Review: Showtime’s ‘The Trade’ examines the opioid crisis in gritty yet personal detail

Television Critic

In “The Trade,” which premieres Friday on Showtime, director Matthew Heineman revisits and extends the material of his 2015 Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning documentary “Cartel Land.”

The subject is heroin (and things added to heroin, like fentanyl, an invitation to overdose). OxyContin is mentioned in passing as a sort of gateway drug to heroin (which is cheaper), but given scant attention. “The Trade” is not a definitive, wide-ranging report, though. It has no advice to give, only pictures to show.

The documentary is set in Ohio (Columbus, Akron and Dayton), Atlanta and Mexico. The American scenes follow police officers, , drug addicts and their families and friends.


The Mexican scenes, which follow producers and police (Americans may be surprised by the spy-thriller sophistication of their operations) are set largely in a small mountain town in the state of Guerrero, which produces about half the heroin made in Mexico. If you have ever wondered how a poppy becomes a drug, you can see it up close here; it’s a low-rent process.

Described by the network as “a character-driven verité-style docu-series,” “The Trade” isn’t quite a fly-on-the wall documentary. There are no face-to-the-camera interviews, and a few facts and figures are introduced in voice-over snippets from news reports. But given the criminal nature of what is portrayed, one can only imagine the complicated negotiations that must have preceded filming.

Felons who consented to appear on-screen — at the peril of their liberty or even life — and drug addicts willing to be seen shooting up and nodding off with a needle in their arm and lying to their loved ones, do not just fall out of trees.

Some scenes have the flavor of having been arranged, much as conversations in American soap-opera reality shows might be, to fill in details or advance the plot. (“Boss, did you hear what happened yesterday in Chilpancingo? There was an attack. Some bastards from Los Rojos.”)

Certain camera angles suggest that what we are seeing has not been accomplished without direction. But most documentaries do something of the sort.


The drug producers and traffickers we meet are all Mexican. The drug users are almost all young white Americans — either an editorial choice or a function of who agreed to participate, but in either case not reflective of the demographic breadth of the junkie population.

The addicts are trying to get clean, say they’re trying to get clean or show no interest in getting clean. (“Living a normal life, paying rent, the thought of that kind of scares me,” says one.) But none, after all, are wholly reliable narrators of their stories. Nor are the dealers, for that matter. While these characters and situations may have many counterparts, they only stand for themselves.

Broadly, it’s a portrait of people who are trapped. The police are stuck fighting a war they can’t possibly win but can’t quit; the people of the Mexican mountain town, lacking other means, are seemingly doomed to participate in the production of heroin; and the addicts are … addicted.

I have seen only four episodes out of five, so it’s possible that some story lines will wind toward hopeful endings. (Some characters just drop out of the series, possibly never to return.)

On the relatively positive side, “The Trade” is a reminder that the people who are caught up in this world are only human; it encourages empathy. Much of what is most affecting in “The Trade” are the small human details — a Christmas tree in a drug dealer’s house, the childhood pictures on a refrigerator door of a son or daughter lost to dope, a police detective rubbing the neck of a frustrated partner.

The film is in letter-boxed widescreen for maximum cinematic effect — the photography is handsome without making things too pretty. Heroin users, of course, tend not to look their best.



‘The Trade’

Where: Showtime

When: 9 p.m. Friday

Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)