The drama limited series Painkiller is Netflix’s own watered-down version of the opioid crisis that still continues to trouble American society. While Hulu’s earlier show Dopesick provided a more detailed and effective presentation of the same subject, Painkiller is more pompous and grander in scale despite not adding anything extra at all. Based on investigative journalist Patrick Radden Keefe’s famous New Yorker article on the Sackler family, this limited series focuses on the devastating effects of OxyContin and the horrible decisions taken by the makers of the opioid drug. Painkiller can still be a breezy watch if you are looking for light entertainment about the shocking events of the medical world.
Plot Summary: What Is The Series About?
Painkiller is based on the evil business of the Sackler family, once headed by psychiatrist Arthur Sackler, who clearly stressed the importance of medical pills and advertising for such pills. Making extremely popular pills like Valium, the business reached great success, and Arthur Sackler made his family name quite well-known in the medical and mainstream worlds. It was Arthur’s nephew Richard who took over the family business after his death, and it was Richard Sackler who came up with the idea of a new morphine-based painkiller pill. Within some time, this new drug, called OxyContin, gained popularity in the market because of its false claim to be much less addictive than other similar morphine-based opioids. Contrary to their claim, OxyContin happened to be a combination of morphine and other elements similar to heroin, making the medicine extremely addictive among patients.
Based on this medical atrocity that was killing thousands in the USA, an investigator from the Roanoke U.S. attorney’s office, Edie Flowers, carried out a full-fledged examination into the medicine and its makers. Painkiller begins with Edie sitting down to talk with a different team of lawyers and experts, talking about her time pursuing Purdue Pharma and trying to bring them to justice. It is through her narration and the following scenes about the matter that the entire series plays out.
Along with Edie Flowers and the Sackler family, Painkiller also throws light on two other characters, Glen Kryger and Shannon Schaeffer, both of whose lives are affected by OxyContin. Glen is a simple man living with his loving wife and two children in his hometown in North Carolina. He runs a garage along with his family, and it is here that a horrible accident permanently hurts his back. As a respite from the pain, Glen’s prescribes him a new drug called OxyContin. On the other side, Shannon Schaeffer is a young student who comes across a medical representative sent by Purdue Pharma. Convinced by the representative’s words, Shannon decides to become a representative for the company herself.
How Did Glen Change After Taking OxyContin?
Glen Kryger’s story in Painkiller begins on the very day of his horrible accident, as the man is seen working at his family garage. The family consists of his partner Lily, their toddler daughter, and his stepson Tyler, who is from Lily’s previous marriage. The teenager son is like any other boy his age, trying to have fun during work hours and slacking at his job as a crane driver. As Glen goes to give the boy his final warning, he falls down backwards, getting his back pierced by some part of the machine, and this leaves him with a horrible pain that doctors say is going to last throughout his life. After struggling through this pain for some time, Glen’s life is in a complete mess when his doctor prescribes him a new medicine—OxyContin. The doctor admits that the drug is new on the market, but its claim of lasting for 12 straight hours makes it a better alternative than the other opioids. In fact, this was later proven to be another of Purdue’s lies since the pill’s effect did not last anywhere close to 12 hours, and patients craved it for much longer.
The effect of this new drug is almost instant on Glen, as the man genuinely feels relieved after taking the pills. When he reports this improvement to his doctor, the dosage of OxyContin for him is increased to 40mg. He is also directly approached by the Purdue company, and a short video about his situation is shot in order to show how OxyContin is helping people like him. But around this very time, Tyler is seen stealing some of the pills from Glen’s stash and taking them to some of his friends. This makes it evident that those looking for cheaper drugs on the streets had already found out about the effectiveness of this new opioid, and people started using it to get high. But Tyler regularly taking away his father’s pills did eventually get to Glen, as he ran out of the pills and desperately searched for them everywhere in his house. By this time, Glen had gotten terribly addicted to the drug because of its highly addictive composition, and without it, he faced severe withdrawal effects. With an indomitable rage and desperation, he ransacked his entire house looking to find the pills, to the extent of taking one that he found on the floor that had slipped out of his hand many weeks earlier. As this frightening situation makes Tyler return the stash he had hidden away for his friends, Glen once again starts taking OxyContin several times a day.
It does not take long for the man to have a seizure owing to the drugs, and he has to be admitted to a hospital. After recovering and returning home, Glen witnesses his own ransacking and makes a promise to his family that he will no longer take the pills, since now he has been told by doctors that OxyContin is essentially just a harmful drug he is addicted to. However, Glen is unable to bear the withdrawal effects and the pain, and the man returns to his original doctor once again to get a prescription for the pills. The doctor is irresponsible enough to mention that people are smashing the pills into dust to snort them as drugs, and Glen takes note of this. Eventually, when taking OxyContin as pills does not give him as much satisfaction, Glen starts snorting it, like everyone else addicted to it at the time.
At this stage in his life, Glen has lost almost everything, from his family to his garage. Seeing how uncontrollable and addicted Glen is, Lily turns him away from the house and also refuses to keep any contact with him. The man spends the next few weeks homeless, sleeping on the street, and stealing supplies from stores. He tries to get hold of OxyContin from the doctors who still prescribe it, but instead gets robbed at the place by other men in a similar situation. Eventually Glen decides to go sober, and he stays off the pills for a considerable amount of time. His life gets better, too, as he is reunited with his family, even though he has not moved back into the house yet.
One night at the motel where Glen now stays, he finds his neighbors passed out and dying from OxyContin pills, and the man can no longer maintain his sobriety. He takes away all the pills and then snorts them. Glen’s body is unable to cope with this sudden charge of the drug after so long, and his heart fails him. Despite trying to come clean from his drug addiction, Glen ultimately failed to do so and lost his life because of it.
