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All too often, depictions of addiction in TV dramas serve to perpetuate harmful stereotypes of those directly affected, the onus placed on the bad choices of individuals, no matter how sympathetic the writers may attempt to be.
This is not the case with Dopesick, a compelling miniseries that tells the all-too-real story of those who became addicted to pain medication their doctor had told them were safe to take. Pills that had in turn been marketed to doctors as non-addictive by pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma.
Based on journalist Beth Macy’s 2018 book Drug Company that Addicted America, Dopesick gives a shocking, and frequently enraging, exploration of what creator Danny Strong has described as ‘one of the most important stories of the last 30 years’.
Speaking with UNILAD, Strong explained that one of the ‘guiding principles’ of the show had been to tackle the stigma of opioid addiction, a life-altering disorder that is all too often misunderstood.
It spirals their entire life out for years and years and years, I’ve heard this story over and over and over again.
So through the show, I thought we can show how people with opioid use disorder are stigmatised as junkies and losers – as the villains – when in fact, in so many cases, they’re actually the victims. I thought the show could dramatise that and help redefine the understanding of addiction.
Back in the mid-1990s, Purdue Pharma, owned by the now-notorious Sackler Family, began manufacturing its new ‘slow release’ pain relief medication, Oxycontin, a drug it claimed was far less addictive than other pills on the market.
Purdue initially targeted small logging and mining towns, like the fictional Appalachian community of Finch Creek in Dopesick, where pain was a way of life for those working physically gruelling and often dangerous jobs.
Watch the trailer below:
Those suffering from industrial injuries would no doubt have been all too relieved to be prescribed such a supposedly safe pill, unaware of its ruinous effects. Trusting, naturally, that the non-addictive properties outlined by their doctors and in Purdue marketing materials had to be true.
Strong asserted that such towns were also partly chosen because the company felt the doctors ‘could be manipulated easier’, being ‘better targets for their deception’.
This manipulative targeting is shown through the character arc of Dr. Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton), a well-meaning doctor who treats his patients as though they were his own family members. His genuine loyalty to the small community makes his unwitting role in harming it all the more heart-breaking.
OxyContin addiction has destroyed countless lives over the years; tearing apart families and hiking up crime rates. The impact of this widespread deception is still being felt to this day.
Strong told UNILAD that Purdue’s lies have stayed with him, as ‘they’re so brazen and so deceptive’:
There’s a scene in which Richard Sackler [Michael Stuhlbarg] meets a doctor who has a theory called ‘pseudo addiction’, which basically means addiction doesn’t exist, and that if someone shows signs of addiction, it’s really just that their underlying pain hasn’t been treated.
And instead of taking their drugs away, they need more drugs. So it’s this whole theory that’s designed to sell more drugs by denying reality. And it’s so perverse and sick.
I mean, a lot of people have a hard time believing they actually did this. But in fact, a major campaign of theirs was a pseudo addiction. And there’s all these types of deceptive campaigns throughout the course of the season, and each one is more stunning to me than the next.
Looming large over the show is the wealthy Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma whose opulent dining rooms couldn’t be further removed from the modest homes of Finch Creek.
Once described by a congressman as ‘the most evil family in America’, the Sacklers have, in Strong’s words, yet to receive any real justice aside from being ‘vilified in the United States’:
There is no other family in the last 100 years that has been more disgraced, more shamed, more hated than them by such a wide number of people. But as far as criminal punishment, they got away with it.
In terms of financial punishment, the Sacklers had to pay out $4.5 billion following a bankruptcy ruling, paid out over the course of 10 years.
However, as noted by Strong, ‘the amount each year will be less than the amount they’ll make on the interest on their principal amount’, they may well ‘have more money at the end of the pay out than they had before’.
And they’re immune to future litigation. So on a financial civil front, it’s viewed as they got away with it. On a criminal front, they still could be charged.
For some reason, there seems to be no appetite for pursuing criminal charges against them. I don’t understand why. I think that the criminal record is extensive, and perhaps that’ll change. I think it should.
One of the most memorable characters in the series is Betsy Mallum (Kaitlyn Dever), a determined young woman breaking tradition by following her father in the male-dominated mining industry.
We meet Betsy at somewhat of a crossroads in her life. Having fallen in love with a fellow female miner, Betsy is torn between moving to a bigger town where they can live freely together, and the community, family and work that she loves.
However, Betsy’s hopes and dreams for the future are derailed in a devastating manner after an agonising back injury sees her prescribed OxyContin by the family doctor she’s known since birth.
