Welcome to the Weekend Binge. Every week, we’ll suggest a binge-able title designed to keep you from getting too stir crazy. Check back throughout the weekend for even more gloriously queer entertainment.
The Sickening: Dopesick
Danny Strong, the brilliant writer behind Game Change, Recount and producer of Empire created this riveting limited series about the opioid crisis in the United States…and how one sociopathic family knowingly unleashed a beast for personal gain.
Dopesick centers, in part, on the story of Betsy (Kaitlyn Dever), a teenage miner living in rural Virginia. Betsy still lives with her religious parents, but dreams of escaping town with her girlfriend Grace to a better, openly gay life. As such, she keeps up her work at the mine until a serious back injury threatens her livelihood. Her kindly country doctor, Dr. Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton), prescribes her a new miracle painkiller, OxyContin. Of course, it doesn’t take long for Betsy to become an addict.
The story of Betsy and Dr. Finnix is just one of several story threads in Dopesick, set in multiple time periods. Another follows Richard Sackler (Call Me By Your Name’s Michael Stuhlbarg, in full mad scientist mode), the eccentric and nefarious head of Purdue pharma, a man obsessed with marketing OxyContin as a non-addictive painkiller to the point of trying to arrange sexual liaisons in the name of selling the drug. Across the country, DEA agent Bridget Meyer (Rosario Dawson) begins to notice a sudden explosion of OxyContin-related crimes. Meanwhile, US Attorney Rick Mountcastle (Peter Sarsgaard) begins to compile a case against Purdue, uncovering the true extent of the opioid epidemic, and Purdue’s efforts to cover it up.
It’s oh-so-appropriate to cast once and future Batman Keaton in the role of an everyman doctor who plays an important role in aiding the DEA and US Attorney: the scheme at the heart of Dopesick is one worthy of any supervillain. It helps too that Stuhlbarg seems to play Richard Sackler with Lex Luthor or the Riddler in mind. He wants the world to get hooked on OxyContin for the sole purpose of increasing his family’s wealth, and goes to great lengths to accomplish his plan. Sackler and Purdue created fake “pain societies” to help market the drug, spread false information to encourage doctors to increase doses, and fired employees that questioned the ethics of their crusade. Dawson and Sarsgaard both give committed everyman performances in the Commissioner Gordon vein, both trying to wrangle the magnitude of Purdue’s nefarious scam and meeting with one obfuscation after the next.
To its credit, Dopesick focuses on the human drama of its characters as much as the crime thriller aspects of it all. It also includes a healthy dose of queerness on both sides of the camera. Besides Betsy’s coming out and addiction, Dopesick also includes the presence of queer actors Dawson and Raúl Esparza, coincidentally as her husband. Most important of all, though, the combined talents of Dopesick (which also include actors Ray McKinnon, Mare Winningham, Cleopatra Coleman and Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson) drive home the series’ most chilling point: the OxyContin crisis is a scandal on par with Big Tobacco’s inclusion of addictive carcinogens in cigarettes, or the crack epidemic of the 1980s. And it’s still going on today.
Dopesick succeeds as a powerful human drama and riveting conspiracy thriller, one worthy of any superhero epic. Of course, in this world, we can’t rely on people in capes to save us from the poison of an evil genius that we might all live happily ever after. In this world, people die while corporations post profits.
Streams on Hulu.