Why “Dopesick” Should Get an Emmy for Fiction

This article, in a slightly edited form, first appeared on Pain News Network on September 12, 2022.

By Dr. Lynn Webster and Hazel Shahgholi

Dopesick, the eight-part Hulu series on the opioid epidemic – sorry, the OxyContin epidemic — has been nominated for 14 Emmy awards. Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Beth Macy, most of the nominations are well-earned, from the excellent acting of Michael Keaton (nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor) to the breakout performance of Kaitlyn Dever (nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress) as an addicted patient.

As entertainment, Dopesick is an achievement, but the awards should only be given if the admission is made that the Hulu series is almost entirely fictional. So far, the series’ makers have failed to do so, with Executive Producer Danny Strong claiming that robust research was carried out to make the series as realistic as possible.

“I had done a ton of research, conceived and sold the show before I even knew the book Dopesick existed,” Strong told The Hollywood Reporter. “I read the book, and I loved it. I thought it was a beautiful book, incredibly well done.”

The problems with the Hulu series are many-fold, mostly arising from errors, conflations and under-examinations that are littered throughout Macy’s book, as well as the fact/fiction transition necessary in the baton pass from page to screen.

Strong took many elements of Macy’s dubiously factual text at face value, picking up on the well-established narrative that Purdue Pharma’s marketing of OxyContin was the root cause of the opioid epidemic.

As a result, the series was almost literally bound to fail as an adequate representation of the true origins and spread of opioid use disorder.

OxyContin Misinformation

We know that throughout the opioid epidemic, OxyContin made up, at most, only 4% of the total market for prescription opioids. This data was available at the time of Macy’s book release in 2018 and when the Hulu series came out in 2021. It’s not difficult to find, if one searches beyond the bombast of mainstream news about opioids to focus instead on medical literature and government data.

In the first episode, Strong creates a highly dramatic, but erroneous opening scene. While being questioned by a federal prosecutor, Dr. Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton), a fictional general practitioner, is asked under oath, “What do you think caused so many deaths in such a short period of time?”

Flashbacks intervene before Finnix states, definitively: “OxyContin.” The prosecutor then hammers home the point by asking, “So just to be clear, you are blaming numerous deaths in your region on just one medication?” And with a heavy-heart, filled with prescriber regret and his own addiction stigmatization, Finnix states, “Yes.”

This total condemnation of Purdue, the Sackler family and OxyContin resides entirely in the realm of fiction. We know from a 2012 Bloomberg BusinessWeek exposé on Florida pill mill operators that it was actually oxycodone and hydrocodone-based generics that were fueling opioid use disorder. It is this type of dangerous, OxyContin-pincered misinformation that has propagated a national misunderstanding about opioids, and kept us from moving from blaming to healing.

Rather than the devoutly religious and close-knit Mallum family, who earn their daily bread through hard work in West Virginia’s mines, the Hulu series has the Sacklers sitting down to meet at opposite ends of a table, as opposed to holding hands in prayer. The Sackler family is separated into those who have “A Shares” and those with “B Shares” in Purdue — a split that divides the heirs and sees them wrestle over profits. As depicted in the series, the Sacklers are not a family, but a business, through and through.

Fictionalizing the Truth

The time-leaps throughout this eight-part series are anchored on the discoveries of law enforcement as it digs deep into Purdue Pharma. But this organizing principle proves thoroughly dizzying, obfuscating the “human interest” element that makes up much of Macy’s book.

Because the series is also determined to paint physicians and patients in an antagonistic relationship, we end up with just two fictional representations of “doctors” and “patients” — Keaton’s Dr. Finnix and Dever’s Betsy Mallum, whose characters were explained by Strong in a 2021 interview with NPR, in which he praised the merits of not being “stuck to the truth.”

“If I made these characters composite characters, I get way more of these anecdotes into these arcs with fewer characters and get more truthful stories into the show,” Strong said. “By fictionalizing, [emphasis added] I wouldn’t be stuck to the truth of one person’s life. I could use as many anecdotes as I wanted. I could achieve a more universal truth; a higher truth.”