Dever gives an extraordinary performance as Betsy, an ordinary woman whose life is forever changed through no fault of her own. A resilient human being rendered powerless against huge and unfeeling forces.
Dever ‘fell in love’ with the character of Betsy as soon as she read through the script, relishing the opportunity to play such a strong and well-written female character.
Speaking with UNILAD, Dever described taking on the role as ‘a privilege’:
Betsy is a young woman who is a coal miner and is an extremely hard worker and is completely dedicated to her job and really, really has a lot of passion and love for her job and has a lot to prove to her family.
Her story is a story of a lot of strength and courage. And I think that she internalises a lot as well as she carries a lot, a lot of weight.
The story begins at around 1996, the year when Dever was born. Like many of those from the younger generation, she had grown up relatively unaware of the real life tragedies of OxyContin, of the greed and cruelties at the heart of the crisis.
What Dever learnt throughout the course of filming came as a real ‘shock’, with the story becoming ‘more and more infuriating’ the further she read through the script. However, her anger spurred her on, knowing that this was a story that needed to be told.
Dever told UNILAD:
This kind of story needs to be put on a pedestal and people need to understand. They need to learn about what was actually going on and how this all started and how we can maybe move forward and how we fix this and how we look out for ourselves and how we have empathy towards people who are dealing with oxy addiction and so many things.
But all of it was so shocking. And I’m really grateful to be a part of something that that’s this this special.
While filming out in Virginia, stark reminders of OxyContin’s dark legacy were never too far away. Many crew members had ‘a very deep connection to the story’ according to Dever, and would often approach her with their own stories. Stories which boar terrible similarities to that of her own character.
Filming was at times ‘very difficult and very emotional’, with Dever describing a ‘constant battle between like wanting to feel so heartbroken as Kaitlin and infuriated and then trying to just stay in Betsy’s head, which was just complete unawareness of what when she was being told and what was really happening to her body’.
However, despite this being ‘one of the hardest things’ she’s ever had to do in her acting career, Dever was constantly aware that this challenge was ‘nothing in comparison to what someone actually has to go through when dealing with addiction’.
The character of Billy Cutler (Will Poulter) brings a far different perspective to the narrative, illustrating the everyday evils inflicted by sales reps who were themselves not privy to the true nature of OxyContin.
An ambitious and charming young pharmaceutical representative, Billy quickly gets pulled into the ruthless culture of Purdue Pharma, and find a talent for winning around small-town doctors looking to soother their patients’ pain.
It is through Billy’s eyes that we see the cut-throat sales meetings at Purdue, the targets and office back-and-forth behind the unimaginable damage inflicted. And yet, despite telling a few mistruths of his own, Billy is by no means the true villain of the piece.
Speaking with UNILAD, Poulter reflected that ‘initially on the surface, I think you can trust Billy’:
Billy trusts what he’s being told by his superiors at Purdue. He’s gone through the training programme there where medical experts have informed him about what he should be relaying to doctors in relation to the introduction of this new drug, OxyContin.
Unfortunately, what is revealed over a short period of time is that Billy, nor the information that is being told by Purdue, is trustworthy. And this is actually a fraudulent campaign driven by greed and financial pursuits to basically dress up a highly addictive narcotic as a non addictive form of pain relief.
Considering whether on not viewers will go as far as to empathise with the character of Billy, Poulter explained that he’s ‘more hoping that they’ll be able to sort of see exactly how, in each case, and with every single character, why they kind of were motivated to do what they do’.
You know, I think when we talk about epidemics and things on this sort of global scale, we can get kind of blinded by headlines or by statistics or by numbers. And we lose sight of the fact that human beings are affected and human beings are responsible at either end of the scale.
That’s important so that we can kind of empathise with those who suffer with addiction. And it’s also very necessary so that we can hold the people that are ultimately responsible accountable for their crimes.
As gripping as it is powerful, Dopesick will linger with viewers long after the final episode, the suffering of those affected conveyed with an unforgettable rawness.
Although the series expertly details the cogs and mechanisms which went into spinning such destructive lies, you will still find yourself aghast, again and again, that something so inhuman could have happened within living memory.
Beautifully written and with a phenomenal cast across the board, Dopesick shows the brutal realities of human lives when held at the mercy of corporate greed. It is undoubtedly one of the most important series of the year so far.
Dopesick premiered with two episodes on Disney+ Day, November 12, in the UK with new episodes releasing on Wednesdays.
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