August 15, 2023

Netflix’s ‘Painkiller’ Series Spotlights Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin and The Sackler Family’s Role in The Opioid Epidemic

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Contributors & Editors

Julie Miller

Addiction & Mental Health Writer

Last Update on August 15, 2023

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The New Painkiller Series on Netflix

The newest true-crime drama series, offering a fictional account of the entire opioid epidemic, is here!

Netflix’s Painkiller is the latest big-name limited series, based on Patrick Radden Keefe’s New Yorker piece, “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain,” and Barry Meier’s book, Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic.

The six-part series covers Purdue Pharma’s development and release of OxyContin, which led to a significant surge in opioid use and abuse.

It also explores the tragic human cost of the epidemic, the intermediaries who linked Purdue Pharma to physicians, and the pursuit of justice against the billionaire family that owns the company.

To tell the story of “Painkiller,” the series combines fictional representations of Purdue’s top executives with composite characters embodying hundreds of thousands impacted by the crisis.

As executive producer, Eric Newman states in the press notes, “Even the fictionalized parts of this show are rooted in the fact that the harsh effects of opioid addiction are happening across America daily.

The core of ‘Painkiller’ is comprehending how this all began so that we can hopefully put an end to it.

Continue reading for an analysis of the true story behind Painkiller, including insights into the real-life inspirations for characters and the current status of Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family.


Understanding Oxycontin

OxyContin is a brand name for the extended-release form of oxycodone, a powerful prescription opioid painkiller. is a brand name for the extended-release form of oxycodone, a powerful prescription opioid painkiller.

Given its long-acting formula, OxyContin is often prescribed to manage moderate to severe pain for extended periods.

It works by changing how the brain and nervous system respond to pain.

However, due to its potency and potential for misuse, OxyContin has been a focal point in discussions about the opioid epidemic in the United States and other countries.

When misused (for example, by crushing the pills to bypass the time-release mechanism and then ingesting, snorting, or injecting the powder), the drug can deliver a powerful, euphoria-inducing dose that has led many to addiction.

Consequently, many reported overdoses and death have been associated with OxyContin misuse.

Over the years, Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, has faced significant legal challenges and scrutiny for its marketing practices, which some claim contributed to the broader opioid crisis.


Purdue Pharma and Oxycontin

In 1995, Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin received FDA approval.

Marketed as less addictive than other opioids, the drug became a massive success for Purdue, with sales reaching $ 1.1 billion in 2000.

Sales surged from $ 44 million (with 316,000 prescriptions filled) in 1996 to almost $ 3 billion (over 14 million prescriptions filled) between 2001 and 2002.

Yet, OxyContin’s impressive financial performance was overshadowed by rising instances of misuse and addiction.

It also became one of the most abused pharmaceutical drugs in the U.S., resulting in 300,000 overdose deaths between 1999 and 2015.

Painkiller explores the decisions that brought this addictive substance to the market, tracking the activities of Richard Sackler, Purdue executives, regulators, and prosecutors involved in crucial events.

Key figures include former FDA officer Curtis Wright, who later joined Purdue, and Jay McCloskey, a former U.S. Attorney who warned of OxyContin’s dangers.

Changes in OxyContin’s marketing occurred in the early 2000s as the opioid crisis gained national attention.

Purdue faced federal investigations and lawsuits and was fined $ 634.5 million for criminally misbranding OxyContin.

Multiple legal battles followed through the 2010s, with Purdue filing for bankruptcy in September 2019.

OxyContin continues to be used, now with stricter regulations.

Purdue reformulated the drug in 2010 to deter abuse, but it is still prescribed for moderate to severe pain.



About ‘Painkiller’ on Netflix in Detail


An Overview of The Characters

Character Actor/Actress Representation
Glen Kryger Taylor Kitsch Symbolizes those addicted to OxyContin.
Shannon Schaffer West Duchovny Reflects the experiences of OxyContin sales reps.
Edie Flowers Uzo Aduba Embodies early prosecutors and law enforcement who witnessed the epidemic’s growth.


The Painkiller Storyline

Painkiller” is a thought-provoking drama series that sheds light on the devastating impact of the opioid crisis in America.