Dr. Finnix is the epitome of a “composite character” into whom most material and several arcs are heavy-handedly stuffed. He is emblematic of a problematic prescriber. We only meet three of his patients in detail — Mallum, his ex-miner patient Jonas, and a young woman named Elizabeth-Anne — all of whom become addicts. Finnix himself becomes addicted, getting high on his patients’ diverted supply. This distillation of Finnix cannot be taken as a “more universal truth,” even in a meager sense, as we shall explore.

The mechanism by which Finnix becomes addicted to OxyContin happens in a flash that straddles two episodes. One moment he is the ever-attentive country physician, happily working 16-hour days, making night calls to elderly patients with dementia to ensure all their daily meds have been duly taken, attending to the injuries of his coal-mining patients, and often delivering their children.

Finnix is a man of simple pleasures; he enjoys fishing with members of the Finch Creek community of which he forms the responsible backbone, until the devil invades the town in the form of OxyContin. Upon receiving a call about an explosion in a mine that has left several workers in critical condition, he speeds back to Finch Creek from a visit to Washington D.C. to see his late-wife’s sister, who has encouraged him to start dating again.

In his haste, Finnix doesn’t buckle-up and is T-boned by another vehicle. He suffers several broken ribs in the accident and is prescribed 20mg of OxyContin, much to his surprise, as he usually starts his patients on 10mg tablets.

Cut to Episode 4, entitled “Pseudo-Addiction.” Without any explanation of why the hitherto cautious prescriber has not had follow-up treatment with an independent physician — we see Finnix cast in utter damnation, diverting OxyContin prescriptions for his own personal use. Presumably, adding another physician to the story would have taken up too much screen time, and undone the drama of Keaton’s lone composite character.

Dependency and Addiction

Let’s pause for a moment to unpack Strong’s haste. It is again based on a conflation made by Macy, who fails in her book to differentiate between the medical terms “dependency” and “addiction.” This is a false narrative. Addiction and dependence are related, but cannot be equated, and should not be conflated. Many drugs, including antidepressants and anticonvulsants, can cause such physiologic adaptation that abrupt withdrawal can cause serious, even life-threatening events. This is the case with opioids, too.

But being dependent is not the same as being addicted. And by not using the term “dependency” extensively in her book, Macy paints a false picture that hyperbolizes all opioid use, prescription or illicit, as inherently a kind of addiction — when there are millions of people with chronic pain dependent on opioids, but not addicted.

Interestingly, Strong’s series does use the word “dependency” once, in Episode 4, via a nameless, testifying physician character, and in a scientifically false and unhelpful way. With cuts to Finnix locking the last of his patients’ diverted pills in a glass kitchen cabinet, before smashing said cabinet to smithereens, the unnamed physician states, “Opioids are uniquely challenging as they can change a person’s brain chemistry. But in a desperate effort to end the cycle of dependency, some people try to quit cold turkey, but the results can often be disastrous.”

It is important to note that this moment in the series can be enlarged by turning to statements made by Strong in an interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, in which he claimed that “you can be addicted in three days” to OxyContin.

That is blatantly false. Neural adaptation can occur as soon as ingesting the first pill. But this is not necessarily problematic, it is simple science and occurs with many drugs, not just opioids. The claim that you can become addicted to opioids in three days is simply not true, and there is no scientific evidence to support this statement. Physical dependency, which they clearly conflate with addiction, is not even a medical problem at day three, day seven, or day fourteen. It may never even become a problem.

But this question cannot even be properly attended to until the differentiation between addiction and dependency is substantiated in these depictions. Respectfully, how can Strong purport to “redefine our understanding” of something that he himself does not understand?

Strong’s need to distill information is so extreme that Dr. Finnix is funneled into an OxyContin-self-prescribing-and-diverting-monster between the rolling of one set of credits and the opening of a new episode.

Strong’s MSNBC interview is hyperbolically backdropped by a hysterical graphic claiming over 760,000 overdose deaths — a conflated statistic that doesn’t distinguish what drugs caused the deaths. Was it OxyContin? Oxycodone? Hydrocodone? Heroin? Cocaine? Methamphetamine? Poly drug use?

Whether the deaths were due to illicit misuse, diverted pills or legitimate prescriptions is also ignored. We are only told by the reporter conducting the interview that, “OxyContin is the brand most people know.” Indeed. The opioid epidemic has become a cash-cow for misrepresentation.


