because the message that is crystal clear from Dopesick is that drug dealing is much a part of the capitalist and governmental system of America as retail. The only difference between people like D’Angelo Barksdale and Billy (Will Poulter) the sales rep who like Dee develops a conscience, is that Billy got a financial incentive for dealing as much as Oxy as he could. Maybe if he’d had to face the possibility of getting shot for selling Oxy, he’d have gotten out faster — or maybe if Dee was given a bonus by his cousin for a trip to Bermuda for selling more packages, he’d have ended up running the Barksdale Empire. Yes, I know about the fundamental difference between the two men, but at the end of the day both were slinging poison. Billy’s the only one where one of the addicts called him a monster.
And the thing is it’s hard to understand how Simon, who was a journalist with the Sun couldn’t have known this. The opoid crisis was starting to become a major problem well before he began writing The Wire. Yet the movie that wrapped up Homicide had Al Giardello campaigning on a platform that called for the legalization of drugs. Simon seemed willing to indict every aspect of American life on The Wire and said that all the dealers were as much a victim of the system as the cops were. What he was unwilling to do was somehow make the argument that getting the drugs off the street was anything that should be done. He might be willing to admit that an area like Hamsterdam was evil (one of the characters told Colvin “This place is Hell”) but he seemed to accept that it was the best way forward. Of course, his definition of forward is for the police and the average citizen. The addicts themselves do not enter into the equation at all, and the dealers themselves are disregarded as “they’re still going to be on those corners.” Dopesick fundamentally takes the legs out from under that argument, saying that all legalization is to keep up the status quo and create a new set of crimes.
But The Wire and Dopesick do have one thing in common — the real villains never get punished. On The Wire, the cops are always moving on to the next set of dealers and drug-lords in an endless cycle. On Dopesick, the series ends with a four-year case ending with no one going to jail, and Richard Sackler, still on the phone, still pushing sales. The denouement shows that even with Purdue finally filing for bankruptcy; none of the Sacklers will ‘so much as have to sell a boat’. All the leads can do is try to move on with their lives, after all the death and ruined communities being left in their wake.
Truffaut once said the best way to criticize a movie was to make another movie. I’m not saying that Strong and Barry Levenson went out of their way to make Dopesick to criticize The Wire (though given Levenson’s connections with Homicide and HBO, the question is worth asking.) Nor am I saying the two are truly comparable, except perhaps in one critical way. The Wire fundamentally is painting a picture of the death of the American Dream — without giving a real explanation as to how we got there. Dopesick paints a different part of this picture, but does a much better job of showing how and why we got there, and shows in a far bigger picture, that one set of causes has been built into the system.
And Dopesick does something The Wire refused too — it offered the slightest sense of hope. Both series agree at their core the institutions of America are broken beyond repair. What Dopesick dares to suggest is that the fight itself is important and that there can be a way out. When we see Fennix leading an NA meeting in the last scene, it shows that even after all his struggles he can find a way forward. Very early in The Wire, Cedric Daniels’ wife tells him: “The only way to win the game is not to play.” That is a sentiment that many of the characters in this series refuse to accept, no matter how hopeless rigged the game is.