Complicating things is the fact that The Pharmacist is really two stories in one. The first is one of devastating familial tragedy: In 1999, Schneider’s son Danny was killed while reportedly trying to buy crack cocaine in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. Finding the police uninterested, Schneider decided to hunt down his son’s killer himself, stalking the neighborhood, bombarding strangers with phone calls, and finally badgering a woman to testify even though doing so forced her into witness protection. Along the way, he recorded everything. Truly, everything. The series is stuffed with archival elements: camcorder footage of Danny as a child, phone calls Schneider made to the New Orleans Police Department, even a tape of Schneider and his wife sobbing together after Danny’s death. (Listening to the latter feels uncomfortably like eavesdropping on the most excruciating moments of someone’s life.)
If Danny’s death were the sole focus of The Pharmacist, there might be more time to unpack some of the story’s snarls and the subtext of what happened to him: the roots of his addiction, the context of the crack epidemic amid urban white flight, even the motives of his killer. (Remarkably, even though the directors interview the dealer who shot Danny, they don’t seem compelled to ask why he did it, leaving the Schneider family’s search for closure unresolved.) But the loss of a child apparently isn’t uncommon enough to sustain a four-part series, and so The Pharmacist quickly turns to what happened next. Schneider, after taking time to grieve, returned to working part-time at a pharmacy in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. There, he began to notice clusters of young, seemingly healthy people filling prescriptions for high doses of OxyContin. This was in 2000, only a few years after Purdue Pharma had launched the drug amid fanfare as a seemingly revolutionary treatment for chronic pain. The Pharmacist’s directors, Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason (Fyre Fraud), include snippets of marketing material from the time, in which serene, glowing middle-aged Americans evangelize all the ways in which opioids have changed their life.
The series is at its most useful and revelatory in moments like these. The story of how the opioid epidemic began isn’t new, but The Pharmacist strikingly lays it out through the lens of one community, and how a crisis was enabled by different layers of human greed. The most resonant element the directors draw out is how the business of selling drugs is identical regardless of who’s doing it, even if the legal protection they enjoy is different. At the top of the pyramid are Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies. Purdue, in particular, is indicted in truly damning fashion by one of its former sales representatives, Chris Davis, who reveals that for all its talk of “appropriate usage,” the company knew that the kind of explosive sales growth it craved could only come from overconsumption. Lower down are sales representatives like Davis, chasing six-figure bonuses by courting “the right doctors.” Below him are those unscrupulous physicians, who dole out scrips for cash and reap the financial rewards. Then come the pharmacists, some swayed enough by the prospect of a $100 profit on a bottle of Oxy not to try to intervene. At the bottom are the unauthorized dealers, the only ones who ever seem to face consequences.