It is important to note that pseudo-addiction is also mischaracterized in the Hulu series. It is used as a mechanism to accuse Purdue Pharma of encouraging irresponsible over-prescribing, when in fact it attends to patients in a state of severe “uncontrolled” pain. Uncontrolled pain is as devastating as it sounds, especially when we have means to treat it.

Once again, it is a concept that should be considered scientifically and medically, not simply as a harmful concept “invented” by Purdue for profit gains. Uncontrolled pain was not invented by Purdue at all, and has been studied from as early as 1989, before being expanded into the use of opioids for responsible pain management and becoming common amongst pain specialists for over three decades.

“Selling Poison”

Dr. Finnix follows a similar path as the composite “addict” character, Betsy Mallum: from OxyContin use to chronic opioid abuse. He never moves to heroin, but he does buy OxyContin illicitly, while being schooled by a local drug dealer on how to get a faster high by crushing and snorting the pills through a straw.

It’s not long before Finnix’s collapse is total. He has begun to behave uncharacteristically, beating his Purdue sales rep before manhandling him out of his office for “selling poison.”

The axe finally drops in a grizzly scene when Finnix is high during a surgical procedure. Then, while accompanying his now butchered patient to the ER, he complains to the attending doctor of rib-ache and requests OxyContin unabashedly. The doctor offers him a 10mg tablet, but Finnix ups the request to a 20mg pill in a manner that paints him as perhaps the most suspicious doctor-shopping-doctor imaginable.

The onus of representation for the addict group falls mostly on Betsy Mallum (Dever), who, when quizzed in an interview with Entertainment Weekly over the fact/fiction nature of her character replies: “Yes. She’s a fictional character that represents a lot of people.”

Betsy is the first patient that Dr. Finnix turns into an addict. She receives the “First-Bottle” of OxyContin, to borrow Episode 1’s title, and uses the pain medicine to continue to work at the mines despite an excruciating work-related injury.

There are two points of note here: Finnix prescribes OxyContin to her with strict instructions for when to take the pills — one in the morning and one at night — which Betsy does. He also provides the appropriate advice of a rest period from her grueling work in the mines. He offers to go down and talk to management himself in order for the young woman be able to take a break to aid her physical healing. Betsy does not take his advice.

This is because of the important part the socioeconomic environment plays in Betsy’s crucial and unexamined predisposition toward addiction and substance abuse disorder. She knows how the mining industry works and that, in her father’s own account, she is the smallest “but strongest” one down there.

Betsy therefore has the obligation of needing both to retain her work: she’s a small-statured female and knows she is at high-risk for disposability in a shrinking industry, but she must also fulfill a need for validation from her domineering and deeply religious father. A father who would cast her out if she were to reveal her true self: her sexuality as a lesbian involved in a behind-closed-doors relationship with fellow mine worker, Grace.

This moves us on to a pivotal point. Even though Betsy is the recipient of the “first bottle,” she dumps her prescription by Episode 3, “The Fifth Vital Sign,” without tapering of any kind and without informing Dr. Finnix. Subsequently, she descends into a world of illicit diverted pills and eventually heroin. It is the latter drug that takes her life, the night before she is to enter a Suboxone treatment program and after a conversation with Grace, when she finds out that her first love can only be a friend moving forward.

Due to her addiction, Betsy never manages to make “enough money underground” to move to Grace’s Eureka Springs, Arkansas; a real place that Grace describes to Betsy as “Oz for country queers.” Devoid of hope after losing her first love, Betsy informs her flop house drug dealer that she is entering a Suboxone treatment center the following day. “So give me one hell of a sendoff,” she states as her final, fatal words.

The Fifth Vital Sign

To move beyond the episode’s sign-posting, the show depicts the medical community’s adoption of pain as the “Fifth Vital Sign” as a ploy to fuel over-prescribing. At the time the phrase was introduced, pain was vastly under-treated, there was a pressing need to bring attention to the unmet needs of chronic pain sufferers across the nation, and to facilitate dialogue between physicians and their patients to assess their pain levels and explore treatments — with opioids being just one — to increase their quality of life.

