Watch Closely: “Painkiller” is a Saga of Cruel Greed

By Peg Aloi

This limited series is not easy to watch, but Painkiller should be considered indispensable viewing because of the light it shines on the amoral face of corporate greed.

A scene from Painkiller. Photo: Netflix

A number of years ago I had a two-week temp assignment at the pain management center at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital. A study had recently proved that Oxycontin was highly addictive and it was exploding throughout the news media. The office was receiving so many phone calls and inquiries for reactions from the center’s director that they couldn’t keep up with the volume. I had to field these journalistic inquiries, as well as calls from patients, and refer them to the appropriate practitioners as warranted. Despite the alarming headlines, the vast majority of the patients were looking to have their prescriptions refilled, most of them before the original prescription had expired.

My time on this job alerted me to a national scourge that I’d only been dimly aware of beforehand. When I was not answering the practically nonstop phone calls, I would sometimes chat with the director/head doctor, who would stand by my desk as he looked through the written messages. I asked him if his department encouraged patients with chronic pain to choose non-narcotic treatment options, such as physical therapy, yoga, dietary changes, and other modalities. The Brigham supports a famous Center for Integrative Medicine. The doctor’s response was honest — and a touch melancholy. “We offer advice on these options all the time,”  he said, “but nobody seems to want them; they’d much rather take a pill because it seems easier even with the risks.” On another day, when I handed the doctor a stack of messages about prescription renewals, I joked that I was going to start calling him “The Candy Man.” He gave a rueful half smile and replied, “Yes, some days that’s what I feel like.”

The most astonishing aspect of the job was talking to some of the chronic pain patients who had already been taking courses of Oxycontin. In some cases their speech was slurred, they sounded very tired, and they would sometimes repeat themselves, having forgotten what they had already said in the short conversation. Patients needing renewed prescriptions often came up with odd excuses. Some merely insisted that their pain was too severe and they needed more meds. Some claimed they’d dropped a bottle of pills in the toilet, or that a mailed prescription had been stolen out of their mailbox. The news reports not only asserted that Oxycontin was highly addictive, but showed how extremely popular and profitable it had become as a street drug. Pharmacies were having to take extraordinary security measures to avoid theft.

Everyone, it seems, has a story related to the Oxycontin plague. Many of these issues, including some I encountered in my temp position, are dramatized in the new Netflix series Painkiller, directed by Peter Berg, an actor now known for directing thrillers. The drama was co-written by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, based in part on a New Yorker article. Each episode of this limited series is introduced by actual people who briefly talk about a loved one whose life was destroyed through Oxycontin use. At first, these sobering moments felt somewhat manipulative. But then I realized they were an apt and necessary reminder that this horror, which was inflicted on the United States by Purdue Pharma (the manufacturer) over 20 years ago, has all but disappeared from the country’s collective memory. Legal proceedings are still being settled, but the public’s consciousness of the horrific toil in death and eclipsed lives is fading.

The storyline follows a number of main characters. Taylor Kitsch plays a mechanic and devoted family man who suffers an accident at work, needs back surgery, and is placed on addictive painkillers during his recovery. Edie Flowers, a Virginia attorney played by Uzo Aduba (The In Treatment star gets a clever line at one point when she asks a potential witness, “Do I look like a therapist to you?”). Edie joins the fight to go after a huge corporation whose perfectly legal product is nevertheless causing widespread death and chaos. Her seemingly insurmountable challenge: to figure out how to charge the company with a crime. Edie’s own family trauma, rooted in drug abuse, fuels her passionate dedication.

Then there are the drug reps: beautiful young (mostly white and blonde) women recruited by Purdue, many of them graduates of pharmaceutical college degree programs that were popping up everywhere at that time. One new rep, Shannon (West Duchovny), is enamored of the glamorous lifestyle at first, but slowly realizes her job is a toxic and possibly dangerous endeavor. Shannon and her attractive cohorts are trained to be flirtatious, seductive, and aggressive in their pursuit of doctors; the goal is to get them to prescribe the highly addictive medication to as many patients as possible, and in the highest dosages possible, because the rep’s fat bonuses (including Porsches and luxury apartments) are calculated based on the number of milligrams their clients prescribe.

If this sounds too insidious to be true, then what to make of the reprehensible central player, Richard Sackler? He is the heir to the family fortune and the driving force behind the Oxycontin juggernaut. Of course, the Sackler family is also famous for their huge bequests of art and money to major American museums (this aspect of its legacy comes under sharp scrutiny in the powerful 2022 documentary on artist and activist Nan Goldin, All the Beauty and the Bloodshed). As played by Matthew Broderick, Sackler comes off as a somewhat neurotic, cold-mannered man, though he has occasional bursts of flamboyant behavior. Broderick and the rest of the cast are beyond excellent, imbuing this truth-inspired story with the fierce emotion and intensity it calls for. Berg’s direction is masterful throughout, generating tension and suspense even when we know where things are heading. This limited series is not easy to watch, but Painkiller should be considered indispensable viewing because of the light it shines on the amoral face of corporate greed.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Critics Choice Awards, and the Alliance for Women Film Journalists. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Time, Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found on substack.

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