Emmy spotlight: Kaitlyn Dever’s haunting performance on ‘Dopesick’ ought not to be ignored

Just when it looks like she could finally turn a corner, Betsy (Kaitlyn Dever) hits rock bottom in the seventh episode of Hulu’s “Dopesick.” Right before she’s set to accompany Dr. Samuel Finnix (Michael Keaton) to a clinic for her OxyContin addiction, she turns to drugs after receiving upsetting news. When Betsy tells her dealer to give her “one hell of a send-off” ahead of her potential recovery, you sense that she will never actually make it to the clinic. And so it is, as she tragically dies after overdosing on the injected heroin. It’s a devastating, unshakable conclusion to Betsy’s arc, meticulously executed by Dever, who deserves all the love from Emmy voters for putting a face on opioid addiction with great care and precision.

Based on the acclaimed nonfiction book by Beth Macy, “Dopesick” is an eight-part limited series that explores the deadly opioid epidemic that has crippled America since the 1990s. It documents the crimes of the Sackler family’s company Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin, while also painting an empathetic portrait of the millions of men and women most affected by the crisis. Serving as the main representation of these people is Dever’s Betsy Mallum, a composite character based on several accounts of real individuals. She is a teenage coal miner in rural Virginia who is prescribed OxyContin by Finnix after hurting her back during a mining accident.

SEE Kaitlyn Dever (‘Dopesick’) discusses being infuriated at learning about how the opioid crisis was created

Even before Betsy gets hooked on the painkiller, her life wasn’t without hardship. She’s a woman who’s had to prove her place in the male-dominated mining industry and a closeted lesbian living in a homophobic household. Her inability to come out to her religious parents (Ray McKinnon and Mare Winningham) drives a wedge between her and her girlfriend Grace (Cleopatra Coleman), who insists that Betsy spends too much of her life in hiding. Dever painstakingly captures the specific disharmony that exists in so many queer people IRL: the desires to live life in shelter and to also live it freely and openly. She particularly nails Betsy’s coming-out to her mother, as Betsy responds to her deliberate disregard with restraint, not because Betsy isn’t hurt by her mother’s rejection — she definitely is — but because it’s just another of many beatings she’s had to take as a closeted lesbian living in small-town America in the 1990s.

Despite these struggles, Betsy keeps her head above water because she cherishes her job, loves her girlfriend and has plans for her future. But once she, like other victims of OxyContin, innocently trusts her doctor, her entire life is turned upside down. Dever, who navigates through emotions ranging from the momentary relief that the pills offer to the torture of undergoing an opioid withdrawal, does a remarkable job portraying the various stages of her character’s descent into addiction. Especially impressive is the credibility with which she is able to embody Betsy’s growing dependency, most notably in the fifth episode, “The Whistleblower” — which is also her Emmy submission — when Betsy is stripped of her pills, leading to a breakdown. Even though her parents and Finnix try to get her on track to recovery, all help comes too late. By the penultimate hour, Betsy has reached a point of no return. It’s a truly upsetting yet realistic outcome for the character — one that, due to Dever’s wrenching performance, cannot but leave an indelible mark on you.

SEE: Emmy Experts slugfest — Could Kaitlyn Dever upset Jennifer Coolidge? [WATCH]

It’s no surprise that Dever has earned an Emmy nomination — her first — to add to her Critics Choice and Golden Globe Awards bids for her performance. She is shortlisted for Best Limited Series/TV Movie Supporting Actress, alongside Winningham and, uh, five women from “The White Lotus”: Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, Alexandra Daddario, Natasha Rothwell and Sydney Sweeney.

As of this writing, she sits in second place in our combined odds, just behind Coolidge, who has been the category’s presumed frontrunner all season long and beat Dever at Critics Choice. Though this and “The White Lotus'” 20 nominations, including eight for acting, probably makes her tough to overcome at the Emmys, you shouldn’t discount Dever as a potential challenger. Of all the nominees in the category, she gives arguably the most emotion-laden performance on a show that the TV academy clearly loved — “Dopesick” nabbed a total of 14 noms, including Best Limited Series and six for acting. Rewarding her would be a great way of acknowledging not just the heart of the series but also an actor who, despite being just 25 years old, is already overdue for some recognition (and was robbed of a nom for Netflix’s “Unbelievable” in 2020).

Emmy odds for Best Limited Series/TV Movie Supporting Actress
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