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The Dysfunctional Alpha, part III


Screen Shot 2013-12-09 at 6.44.54 PM As we have covered, every television drama included on this list, which contains many of the great shows of the last 15 years, is driven forward by a gifted yet dysfunctional alpha character.

  • Despite being brilliant and compassionate, Jed Bartlett defrauded the American electorate to win a presidential election by concealing multiple sclerosis.
  • Jimmy McNulty might be the best murder police Baltimore has ever seen, but his alcoholism, womanizing, and inherent need to constantly prove his detective chops make his story semi-tragic.
  • Never has there been a more complex, compelling, but utterly dysfunctional alpha than Don Draper. Besotted by alcoholism, sexual addiction, inability to form healthy relationships, and an obsession with success, he still remains the top dog in the advertising game.
  • Walter White is a genius chemist who had good motives to cook meth (never thought I’d have to write that sentence in seriousness) who grabbed the third rail with both hands because of his unquenchable thirst for empire.
  • Dexter is an excellent crime solver as a blood spatter analyst, serial killer-ness notwithstanding.
  • Hank Moody has written some of the best prose in the last 15 years in the fictional world of Californication, but every time he gets close to achieving happiness with his soulmate, he screws it up via drugs, alcohol, or sex.
  • Marty Kaan struggles with almost every addiction one could have—sex, booze, drugs, you name it. Despite all this, however, he remains the best closer in the management consulting business.
  • Cal Lightman’s psychological demons partially drive his brilliance as a deception detection expert, but it endangers his relationships just as frequently.
  • Will McAvoy, despite being brilliant and compelling as the host of Atlantis Cable News, cannot overcome his fear of betrayal that stands in the way of seemingly assured happiness.
  • Tommy Gavin is the most heroic firefighter in the five boroughs, but has an alcoholism problem that surpasses even McNulty.
  • Carrie Mathison might have the best instincts in the CIA, but her bipolarity and penchant for courting unnecessary danger certainly classify her as a dysfunctional alpha.
  • Nucky Thompson, even though he prefers business to violence and is a decent father figure, has killed friends, enemies, and strangers alike. He will hamstring anyone necessary to achieve or hold the power he so desires.


My natural final step after identifying the gifted, dysfunctional alpha trend, chronicling it, and drawing conclusions about it, was to compare the alphas themselves to find common themes from within their dysfunctions. Sure enough, I started listing commonalities between the types of dysfunction and found six areas of convergence between all the alphas. Some of these are the sources or motivators of their dysfunctional behavior whereas others are just a common symptom of multiple alphas’ dysfunction. The six are:


  • Substance abuse
  • Obsession with power
  • Abandonment issues
  • Unhealthy sex attitudes/full-blown sex addiction
  • Mental unbalance
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder


Substance Abuse

Substance abuse provides one of the more common vices throughout our alpha’s lives. In 4/5 cases, it’s alcoholism. In the fifth, it’s more of an “all of the above” situation. Jimmy McNulty, despite a brief stint of sobriety, was right up there for biggest raging alcoholic on television until Rescue Me came on the scene. As the audience, we’re to believe it has to do with his Irish ancestry, shitty job, terrible city in which he works, etc… But nevertheless, few struggle with alcoholism like this alpha.


Tommy Gavin is the same way—Irish Catholic with a deep family history of alcoholism. We don’t really know if he was a full-blown alcoholic before the traumatic events of 9/11, so this could be more a symptom of his dysfunction as opposed to the source, but it certainly provides the chief barrier between he and attainable happiness. Almost everything good in his life has been endangered by his affinity for alcohol. But then again, Tommy Gavin also gets to interact with his dead family and loved ones when he blacks out, so at the same time, I can’t really blame him for wanting to drink. If the only way to see my dead father and son was to black out, count me in—bottoms up.


Hank Moody has kept his affinity for alcohol and drugs under control for most of the series, but during season six he had to go to rehab because he was so deep in the bottle. I don’t really think Hank is an alcoholic, but rather someone who likes to drink that has a tendency toward self-loathing and depression, both of which manifest themselves as substance abuse (both alcohol and drugs).


Don Draper, on the other hand, cannot enter a meeting, start his day in the office, spend time with his wife or kids, whatever, without pouring a strong bourbon. He gets a little slack based on the time-period, surely, but the other characters have made countless mentions of it.


Marty Kaan is the “all of the above” character. He hates his life so much that he will take or drink anything to escape the living hell he has built for himself. I think deep down, he knows that what he does is immoral, cheap, and wrong. His obsession with being the best at it has ruined his marriage, his relationship with his son, and his relationship with his coworkers. To cope with all of this, Marty drinks or takes whatever drug on which he can get his hands.


In most of these cases, I do believe there is a deeper driving force behind the alcoholism (PTSD, genetics, depression, etc…), but too many of the alphas’ dysfunctions come in the form of substance abuse to not include it in the comparison.


