And the Emmy Award for Best Drug Use Goes To…

By Keri Blakinger 09/18/16

Here’s a look at the role addiction and drug use played in just a handful of the series up for Emmys this year. 

And the Emmy Award for Best Drug Use Goes To…
Addiction on the small screen is as compelling as it is prevalent. Photo via USA

Once again, drugs are a big thing on the small screen. As in years past, drug use and dealing is on full display in a number of the shows up for awards at this year’s Emmys. Here’s a look at the role addiction and drug use play in just a handful of the series up for Emmys this weekend.



via AMC

Better Call Saul

The Breaking Bad spin-off follows the titular small-time lawyer played by Bob Odenkirk. It’s essentially an origins story, going back six years before the start of the more popular meth-centric series to witness the transition of struggling public defender Jimmy McGill into sleazy Saul Goodman.

Although Better Call Saul is set well before Odenkirk’s character is the big-time drug-defender he’ll become, illicit substances still make plenty of appearances in the AMC series. They aren’t always a focal point, but they’re certainly there.

It’s not just meth, though. One of the pivotal scenes in season one is when ex-cop Mike decides to return to a life of crime as the muscle for a drug deal between Pryce and Nacho. As iDigitalTimes pointed out, the illicit pill-peddling pact involves not the uppers of Breaking Bad but 80 mg oxycodone.

Just as it did in the original series, though, cartel violence and drug trafficking play a role in the show—even if Heisenberg isn’t around to make the most of it yet. 

This year, the show and its actors are up for a number of awards, including Odenkirk for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama. The show is also up for Outstanding Drama Series as well as a pair of editing nominations and nods for supporting actor, sound mixing and special effects.


via Good Housekeeping/Netflix

Orange is the New Black

The Netflix prison dramedy hasn’t taken center stage at this Emmys, as it has in years past. In previous seasons, the show has been up for multiple nominations, but this year it’s just under consideration for Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series. 

Based on the real-life memoir of upper-class ex-con Piper Kerman, the premise of OITNB has the main character behind bars because of her involvement in an international drug trafficking ring. But drugs aren’t just the impetus for the plot, they’re also a recurring source of drama and chaos throughout the four seasons. 

In season two, Vee (Lorraine Toussaint) was the big bad wolf of the season when she ran her heroin-smuggling ring in the most ruthless manner the show had seen to date. Two seasons later, ruthless is the new norm and Litchfield is still drenched in drugs. 

In season four, Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) spends a good portion of the season relapsing and at one point—unexpectedly—Piper and Alex decide to throw caution to the wind and smoke crack with her in a cornfield.

The portrayals of the effects of drug use sometimes seem a little off, but the overall portrayal of the damage of the drug war is unmistakably on point.


via Variety/USA

Mr. Robot

Launched in 2015, the USA Network series follows security engineer Elliot Alderson, a young New Yorker with mental health issues who’s recruited by the shadowy titular anarchist to join his crack team of hacktivists. 

With a man suffering paranoid delusions as the narrator, the show offers interesting portrayals of psychiatric problems, an element of the program The Fix’s Desiree Bowie compared to Fight Club, the 1990s cult classic film based on the topsy-turvy Chuck Palahniuk book of the same name. 

Aside from his obvious mental health issues, the hoodie-wearing cyber-geek has some drug problems. He alternates between using morphine and Suboxone, and sometimes throws some ecstasy in the mix for the fun of it.

Rami Malek (Elliot) is up for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama, while the show is up for Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series as well as a trio of sound, writing, and music awards.


via TV Guide/FX

American Horror Story: Hotel

Like every other season of the bizarre horror series, season five’s hotel horror is incredibly deranged and creepy. Unlike some of the other seasons, it features quite a few characters with obvious addiction issues. 

Most notably, there’s a creature actually called the Addiction Demon. It has no mouth or eyes and looks like human-shaped congealed slime. In the first episode, it rapes heroin addict Gabriel with a metal cone dildo in an incredibly disturbing and graphic scene.

