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Why we can’t look away from opioid epidemic entertainments

As described by Patrick Radden Keefe in his bestselling page-turner Empire of Pain, Richard Sackler—scion of the mega-wealthy drug manufacturing and marketing family and former president of Purdue Pharma, the company whose well-oiled racket of opioid over-prescription has claimed some half a million lives and counting in America alone—is “smart, and quirky.” He is “stocky, with a wide forehead, a straight nose, a husky voice, and a goofy grin.”

As played by Matthew Broderick in the new Netflix miniseries Painkiller, Richard Sackler is almost too goofy. His icy, affectless aspect conceals a tangle of quirks. He argues with the ghost of his dead uncle (Purdue patriarch Arthur M. Sackler, who revolutionized the pharmaceutical industry by marketing prescription drugs directly to physicians), dances dorkily with an anthropomorphic human-scaled oxycontin tablet, wars with a smoke detector that beeps with Poe-ish incessancy, and, of course, loves his dog. As played by Michael Stuhlbarg in Hulu’s 2021 miniseries Dopesick, Sackler is altogether more sinister. He is enigmatic, even cipher-ish, rubbing his clammy mitts together maliciously like Mr. Burns. His mouth occasionally twists at the edges, producing a Grinchy smirk.

These are only two of a great many other riffs on Richard Sackler. In an online “gallery” of Sackler impressions, Bryan Cranston plays him as testy and entitled; Richard Kind renders him as a blustery salesman; and Michael Keaton’s Sackler is fussy, almost incorrigibly proud of his role in engineering the ongoing opioid epidemic. Like Hamlet or Holmes, or, sure, the Joker, Richard Sackler is a malleable, versatile character: a lump of yielding dough onto which any number of eager thespians might impress their own special imprimatur. One can imagine a young M. Emmet Walsh as Richard Sackler. Or Philip Seymour Hoffman. Or a Quicksand-vintage Peter Lorre.

It must be said that, of all these Sacklers—or even all the hypothetical ones, peopling Sacklertainments as-yet-unrealized—Matthew Broderick’s is not very good. His performance is, like the program that contains it, broad, tacky, and desperately needling. Painkiller is the kind of based-on-a-true-story show that attempts to tell the tales of real people while being made by individuals (showrunners Noah Harpster and Michael Fitzerman-Blue, director Peter Berg) who seem like they have never met one. It divulges information in extended, exposition-dump depositions. It scores scenes of opioid abuse with Iggy Pop’s “Candy” and “Heroin” by the Velvet Underground (really). If there were a song called “I Am Doing Drugs” by The Drug-Doers, it would use that, too. Painkiller is, in other words, a bad show. Just totally unserious junk. And yet it is impossible to turn off.

Painkiller is the latest entry in an emerging canon of works either documenting or dramatizing America’s ongoing opioid epidemic and the yearslong procedural quagmire of prosecuting its chief executors. In addition to the aforementioned Dopesick (a much better, if considerably more boring, show) and the actorly reenactments of Richard Sackler’s 2015 deposition, there’s a micro-industry of documentaries, including Recovery Boys, Addicted: America’s Opioid Crisis, Heroin(e), The Crime of the Century (whose writer/director/narrator, Alex Gibney, also served as an executive producer on Painkiller), and—the best of the bunch—All The Beauty and the Bloodshed, which follows photographer Nan Golden’s personal crusade against Purdue Pharma and the Sackler clan after recovering from opioid addiction herself. Whole woodlands have been pulped producing book after book about OxyContin over-prescription and the Sacklers themselves, many of which have been adapted into the productions named above (Painkiller is based on Barry Meier’s 2003 book). The appetite for these titles is seemingly endless.

And the appeal is obvious. The real, historical weight of the Sackler saga lends it a clearly delineated moral architecture. The family are villains non pareil in the American imagination: immoral, rapacious, and as close to a genuine, undiluted evil as you can find. Richard Sackler is not a complex, textured character—the kind of “difficult man” whose flinty, love-to-hate personalities have buoyed televised storytelling during the medium’s so-called “Golden Age.” He is a black hat. A bad guy. A good-for-nothing. A man who regarded life with total contempt, and people as little more than vectors through which profits could be extracted, milligram by milligram. The sort of poison-souled, human-in-name-only who will not be mourned by anybody. Even Darth Vader was more sympathetic. 

Likewise, the characters who exposed Purdue’s myriad frauds—their awareness that OxyContin is more addictive than advertised, the subterfuge involved in marketing a powerful narcotic as a catch-all panacea, the way they strategically plotted to shift blame to the very addicts they created—are genuinely heroic. Their courage is of the grinding, thankless sort, demonstrated by poring over bankers’ boxes of redacted documents, making countless phone calls, and doing good, old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting. Lawyers, born-again Christians, even DEA agents—character types who may more typically come across as totally contemptible—are valorized by virtue of their opposition to the Sackler empire.

Painkiller finds such a hero in Uzo Aduba’s Edie Flowers, a fictitious, take-no-shit federal investigator who serves as the program’s de facto narrator. A Black woman, her crusade against Richard Sackler is informed by personal desire to redress a hypocrisy. Her brother, a crack-cocaine dealer, is serving time in a federal lockup, while Sackler, who has used his billions to legally legitimate his own kingpin status, is a free man. It’s the sort of thin psychological motivation that basically defines characterizations on both cable TV and streaming. But to be fair: that double standard is real. And even when depicted hackishly, it is infuriating.

