I became aware of OxyContin for the first time in 2013. I had run away from NYC to Los Angeles in the midst of my own addiction struggles, looking for a way out of my suffering. A few months in LA, doing my best to attend film premieres and press screenings, I found myself unmotivated and unable to write.
I had met someone who told me he could help get me back on track with a legal substance. I went to his apartment, hoping to get what I needed, but things didn’t go as I planned. While I was there, he got a text and lit up in a way I have not seen since.
His neighbor had one OxyContin 40mg pill that he sold my new friend for 50 bucks. I had no understanding, as naive as that may sound, that a pain killer could do what I saw do to him as he IV’d the melted pill. The next few months got really dark for me, and to this day I have no idea what happened to this “friend.”
Years later, in recovery, I have witnessed up close and personal the effect of OxyContin and the opioid epidemic. I had certainly known of the Sackler family, the owners of Purdue Pharma, which created OxyContin and their part in it. But with Dopesick created by multiple Emmy nominee (and previous winner) Danny Strong, adapted from the book by Beth Macy (who will also win an Emmy if the show takes Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series) we have a clearer, damming snapshot.
Danny Strong: Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series, Writing and Directing
If you Google OxyContin or the Sacklers, as I did multiple times throughout my binge of Dopesick, you will find article after article that takes you down a somewhat confusing rabbit hole of anger inducing facts and timelines. Although the series moves back and forth in time, it somehow manages to paint a very clear picture of the real life horror story that happened here. People are in pain. Chronic pain. Richard Sackler (played by Emmy nominee Michael Stuhlbarg), the somewhat weak sheep of the family, sees an opportunity to rise in the ranks, creates OxyContin and lies about the fact that it is not addictive, with the help of the FDA and their deceptive, “We believe what the pharmaceutical companies tell us” approach to labeling. Sales reps spread the lies, doctors prescribe the pill, people become addicted and die. More lies are told and spread, and before we know it, Appalachia, the main focal point of this story, is ravaged with an epidemic that also spreads throughout the country.
Strong is nominated for writing and directing the finale, The People vs. Purdue Pharma. It’s a very tough ending to write and tell because we are left with a question of justice.
We see the attorneys (played by Emmy nominee Peter Sarsgaard, John Hoogenakker and Jake McDorman) working so hard along with DEA agent Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson) and yet most of us already know that here in the present day there is still no jail time for the Sacklers. The scene in the finale where McDorman’s Attorney John Brownlee tells his team that they are going to have to settle is remarkably written, acted, directed and quite unsettling to watch.
The actors, casting, and the humanity of addiction
Outside of the telling of this important story, the greatest strength of Dopesick is the portrayal of addiction’s humanity. From the pharma sales rep to the addict.
Much credit should be given here to nominated casting directors Avy Kaufman and Erica Arvold. With even the slightest move in the wrong direction from the actors, this could have played very differently.
Kaitlyn Dever and Mare Winningham: Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie
I knew very little about the Dopesick characters going into it, and I had no idea Kaitlyn Dever’s Betsy was queer. That was a wonderful surprise, and then, once we were introduced to her parents, played by nominee Mare Winningham and Ray McKinnon, my heart began to sink. Even though these characters are not directly paralleled to a real life person, they represent thousands. Queer people rejected by their religious parents, introduced to a drug which temporarily solves the shame problem until it becomes the new problem. It’s a delicate and deadly progression and Dever nails it.
Once she is in the grips of active addiction, there is a scene where she goes to an AA meeting and a member (I use that term loosely) offers her pills in the bathroom. The multiple emotions Kaitlyn plays in that moment are so truthful and sad.
Later, when Betsy sneaks into her Mom’s jewelry box she has a complete crisis of conscience, attempting to balance her diminishing values with her physical need to use. In that moment, thanks to a knockout performance by Dever, we get to see the real, complicated face of the addict. She first goes with the lesser evil (the pearls) only to later give in and pawn everything.
Near the end of the road, when her Dad finds her pills and flushes them down the drain, Betsy produces a guttural scream that expresses a pain that every addict has known. Those pills are her lifeline, the lifeline that is literally killing her.
