‘The Trade’ is a harrowing but incomplete look at the opioid crisis

Sunday, February 4, 2018 - 6:05pm




About halfway through the first episode of “The Trade” — a new five-part docuseries on the opioid epidemic from Showtime — we meet Jen Walton, whose sons, Skyler and Avery, are addicted to heroin. “Skyler would walk over my dead body to get his drug,” she says, almost matter-of-factly.

It’s a moment of weary resignation, and “The Trade” is full of those. There’s Don Miguel, the boss of an opium poppy field in southwestern Mexico, confessing that he knows heroin is a harmful drug, but it’s the only way to make a living. And Detective Mark Edwards in Columbus, Ohio, busting small-time dealers and beginning to realize that nothing is changing.

“The Trade” is an unvarnished, character-driven examination of the opioid epidemic told through the lives of those it touches, and director and producer Matthew Heineman (“City of Ghosts”) — whose previous documentary subjects include violent drug cartels and Syrian citizen journalists — isn’t one to shy away from difficult themes or complicated people.

Heineman is given unbelievable access to his subjects: law enforcement officials, heroin users and growers. The result is intensely cinematic, and at times, when we’re frighteningly close to someone shooting up heroin or stirring vats of chemicals, it can be easy to forget that this is all unscripted. That’s also a testament to just how visually arresting “The Trade” is. Everything is beautifully filmed, from the intimate, claustrophobic scenes in dingy motel bathrooms, to the panoramic wide shots of hillside poppy fields.

Its sheer vérité frequently makes “The Trade” difficult to watch. With the access also comes the unsettling feeling that we might be intruding on or gawking at people in their most vulnerable moments. In one scene, a mother is arrested for dealing heroin, and her four young daughters panic as they’re taken away by Children’s Protective Services. In another, a man wails upon seeing a loved one become a casualty of cartel wars, lying dead and decapitated in the street. It’s disturbing and unnerving, but that’s presumably the point; the no-holds-barred approach captures the uncompromising, inescapable wreckage of this crisis.

The biggest problem with “The Trade,” however, might actually be that it doesn’t go far enough. By focusing only on heroin use — and making no mention of the pharmaceutical industry, the medical profession or the regulatory easing that drives heroin demand and created the opioid epidemic in the first place — the series provides a somewhat shallow understanding of the situation.

Would the day-to-day operations of Purdue Pharma or Capitol Hill make for gripping television? No, probably not. But glossing over their role in all of this seems irresponsible at best and deceptive at worst. And without any sort of institutional critique or directorial point of view, “The Trade” feels myopic and devoid of vision, not sure of what it’s trying to be or what it wants to say.

Here, “The Trade” might learn some lessons from good old-fashioned print journalism — particularly local reporting, which has produced terrific coverage of the opioid epidemic that’s personal and sympathetic, but doesn’t neglect to place its subjects in a broader critical narrative.

“The Trade” is a tragic and stunning exploration of an issue that desperately needs to be explored, but it doesn’t quite reach its potential. It’s a shame Heineman has squandered his access by forgetting the substance. A crisis of this magnitude demands a bit more.