The Pharmacist is more than just a true crime docuseries

Netflix humanizes the opioid epidemic

Though The Pharmacist begins with a murder, the show becomes about so much more than the crime itself.
Credit: 
Screenshots from Netflix

The Pharmacist, which became available for streaming on Feb. 5, is the latest true crime docuseries released on Netflix, following popular titles Don’t F*ck with Cats and Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez.

For viewers who haven’t seen the trailer, The Pharmacist begins like many true crime series do: With a murder.

Dan Schneider Jr.—commonly referred to as Danny throughout the show, while his father goes by Dan—is murdered while buying crack cocaine in the Ninth Ward district in southeast Louisiana. However, it’s at this early juncture that the show becomes about so much more than the crime itself.

Throughout the course of the show, The Pharmacist deals with the evolution of the opioid epidemic in the United States and the blatant criminality of Purdue Pharma, a private pharmaceutical company, especially its role in causing the epidemic in the first place.

After witnessing the incarceration of his son Danny’s killer, pharmacists and bereaved father Dan Schneider realizes that many of the young patrons at his pharmacy are being prescribed OxyContin, an opioid derivative that is, as one former addict calls it, “heroin in a pill.” Dan Sr. begins questioning his customers, who lead him to Dr. Jacqueline Clegett, a pediatrician who’s running a “pill mill” and over-prescribing OxyContin to patients who don’t actually need the powerful opiate. Dan Sr. becomes obsessed with shutting Dr. Clegett’s pill mill down, going so far as recording phone conversations with federal officers and staking out her clinic, potentially compromising a joint DEA and FBI investigation.

Apart from the over-arching political elements, the show is an examination of grief and empathy. Most of the first episode is dedicated to discussing the effect of Danny’s death on his family. Over long, tracking shots and home video footage of Danny and his sister Kristi as children, we hear old voice recordings left by Dan Sr. In them, he’s crying and pleading to God for his suffering to end. The display of such visceral emotions allows the show to transcend its conventional genre, portraying this devastating epidemic with a human lens.

The Pharmacist isn’t without its flaws. We’re left with some unanswered questions—the most prominent of which is, why was Danny killed? We meet his murderer, but every time the events of that fateful night are recounted from various perspectives, the impetus behind the act itself is never examined. For such a horrific event to be the crux of the entire show, motivating our protagonist to go to such extreme lengths to protect his community, it’s odd that viewers are never truly given a reason for Danny’s murder.

Although discussed briefly in the first episode, I believe more time in the series should have been spent on the drug crisis in the Ninth Ward. The Lower Ninth Ward is the poorest neighbourhood in New Orleans, and many of its residents have battled crack cocaine addiction since the 1980s. However, it seems that although the opioid epidemic has been an ongoing issue in the Ninth Ward, it wasn’t until white youths from the area started being affected that people began to care about this issue. This racialized disparity isn’t discussed at all in the series.

Last year, Purdue Pharma faced 2,000 individual lawsuits which were filed in an attempt to hold the Sackler family—the ultra-rich family that owns Purdue—accountable for aggravating and neglecting the opioid crisis. Purdue ultimately went bankrupt before it was able to settle.

However, even before the lawsuits came to light, the Sacklers withdrew $10.7 billion from their Purdue accounts, essentially cleaning house before they faced a reckoning for their actions. Jacqueline and Mortimer Sackler sold their $38-million New York City townhouse and have fled to Gstaad, Switzerland. David and Joss Sackler are now living in Florida. The repercussions many thought the family would finally face are non-existent.

Toward the end of the series, we’re told that since Dan Schneider Sr. began his investigation in 2001, 400,000 individuals have died as a result of opioid overdoses in the United States. In West Virginia, the state with the highest per-capita opioid overdose rate, the number of opioid overdoses tripled between 2014 and 2017. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 130 Americans die of an opioid overdose every day. The President of the United States’ solution to this is to build a wall.

The last episode of the series is entitled “Tunnel of Hope.” There are many victories to be celebrated—the end of Dr. Clegett’s pill mill, and Purdue Pharma filing for bankruptcy—but Dan Schneider’s tremendous work is overshadowed by a horrific truth. Nothing’s changed—it’s just gotten worse.

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