‘Dopesick’: A powerful examination of the US opioid crisis

Danny Strong’s latest miniseries sheds a light on the recent opioid crisis which continues to ravage the America’s underclass.

Based on the book by Beth Macy, the harrowing new series Dopesick follows the creation and launch of a new drug, OxyContin, which has been “specifically designed to treat moderate pain for long term use”. This drug changed the face of modern pharmaceuticals and led to the opioid crisis that continues to ravage the US and has led to almost a million deaths so far.  

The vast nature of this subject matter may have seemed unscalable for a TV drama for many. However, creator Danny Strong took on this challenge by weaving between 4 different storylines along a timeline spanning from the drugs launch in 1986 to a 2005 testimony at a grand jury hearing. 

Prescribing opioids had previously been avoided by doctors for long-term pain due to the increased risk of addiction. However, OxyContin was marketed across the US as having less than 1% risk of addiction, which was a key selling point. Nevertheless, this soon proved to be false and by that point it was too late for too many victims of what became a deadly epidemic. Will Poulter excellently portrays Purdue Pharma sales rep Billy, who slowly realises that despite the monetary gain he is achieving by flogging this new ‘wonder drug’, the moral cost of playing along is high. The existence of Billy’s conscience, compared to the absence of his colleagues’, is perhaps a little heavy-handed, as you have to wonder whether it dawned on only one sales rep out of thousands that the drug they were selling was in fact not only addictive, but the cause of the rising levels of crime and poverty surrounding them. 

Actress Rosario Dawson’s storyline as DEA agent Bridget looks more towards the legal and criminal aspect of the drugs inception. This is a hard-hitting storyline involving two eager prosecutors, which clearly demonstrates the power that large pharmaceutical companies hold, insidiously permeating the political, legal, and corporate arenas through exploitation, bribery, and corruption. Both storylines are effective as we watch Billy and Bridget effectively ‘stand-alone’ against the tide of capitalist, materialistic sales reps and businessmen alike, demonstrating the hopelessness of their moral and principled efforts.   

The Sackler family, owners of Purdue Pharma, are seen to be constantly feuding within their lavish mansions, as their greed to fast-track sales grows. The force behind the roll out of the drug, Richard (Michael Stuhlbarg) is incredibly unsettling in his quiet but deadly demeanour, as his laser-focus on profit completely obscures the real-life consequences his decisions have.

Michael Keaton’s character, small-town beloved Dr Finnix, acts as a central linking character within the storylines. Purdue pharma, through Billy, honey-trap him into using the drug to treat injuries in his Appalachian mining town. Watching his introduction to the drug, and how he is wooed with speaking at major events and weekend trips away discussing the benefits of Oxycontin, we see how inevitable his fall from grace is. Keaton’s portrayal of his subsequent battle to fight addiction is incredibly powerful, and also speaks to the nature of addiction treatment in the US. 

We also follow the tragic story of one of Dr Finnix’s regular patients, Betsy (Kaitlyn Dever). A closeted miner from an extremely religious family, we watch her suffer a brutal mining injury and then struggle with addiction to this seemingly non-addictive drug. As she lashes out against her family, girlfriend, and any attempts to help her, it leaves a bitter taste in the viewer’s mouth. Her spiral into pain, poverty, and obsession, contrasted with the Sackler’s’ discussions of fine art and theatre in their opulent mansions, is a clear commentary on the disconnect between the drug’s deadly reality for the many, and the profits it creates for the few. This sets the venomously angry tone that permeates the series. The damning perspective of the uber-rich in the US is expertly juxtaposed with the real-life consequences their drug has on millions of average Americans.  

The series could be argued to have a convoluted structure, as the overlapping storylines that jump from moments in the timeline can be confusing to follow clearly at times. This complexity makes some of the key moments less powerful. However, focusing on individual stories is the most powerful part of Dopesick, as it allows us to resonate and connect to characters who represent those who fought (and those who lost) against the opioid crisis. It culminates in a well-made, damning exposé of the opioid industry and acts as a scintillating insight to the creation of a drug that changed the modern American way of experiencing pain – and life. 

8×1 hour limited series now available on Disney+

Aine Beattie

Danny Strong’s latest miniseries sheds a light on the recent opioid crisis which continues to ravage the America’s underclass.