Sarah Paulson, who’s been in every season of the show, plays a character named Hypodermic Sally. The former songwriter-drug dealer is a ghost for most of the show and a manipulative villain for all of the show. Her backstory is crazy, even by American Horror Story standards. Viewers eventually learn that she first came to the titular hotel in 1993 to work on writing a song while having a drug-induced three-way and, then, to feel close to her buds she decided to sew herself to them. Because who doesn’t like to cement a good relationship with a needle and thread? 

Unfortunately, Sally’s sewing spree didn’t end happily, as both of her companions died, while she was still attached to them. Then the Addiction Demon decided to torture her for a few days until she ripped the stitches out. 

The show is littered with other drug users—and it’s also sporting a litter of award show noms, including production design, costumes, hairstyling, sound editing, makeup, prosthetic makeup, and two supporting actress nominations. 



Downton Abbey

When the British historical drama series first aired stateside, it was an almost immediate hit. Though it’s set in the 1910s and 1920s, there’s still some drug use—sort of. 

The absolutely insufferable Thomas Barrow spends part of season five trying to cure his homosexuality, which results in one of the more unexpected instances of drug use on this list. Granted, we don’t know what exactly the drug is. 

Though show creator Julian Fellowes confirmed the purpose of the druggy behavior—a quack’s supposed solution to gayness—he didn’t clarify what substance the butler used. Whatever it was, though, it failed to “cure” him and just made him really sick instead. 

The show is up for Outstanding Drama Series, along with nine other nominations. Whatever it wins will just stack more in the award cabinet for the Progressive Era drama. So far, over the course of its six seasons, the series has already racked up 12 Emmys. Sadly, this year will be the last—showrunners announced last year that the sixth season would be the finale. 


via Huffington Post/Amazon Studios


The Amazon series starring Jeffrey Tambor focuses on the journey of a transgender parent. Maura, played by Tambor, struggles with how to come out about her gender identity to her children.

The show deals with sticky issues like sex, gender and drugs. In the third episode of season one, for example, one of Maura’s children decides to take a little ecstasy trip.

“What’s absolutely perfect about that Transparent episode is how correctly it gets the ecstasy experience … No, it’s not a drug that’s going to ruin your life by taking it,” wrote Drew Grant in the New York Observer. “No, you probably won’t get addicted. Yes, embarrassment and dehydration are the worst side effects you’ll probably experience.”

The show is up for a slew of awards, including Outstanding Comedy Series and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series.


via The Fiscal Times/Netflix

House of Cards

The political drama series starring Kevin Spacey debuted on Netflix in 2013, but before that it was a BBC series which, like its later streaming remake, was based on a book. Not surprisingly, in the high-stakes world of Washington politics, there’s at least a couple of hardcore drinkers and druggers.

In season one, Peter Russo—played by Corey Stoll—is a booze and blow addict who relapses when he falls victim to the political machinations of the show’s lead character, Frank Underwood. 

At one point, the evil Southern Democrat at the center of the show sets up Rep. Russo with an AA sponsor, Doug Stamper—who turns out to be about the worst sponsor ever. Ultimately, Russo ends up tumbling off the wagon before Underwood offs him. 

Stamper gets his a few seasons later when he falls off the wagon, too.

This year, the show is up for lead actor and actress awards as well as Outstanding Drama Series, a smattering of guest actor and actress awards, casting, cinematography, and more.


via Monsters & Critics/Showtime

Ray Donovan

The crime drama starring Liev Schreiber is populated with a colorful cast featuring a smattering of characters struggling with addiction issues. The plot follows the Schreiber’s titular character, who’s a problem fixer for Hollywood’s finest—a Boston boy bringing muscle to sunny California. 

As we learn about the daily grind of Ray’s cleanup gig, we also meet his dysfunctional family, including his former boxer brother Terry, his ex-con dad Mickey and his younger brother Bunchy.

Although Bunchy identifies as an alcoholic, and there’s quite a lot of drinking going on in the show, hard drugs make various random appearances as well. There’s crazy plans involving heroin-filled snakes in season one; LSD-based blackmail in season two; and Marisol’s messy drug drama in season four. Between it all, there’s plenty of drinking and drugging to go around. 

This year the show is up for five awards, including Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama for Schreiber’s take on Ray himself.

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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