Cautionary tales and morality tales have evolved from stories and plays to television and movies. Makes sense. Go where the people are. And in theory, the tales themselves should also evolve to fit the current times. However, sometimes that doesn’t happen. Sometimes, they stagnate.
When it comes to depictions of drug use and addiction on TV, it can be argued that there has been progress. Addiction is recognized now as a complicated disorder rather than just a conscious bad choice. There are shows out there willing to depict the complexities of addiction now, and even some reruns that took to tackling the topic with the humanity and understanding it deserves.
However, that hasn’t always been -and isn’t always- the case. There’s still a certain stigma around addiction, a residue left behind by the old thinking of previous times, much of which was propagated by television back in the day.
A lot of these episodes were presented as cautionary tales. Drugs are bad and if you do drugs, bad things will happen to you. Over the years, these cautionary tales became morality tales, with only one possible redemption for the addict.
Obviously, overdose or some other death by drug-induced misadventure would be the ultimate bad thing that could happen. But it also became the only possible outcome to totally free a person struggling with addiction from that fight. Rehab is nice, but that whole relapse thing…not the nice neat ending one requires in 30 to 60 minutes of television.
For example, in the Season 3 Hawaii Five-O Episode “Trouble in Mind”, there’s some tainted heroin going around the islands and it’s believed that pianist Mike Martin is in the cross hairs. He’s been picked up for heroin before and did some time in rehab. However, it’s later revealed that Mike took the fall for his love, singer Eadie Jordan. She’s got the problem.
Eadie isn’t depicted like the typical addicts that you’d see on TV (and even on the show). She’s not some hippie looking for a high or some stupid kid who thinks drugs are fine and they’re immortal. It’s implied that it’s her job in show business that’s gotten her hooked and she functions quite well as an addict. Steve never suspected her being a heroin user until it was too late.
The depiction of Eadie’s addiction as something sinister. One lapse in judgment condemns an otherwise good person. And even though Mike is trying to help her quit, she still needs it just to keep the edge off of the withdrawal, which the episode doesn’t shy away from depicting.
But this is an addict’s morality tale and as much as we like Eadie, and as much as we want Steve to save the day, there’s only one way this ends.
Perhaps an even more tragic example is that of the story arc of Lt. Aiden Ford on Stargate: Atlantis. During the three-part Season 1 finale/Season 2 opener “The Siege”, Lt. Ford nearly dies while battling a Wraith. The Wraith attempts to feed on Ford just before they plunge into the icy ocean waters. The two of them are recovered in a dormant state with the Wraith still attached to Ford. Dr. Beckett is able to successfully separate them and save Ford, but unfortunately, Ford has received a massive dose of a Wraith enzyme that strengthens their victims so they don’t die too quickly during the feeding.
As a result, Ford becomes addicted to the enzyme. Similar to a person becoming addicted to pain killers after a horrific accident, Ford had no say in this suddenly being thrust upon him. This wasn’t a conscious choice. However, like an addict in denial, Ford is convinced that the enzyme is soldier’s little helper.
The result is him abandoning his friends and his life on Atlantis (and any life and family he might have on Earth). Obviously, the Atlantis crew go looking for him in an attempt to get him help, but in the end Ford escapes. He falls in with (or creates) a group of fellow enzyme addicts and their constant need of the enzyme leads them to riskier and riskier plots, endangering his old friends, which ultimately leads to his downfall, after a brief glimpse at redemption.
Given that this arc played out in the mid-2000’s, it would have been much more interesting to see Ford’s arc resolve in a different way, allowing him to come to terms with his addiction and get the help he needed. But I suppose, there’s fewer explosions in that.
As you may have noticed, the two examples I cited involve people of color portraying the addicts. I don’t think it’s necessarily a coincidence as race plays a part in the stigma of addiction and the portrayal of it. After all, the crack epidemic resulted in a lot of people going to prison and the opioid epidemic generated a lot of discussion about rehab and the nature of addiction. That wasn’t just because we learned something about addiction in the ensuing years.
However, being white doesn’t always save you from the inevitable fate of an addict in TV land. Just think of “Blue Boy” in “The LSD Story” episode of Dragnet.
I have no problem accurately portraying the struggles of addiction. Overdosing or relapsing after rehab is a very real danger. But death is not the only redemption available to an addict.
Our morality tales should reflect that.