There’s more to the opioid epidemic than Mare of Easttown shows

Photograph by Michele K. Short/HBO

The HBO limited series’ depiction of the opioid crisis is thin, but it’s not wrong. Its major blindspot? The fact that addicts are worthy of redemption.

People who use drugs are not a monolith. Yet, particularly when representing those in the midst of a heavy addiction, media often relies upon narrow tropes. It shows them as liars, as thieves, as people willing to hurt – even physically – those they love the most. Mare of Easttown, an HBO limited series that aired on Sky Atlantic in the UK and ended on 30th May, is no exception. What’s most challenging to confront are the situations in which these representations are true, and the reality that recovery, redemption and forgiveness ought to be part of these representations just the same. In Mare of Easttown, it’s this latter reality of the opioid crisis that’s missing.

My father and sister are both in recovery from heroin addictions. The pride I have for them is overwhelming. They’ve accomplished something bigger than I ever will. I don’t need to speak at length about what good people they are, the kindness and humility they show to others. But these things are true. I also don’t need to speak at length about the ways they’ve hurt me, the periods of neglect, dishonesty, and trauma their actions inflicted upon me as a child. These things are true, too.

Mare of Easttown relies heavily upon this latter component of addiction. Early in its first episode, we’re introduced to Freddie Hanlon, a heroin addict who has just stolen from his sister. We later see Freddie rob someone again and then he’s found dead with a needle in his arm.

Freddie’s entire arc serves seemingly to show that Mare is a cop with some sense of sympathy, to demonstrate the challenges other members of the community face and, awkwardly, to later give the daughter of the woman he robbed a place to live. But Freddie wasn’t necessary in depicting and advancing any of these plot points. More significantly, he appears largely to demonstrate that drug users can do bad things. Then they die.

The show already makes the case that drug users do bad things and die with Mare’s son, Kevin. In a flashback scene, we see him and his girlfriend torment Mare, stealing money from her purse, shoving her and screaming in her face about what a fucking bitch she is and how much they hate her for, ostensibly, attempting to prevent them from buying more heroin. Kevin later takes his own life. His girlfriend pursues sobriety and, in a turn that is all too convenient, relapses.

The only real sense of redemption for any of Mare of Easttowns drug-using characters is given to Katie Bailey, who is able to begin her life anew, supported by members of her community who gift her Freddy’s former home. The cost of her redemption, of course, is that she spent a year locked in a man’s attic enduring unspeakable violence.

This is the trade the show presents: in order for a drug user to be worthy of renewal, they must experience horror. Notably, Freddie’s death functions as part of Katie’s trade, as well.

Considering that the US Department of Health estimates that 10.1 million people aged 12 and over in the United States abused opioids in some form in 2019, whether the characterisation of drug use in Mare of Easttown accurately represents some pool of people seems plausible. Many people who use drugs have indeed robbed their families, emotionally abused them, or otherwise participated in the types of unethical behaviour the show would have them do. Many of these people do indeed die, too – 136 per day.

But what the numbers can never fully capture is the process of healing and recovery among those working to not be one of the 136. This is what I wish the show would have featured. Some drug addicts do bad things. Some don’t. Both are worthy of their own redemption, however they define it.

At the end of the series, we hear Deacon Mark deliver a sermon about forgiveness, about loving others without debating whether they deserve it. It’s imperative that Mare of Easttown does not fully extend to its drug-using characters. The point isn’t whether the show’s scenes depicting drug addiction were accurate. For many families, including my own, many of the scenes depicted an honest experience. For countless others, these scenes do not reflect their reality at all. In either case, these stories deserve more hope and optimism than Mare of Easttown was willing to give.

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