Here are some key points explored in the show:


Opioid Epidemic: “Painkiller” dives deep into the origins and consequences of the opioid epidemic, which has plagued the United States for decades. It examines how over-prescribing painkillers, such as OxyContin, led to widespread addiction and subsequent heroin use.

Pharmaceutical Industry: The show illuminates the pharmaceutical industry’s role in fueling the opioid crisis. It raises questions about pharmaceutical companies’ ethical practices, aggressive marketing strategies, and the lack of regulation surrounding opioid prescriptions.

Personal Stories: “Painkiller” portrays the personal stories of individuals affected by the epidemic. It follows the journey of addicts, their families, and healthcare professionals trying to help them. Through these characters, the show explores the struggle, desperation, and resilience of those caught in the grip of addiction.

Legal Battle: The series delves into the legal battles and investigations surrounding the opioid crisis. It highlights the efforts of law enforcement agencies, whistleblowers, and journalists who sought justice against the pharmaceutical companies responsible for the crisis.

Government Accountability: Painkiller also examines the accountability of government agencies in addressing the opioid epidemic. It presents the challenges investigators, and policymakers face as they uncover evidence of negligence, corruption, and conspiracy.

Societal Impact: The show portrays the ripple effects of the opioid crisis on communities, healthcare systems, and the economy. It explores the strain on hospitals, the rise in drug-related crimes, and the devastating impact on families torn apart by addiction.

Moral Dilemmas: “Painkiller” raises moral dilemmas surrounding addiction and responsibility. It asks viewers to question who should be held accountable for the crisis – the individuals addicted, the doctors who prescribed the drugs, the pharmaceutical companies, or a combination of all parties involved.


Through compelling storytelling and powerful performances, Painkiller provides viewers with a fictionalized yet thought-provoking examination of the opioid epidemic in America.

It shines a spotlight on a pressing issue affecting countless lives.

What Critics Have to Say About The New Series

Nick Shager, The Daily Beast

  • “Channeling the rapid-fire energy of The Big Short, minus all the cutesy fourth wall-breaking, this six-part dramatic series from showrunners Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, executive producer Alex Gibney, and director Peter Berg is a propulsive and compulsively watchable evisceration of the company that created a nationwide crisis.”
  • “Berg directs all six installments of the show with a heady thrust that’s both an echo and sly critique of Purdue’s avarice, from Richard and his boardroom minions to Britt, Shannon, and their quasi-prostitute salesforce cohorts. In the process, he transforms what might have been a dry recent-events recap into a blistering portrait of gluttony in all its immoral forms.”
  • “There’s little in Painkiller that hasn’t been covered in prior Purdue takedowns, including pill mill operations and FDA malfeasance (and the corrupt regulatory agency-to-business pipeline). Yet its compact storytelling […] allows it to make a case that’s easily digestible and comprehensively damning. […] The series shrewdly has Richard engage in regular conversation with the ghost of Arthur, the de facto family-legacy voice inside his head, congratulating him on his triumphs and cautioning him against destroying everything he was tasked with preserving.”

See Full Review

Roxana Haddidi, Vulture

  • “In the contemptuous, engrossing, and consistently upsetting Painkiller, America’s health-care system has blood on its hands, and everyone involved is complicit. Avarice and ego are dually devastating forces […] the anger that drives Painkiller feels righteous, and its refusal to sympathize with its villains feels right.”
  • “But what Painkiller most effectively emphasizes is how everyone involved in making and selling the drug marketed to pain-suffering patients and gullible doctors as “the one to start with and the one to stay with” was going through their own cycle of addiction, American-capitalism style. Every executive, physician, lawyer, and salesperson is at fault, and in targeting its blame at them, Painkiller maintains a devastating purity of focus.”
  • “The actors’ urgency, and the clarity with which Fitzerman-Blue and Harpster weave together the series’ social and financial threads, create a strong and substantial core to Painkiller […] Through its comprehensive recounting of a still-timely, avoidable national tragedy and the effective performances that complement those realities, Painkiller operates like Oxy’s own time-release mechanism. Its devastation lingers.”

See full review

From Kelly Lawler, USA TODAY:

  • “Where ‘Dopesick’ was measured, affecting and unforgiving, ‘Painkiller’ is campy, over-the-top and unmoving.”
  • “‘Painkiller’ is a slapdash job that flashes its message in neon signs and then dances away with a human dressed as a pill mascot.”
  • “‘Painkiller’ tastelessly misses the mark.”

