‘Painkiller’ (2023) Review: Portrays A Biting And Horrific Reality Through Fiction

There are many serious factors that led to a stunningly high portion of the American population getting addicted to drugs. Socio-economic tension, along with corrupt medical practices and pharmaceutical marketing, escalated the issue to a dangerous level.  This turned an alarming number of people into drug addicts through painkillers. Among these pharmaceutical companies, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, founded by John Purdue Grey and owned by the Sackler family, altered the course of medical practices by introducing an extremely dangerous and addictive drug as a pain reliever.

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Pain is an unbearable feeling, much like a sharp blade slicing through our skin or a heavy weight burdening our spirit. Whether physical or mental, humans tend to try to get rid of this pain using any means possible.  If someone were to profit from exploiting pain, a strong, intolerable sensation and a fundamental aspect of humanity, they could potentially become a dominant figure. This is similar to what Richard Sackler did for a certain period of time.  He exploited people’s trust, selling harmful drugs disguised as painkillers, ultimately leading to fatal outcomes. 

Netflix’s most recent offering, Painkiller, directed by Peter Berg, brings forth this captivating narrative based on the true story of the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma. The series took some creative liberties to shape the narrative and introduce fictional characters while showcasing the dangerous consequences of the marketing and distribution of the drug “OxyContin,” produced by Purdue Pharma.

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What Happens in the Series?

In the 1950s, when lobotomies and shock therapy were the primary treatments for mentally unstable patients, Dr. Arthur Sackler emphasized the need for medication and the prescription of pills to bring his patients back to his clinic again and again. He built his business model by formulating addictive drugs like Valium, which gained popularity and brought him financial success. Over time, he rose to fame as a scientist who had an eye for priceless art and used to donate huge sum of money to maintain his image in media. However, after achieving substantial fame, wealth, and status, at the age of 73, he died of a heart attack. Following his death, Arthur’s nephew, Richard Sackler, took control of the family business. It was then that he discovered that Arthur had faced financial difficulties and had been drowning in debts. To restore the family’s reputation and standing, Richard devised a new medicine—a painkiller containing a dangerous substance like Oxycodone. His company, Purdue Pharma, produced this new drug, OxyContin, and started its distribution widely, falsely asserting it was less addictive than other morphine-based drugs. However, in reality, this medicine, belonging to the same class of drugs as heroin, led the patients to develop an addiction to it.

Meanwhile, Edie Flowers, an investigator from the Roanoke U.S. Attorney’s Office, delved into the case of Purdue Pharmaceuticals and the production and distribution of OxyContin. She disclosed her findings to the medical experts and lawyers, as shown in the series. While the series focuses on Edie Flowers’ investigative prowess and the evil business strategies adopted by the Sacklers, two other fictionalized characters were introduced: Glen Krygar and Shannon Schaeffer. They became the embodiment of the consequences of repeated consumption of these life-threatening drugs.

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While Glen became a prime example of how OxyContin didn’t save lives but took them, Shannon emerged as a voice against the pharmaceutical company. Purdue had aimed to enlist young college students who could speak the language of doctors to promote the use of OxyContin. Despite falling victim to this trap initially and being involved in heavy marketing of the drug, Shannon eventually had a realization. She understood that by endorsing these drugs, she was essentially destroying numerous lives. She transformed into someone who assisted Eddie Flowers in taking on Purdue Pharma. She collected evidence of their unethical business practices and internal communications and went against the pharmaceutical company to stop the distribution of the drug. However, the lingering question remains: did the Sacklers receive their deserved punishment for the havoc they had wreaked in people’s lives and for nearly shattering the trust of ordinary people in medical science and doctors?


‘Painkiller’ Review

Each episode of Painkiller began with real-life victims’ families introducing the show, stating that while the characters and storylines are fictional, the tragic demise of their sons or beloved daughters due to OxyContin is not. This approach taken by the creators provides a refreshing yet biting start to a fictional narrative that uncovers a harsh reality. The show captivates not just through its strong storytelling, visual aesthetics, and performances but also through its commentary on the highlighted issue.

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The series explores the evil nature of wealthy and greedy business people who profit by wreaking havoc on the lives of ordinary individuals. Painkiller holds up a mirror to the inhuman aspect of society, shedding light on the overlooked truth. This groundbreaking show becomes a gateway for people from all corners of the world to understand this topic, conveying facts through the medium of fiction. The beauty of Painkiller lies in its non-preachy nature, its impactful portrayal of protests, the desperate pleas of people, and the exploitative practices of the rich, which paint a horrifying picture of reality and the true face of capitalism.

The performances are exceptionally strong, with Uzo Aduba’s portrayal radiating an aura of street-smart confidence that made me fall in love with her character, who becomes a strong, opinionated voice against corruption. While most characters, aside from the Sacklers, are fictional, the show effectively constructs Edie’s composite character, representing those who courageously raised their voice against Purdue and strived to bring the corrupt pharmaceutical company to justice.

It’s needless to say that in the field of medical science as well as in the lives of ordinary people, Purdue Pharma had a profoundly negative impact. The opioid epidemic caused by the pharmaceutical company claimed countless lives and destroyed numerous families. It shattered ordinary people’s trust in medical science and eroded the trust between doctors and patients. Moreover, the opioid crisis left a stain on the healthcare system, serving as a cautionary tale for the next generation to ensure more scrutinized lab practices, implement strict regulations, correct medical procedures, and enhance pain management protocols.

Given the extent of the loss caused by Purdue Pharma, there’s a pressing need to restore the balance in order to enhance the well-being of individuals and regain their trust in medical science. This restoration is vital for improving the quality of human life and rebuilding the foundations of a trustworthy healthcare system.

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Poulami Nanda
Poulami Nanda
Poulami Nanda hails from a medical background, yet her journey is to cross the boundaries of medicine and survive in the cinematic world. The surrealistic beauty of cinema and art has attracted her from a very young age. She loves to write poems, songs, and stories, but her dream is to write films someday. She has also worked as a painter, but nothing attracts her more than cinema. Through her writings, she wants to explore the world of cinema more and more and take her readers on the same ride.

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Painkiller holds up a mirror to the inhuman aspect of society, shedding light on the overlooked truth. This groundbreaking show becomes a gateway for people from all corners to understand this topic, conveying facts through the medium of fiction. 'Painkiller' (2023) Review: Portrays A Biting And Horrific Reality Through Fiction