Documentary 'The Trade' Takes Harrowing Look at Opioid Crisis

By Paul Gaita 02/05/18

The new five-part Showtime series explores the impact of the opioid crisis from a wide range of perspectives.

screenshot the trade
Still image from 'The Trade' Photo via YouTube

Showtime is airing a new five-part series, The Trade, which takes a far-ranging look at the impact of the opioid crisis in the United States and abroad.

Directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Matthew Heineman—who previously tackled the subject in the Emmy-winning Cartel Land, which examined the fight against the drug trade along the U.S.-Mexico border—here, the scope is both global and intimate, with subjects ranging from a cartel chief in Mexico to a family in Atlanta coping with two sons' dependency issues.

The impact of the images and interviews can be potent and even painful to watch, but as Atlanta resident Jennifer Walton, whose son's struggle is featured in The Trade, told the Guardian, "It needs to make you uncomfortable. You need to discuss this. I think anonymity keeps people sick."

For Heineman, the panoramic approach allows audiences to see what he told Variety was "these different characters in the trade, all of whom are sort of stuck in the different cycle of addiction, in different ways and different forms."

That cycle is invariably highlighted by a sense of entrapment and futility for all of the players: for cartel boss Don Miguel, the relentless demand for heroin in the United States leads to competition from other drug lords, which often takes the form of extreme violence; for Walton's son Skylar, it's the dismal familiarity of using IV drugs in yet another dead-end hotel room; while for others, the reality is more visceral and painful, with families ripped apart due to dependency and dealing.

As Heineman noted, "Everyone is trying to break free of the shackles of this drug, but unfortunately, it has become an epidemic." Or as Brittany, one of the series' subjects, succinctly puts it, "I'm depressed because I used dope, so I continue to use dope. If that's not insanity, I don't know what is."

Early reviews of The Trade have been largely positive, though some have noted that the U.S. healthcare industry, drug manufacturers and the effect of the "War on Drugs" are conspicuously absent from the discussion.

Executive producer Pagan Danielle Harleman addressed those aspects in an interview with the Guardian. "The aspect of how people were making billions of dollars off of this is shocking, but it was more of an investigative fact," she said. "It's something that we couldn't do so well in our show. It comes up in different areas, but we didn't have a chance to delve into it in depth."

For Harleman and her fellow filmmakers, the human impact of the drug trade is the film's primary focus. "We really want to show people the personal costs of a lot of this," she noted. "[And we want to] raise the more challenging questions that we feel need to be asked about the opioid epidemic and the drug trade as a whole."

The Trade debuted on February 2 and airs on Fridays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Showtime.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.