Introducing pain as a “vital sign” was an entirely reasonable pathway to take by the medical community. Although it is reasonable to argue that pain is not a vital sign in the way that breathing and heart beats are, it is nevertheless vital to assess pain. But once again, it was not a Purdue “invention” as the show would usher you to believe, it was first discussed by Dr. James Campbell in an address to the American Pain Society in 1995. The term has faced some controversy, but it was well-intentioned.

What Macy failed to do in her mishaps over medical research in her book, which led to Strong’s OxyContin demonization, does not befit an analysis of the overdose death of Betsy Mallum. Per scientific examination, the pivotal 1998 CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study used ten different measures of adverse childhood experiences, drawing the conclusion that that “for each traumatic event that happened to a child, they were two to four times more likely to grow up to be an addicted adult.”

The one we can outline as specific to Betsy is “parental rejection.” This is what she fears the most. When Betsy attempts to come out to her mother by stating that she “likes girls… always have… and not just as friends,” her words fall on deaf ears, with her mother quite literally pretending she didn’t hear the utterance: “Did you say something dear?”

It’s a statement Betsy’s mother later regrets, realizing its impact, but by then it is far too late. Finnix’s pre-OxyContin-addiction fishing trip during which he tries to irk Betsy’s rigid father into the enlightened mindset that being gay is not a sin but just a state of being, also misfires and leads to a demonizing, make-no-mistake style dinner scene.

Unable to live as her true self through fear of rejection and in the throes of withdrawal, Betsy burns the false-self: the one that is content sitting at home and knitting quilts with her in-denial mother.

When the news of her death is revealed, we see the camera focus on a picture of Betsy as a young child. This is also emblematic of denial; but this time not of the fictional Mallum family alone, but also of the filmmakers and Macy, who push for the narrative of the destruction of innocence via the opioid scourge.

Addiction’s Root Causes

The Mallum parents, through the zealot foisting of religion on a girl who “never believed in any of that stuff anyway,” did their daughter a deathly disservice. And they are more culpable for her death than Purdue Pharma or Dr. Finnix.

Betsy had a predisposition for substance abuse disorder, but Finnix did not. Although in Episode 4 we see him in a hallucinated waltz with his deceased wife, he seems content as a widower — although the dance scene does belie his underlying existential pain.

The filmmakers didn’t even throw in any trite backstory or anecdote of Finnix having an alcoholic father or brother — a detail that would barely be substantiating for predisposition per today’s medical rigor over addiction’s root causes. But it would have at least stimulated the viewer into questioning why this character had morphed so horrifically and so expressly.

The young Betsy, on the other hand, has a story of her own and one that would undeniably predispose her to substance abuse. Despite Strong’s claims, one must stick to individual stories to understand addiction, its roots, and the specific drugs that may come to fuel it.

By choosing to fictionalize via character composites, and by picking a “patient” so heavily predisposed to substance abuse disorder due to ACE and environmental factors, Dopesick doesn’t adequately represent the patient side of the doctor-patient relationship at all. The human element that is strong-armed into Finnix and Betsy is loaded for downfall, because that makes for good viewing. One arc is devastating — Betsy’s — and Finnix’s is convoluted, although redemptive in the end.

Covering all bases in this fashion is hyper-unrealistic, difficult to digest, and self-serving on the part of the filmmakers in their need to enthrall their audience.

“We Have Another Pharma Case”

There is another clandestine narrative at work in Dopesick. A prosecutor fights prostate cancer as he tries to bring Purdue to justice. After waking from a surgical procedure to remove the cancer, even while semi-conscious and in extreme post-surgical pain, he is aghast at the insistency of a nurse who tries to “force” OxyContin upon him. Heroically, he refuses and relays the tale back to his boss, who declares he made the “right choice” to fight the pain with the over-the-counter, non-narcotic Motrin.

What makes the parallel between the prosecutor and Finnix so powerful is that both characters moved from bigger towns to small West Virginian areas and both describe this life choice as the “best decision I ever made.”

The difference between the two characters is that good old Dr. Finnix, the responsible and attentive physician, falls prey to addiction almost immediately, while the representative of law enforcement holds strong.

Per the narrative of the “Iron Law of Prohibition” that this show peddles, representatives of the law must be invulnerable. The show pushes this weak theory clearly. After all, who could be more of a “drop out” than a physician, who is the biggest threat? It’s not the Sacklers, if we follow the human element, but prescribers.

