Louis Theroux: Dark States – Heroin Town: a tragic insight into America’s opiate epidemic

Posted on 11 October 2017
By Amy Farnworth
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In Huntington, West Virginia, the drug epidemic is bleak.

For a city that used to thrive on industry, where commerce flourished and local resources were used in abundance; with railroads connecting it to other major Tri-State cities and housing the busiest inland port in the US, it now produces some of the saddest tales of the fallout from the controversial abuse of over prescribed prescription drugs. And it doesn’t look like much is going to change.

In his new documentary series, Louis Theroux: Dark States, the award winning, softly spoken, awkward Englishman, gets under the skin of some of America’s seediest problems, from sex trafficking to heroin addiction.

In this first episode, Heroin Town, aired on Sunday night, Theroux visits Huntington, West Virginia, to take a look at the rising problems surrounding the misuse of prescribed painkillers, heroin, and opiate use in this forgotten town.

In recent years, doctors all over the United States have been all too quick in their willingness to prescribe drugs to patients. This comes from heavy influence and pressure from giant pharmaceutical companies who were and still are keen to market their products as if they were sweets.

These so called prescription drugs have been and still are being used and abused in high quantities which in turn lead to a reliance upon and further addiction to strong painkillers and opiates. In 2011, the US Government made a conscious effort to stop the sordid abuse of prescription drugs, meaning a crackdown on doctors being able issue prescriptions willy-nilly like they had before.

The resulting fallout? Too many people, already addicted to painkillers, faced with the withdrawal of their prescriptions, had nowhere to turn, so, in order to numb the pain and replicate the hit they once felt they turn to cheaper, illegal drugs; namely opiates and heroin.
With graphic imagery from the start – within the first 15 minutes viewers are treated to images of a young lady called Katillia shooting up; as well as a narrative in which members of the local fire service attend to an addict who has overdosed in the middle of the street – Theroux leaves no stones unturned and draws the viewers in by getting up close and personal with addicts from all across the community.

There’s Nate, who lives in a tent by the river, content in his own opiate-loving demise, not willing to help himself or even attempt to get clean; he doesn’t feel the need to go to rehab and despite having a 12 year old son whom he never sees (because of his habit), he’s comfortably happy with his choices; every hit of heroin making his tragic life decisions seem more and more acceptable.

Then we have Alisha, a pregnant addict who has given up the drugs for the sake of her baby. In what is possibly the most heart-wrenching story in this episode, we see Louis following her throughout the final stages of her pregnancy up until the birth; and subsequently we are shown how Alisha’s newborn is unable to go home with her due to the fact he needs to be fed and then weaned off methadone; a tactic used when the child has suffered due to the misuse of drugs by the parent throughout the early stages of pregnancy.

Louis also invites the viewer into the relationship between young Katillia and her abusive boyfriend, who, upon further inspection seems to act as a kind of pimp for girl; supplying her with ‘quality heroin’ for a cleaner hit. Louis discovers that Katilla has the potential to live a decent life but the consumption of her addiction and the reliance on her boyfriend has left her trapped in a vicious, drug-addled circle.

Theroux’s interactive and somewhat empathetic documentary style continues to thrive in this first instalment of Dark States. His humble ability to gauge a feel for his subjects, extract information from them without making them feel uncomfortable and his relaxed – if not a little awkward – interviewing techniques cement him as one of the best documentary makers of this generation.

He is a master of his craft – where others struggle to gain a true insight into the ins and outs of situations like these, Louis seems to achieve it with ease – when Louis asks, people tell; it’s as if he opens the floodgates when no one else can, managing to paint a startlingly stark portrait of a very serious issue, highlighting a problematic epidemic; and he does so without drama, without climatic music, without jerky camera movements and without the need for mass interrogation or subterfuge
Heroin Town takes viewers on a shocking journey into how hard drugs can easily take hold, even in the most surprising cases; destroying the lives of young people. In essence, it’s a very sad look at the forgotten addicts of the USA, and despite providing a satisfactory wealth of statistics on the drug epidemic, Theroux perhaps misses out on one major contributing factor, and something that could easily be explored in further documentaries – that of the role of the major pharmaceuticals and whether they can and should be held accountable for a crisis in dire need of intervention.  

Quoting the man himself, Theroux says: “The ravages of heroin are apparent on a daily basis – riding on the back of the over-prescription of painkillers heroin has ripped the heart out of Huntington destroying lives indiscriminately. Like a contagion, it’s left almost no-one’s lives untouched.”