Also struggling, but with her deep rooted religious beliefs against the love for her daughter, is Mare Winningham’s Diane. The scene in which Betsy tries to come out and Diane simply ignores her is a cold moment and one that absolutely has consequences.
Much later, when Diane and Jerry (McKinnon) try to turn the tide with an acceptance of sorts of their daughter, it’s simply too late. Diane’s journey after we see Betsy fate play out is a powerful one, played quite well by Winningham.
Of course there are so many other wonderful performances that weren’t nominated for Emmys such as Rosario Dawson, Jaime Ray Newman and Phillipa Soo, but when you have the entire cast of The White Lotus being nominated, there simply isn’t much room. I honestly don’t know how voters choose between the likes of Jennifer Coolidge and Kaitlyn Dever, but we shall see soon enough!
Will Poulter, Peter Sarsgaard and Michael Stuhlbarg: Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie
Will Poulter, nominated for Supporting Actor, plays pharmaceutical sales rep, Billy Cutler, who also maintains a balancing act, but with morality and greed. There is a very fine line between what the sales people for OxyContin did and what continues to be done in many related fields including pharmaceuticals and addiction treatment. Yes, the reps were mis-fed information and the all-expense paid trips were legal, but one only needs to have their eyes open to see the grey areas, and in the case of OxyContin, the darkness of selling a product that in reality is doing significantly more harm than good.
Poulter, who gives one of my favorite performances of this television season, manages to bring a sense of duality and levity to a character that could have easily gone in a different, less nuanced and villainous direction.
Two additional supporting actors up against each other for Emmys are Peter Sarsgaard, playing Attorney Rick Mountcastle and Michael Stuhlbarg, as Richard Sackler, the architect of OxyContin.
There are many heroes in Dopesick and Sarsgaard is one of the series’ most important. It’s a great role, particularly paired with fellow attorneys played so well by John Hoogenakker and Jake McDorman.
Stuhlbarg’s Sackler is an interesting portrayal. It appears intentional that Strong narrowed the scope on this character, boiling him down to a Shakespearean-esque sad-sack turned hyper-villain. Richard presents his case at the beginning of the first episode, in close up, and his family mostly brushes him off even as he starts to succeed. That is until things start to fall apart, and yet, he’s still there, if the show is to be fully believed, somewhat running the show.
Stuhlbarg seems to have chosen one clear objective – come out of the underdog shadow of every Sackler before him – and one tactic – “…make the biggest drug in the world.” It’s a simple, risky portrayal and I’m interested to see if he ends up winning for it.
Michael Keaton: Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited or Anthology Series or Movie
Bookended with Dever’s Betsy, the true heart of Dopesick belongs to Michael Keaton. I had somehow avoided the fact that his Dr. Finnix not only prescribed OxyContin, but also became addicted to it. Watching Keaton go from simple, loving town doctor to an addict, begging his former sales rep for pills while still in treatment is quite the well-acted journey. For me, the first episode, “First Bottle,” as well as the beginning of the final one, “The People vs. Purdue Pharma,” are executed with a bit of a heavy hand, but it’s Keaton that keeps it as level and grounded in truth as possible.
Sound Mixing, Single-Camera Picture Editing and Cinematography
Dopesick is nominated twice for Single-Camera Picture Editing. In the series’ first episode, “First Bottle,” editor Douglas Crise, along with writer Danny Strong and director Barry Levinson, are tasked with setting the tone of the series – with multiple time jumps letting us know where we are headed, the Appalachian locale, the deluge of pain patients, etc. Within the episode, Crise builds the pacing, sometimes pulling back, all leading to the inevitable moment when Dr. Finnix gives Betsy OxyContin for the first time.
The 2nd nominated episode for editing is “Black Box Warning,” the penultimate and best episode of the series, taking us all the way back to 1962. Much has been building up to this episode, where we see the fates of both Dr. Finnix and Betsy. Chi Yoon (along with writer/director Strong) knows exactly when to move things along and when to ease up for tension. When this episode ends, we are shaken and our hearts are truly broken.