How did Shannon come to her final realization?
While Glen Kryger had been on the receiving end of the effects of OxyContin, Shannon Schaeffer happened to work for the company making it and eventually realized what they were creating. As a young adult student, Shannon was frustrated with the turmoil back at home between her parents and was also seemingly confused about how to shape her life. At this time, she attended a conference held by Purdue Pharma, where a young woman medical representative named Britt Hufford spoke about what it is like to work for the company. Shannon had already heard of the famous OxyContin pills, as they were indeed growing in popularity all around, and she decided to become an MR for Purdue herself.
She was taken under the wing of Britt, who was by now very used to life under the company, as they were essentially paid to bring more doctors on board with OxyContin. In the case of any medicine, and especially for this new pill, the number of doctors coming on board to prescribe it to their patients was of major importance. Purdue had made it a common practice in their business strategy to hire young, attractive women fresh out of college as medical representatives who would go around to doctors. Most of these doctors were male and were influenced by the young women in some way or another, some even making direct sexual approaches to them. The drive was to ensure that doctors prescribed more doses of OxyContin to their patients, and the company promised a life of luxury and wealth to the women.
Shannon, too, started to build a reputation for herself in the company, gradually getting a Porsche and an apartment gifted to her by Purdue. But she had also been noticing how the drug was indeed being misused by people on the streets, and she even witnessed a young woman using it to get high. Despite a moral dilemma that had been growing inside her mind, Shannon kept at her work until she witnessed absolute debauchery during a yearly party. All of the women working as medical representatives intentionally made themselves available to doctors solely to get more business from them, and they all personally used OxyContin as a cheaper alternative to cocaine. Shannon, too, is coerced into snorting it once, and the effects of it are enough to make the woman change her mind. It is Shannon who ultimately gathers all of the communications between herself and Purdue as evidence of wrongdoing and hands them all over to Edie to support her cause.
How did Edie Flowers and her team investigate the case?
The character of Edie Flowers had her own personal drive against arranging a case against Purdue Pharma. Her own brother had become a drug dealer during the treacherous rise of crack cocaine in New York City, and he had sold the drug to their very own mother, who eventually died from an overdose. The brother was jailed, and Edie still holds a judgmental grudge against him. Having personally witnessed loss because of drug abuse, she was determined to bring down any such new drug. During her investigative trips, she witnessed a man acting erratically and trying to rob a drug store because of withdrawal, as he did not have a proper prescription to buy OxyContin anymore. Edie did grow doubtful about this new painkiller on the market, and eventually, she found out the horrible truth.
OxyContin was highly addictive and had a much shorter working span than claimed by its makers, and the heavy marketing and promotional practices by Purdue Pharma ensured that the drug was readily available. Doctors were being paid big amounts of money for siding with the company, and in fact, many doctors who initially spoke out against the effects of the pill were later bought over by Purdue. Making a detailed investigation into the matter, Edie Flowers came up with statistical proof that the rise of OxyContin had also given rise to homelessness, crime, and death from drug overdose, much like it had happened during the rise of crack cocaine. Even the FDA approval that Purdue got for this specific pill was based on false claims. Together with all this information, Edie approached her boss at the time, US attorney John Brownlee.
Although Brownlee did believe in Edie’s claims and there was much information against Purdue, they still needed to find a criminal act in order to prosecute. This eventually came during a different court case that Purdue faced, in which they claimed that they did not have any knowledge about the ill effects of their pills until the case in question had been presented. However, this was definitely not the case, as some other doctors had written to them about it earlier too. Edie and the rest of the team now sat down to find concrete evidence of this, but getting their hands on such proof was quite difficult.
Eventually, one of the secretaries at Richard Sackler’s office, Deborah Marlowe, revealed that Richard and others at the company knew about the pill’s exceptionally addictive quality, but they still went on with production. Edie and Brownlee decided to get this recorded as evidence too, but as things turned out, Deborah was found to be heavily addicted to OxyContin herself, and she was beyond any legally considerable state at the time. Finally, Shannon Schaeffer became the one to submit evidence against the company, and this was used to prepare a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma.
What happened to Purdue and the Sackler family?
The court case prepared against Purdue Pharma was rather strong, and it was expected that all the people who had lost their lives due to the terrible OxyContin pill would win. Till this time, Purdue had always gotten away with claims that people who were misusing their pills were drug addicts anyway, and thus their product could not be blamed. However, this time around, there was proof that the company knew all about the addictive nature of the painkiller and that they had intentionally hidden it from the public. The lawsuit was expected to take the company down once and for all.
However, during the court trial, the judge announced that a settlement had been reached between Purdue and the state, with the company pleading guilty to fraudulently misbranding OxyContin. This came as a major surprise for Edie, as Brownlee had discussed that he would never agree to a settlement, as that would mean Purdue would get away rather easily. However, it is revealed that Purdue, through one of their lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, had gotten in touch with the White House, and in turn, John Brownlee was told to accept a settlement.
Years after this incident, though, multiple states prepared cases against Purdue Pharma, and it is with the lawyers and investigators of one such case that Edie Flowers is seen talking in the series. Painkiller ending reveals the results of this latter case, which finally brought Purdue Pharma down. In 2019, these lawsuits created enough pressure on the company and Purdue filed for bankruptcy. They also proposed to make an official settlement, as the Sackler family was ready to pay a heavy compensation amount of 6 billion dollars. As of March 2023, though, approval for Purdue’s bankruptcy is still pending. Although none of the members of the Sackler family were directly held responsible for the innumerable deaths, they have stepped away from owning the pharmaceutical company. It is estimated that around 300,000 people have died from overdoses of OxyContin and other similar opioids, and America still faces about 40 deaths each day from a prescription opioid overdose.