Dopesick hasn’t been an easy watch. It explored the pure evil behind the proliferation of OxyContin, and the sweeping epidemic of addiction and death that followed. Though hindered somewhat by its flip-flopping through time and some clunky exposition, Hulu’s limited series—which just wrapped up its final episode—still made the case for itself as essential, even educational television. For all of the murmurings most of us have heard about the Sacklers (or “members of the Sackler family,” as their lawyers are fond of emailing me whenever we post a story), Dopesick clearly laid things out in no uncertain terms, never holding back on calling out the outrageous behavior at the heart of this horror. Yet no matter how cartoonish Purdue’s rotten cabal may have appeared onscreen, it was only reflecting a bitter truth.
The phrase “rotten cabal” is one I’ve cribbed from HBO’s Succession, used there to denote the cronies behind the fictional mega-corp Waystar Royco. But one of the things Succession has been able to do so well over its three season run is make us laugh at the bumbling exploits of the uber-rich, even at their most depraved. And yet, Dopesick reminds us that we shouldn’t laugh. We should be taking to the streets.
There is a troubling trend in our current American society where regular people feel compelled to defend the rights and honor not only of the wealthy (Elon Musk or Donald Trump) but of giant corporations (Disney, Warner Brothers). It’s not just baffling, but sad. In this warped fan culture, many Americans are rooting for those whose interests are diametrically opposed to their own. It brings to mind thoughts of medieval serfs standing knee-deep in mud and covered in boils delighted to hear tell that the Lord and Lady have produced an heir who will one day also rule them. Surely we know better now?
In its finale, Dopesick went beyond that exposure of corporate and personal greed to show how the influence of wealth led to our government’s own hand in this corruption, not only name-dropping Rudy Giuliani as a lobbyist for Purdue Pharma, but in the storyline where Main Justice attempts to shut down the case. As US Attorney John Brownlee (Jake McDorman) says, they took the case as far as they were allowed, stymied by political appointees. It’s similar to a plotline in Succession Season 3, where Waystar Royco—and by extension the Roy family—are being investigated by the Department of Justice, and using every possible political connection they have (including a call to an unnamed President) to try and stop it from happening.
Again, in Succession we weirdly root for the Roys to worm their way out of prosecution, whereas Dopesick shows us how truly disgusting that result is. The real-life OxyContin settlement eventually led to Purdue Pharma being “sacrificed” in bankruptcy in order to protect the former executives and—through another layer of protection—members of the Sackler family from direct indictment. Yes, they were publicly shamed, and there were some consequences to that (museums tearing off of their names was a nice touch, as was their exodus from New York). And yet, the Sacklers are still incredibly wealthy; and time will pass, people will forget. Meanwhile, as a haunting late scene featuring Richard Sackler (Michael Stuhlbarg) shows, the directive remains to “sell sell sell.” To quote Democratic Tennessee Representative Jim Cooper: “I’m not sure I am aware of any family in America that is more evil than yours.”
Dopesick is depressing. Succession is too, when you really stop think about it. Its clever writing, incredible acting, and general bombast often make us forget just how horrible the Roy family is, but maybe it also makes us feel just a little bit better to laugh at them. Granted, they didn’t start a drug crisis. But in their world they control a major aspect of the media, and we’ve seen (in reality through Fox News and the Murdochs, on whom the Roys are based) what an outsized effect that can have on the very fabric of democracy.
What shouldn’t be forgotten amid this darkness though are Dopesick’s heroes, who deserve to have us know their names: Dr. Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton), Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard), Randy Ramseyer (John Hoogenakker), and the aforementioned Brownlee. These and others who tirelessly fought back against a stacked system were rare pure white hats in a TV world filled with moral grays. When Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson) toasted Rick and Randy with apple cider, I did the same in my heart. They didn’t win the way they wanted to, but they did something big. And it all added together with smaller acts of resistance, like Sister Beth (Megen Fay) saying “I would rather burn in hell than take a penny of [Purdue’s] blood money.”
All of this righteous action aside, it was Dr. Finnix, of course, who carried the show’s most heartbreaking storyline (and Keaton was the absolute soul of the production). Finnix tied together so many disparate parts of the evil of OxyContin, including his own addiction. Not everyone made it, and he couldn’t save everyone; but he did his best to make a difference where he was. And that is where it all starts.
In our Power Rankings the past few weeks I’ve referred to Dopesick as “TV vegetables,” a gentle ribbing that a show this dense and intense isn’t the Comfort TV many of us are seeking in this moment. But in addition to its teaching moments, Dopesick got to the emotional core of the horror still infecting America, kicked off by the greed of Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, to explain the many facets of this unending wave of destruction. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by that, to be cynical and shrug in a very Succession way of looking for what effect it has on us personally. If there’s one thing Dopesick makes clear, though, it’s that we are all affected.
And yet the show ends with hope, with the beleaguered Finnix offering up a parting thought: If we try to work through our pain, we just might find our better selves. But the frustration of Dopesick’s narrative is also a call to action. We have to remember that billionaires aren’t our friends. Companies aren’t either. And we shouldn’t allow ourselves to become distracted into letting the consequence of their greed rule our lives. As Sister Beth says, “That’s just what wealthy people do. They take advantage of folks who don’t have money to fight back.”
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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