'The Trade ' takes viewers into the realities of the opioid epidemic.
Original Source: decider.com
America has had several drug crises over the years, almost all of which have felt insurmountable. That’s certainly true of America’s cocaine and crack epidemics of the ’80s and ’90s, which caused wide-spread nation-altering problems that are still being explored in film and television to this day. The drug problem of the modern day, the U.S.’s opioid epidemic, currently holds the same sense of complicated horror of this past life-destroying predecessors. However, instead of waiting until this national crisis is solved to determine what caused this far-reaching problem and how it has effected both everyday Americans and the country as a whole, Showtime is attempting to address these questions in as close to real time as possible. The Trade is an in-the-moment, emotional, and people-driven exploration into how the opioid epidemic is tearing America apart.
Directed by Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land), the project was originally executive produced by Morgan Spurlock. However, after Spurlock admitted to sexually harassing female employees, Showtime ended its relationship with the documentary filmmaker. It’s for the best as The Trade is unmistakably a Heineman project. Much like Cartel Land, there is both an intimacy and knowing distance to The Trade. The docu-series is unafraid to show the brutal and heart-wrenching moments connected to addiction. At one point, a mother is investigated for drug use and potentially selling opioids. As law enforcement officers explore her home, they determine this environment isn’t safe for her many children. The Trade shows viewers a lot of what the officers see — the dirty, bug infested mattresses, the rooms that look as if they contain human excrement — but the series also shows the sadder side of this difficult process. As these children are torn from their mother by Child Protective Services, it’s easy to understand why this is happening, but that doesn’t make the moment any less difficult. And that doesn’t make the gruff demeanor of the officer in this moment and more necessary.
The docu-series swings from these small, personal moments to larger, overarching ideas. In the docu-series’ first episode, there’s an interrogation with a drug dealer that shows an officer trying desperately to learn the name of a major dealer. He’s only relatively successful in this moment, but this idea — that these criminals getting arrested are only a small part of a larger puzzle North America has yet to solve — resonates throughout the series. Heineman also does a good job of giving a voice to workers partially responsible for the influx of opioids, a small group of farmers in Guerrero, Mexico who harvest poppy resin. It’s through this three-pronged format that gives equal attention to the famers, the addicts, and the officers that The Tradewordlessly shows how this system of drug abuse came to be. However, as great as the series is at capturing the complicated morals and politics surrounding this drug-based battle, the series also seems to overlook a huge detail. The role of pharmaceutical companies is almost completely missing from this narrative.
The main focus of The Trade is how Mexican cartels and criminals have played a part in creating America’s current opioid epidemic, a narrative that focuses on the rise of heroin addiction but excludes addictions to legal pain medications. That story is clearly important and back alley drug sales certainly happen, but many Americans have developed their addictions because pharmaceutical companies have made opioids so ridiculously cheap. Writer Amy Glynn highlighted this oversight in her criticism of The Trade for Paste, and other recent documentaries about the opioid epidemic, including HBO‘s Warning: This Drug May Kill Youand Netflix‘s superb Heroin(e) have addressed this aspect of the opioid epidemic in greater detail. I understand that Heineman is a filmmaker who has historically excelled at making documentaries about cartel life and that these organizations play a significant role in the current opioid epidemic. I also understand that the specific narrative The Trade is exploring has never been covered to this extent before. But as remarkable and genuinely shocking as this docu-series is, its failure to address on the connection between pharmaceutical companies and this epidemic feels a bit like an oversight, especially for a docu-series that’s so carefully constructed to tell every side of the story.
However, that doesn’t mean The Trade is a docu-series that should be missed. The stories the series does show are skillfully constructed, switching between intersecting narratives confidently and without overarching narration. The docu-series presents the facts as Showtime and Heineman’s team have gathered them and asks viewers to draw their own conclusions. There is a lot of merit in this approach, especially for a subject as consistently complicated and overwhelming as America’s opioid epidemic, and The Trade does a lot to give context to this drug war while humanizing the people involved in it. From a shallower perspective, it’s also a visually compelling docu-series, valuing a gorgeous minimalistic approach above everything else. However, The Trade is a docu-series that seems to be missing one key part. As great as every other element of this documentary is, that’ can be at times difficult to overlook.
The Trade premiered Friday, February 2 on Showtime.