Cinematographer Checco Varese is nominated for the 2nd episode, “Breakthrough Pain.” With the camera he shows us sweeping traveling shots that express the Sackler wealth against the claustrophobic downward progression in Betsy’s life in both her home, with Grace, and at the mine.
The shots in the Purdue Pharma Breakthrough Pain training scene are chilling. As the presentation begins, we see the words BREAKTHROUGH PAIN in great bold letters in the background. Varese pushes the camera in with the Oxy bottle lingering large in the background as R. Keith Harris’s Martin Willis explains to Phillipa Soo’s Amber that all the reps have to tell their concerned docs is to double the dose to prevent this made up breakthrough pain concept. It’s simplistic camera work and it’s haunting.
In addition to Cinematography and Editing, the show is also nominated for Sound Mixing. This is an integral element to Dopesick as it weaves in and out of time and locations. In “Pseudo-Addiction,” one of the most infuriating episodes, you can see nominees, Nick Offord, Ryan Collins and Jay Meagher excel. In the first scene alone they integrate elements of dialogue, music and sound effects into two separate scenes in two different time periods. It’s great work.
Since I began working on this piece, I’ve heard from many people who have told me they either watched Dopesick and were infuriated or admitted they haven’t yet been able to bring themselves to view it. Not yet. And I understand.
Relief from pain is where Dopesick begins with Richard Sackler professing his grand idea that he fulfills at the detriment of millions of people. It ends with Dr. Finnix having begun to heal Sackler’s damage in his small town, offering an alternative plan.
I’m grateful that I came out of addiction, that the fictional Dr. Finnix and many of the people he helped, the many people those characters are based upon – survived this still ongoing nightmare. And despite the anger that comes at the end of watching the series, knowing many more died, that we are still in this epidemic, I was still left with hope that there is a way out of the pain.
Hulu’s Dopesick is nominated for a total of 14 Emmy Awards:
OUTSTANDING CASTING FOR A LIMITED OR ANTHOLOGY SERIES OR MOVIE
OUTSTANDING CINEMATOGRAPHY FOR A LIMITED OR ANTHOLOGY SERIES OR MOVIE: episode “Breakthrough Pain”
OUTSTANDING DIRECTING FOR A LIMITED OR ANTHOLOGY SERIES OR MOVIE: Danny Strong, episode “The People vs Purdue Pharma”
OUTSTANDING SINGLE-CAMERA PICTURE EDITING FOR A LIMITED OR ANTHOLOGY SERIES OR MOVIE: episode “Black Box Warning”
OUTSTANDING SINGLE-CAMERA PICTURE EDITING FOR A LIMITED OR ANTHOLOGY SERIES OR MOVIE: episode “First Bottle”
OUTSTANDING LEAD ACTOR IN A LIMITED OR ANTHOLOGY SERIES OR MOVIE: Michael Keaton
OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A LIMITED OR ANTHOLOGY SERIES OR MOVIE: Will Poulter, episode “Black Box Warning”
OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A LIMITED OR ANTHOLOGY SERIES OR MOVIE: Peter Sargaard, episode “The People vs. Purdue Pharma”
OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A LIMITED OR ANTHOLOGY SERIES OR MOVIE: Michael Stuhlbarg, episode “The Whistleblower”
OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A LIMITED OR ANTHOLOGY SERIES OR MOVIE: Kaitlyn Dever, episode “The Whistleblower”
OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A LIMITED OR ANTHOLOGY SERIES OR MOVIE: Mare Winningham, episode “Black Box Warning”
OUTSTANDING LIMITED OR ANTHOLOGY SERIES
OUTSTANDING SOUND MIXING FOR A LIMITED OR ANTHOLOGY SERIES OR MOVIE: episode “Psuedo-Addiction”
OUTSTANDING WRITING FOR A LIMITED OR ANTHOLOGY SERIES OR MOVIE: Danny Strong, episode “The People vs Purdue Pharma”
Photos: Gene Page/Hulu