The Opioid Epidemic has ravaged headlines and homes for years, the manipulation behind its launch and the lives devastated by its effects still rippling today. With Hulu’s Dopesick, viewers are given a look at the 20 years of the drug’s rise and fall through the those behind its creation and those who would forever be changed by its potency. Starring Michael Keaton, Peter Sarsgaard, Will Poulter, Kaitlyn Dever, and Rosario Dawson, Dopesick may initially struggle to find its footing, it does not let its beginning stop it from rising above.
Episode 1 – “First Bottle”
From the very beginning, Dopesick threatens to lose its audience, weaving in and out of the lives of its characters over an almost 20 year span of time. For an hour-long segment, it, unfortunately, feels like a lifetime before the episode’s final credits play. What “First Bottle” suffers from is an oversaturation of character and a chaotic editing style moving the episode in and out of time.
Dopesick introduces audiences to a rotating door of individuals who will play into the entirety of the rise and fall of OxyContin – the FDA, the DEA, doctors, lawyers, US attorneys, miners, loved ones, sales representatives, the Sackler family and more. Viewers are afforded little time for connection, the episode focused on hitting the bullet points more than developing emotions for the characters. And through each of these individuals introduced, the series immediately drives hard the fault and accountability for the actions Purdue Pharma was responsible for in causing the Opioid crisis.
Furthermore, if there was not enough going on, Dopesick’s “First Bottle” attempts to humanize these characters who may only be recognized as names in a headline. DEA agent Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson) is shown in the middle and end of her divorce, assistant attorney Randy Ramseyer (John Hoogenakker) seemingly suffering from a medical issue, Dr. Samuel Finnix’s (Michael Keaton) dedication to his patients, and the blinding hope of curing the world’s pain emulated by Richard Sackler (Michael Stuhlbarg). Further complicating this attempt to humanize is the cliche dialogue that these characters speak. “Miners lives are going to change overnight” spoken by one of the trainers for the sales reps is potent yet too in your face in regards to the accountability the company will have to face and for the devastating effects the drug will have on those who take it.
Branching off its characters, and despite its never-ending feeling, Dopesick’s “First Bottle” feels rushed as the filmmakers duck in and out of various points of the epidemic, from the drugs first suggestion in the privacy of a room of men, to the court proceedings in front of a grand jury, to the subsequent happenings in between. Because of the rapid transitions in time, audiences are able to understand the full scope the series has committed to encompass, but it is not delivered as fluidly as intended. Honestly, I found myself frustrated with “First Bottle”, feeling the episode to be more bullet-pointed than narrative-driven.
What the first episode does successfully is to establish the community of individuals that will weave in and out of its subsequent episodes. There is a good foundation of information laid, no matter how chaotic. As viewers continue to watch further episodes, the pieces will start to merge together formulating an entire picture. Pieces that seemed inconsequential at first will find their meaning. You leave ”First Bottle” with a sense that in a world of fraud and manipulation, there are those who will continue to fight for the unseen victims. And while it is easy to suffice where and how the episode will end, its effect caries strongly through to the next episode.
Episode 2 & 3 – ”Breakthrough Pain” and “The 5th Vital Sign”
Almost instantly, Dopesick finds its feet in the first few minutes of “Breakthrough Pain”, as if the series was having a breakthrough of its own. There is clarity in the direction of editing that was missing in the first episode, and audiences are allowed more time with each of the characters. Transitions through time are more fluid as well. Where I found myself wishing the series creators had stuck with a linear narrative in the first episode, “Breakthrough Pain” and “The 5th Vital Sign” have me appreciating their choices more.
The familiarity in the first few moments further heightens the engagement, for many the term “Breakthrough pain” will be a phrase heard before, even if you never truly understood its meaning or its creation. Dopesick’s “Breakthrough Pain” opens again in the courtroom, the jaw-dropping revelations of the decisions by Purdue Pharma pushing the interest to see how the company and the individuals introduced in the first episode reached this point. As the hands of time turn back, audiences are brought back to 1996, the year the drug was launched and where the series finds itself returning frequently.
As the Sackler family fears Richard might become an Icarus, the results of the first sales quarter are in, and while they look promising, Richard knows they can do better. They just need to be creative and continue pushing. “Breakthrough Pain” breaks free of its rigid framework of accountability, looking not only at the company of Purdue Pharma but also the doctors and sales representatives challenged their own knowledge and morality in the days, months and years that followed the drugs release. With “The 5th Vital Sign”, the accountability is further spread, encompassing the FDA, DEA, hospitals and pain organizations. Where the series forces viewers to consider the moral decisions of those who would become involved, it also gives a clear picture that the roots of the Opioid crisis went beyond just one man and one company – many seizing the opportunity it presented, whether it be for the good or for the profit.
“Breakthrough Pain” boasts a particularly outstanding performance from Peter Sarsgaard. In one scene in particular, Rick Mountcastle is interviewing the doctor behind the PSA commercial turned OxyContin Ad, Sarsgaard harnesses the empathy, frustration, and anger his character feels keeping it just below the surface, maintaining the cool composure expected of his position. Only his eyes betray him. There is a deeply engrained fight for justice that resides in Rick and Sarsgaard allows it to grow through each interaction, success, and failure. This is a performance reliant on the subtlety of body language, one that Sarsgaard delivers to perfection.
From “Breakthrough Pain” to “The 5th Vital Sign” each piece of the puzzle is laid one moment at a time. As the need drives for more of the drug to be prescribed, pain becomes a national movement, the fear of legal ramifications if a physician does not treat a patient’s pain pigeonholing doctors and pharmacists into stocking and dispensing OxyContin. As time continues to move, the scale at which the epidemic grew and the lives it affected happened devastatingly fast, much to the orchestration of one company trickling out to the masses. I found myself thinking of a pyramid scheme as these episodes passed, everyone buying into something that was too good to be true.
As doctors begin to “individualized the dose” and actions become further and further from the origins of science, one element resonated over the course of the first three episodes – controlling the narrative. To obtain, and subsequently maintain the trust and dispensing power of physicians, the narrative surrounding the drug needed to constantly be changed. As more and more issues arose, they needed to be addressed immediately. Dopesick does a brilliant job of capturing this through its own controlling of the narrative. While the dispensement of OxyContin begins with the claim there is no addiction and its last 12 hours, it evolves to explain Breakthrough Pain, individualizing the dose, empowering patients to sue those who do not treat their pain, and finally the most devastating narrative of them all – it’s not the pills, its the addict.
Conclusion: Dopesick Episode 1-3
Dopesick has the potential to be a great informative dramatization of the Opioid Epidemic that ravaged the country. While the first episode is a chaotic menagerie of characters that draws little empathy and emotion, its subsequent episodes begin to find their footing, cementing a narrative that directs its viewers from episode to episode.
Dopesick premiers on Hulu on October 13, 2021!
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Stephanie Archer is 37 year old film fanatic living in Norwalk, CT, USA.