Catharsis is precisely why the Sacklertainment Industrial Complex isn’t likely to grind to a halt any time soon.

More prosaically, the Sackler drama also fits into a common mold in American fiction: diarizing our love-hate affair with capitalism and its deleterious effects on society and individuals. Whether it’s Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg desperately refreshing a Facebook page to see if an old flame has accepted his friend request, or Michael Corleone’s goons shutting the door on his fretting wife, the soul polluted by wealth reliably draws onlookers. From Gatsby to The Godfather to Wall Street, The Social Network, The Sopranos, and Succession, Americans flock to stories that offer the spectacle of lavish and ill-gotten riches—and the further spectacle of watching those who avail themselves of this bounty being punished.

Such stories possess a fundamental, and uniquely American, incoherence: we are asked to root for the greed and power-hungry on their ascent, while also cheering their downfall. Sacklertainment resolves this contradiction. Possessed by the benefit of hindsight, no one who isn’t a sociopath could rally for the Sacklers or the widespread adoption of prescription opioids. Nobody is going to pin up a poster in their dorm room of Richard Sackler in a hot tub, sucking on a stogie like Al Pacino in Scarface. Their story offers a cleaner fantasy of retribution. Indeed, in Painkiller, Richard Sackler’s arc resolves with a fantasy of his skull being stoved in by the ghost of his enraged uncle, a vision of grisly violence designed to slake any riled viewer’s thirst for justice of a more vigilante stripe.

However ultraviolent, this cartoonish walloping offers a sense of closure that reality has failed to deliver. In actuality, the Sacklers vehemently denied any wrongdoing and personally escaped criminal charges. This despite reams of evidence, submitted in a Massachusetts lawsuit, suggesting that Purdue Pharma, and the Sackler family in particular, knew about OxyContin’s addictive profile and only went on to promote higher dosages of the drug. This despite the broader fallout of Oxy overprescription, which has produced multiple waves of opioid addiction, including users hooked on heroin as well as synthetic opioids like fentanyl and, most recently, xylazine, a large-animal tranquilizer known on the street as “tranq dope” and the “zombie drug.” This despite the fact that these drugs claim tens of thousands of American lives annually, destroying families, devastating inner cities and rural areas alike, and relentlessly feeding an ongoing public health crisis that seems to have no end.

Compounding the injustice is the fact that the Sacklers’ horrific legacy has been exploited in the worst ways imaginable by a different class of ghoul, scrambling to weaponize the epidemic for their political gain. The conservative politicization of the epidemic is its own form of Sackleresque dehumanization, leveraging the bodies of users to prop up jingoistic policy planks. Chest-puffing Republicans threaten war with Mexico and China, who are perceived as the chief importers of opioids and their chemical analogs, respectively. That such saber-rattling serves a broader, more plainly racist foreign policy agenda is obvious: even the DEA notes that fentanyl flows into the United States will continue to diversify. And, as the ascent of tranq illustrates, in the absence of fentanyl—to say nothing of Oxy or good, old-fashioned heroin—the opioid-dependent will turn to harsher, more dangerous drugs which can be sourced or synthesized domestically. When the crisis inevitably persists, it will surely be blamed on soft-on-crime politicians, or anyone who dares to regard drug users as human beings, rather than on the Sackler family or the big pharma conglomerate whose shameless profit-seeking continues to trickle down into every single aspect of the epidemic.

Sure, Purdue Pharma was essentially sued out of existence—or rather, rebranded as the creditor-owned Knoa Pharma—and court ordered to manufacture addiction treatments at no profit . . . while continuing to manufacture opioids in order to fund the settlement. But this public-facing reprimand was enacted precisely to shield the Sackler family from responsibility and resolve the many hundreds of lawsuits lodged against them as individuals. Similarly, after a series of protests, the Sacklers have had their names stripped from museums and art galleries and university lecture halls (a case of them being publicly upbraided for arguably the one benevolent thing they ever did; i.e., laundering their reputation by investing in arts and education). But this triumph is, like the infuriating feelings drummed up by Painkiller, and Dopesick, and Crime of the Century, ultimately symbolic.

Catharsis is precisely why the Sacklertainment Industrial Complex isn’t likely to grind to a halt any time soon. Watching a gaudy show like Painkiller, seeing Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler suffer humiliation and genuine indignity—whether by cutting a rug with a pill mascot or being beaten to a bloody pulp—offers a spectacle that substitutes for real justice. Just as Baby Boomers have built whole libraries out of popular histories of World War II, the Sacklers seem likely to support a micro-industry of middling entertainments targeted at a generation who, like this writer, find some faint, probably pathetic feeling of deliverance in muttering “You motherfuckers . . . ” under their breath, again and again and again.

In the world of flesh-and-blood Sacklers, America’s highest court recently announced that they would review the Purdue bankruptcy deal and its ability to shield the family from civil lawsuits. Given their track record, it seems unlikely that the conservative-skewed Supreme Court will side against the business and personal interests of billionaires. Either way, the real Richard Sackler will likely remain a free man: puttering around a mini mansion in Boca Raton, futzing with a smoke detector, grinning goofily, polishing his wide forehead, or doing whatever it is people like him do while feathering nests funded by the immiseration of a country.