Netflix’s Painkiller Shows the Blood on Our Healthcare System’s Hands

“The causes and consequences of America’s opioid epidemic unfold in this drama following its perpetrators, victims and an investigator seeking the truth.”

This is the official description for Netflix’s Painkiller. It’s simple, sweet, and to the point, and some of the best synopses are. There’s no flare needed for something that’s been such a large part of American society: the opioid epidemic, a disease that is said to be the cause of over 75% of drug overdoses. The series focuses on the OxyContin epidemic in particular, something that had claimed more lives than some actual wars. More specifically, the eye is on the Sackler Family, who owned the company that manufactured the infamous drug, and who have been described as “the worst drug dealers in history” and the “most evil family in America”.

Painkiller comes to us from the minds of Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster. The series is based on two works: Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic by Barry Meier, and an article by the New Yorker’s Patrick Radden Keefe titled “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain”.

It’s an emotional rollercoaster, and not one you should sit through if you’re looking for a cheerful time. It’s a look at one of the ugliest sides of the American healthcare industry and one of the companies that pull its strings: Purdue Pharma.

However, it also makes sure to close the lens in on some of the smaller cogs in the healthcare machine, such as the executives and their deceitful marketing, the doctors who signed off on a dangerous drug to an overwhelming degree to pocket the insurance money, the complacency of a government that wouldn’t regulate it, and the eagerness of the salespeople who didn’t actually know what they were talking about.

In these types of stories which focus on the villains, they are usually portrayed as sympathetic in some aspect of their life, but not here. They are all detestable through and through, making them out to be as evil as everyone had claimed them to be. Make no mistake, they are evil, but unlike most stories that keep the lense on the villains, Painkiller does not afford the Sacklers the same benefit of the doubt and kindness that they’ve neglected to return. All in all, the subject matter is handled brilliantly, all the while pulling no punches.

This story is about emotional pain and endeavors to portray it in the most raw sense possible. There are many of us who have lost someone to the opioid epidemic, and the show helps us to rile up the anger and hatred that they feel for those who’ve passed.

One of the best aspects about Painkiller is the theme about the cycle of addiction, and not just about the OxyContin itself, though it is very fitting. The addiction of obscene wealth and status are harped on quite a bit and in a spectacular manner. Money is their fix, and they’ll do anything to get more, such as manipulating the science to deceive both patients and doctors alike. Everyone gets their own little fix, from the lawyers to the physicians to the sales reps to the Sacklers and everyone in between. Everyone except the true victims of the drug itself, of course. While the addiction of the executives is shown through lavish spending, manipulating, and repeat, Painkiller is able to show the other side of the coin as well. The human tragedy is very real and not easy to watch, especially if you’ve witnessed someone suffering from opioid addiction yourself. It cuts back and forth between characters who become addicted to the titular drug, but its main focus is on a mechanic named Glen (Taylor Kitsch). Many of the stories are hard to watch, but Painkiller does an exceptionally good job with how intimate Glen’s story is and the very real effects of OxyContin. It’s in these moments of human tragedy that we get some of the most shocking scenes, but the show does well to keep them few and far between so that the effect is more potent.

Painkiller doesn’t harp on why the epidemic happened in the first place, but just that it happened and that almost everyone involved put it into action knowingly. They don’t show the reason behind it because, truth be told, it isn’t important. People lost their lives due to the greed of a select few, and these few should not be afforded any backstory or sympathy at all.

The series isn’t perfect, though, and there are some creative aspects that are a little annoying when compared to something like the CNN documentary about Oregon’s emerging Magic Mushroom industry. The fourth-wall-breaking dialogue tends to be massively overdone and is a bit heavy when it comes to the B-roll to visualize the symbolic themes on display, many of which can be fairly on-the-nose. For the most part, though, they don’t get in the way of this fascinating true story.

There’s also a fair amount of fiction in the story, appearing in subplots here and there and even the main story at times, but the writers clearly did their homework. A lot of research went into this, and it shows. Even the bits that are fiction settle right into place, and if you’re not a major history buff, it can be hard to tell what is and isn’t just pure storytelling.

The actors do a phenomenal job with their parts, and when paired with the blunt storytelling of Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster, you can’t help but become deeply invested in both the evils of the perpetrators and the suffering of the victims.

The show is deeply upsetting, but engrossing. It brings pain, but just like the drug it focuses so heavily on, it’s pretty addicting. As you might have guessed, there is death in the show, but you’ll also be seeing blood, long-term suffering, the victimization of teens, and no true happy ending. If you can stomach it, I certainly recommend you give it a watch.

In Oregon, measure 110, decriminalizing small amounts of street drugs, might be in for a repeal, find out more here.

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