Netflix’s ‘Painkiller’ Is ‘Succession’ for The Sacklers

The limited series chronicles the struggles of America’s most hated family, and the millions of lives they ruined in pursuit of profit.
Courtesy Netflix

As someone who was born in the Netherlands and moved to the United States as a teenager, I am often asked what I feel is the biggest difference between America and Europe. To their surprise, it’s not the fact that people on this side of the Atlantic can own semi-automatics, unironically order breakfast at McDonald’s, or have to be 21 to legally drink beer. 

It’s that, whenever you turn on the television, there’s a good chance you’ll run into a commercial for some kind of prescription medication. Antidepressants, immunosuppressants, antipyretics, analgesics, antiseptics, even those DIY colon cancer screeners are advertised alongside cars and Coca-Cola cans. They also all follow the same formula: a Lynchian mix of sappy music, sappier scenes of picnicking families and honeymooning lovers, and long, hastily-read lists of severe and possibly life-threatening side effects. Watching them makes you feel a little ill, and that’s probably the point.

No one, we are told in an episode of Netflix’s Painkiller, was better at marketing drugs than the Sacklers, the family at the head of the disgraced but for some unfathomable reason still operational pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma. Between 1990 and 2020, this family earned an estimated $10 billion in profits pushing OxyContin. During the same time, OxyContin, an extremely addictive painkiller, killed upwards of 564,000 people. 

Painkiller, whose 6 episodes premiered on August 10, explores the link between these two statistics and the unresolved legal battle they sparked. Matthew Broderick stars as Richard Sackler, nephew of the diseased patriarch Arthur Sackler who rebranded OxyContin – initially synthesized by German researchers in 1916 – from an end-of-life painkiller into a wonder cure for ailments both major and minor. Uzo Aduba is Edie Flowers, a fictionalized version of several real-life attorneys that went after derelict doctors, negligent FDA employees, and, finally, the Sacklers themselves. Last but not least, Taylor Kitsch crawls inside the skin of one Glen Kryger, yet another composite character, this one representing the Sacklers’ countless victims. Glen is a friendly-neighborhood mechanic with a loving wife, a young daughter, and good-for-nothing employees whose perfectly imperfect life is turned upside down when one of said employees accidentally breaks his back. An overly friendly and charismatic doctor then prescribes Glen some opioids, to which he inevitably becomes addicted. 

As a work of film and storytelling, Painkiller seems well-crafted enough. Dialogue is layered and impactful. Production quality is high but not overindulgent. Scenes were evidently put together with a sense of purpose. In the opening, Richard Sackler is woken up by a malfunctioning smoke alarm, which he cannot reach because the ceilings in his mansion are too high. The meaning seems obvious: that there is a price to pay for his insane wealth, and also that he is oblivious to warning calls sounding around him. Also worth noting is the introduction of Glen, which takes its time to familiarize the audience with his world before the rather suspensefully executed accident takes place.

As a treatment of one of the country’s biggest and most recent tragedies, however, Painkiller leaves a lot to be desired. At certain points, it feels like you’re watching Succession but for the Sacklers instead of the Roys. There’s a focus on family drama and a slight fetishization of their wealth, power, and even their lack of humanity that clashes with the Edie’s and especially Glen’s perspective: the perspective of the victims. Then again, although documentaries like Heroin(e) and Recovery Boys approached the subject much more respectfully, Painkiller stands poised to attract more eyeballs, raise more awareness about the epidemic, and further antagonize the Sacklers – which are all good things. 

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of fucked up and sickeningly unjust things happen in Europe, but the stuff you see in Painkiller – doctors stealing from Medicare and prescribing medication like they’re selling snake oil – are just such uniquely American phenomena. I like to think I know and trust the healthcare professionals I interact with here in the underserved town in rural Georgia where I am currently based, but the problem is that in a for-profit system you can never be 100% sure that others have your best interests at heart. 

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