Shannon Schaeffer Never Gets Real Closure In ‘Painkiller’ (2024)

Netflix's Painkiller is topping the streamer's charts right now, and for good reason: The six-episode series tells the chilling story of the early opioid crisis in the United States, and the lives it has destroyed along the way.

The series stars Matthew Broderick as Richard Sackler, the real businessman behind Purdue Pharma. The company became wildly successful for peddling the drug OxyContin, which was widely blamed for the ongoing opioid addiction crisis across the country.

The series is a somewhat true retelling of events, based on the book Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic by Barry Meier, and the New Yorker profile of the Sackler family, "The Family That Built An Empire of Pain," according to Netflix.

While some of the characters and details are fictionalized, each person featured in Painkiller is based on very real events and people. Each episode opens with the disclaimer: "This program is based on real events. However, certain characters, names, incidents, locations, and dialogue have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes."

Among those fictionalized characters, is Shannon Schaeffer, the young college student-turned drug peddler. Here's everything to know about the character.

Is Painkiller a true story?

Partly. Painkiller includes very real events and characters, such as Richard Sackler and Curtis Wright, who were true players in the onset of the opioid crisis.

Other characters, like Glen Kryger and Edie Flowers, are fictionalized versions of people. The series traces how OxyContin made its way through FDA-approval and became regularly prescribed by doctors, despite its known addictive qualities.

The widespread use of OxyContin led to many Americans becoming addicted to the drug. Drug overdose deaths from prescription drugs rose from around 3,000 in 1999 to over 17,000 in 2017, per National Institute on Drug Abuse. Many people within the pharmaceutical industry profited off of the crisis.

“It was something that was manufactured; manufactured by companies looking to make an egregious profit. I realized that this opioid crisis I've been hearing so much about was not just a crisis, it was really a crime,” Painkiller's executive producer, Alex Gibney, said in the show's press release, per TIME.

Who is Shannon Schaeffer?

Shannon Schaeffer (played by West Duchovny) is recruited to work as a sales representative for Purdue Pharma fresh out of college. Her role within the company is to convince doctors to prescribe more milligrams of OxyContin, and downplay their concerns over the drug's addictive qualities.

Throughout the six episode series, Shannon struggles with the moral dilemma she is facing as a Purdue Pharma employee. Her job makes her exceptionally successful and wealthy, but she gradually realizes the company she works for is harming people.

Halfway through the series, Shannon realizes how lethal OxyContin can be. West Duchovny told Netflix that she expects viewers may see themselves in her character—as she represents vey real moral dilemmas.

“A theme for her is [the desire] for success and trying to do good and grappling with the pressures of money and how that changes you,” West said of her character, per Netflix.

Is Shannon Schaeffer based on a real person?

Not exactly. Shannon's character is an amalgamation of many people who worked as sales representatives for Purdue Pharma. Essentially, she's a composite character, similar to Uzo Aduba's portrayal of federal prosecutor Edie Flowers.

Her character is meant to show how the sales of OxyContin became so widespread. Shannon's role shows how the moneymaking aspect of OxyContin led to the opioid crisis, per Vulture.

Shannon Schaeffer Never Gets Real Closure In ‘Painkiller’ (2)

Initially, Shannon’s character dives into her role at Purdue Pharma, but she eventually becomes disillusioned with the company’s ethics.

Instead of focusing on simply widespread prescriptions of OxyContin, Shannon's character was told to convince doctors to prescribe higher doses, which yield higher payouts from insurance companies. It also led to more money for the new grad, earning her up to $30,000 in bonuses in a single year, according to Vulture.

This was an actual aspect of the allure to working at Purdue Pharma. Sales representatives were incentivized to encourage higher doses for patients through bonuses. Court documents released in 2018, per Knox News, revealed that one employee's bonuses equated more than their yearly salary in 2010.

It's likely that many people in a predicament similar to Shannon existed at Purdue Pharma, but no real Shannon Schaeffer actually exists.

What happens to Shannon at the end of Painkiller?

In one of the final episodes of Painkiller, Shannon does OxyContin, and ends up walking straight into a swimming pool, per Netflix. This leads to her character having a moral breakthrough.

In the final episode of Painkiller, Shannon goes to the U.S. Attorneys office investigator Edie Flowers, and agrees to help her with the investigation against Purdue Pharma. Then, she is interviewed by Edie and her colleagues.

The last moment Shannon is featured in the series is a glimpse of her reaction to Purdue Pharma settling out of court. She appears to be disengaged in the news, and she isn't shown again in the series.

You can stream Painkiller on Netflix now.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Shannon Schaeffer Never Gets Real Closure In ‘Painkiller’ (3)

Olivia Evans

News Editorial Assistant

Olivia Evans (she/her) is an editorial assistant at Women’s Health. Her work has previously appeared in The Cut and Teen Vogue. She loves covering topics where culture and wellness intersect. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, running, and watching rom-coms.

Shannon Schaeffer Never Gets Real Closure In ‘Painkiller’ (2024)
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