This good/bad dichotomy is cemented in the last statement made by the chief prosecutor of his future plans: “We have another pharma case we’re looking into…” Tellingly, the drug company is not named, perhaps because it couldn’t be.

The fight for pharmaceutical anti-opioid justice is a good story and resonates with the public. But as a society, perhaps we should focus on addiction and its role in the human condition. Treating addiction, as opposed to distilling and misleading the public about its causes, might be a better way to slow the continuing rise of drug overdoses in America.


Lynn R. Webster, MD, is Senior Fellow at the Center for U.S. Policy (CUSP) and Chief Medical Officer of PainScript. He also consults with the pharmaceutical industry. Lynn is the author of the award-winning book The Painful Truth, and co-producer of the documentary It Hurts Until You Die.

Hazel Shahgholi is a senior editor and journalist based in New York City. Her most recent roles include Deputy Editor of amNY Metro, Editor in Chief of The Bronx Times, and Production Editor for MedPage Today.


  1. Reader on September 15, 2022 at 12:28 pm

    It’s alarming how the masses accept fictional Hollywood imagining with reality. As an animal lover I used to fight vivisection: the cutting of animals without anesthesia. I never realized that one day it would happen to me!

    I was operated on with surgical knives cutting open my flesh for at least 8-12 inches. Afterwards I was given only several weak Norco for pain relief. My husband had to fly home and I was left to ‘recover’ in a rental in another state. I rolled back and forth in abject AGONY screaming in pain. To this day I don’t know why no one called police as others must have heard me. I was in such agony that I planned my exit. The only reason I didn’t do it was because I love my family and didn’t want them finding me that way! But that agony is burned into my soul.

    These people are OUT OF THEIR MINDS WITH ANTI-OPIOID ZEAL! I belong to a forum and told about how difficult it is to have pain treated. A doctor on the forum, obviously a social justice warrior responded to my post, bragging that he had gotten his patients off opioids. I have CRPS and wonder what that nincompoop would say to me? Suck it up??? Exercise??? Meditate??? Reset your pain receptors??? I don’t know what he said because I never answered him I was so angry. But I have tried all those things…and more! THEY DON’T WORK! IF I HADN’T FOUND A GOOD PAIN SPECIALIST WHO LOOKED AT MY RECORDS AND PRESCRIBED MORPHINE I WOULD HAVE TAKEN MY OWN LIFE. It’s sheer hell facing long days of suffering knowing that you rely on the compassion – or lack of it – of another.

    No one likes Hollywood anymore anyway – except for the brainwashed. Much evil has been birthed in Hollyweird and I believe that God will judge it, and those doctors going along with this evil.

  2. NANCY ROBINSON on September 15, 2022 at 1:05 pm

    Thank you so much Dr. Webster, for writing this. I have not seen the series, but deal with many of the issues that chronic pain sufferers deal with daily. I am extremely lucky that my physician was brave enough to give me Oxycodone 5mg with 325mg of acetaminophen per tablet. I take two tablets, 4 times per day as needed. I have been taking them for years, and despite having to increase the amount once during my many years of pain, I am only as “addicted” to them as I would be to any drug that relieves my pain. Without this pain relief, I know I would have pulled the plug years ago. My doctor trusts me to NOT do that, an so she prescribed a lower amount at first, and slowly increased them, so that I am not pain free, but it is barely manageable. I do not get high from this medication. It simply reduces the pain. I tolerate it very well, and despise the things that ignorant people say about using oxycodone. I am housebound now, and still trying to better my pain, by moving from Canada to Panama, in Central America, where it is warm year round, and living near the Equator is supposed to be helpful for people with my issues. I am praying that it will help me, but my biggest hope is that I can get off of several medications that I take, including the oxycontin, slowly but surely. Thank you for fighting to educate people who are brainwashed by the media, and the CDC/Government, and think you must be an addict, to simply take oxycodone as prescribed. I hope that Universe will bless you with a wider and wider audience, to help those of us in real, and chronic, pain.

  3. Suzi on September 15, 2022 at 3:45 pm

    Great article Lynn. So much insight. Thanks.

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