See Full Review

From Chase Hutchinson, Collider:

  • “What separates the two is the execution with the writing, direction, and general framing of this series all paling in comparison to the one already out in the world.”
  • “The problem isn’t just that the perfunctory Painkiller is late to the game; even if it’d come before Dopesick, it would’ve been the lesser work.”
  • “It doesn’t add anything new where it should and only ends up focusing on all the wrong things that completely undercut the infinitesimally small hint of promise it had going for it.”

See full review

From Angie Han, Hollywood Reporter:

  • “The style is so ostentatious it distracts from the substance, even as it means to hammer home how important that substance really is.”
  • “Painkiller seems torn between the urge to edify and the desire to entertain.”
  • “The show’s emphasis on dazzle comes at the expense of believable characters or nuanced analysis or emotional resonance; one wonders how much more the show might have been had it not spent so much of its time and energy simply trying to convince everyone to look over here in the first place.”
  • “That Painkiller‘s core narrative is a history worth knowing and a message worth hearing is not in doubt. But it’s one encased in so many layers of candy coating, it ultimately feels like more trouble than it’s worth to cut through to its heart.”

See full review

the sackler family

Photo of The Sackler Family, from BBC Article


The Sackler Family

The Sackler family is an American family known for its involvement in the pharmaceutical industry, particularly through its ownership of Purdue Pharma and Mundipharma.

The family consists of three brothers: Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond Sackler, who laid the foundation for the family’s empire.

Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond Sackler were born to Jewish immigrant parents in Brooklyn.

They started their careers as physicians and psychiatrists but eventually ventured into the pharmaceutical business.

Their business success began with developing and marketing drugs such as Valium and Librium, which became widely prescribed and highly profitable.

Purdue Pharma, founded by the Sackler brothers in 1952, gained significant attention due to its blockbuster, OxyContin.

An opioid painkiller, OxyContin, played a central role in the opioid crisis, as it was heavily marketed and prescribed, leading to widespread addiction and misuse.

The Sacklers amassed immense wealth through their pharmaceutical ventures, making them one of America’s richest families.

Forbes said their collective net worth was estimated at thirteen billion dollars.

In recent years, the Sackler family has faced intense scrutiny and legal battles regarding their involvement in the opioid crisis.

Numerous lawsuits have been filed against Purdue Pharma, alleging that the company aggressively marketed OxyContin while downplaying its addictive properties.

These lawsuits have sought to hold the Sackler family accountable for their role in the crisis.

In 2023, a $ 6 billion settlement was reached between Purdue Pharma and those affected by the opioid crisis.

The settlement aimed to resolve thousands of lawsuits filed against the company.

However, the US Supreme Court temporarily blocked the settlement, raising questions about the Sacklers’ immunity from future civil claims.

The Sackler family, with an estimated fortune of $ 11 billion, remains wealthy.

If the bankruptcy deal is finalized, the $ 6 billion will be paid through various financial avenues, and the family will not be involved in the new company, Knoa Pharma.

The Sackler family’s association with the opioid crisis has led to public backlash and calls for accountability.

Many institutions and organizations have faced pressure to remove the Sackler name from buildings and decline their donations due to the controversy surrounding OxyContin.

The Sackler family’s story intertwines vast wealth, pharmaceutical innovation, and the devastating impact of the opioid crisis.

Ongoing legal battles and public scrutiny continue to shape the narrative surrounding this influential family.


Future Legal Implications

Granting legal immunity to the Sackler family has significant implications for future legal accountability.

While the decision to provide immunity may have resolved current and pending lawsuits, it raises concerns about holding individuals and corporations accountable for their actions in the future.

One key implication is the potential erosion of trust in the justice system.

Granting immunity to the Sackler family could send a message that even when substantial harm is caused, those with wealth and influence can evade legal consequences.

This may undermine public faith in the legal system’s ability to deliver justice and deter wrongful behavior.

Moreover, granting immunity sets a precedent that could impact similar cases involving powerful entities.

If other corporations or individuals facing legal action perceive that immunity is attainable, they may seek similar protections, further hindering efforts to establish accountability for harmful actions.

