Review: Louis Theroux's Dark States - Heroin Town | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

Review: Louis Theroux’s Dark States – Heroin Town

Sport Editor Olli Meek gives us his thoughts on the Theroux documentary that visits Huntington, West Virginia as part of his 'Dark States' series

Dark States: Heroin Town, as best it can, takes a balanced approach to the portrayal of a tragic situation.  Louis Theroux shows a relationship, allegedly abusive, between a user and a dealer, he interviews a heroin addict who was totally content with his life circumstances, and follows the fire chief who responds to many of the 911 calls because of a member of the Huntington community overdosing.

Theroux instead comes across as emotionally invested in the people that he is meeting
This is by no means Theroux’s first series on a dark subject matter, but it is arguably one of the most poignant episodes.  Camera shots of the documentary’s participants “shooting up”; interviews with members of the community who have been addicted to opium since before they were teenagers; conversations with parents of addicted children who can’t give the interview without breaking down in tears.  These are all contributors to a gravity to the programme unlike many I have seen.  One solitary hour is more than enough time for the watcher to come to the moving awareness of the lack of control there is over such a societal phenomenon.  It is both a very raw, but also very relatable piece of television, in the sense that there are no bright lights or celebrity stories, but instead many of the citizens involved are very average people, unassuming to the eye, going about their jobs, and expressing the same emotions as you or I.  There is nothing Louis can do to stop the users who continue their toxic daily routine in front of his eyes.  He even observes the handover of money from the grandparent of one users, intended to go towards a vehicle, that he knows will subsequently contribute to feeding the addiction that costs hundreds of dollars per day. 

His objective presentation of the reality before him gives exposure to the fact that the users they film are human. It puts enough emphasis on elements of government legislation and the quagmire of "big pharma" to ensure that it isn't an exercise in asserting blame for the situation that the users find themselves in.  In fact, the opening salvo of the show concerns a Heroin addict who found opiates as a pain relief method after a car crash, contrary, I’m sure, to the popular perception of the path into drug addiction for many people.

Louis Theroux again succeeds in making a documentary that is wide-ranging, insightful, and incredibly moving
It would be the easy option for a documentary maker to try and come to a conclusion that judges where the fault lies, however Theroux instead comes across as emotionally invested in the people that he is meeting such that apportioning responsibility would be condescending and inappropriate.  There is no concluding estimation in this manner, but rather a reflection on the tragedy that is unfolding, as addiction rates continue to rise across the USA, and helplessness is the main impression that I was left with.  The child we see at the conclusion of the episode is the new-born son of an opiate addict who has weened herself onto those thought to be less harmful to children in the womb.  He is helpless to the environment into which he is being born, with such high exposure to substances that ruin lives through just one use.  The user living in a tent on the bank of a river who acknowledges, but doesn’t use the help he is offered, reminds us that he was helpless to a drunk driver crashing into him and forcing him onto prescribed medication which led to opiate abuse.  The policeman who Louis is following is so quick to recognise tell-tale signs of substance abuse that in one glance from their patrol car he has enough conviction to turn the car around and charge the suspects.  The emergency services are helpless in that they are fighting an unwinnable battle on so many fronts that they don’t seem to be able to cope.

Louis Theroux again succeeds in making a documentary that is wide-ranging, insightful, and incredibly moving, whilst simultaneously feeling very organic as well.  His interviews and filmmaking make for compelling viewing, and whilst not a pleasant subject matter to behold, absolutely has me returning to watch the rest of the series.



9th November 2017 at 9:00 am

Images from

The Guardian and BBC