The Netflix mini-series Painkiller depicts the grim tragedy of the opioid crisis caused by Purdue Pharma. It pulls no punches revealing how the Sacklers, a family of wealthy business owners, actively marketed OxyContin to patients experiencing mild to severe pain, knowing full well it was addictive and dangerous. Each episode begins with a disclaimer of the dramatized elements of the series read by real-life people who have lost loved ones to the drug. “My son’s death is not fictionalized,” one woman states as she holds up a picture of her son.
The main story is told by Edie Flowers, a lawyer with a family history of drug abuse who starts investigating the opioid crisis. She spent years working to sue Purdue Pharma and the Sacklers. With her team, she uncovers how the company came to legally market such a dangerous drug to the public and catches them in their lie that they “had no idea of abuse” happening with OxyContin. After all this work, the day before the court date, a call from a Sackler lawyer with connections to powerful politicians effectively undid the case. Purdue was able to settle on a few misdemeanors. “Half a million people die, and guys like Richard Sackler make a phone call in the middle of the night and absolutely nothing changes.”
The show doesn’t try to justify or humanize the Sacklers. When Flowers is asked what she thinks motivated Richard Sackler in particular, she says she doesn’t care about the motivation: “It doesn’t matter because he did it. I’m sure even if you knew the reason, it wouldn’t make you feel any better.”
Painkiller makes it clear that when fighting corporations through “official” means (like Flowers and her team of lawyers), this capitalist system will always protect and defend the interests of the rich. It didn’t matter that OxyContin was responsible for hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths, not to mention the lives destroyed by those in the orbit of victims who became addicted to the drug. And with characters like Shannon, a young woman who gets roped in to selling Oxy to doctors as a means to get rich quick, we see all the ways this system uses and abuses us for the benefit of the few already wealthy families. We cannot rely on the current government to defend our rights when profits continue to drive any and all decision-making.
It is up to us to organize and realize who the real enemy is. We see this happen in the show when Edie is finally able to forgive her brother who’s been incarcerated for selling drugs. For so long she held a personal grudge against him, labeling him “evil” for his crime. But after her experience with the Purdue case, she realizes who the real criminals are: the corporations and wealthy families not behind bars making millions off our pain.