Netflix’s ‘Painkiller’ is mesmerizing drama about Sackler role in ongoing opioid crisis

Netflix’s ‘Painkiller’ is mesmerizing drama about Sackler role in ongoing opioid crisis

Premiering Aug. 10 with a cast led by Matthew Broderick, the six-part series zeroes in on the death and destruction wrought by OxyContin on a community in western Virginia

(L to R) Uzo Aduba as Edie, Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler in episode 5 of "Painkiller." (Keri Anderson/Netflix © 2023, via The Times of Israel)
(L to R) Uzo Aduba as Edie, Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler in episode 5 of "Painkiller." (Keri Anderson/Netflix © 2023, via The Times of Israel)

“All of human behavior is comprised of two things. Run from pain. Run toward pleasure. Pain, pleasure. Pain, pleasure. If we place ourselves right there between pain and pleasure, we will never have to worry about money again.”

This is what Dr. Richard Sackler (played by Matthew Broderick) tells his uncles in Netflix’s new six-episode limited series, “Painkiller,” which focuses on the prescription opioid crisis in the United States that has thus far led to the overdose deaths of at least 1 million people. The fictional drama series begins streaming on Aug. 10.

In the first episode, Richard Sackler makes this haunting and prescient statement after the family patriarch, Dr. Arthur Sackler — noted psychiatrist, drug marketer, and art collector — dies in 1987 and the family must decide which companies in their portfolio will keep them profitable. Richard persuades his uncles that they should bet on the small pharmaceutical company Purdue-Frederick, which they rename Purdue Pharma.

In 1996, Purdue released OxyContin, a slow-release version of oxycodone. Oxycodone is a synthetic opioid used for decades mainly to treat cancer and terminally ill patients. OxyContin is essentially heroin in pill form and is highly addictive — unlike what Purdue had claimed.

“Painkiller” illustrates how the Sacklers did not have evidence that the drug was safe and how they got approval for it by putting an FDA official in their pocket.

The Sacklers profited handsomely from OxyContin, making them one of America’s wealthiest families thanks to Purdue’s aggressive marketing of the medication to treat common and chronic pain conditions.

Since the late 1990s, the United States — mostly its Middle America heartland — has been ravaged by opioid addiction, kicked off by the introduction of OxyContin. (Other countries have also been affected, including Israel, which has the highest per capita number of opioid prescriptions in the world.)

Written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, and directed by Peter Berg, “Painkiller” is based on “Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic” by Barry Meier and “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty” by Patrick Radden Keefe.

The Netflix series is not the first narrative iteration of the opioid crisis. There have been documentaries, other dramatic series, books, and countless investigative articles. With 100,000 Americans still dying every year from opioid overdoses, “Painkiller” will surely not be the last version of the story.

The binge-worthy “Painkiller” constantly switches tones, moving abruptly between highs and lows. The soundtrack is often pumped up, and cartoon images sometimes pop up to break up the visual style. Surreal at times, the overall effect presumably attempts to mimic the sharp ups and downs felt while using and becoming addicted to OxyContin.

The show’s plot weaves several compelling narrative strands to cover as many bases as possible in explaining how prescription opioids ended up killing so many people and destroying so many families and communities.

Some of the characters, such as the Sackler family members and their employees, and United States Attorney John L. Brownlee for the Western District of Virginia, are real. Others are either composites or fictional, but their roles are essential.

U.S. Attorney’s Office investigator Edie Flowers (Uzo Aduba) serves as narrator, anchoring the various and complex aspects of the story. She reluctantly comes to Washington, DC, after civil prosecutors ask her to help them prepare a case against Purdue. Having worked tirelessly with Brownlee to ready a case against the drug company in 2007, she had her hopes dashed when at the last minute the Justice Department puts pressure on Brownlee to settle the case, with Purdue copping only to a count of mislabeling.

However, once the tough Flowers sees that the prosecutors have a taped deposition of Purdue president Richard Sackler from 2015 (it was published by ProPublica in 2019), she is willing to cooperate.

She starts at the beginning, telling how she by sheer chance became aware of OxyContin and how people in western Virginia were becoming addicted to it. Motivated by the destruction of her own family by the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s, she begins digging into the astronomical number of OxyContin prescriptions and refills being prescribed by doctors and dispensed at pharmacies in the area.

“How can something legally prescribed by killing so many people?” the bewildered Flowers asks.

Upselling addiction

Purdue sales reps Britt Hufford (Dina Shihabi) and Shannon Schaeffer (West Duchovny), dressed in short, tight dresses and high heels, woo doctors into not only prescribing OxyContin but also upping patients’ dosages when the medication seems to be wearing off too soon. These “OxyContin kittens” — none of whom have a medical background — convince the doctors that the drug is safe and that it will benefit their bottom lines.

“OxyContin is the one to start with and the one to stay with. The more you prescribe, the more you’ll help,” says Schaeffer, a young woman seeking a way out of poverty who lets the bling afforded her by her newfound earnings blind her to the questionable ethics of her behavior.

The final interwoven strand in the narrative is that of Glen Kryger (Taylor Kitsch) and his family. After Kryger, a car mechanic, has a major accident at his garage, his doctor puts him on OxyContin to handle the pain during his recovery. When Kryger’s initial dose wears off in less than the supposed 12 hours, his doctor increases his dosage. Kryger keeps building a tolerance to the drug, and without more of it and at more frequent intervals, he starts having withdrawal symptoms.

Within a short time, Kryger is addicted and getting OxyContin wherever and however he can. He also begins snorting it, as young teenagers in the community are doing with deadly consequences.

Throughout the series, the ghost of Arthur Sackler haunts his nephew Richard. Arthur goads Richard to be both ruthless and careful and mostly warns him to not ruin the Sackler name, which is on many prestigious institutions of medicine, science, and art.

On May 30, 2023, a New York court of appeals issued a ruling granting the Sackler family immunity from current and future lawsuits over their role in Purdue Pharma’s opioid business. In return, the Sackler family agreed to pay up to $6 billion to fight the ongoing opioid epidemic.

As part of a deal reached in March 2022 with eight states and the District of Columbia, the Sackler family agreed to allow organizations and institutions in the United States to remove the family name from buildings, programs, and scholarships, providing that the family is notified and public statements announcing the name removal do not “disparage” the family.

Even before the deal was reached, some universities and institutions in the US decided to put an end to the Sacklers’ philanthropic reputation laundering.

Many international institutions also decided to place distance between themselves and the Sacklers. Oxford University removed the family’s name from a library, galleries, and programs. Museums such as the Louvre in Paris and the Tate museums, the National Portrait Gallery, and the British Museum in London also disassociated themselves from the Sackler family.

In June, Tel Aviv University decided to drop Sackler from the name of its medical school. It issued a statement saying that the decision was mutual, but it wasn’t hard to read between the lines.

“For the last 50 years, the Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University has proudly borne the Sackler family name,” said a university statement.

“In a continuing desire and commitment to assist the University and the Faculty to raise funds for medical research, the Sackler family has kindly agreed to remove their name from the faculty of medicine. With this move, they will enable the university to offer naming opportunities for the faculty of medicine and school of medicine to new donors.”

As the Sackler name continues to disappear from buildings, the accomplished and disturbing “Painkiller” serves as the latest horrifying reminder of why. PJC

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