Additionally, legal immunity could impede efforts to compensate victims of the opioid crisis.

With the Sacklers shielded from civil claims, it becomes more challenging for those affected by Purdue Pharma’s actions to obtain financial restitution for their damages.

The decision to grant immunity may also have broader societal implications.

It could diminish the deterrent effect of legal accountability, potentially emboldening other companies or individuals to engage in unethical practices without fear of severe repercussions.

This could perpetuate a culture of impunity, undermining the collective effort to ensure responsible corporate behavior.

Ultimately, the future implications of granting legal immunity to the Sackler family depend on how society responds.

Justice and accountability advocates must continue pushing for transparent legal systems, robust regulations, and public awareness to prevent such situations from recurring and ensure those responsible for causing harm are held accountable, regardless of their wealth or status.


Supreme Court Decision Brings Optimism

The Supreme Court’s decision to block the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy settlement and potentially revoke immunity for the Sackler family has brought renewed optimism to those seeking to hold them accountable.

This significant development rekindles hope for justice for the victims of the opioid crisis and sends a powerful message about the importance of accountability.

The Supreme Court’s to block the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy settlement and potentially revoke immunity for the Sackler family has brought renewed optimism to those seeking to hold them accountable.

This significant development rekindles hope for justice for the victims of the opioid crisis and sends a powerful message about the importance of accountability.

The Supreme Court’s decision to hear arguments in December indicates a willingness to thoroughly examine the case and consider the implications of granting immunity to the Sackler family.

This demonstrates a commitment to ensuring that all parties are responsible for their actions.

For those advocating for justice, this decision provides an opportunity to present evidence, highlight the devastating impact of the opioid crisis, and argue against the notion of immunity for the Sackler family.

It opens the door for a fair and transparent legal process that considers the victims’ voices and rights.

Moreover, this development instills confidence in the judicial system’s ability to address complex and sensitive cases involving powerful entities.

It reaffirms that no one is above the law and that even individuals with substantial wealth and influence must face the consequences of their actions.

The Supreme Court’s decision also reflects the growing public awareness and demand for accountability in cases concerning corporate misconduct and public health crises.

It acknowledges the urgent need to address the devastating consequences of the opioid epidemic and has the potential to set precedents for future cases involving similar issues.

While the Supreme Court’s ultimate ruling remains to be seen, the decision to hear arguments and reevaluate the Sackler family’s immunity deal brings renewed hope for justice.

It signifies a step forward in the pursuit of accountability and provides optimism for those seeking to hold the Sackler family accountable for their alleged role in the opioid crisis.



As viewers indulge in this gripping drama, they must remember the real-life implications of the opioid epidemic and the need for responsible parties to take accountability.

While ‘Painkiller’ is a work of fiction, it reminds us of the ongoing battle against addiction and the need for justice and change.

It prompts us to reflect on the actions and choices made by individuals and corporations that can impact society.

It encourages us to question and learn from the past, inspiring conversations about how to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Ultimately, as we engage with this thought-provoking series, let us not forget the importance of holding the Sackler family accountable for their alleged role in the crisis.

By supporting shows like Painkiller and continuing to raise awareness, we contribute to the larger conversation surrounding the opioid epidemic, fostering a society that prioritizes justice, compassion, and healing.


If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, please get in touch with us at Cornerstone Healing Center, located in Scottsdale, AZ. Our addiction treatment center specializes in holistic healing for lasting recovery.

There is hope; Let us help you today!



Published: 8/15/2023

Contributor: Julie Miller

Contributor: Susana Spiegel

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Author & Reviewers

julie miller recovery writer and author
Julie is a recovery advocate, with over two years sober. She is a recovery speaker who believes people can change for the better. Her mission is to write factual, helpful information about addiction, treatment, and recovery. She believes that no one should be left in the dark about the process at any stage of their recovery.
lionel estrada lisac clinical director

Lionel is the Clinical Director of Cornerstone’s treatment facilities in Arizona. He has had over 4 years at Cornerstone. He is personally in recovery and passionate about helping others overcome substance abuse and mental health challenges, he is trained as an EMDR, adopting a trauma-informed approach to treat the underlying issues of conditions.

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