Painkiller is a fictionalized account of events that led to the opioid crisis in America and how stopping this epidemic was nearly impossible. The series is now streaming on Netflix.
Warning: This article contains heavy spoilers
Edie Flowers worked as an investigator with the U.S. attorney’s office in Roanoke on a case against Richard Sackler, the chairman and president of Purdue Pharma.
She is invited by a team of lawyers who have consolidated hundreds of lawsuits against Purdue Pharma into one single case.
Edie realizes that this new team is seeking justice, but she has no hope that they will win, considering what happened when she was fighting Purdue Pharma. Upon learning that this new team has deposed Richard Sackler, Edie sees some light and starts giving them everything they need.
The show shifts back in time as Edie tells her story. After the death of Arthur Sackler, a psychiatrist who built an empire by making money out of medicine through the right sales and marketing, his nephew, Richard Sackler, took Purdue Pharma from him.
Richard Sackler, Raymond Sackler, and Mortimer Sackler started working together. Richard Sackler made little adjustments to Purdue’s morphine-based painkiller, MS Contin, and created OxyContin, one of the most powerful painkillers to ever hit the market.
The goal behind OxyContin was to make a painkiller that people would associate with improved well-being. Sackler created a drug with twice the kick of morphine and planned to give it to people. This drug will make their pain go away and make them feel good.
Sackler’s team warns him that abuse is going to be a real issue here. However, Sackler quotes that as long as a patient is under the supervision of their physician, these drugs are incredibly safe. They will also get FDA approval for this drug.
To sell this drug, Purdue comes up with the absolute best marketing plan. It hires good-looking college graduates who know doctor’s language.
These college graduates conduct conferences, go from doctor to doctor, and convince these doctors to overprescribe OxyContin to their patients.
Most doctors fall for the pretty faces and smiles of these young graduates, but other doctors, like Dr. Fitzgibbons, reject this drug. Dr. Fitzgibbons only prescribes it to cancer patients.
Purdue’s team claims that OxyContin is a whole lot less addictive than other opioids, but Dr. Fitzgibbons points out its properties. The molecule in OxyContin is nearly identical to heroin, and he questions how this makes OxyContin less addictive.
However, the FDA has approved this drug. Sackler managed to get FDA approval by forming relations with Curtis Wright from the agency. Curtis Wright initially pointed out flaws in the drug. He knew that heroin in pill form is highly dangerous.
Sackler began to form an unusual amount of contact with Curtis Wright. He soon made him approve OxyContin with words that state delayed absorption, as provided by OxyContin tablets, is believed to reduce the abuse liability of the drug.
The words ‘is believed’ made the difference. With FDA approval, OxyContin is now considered safer than anything else like it. A year after the FDA’s approval, Curtis Wright leaves the FDA and joins Purdue Pharma.
OxyContin becomes successful, and Sackler celebrates. Edie Flowers investigates the overprescription of OxyContin. She finds out that crime rates, unemployment, overdoses, home break-ins, grand theft auto, disability, and insurance claims are on the rise at the same time when OxyContin sales are high.
Edie points out to her new boss, John Brownlee, that they are on the verge of an epidemic; this is crack cocaine all over again, maybe even worse. Only this time, the drug is FDA-approved, and it’s hard to prove that this is a crime.
An investigation into OxyContin overdoses begins, and Purdue Pharma tries to put the blame on the addicts to save their drug. However, Edie catches them lying about not knowing about the abuse before.
Edie and Brownlee find paperwork that can work as proof against Purdue, and when that doesn’t help them, they try to find a snitch in Purdue Pharma who will speak up.
Painkiller ending explained in detail:
Do Edie and Brownlee find a snitch?
The first snitch Edie and Brownlee find turns out to be an addict herself. This doesn’t help them, but Shannon Schaeffer, a young saleswoman working with Purdue, approaches Edie after realizing that she is working for some really bad people.
Shannon had seen young girls using OxyContin and almost dying in a car accident. Furthermore, a doctor endorsing OxyContin tried to sexually take advantage of Shannon. If not her, someone else fell into this.
Shannon wasn’t paying attention because of the money she was earning. Now she wanted to make things right. She offers Edie the proof that she needs, which suggests how Purdue forced OxyContin on everyone.
Does Purdue finally fall?
Edie and Brownlee have everything they need against Purdue Pharma. However, the case reaches a settlement. Sackler’s team contacted Brownlee’s higher officials and made him cut a deal.
Richard Sackler played a big game. Half a million people die, and people like Sackler make one phone call in the middle of the night, and nothing changes.
Purdue didn’t stop after this settlement. They continued making OxyContin. Edie accepted that this is how life really works and got out of this game.
What happens to Purdue?
In 2019, as a direct result of the multi-state lawsuits, Purdue Pharma files for bankruptcy. The Sackler Family pays $6 billion as a part of the settlement.
Sackler talks to Arthur in his visions, as he has his whole life since the moment he started creating OxyContin. The Sackler Family has immunity.
They have not been criminally charged in connection with the marketing of OxyContin or any overdose deaths involving the drug. Anyhow, Arthur blames Sackler for ruining the family name and his legacy.