Drugs on the Small Screen

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by guest contributor Michael Brownrigg. Enjoy!

It is often said that we are in the midst of a new golden age of television. A remarkable abundance of compelling stories and indelible characters on the small screen has captivated American audiences, fostering new trends in how and where we consume visual media. It seems that everything these days is must-see TV. The small screen’s renaissance has occurred in the wake of cinema’s so-called “death,” in which quality and experimental content has largely yielded to commercial imperatives, consequently impoverishing the cinematic experience once considered transcendent.

Yet while the surfeit of quality television is striking, so too is the prevalence of representations of drug use available for our viewing pleasure. Indeed, drugs of all kinds, licit and illicit, are more than mere props in recent popular programs, but dynamic characters with the capacity to propel and shift plotlines and enrich visual narratives. Below I briefly examine the integral role of drugs in two critically-acclaimed television programs: Mr. Robot and Fear the Walking Dead. Although significantly different in subject matter, each show depicts American society on the cusp of historic change and situates the addict at the center of stories of structural transformation (or disintegration). While this small sampling only begins to reveal the prominent place of drugs in our visual culture, I hope to draw attention to contemporary assumptions about drug addiction embedded in the imagery that reach millions of Americans on numerous platforms.

Mr. Robot (2015) immediately garnered widespread praise for its slick aesthetics and meticulous attention to detail when portraying the culture of cyberhacking in the twenty-first century, introducing viewers to the arcana of coding, encryption, data dumps, terabyte flows, and so on that characterize our digital world. This shadowy subculture is embodied by Elliot (Remi Malek), a computer engineer at a cybersecurity firm in New York City who suffers from extreme social anxiety and spends his free time as a vigilante hacker. In a voiceover we are told by Elliot that he created us, the viewer, as a kind of confidant with whom he can share the feelings of loneliness and alienation he experiences in a society ruled by corporations and the vapid consumerism that drains life of meaning, turning individuals into sedated, “obedient zombies” whose choices are “prepaid” for them. We slowly discover the overwhelming emptiness that compels him to hack the online lives of others to find some form of intimacy or connection.

But hacking does not provide the only form of solace in Elliot’s desolate life. “What do normal people do when they get this sad,” he wonders while sobbing alone in his dreary apartment. “I do morphine.” It quickly becomes clear that Elliot maintains an intimate relationship with morphine, ritualistically snorting 30 milligrams a day to numb his pain and anger. The drug is an essential feature of his “maze” or “bubble,” the personal space he has carved out to escape the vacuity of everyday life in neoliberal society. “It needs me,” he laconically explains while gazing admiringly at lines of white powder, “just as much as I need it.” We also get a quick lesson in chemistry. To counteract the effects of withdrawal Elliot supplements his morphine habit with suboxone. Yet obtaining it is surprisingly difficult and necessitates associating with an intricate network of drug traffickers, a development with fateful consequences that explodes his neatly constructed maze as well as the show’s narrative arc.

Remi Malek as Elliot experiencing withdrawal in "Mr. Robot"
Remi Malek as Elliot experiencing withdrawal in “Mr. Robot”

Elliot eventually elects to abruptly abandon drugs altogether in order to orchestrate a social revolution by spearheading a massive cyberattack on a global conglomerate that controls the majority of consumer debt. The mission is time sensitive, however, and he must race to take down the corporation’s servers before the opportunity evaporates or his body fails and plunges into withdrawal. The absence of narcotics in Elliot’s system, just as much as their presence, turns out to have profound implications, generating a deep exploration of his psyche that engenders revelations with new narrative possibilities. Indeed, his withdrawal from morphine triggers a visually and conceptually stunning dream sequence that launches the story on a new trajectory. Lauded by critics for his performance as an addict in the throes of withdrawal, Rami Malek’s contorted and writhing body is a jarring representation of addiction. Will Elliot overcome his dependency on morphine in time to achieve his world-historic revolution in wealth redistribution? Everything, it seems, in some way hinges on drugs and the effect they will have on the body and mind of Elliot the revolutionary.

Whereas Elliot sought to tear down the oppressive structures of capitalist society, in Fear the Walking Dead (2015) social and cultural institutions are rapidly collapsing. Perhaps presaging the violence and decay that accompanied the spread of a mysterious virus that produced the zombie apocalypse, the show opens in a dilapidated church on “needle alley.” Nick, a young heroin addict played by Frank Dillane, awakes from his most recent drug reverie in this desacralized space of “junkie communion” to find his friend feasting on the body of another user. Was this a hallucination? Evidence of insanity? His family and the local authorities, and even Nick himself to a certain extent, prefer to think so as he describes the nightmarish scene he witnessed while recuperating in a hospital. After all, a drug addict, especially one “blacklisted” at nearly every rehabilitation center in California, is not considered to be the most reliable source of information. “You saw what the drugs saw,” he is peremptorily told.

Frank Dillane, as Nick in "Fear the Walking Dead," escapes from the hospital
Frank Dillane, as Nick in “Fear the Walking Dead,” escapes from the hospital

After a brief stint on the run trying to find more drugs following his escape from the hospital, Nick returns home just before the world disintegrates into chaos. One very fascinating question soon arises: what happens to a drug addict during the zombie apocalypse? Like Elliot, Nick experiences the excruciating pain of withdrawal, compelling his mother to scavenge for opioids to wean her son off heroin. The ill-conceived drug run leads to terrifying encounters with the walking dead, finally removing any doubt in her mind regarding the veracity of Nick’s assertions. Safely maintained on the narcotics procured by his mother (and whatever else he could find in the abandoned homes of neighbors), Nick provides perhaps the most memorable scene of the show as he serenely floats in a pool while in a state of oblivion, blissfully unconcerned that society is crashing down around him.

And why should he care about the turmoil enveloping him? After all, Nick led a life of constant adaptation and improvisation while existing on the fringes of society. The creators of the show wanted to make this point clear by having Nick wear the same baggy outfit during the entire season, clothing that he stole from an elderly patient when exiting the hospital. This theme is emphasized again after Nick is placed in a kind of makeshift quarantine for individuals seen as liabilities by the National Guard. His cellmate, a savvy businessman named Strand with a knack for reading people, recognizes Nick’s value in a world in which “the game has changed” and the old rules of civilization no longer apply. Strand is particularly intrigued by Nick’s ability to negotiate and survive in the underworld of heroin abuse, what he considers the “gold standard” of addiction. Nick and Strand certainly make an odd couple. But the awkward pairing is crucial to the flow of the narrative, leading Nick’s family to seek refuge in Strand’s beachside home. Paradoxically, in this upside-down world the drug addict is represented not as a liability but as an asset. “I never knew where I was going,” Nick explains to his bewildered and fearful mother. “It’s like I’ve been living this for a long time [the apocalypse]. And now everyone is catching up with me.”

A remarkable perspective of addiction indeed.