Obsession With Power

The obsession with power begins with Nucky Thompson. He is not addicted to sex. He is not addicted to booze. He does not suffer from PTSD. That being said, he will do anything in the name of obtaining and/or keeping power. Nothing drives him more than his desire to control the entire Northeast bootlegging empire. He wants to own Atlantic City and every town buying their booze from it. Almost every terrible deed Nucky commits is directly attributable to his grab for more power.


Don Draper, unlike so many of the other characters on Mad Men, cares not for money so long as he has enough on which to live. What he wants is to have the biggest accounts, to see his work on more TV shows and billboards, to win more awards, and to out-creative any other creative director in the country. That’s the power he wants—to be the best.


Walter White made this argument much easier for me in the conclusion of season 5a, when he said “I’m in the empire business.” In his mind, he has been through too much, fought too hard, cooked too much pure product to sell off his empire to someone else. It’s not the money that drives him—it’s the power. After selling his interest in “Gray Matter” for $5,000, the company he essentially started that then became a multi-billion dollar conglomerate years later, he is simply not going to surrender his hard-won power lightly.


Jed Bartlett does not seek power for the sake of having it, but rather to do real good in the lives of Americans through the careful wielding of that power. Even so, his desire to shape the collective destiny of the country led him to conceal a major health condition that bordered on committing election fraud. Jed’s obsession with power comes from a much more noble and worthy place, but his desire to lead absolutely contributed to his greatest transgression within the show.



Abandonment Issues

This provides the largest collection of our alphas. There is a sub-set of these characters confined simply to matriarchal death as the genesis of the abandonment issue, but this is still the overarching problem more alphas suffer from than anything else. But, that makes sense at the same time. The two common themes amongst all the shows are the 1) dysfunctional and 2) gifted alpha character. What pushes people harder to succeed than the desire to prove something to someone? And if that person is dead? Or if they never approved of you in the first place? Then you’ll have to work your entire life to convince them you were worthy of love.


This is a pretty straightforward run-down for each character:

  1. Marty Kaan’s mother killed herself when he was very young. He blames himself. Always trying to get people to like him because of this.
  2. Cal Lightman’s mother also killed herself. His problem, though, is that he feels like if he had pioneered facial microexpression detection earlier, he could have prevented it. Because of this, he displays a maniacal devotion to his work.
  3. While not by suicide, Dexter’s mother was killed right in front of his eyes while he was still an infant. His adopted father provides an excellent influence in his life thereafter (with a few peccadillos, depending on your viewpoint), but witnessing something of that nature haunts Dexter for the rest of his life.
  4. Will McAvoy’s father was an alcoholic that beat him. The love of his life cheated on him with an ex-boyfriend. He is petrified that if he lets anyone in, they will betray him.
  5. Jed Bartlett, also a Sorkin character like McAvoy, was beaten by his father. There is a huge storyline between Toby, a psychiatrist, and the President about why his father will never love him and why the President should stop trying to prove himself to his father. This might not be abandonment in the strictest sense, but he is terrified of not having the love of one of his parents.
  6. Don Draper’s father died in front of him via a horse kick to the head. He’s raised by a step-mother that hates him, in a whore-house—not exactly the model of healthy relationships. Don always struggles with his childhood issues, abandonment/loneliness being one of the foremost therein.
  7. Nucky Thompson also struggled with an abusive father that he grew to hate, so much so that when presented the opportunity, Nucky burned his childhood home to the ground with a healthy dash of gasoline.


7/12 of the alphas suffer from some manifestation of an abandonment issue. A few of the other shows haven’t seen fit to give us a glimpse into the childhood(s) of their alphas, so this number could ostensibly be higher. Regardless, this provides one of the strongest motivating forces for any of our leading characters.



Unhealthy Sexual Attitudes

Four of our alphas suffer from some sort of unhealthy sexual attitude (or are simply “the man” depending on your personal outlook on sex). The list will progress numerically from the highest confirmed partner count to the lowest…


Hank Moody is not addicted to sex in the sense that he devotes an inordinate amount of time to chasing strange. The showrunners have decided that the character of Hank Moody is good looking enough and gives precisely the correct number of fucks (read: zero) to get laid all the time. It’s like this guy trips, falls, and there’s a naked woman there to catch him. He can’t do anything without gorgeous and, for the most part, interesting women throwing themselves at him. It’s also worth noting that there are apparently no unattractive women in Los Angeles, but then again, who would want to watch a show where the alpha sleeps with a ton of unattractive women?


That being said, Moody does have a very unhealthy attitude toward sex because he fails to comprehend the consequences thereof. He believes that he can have sex with all of these gorgeous women and it will not negatively affect his life in any way. But, the crux of the entire show is his relationship with the mother of his child, who he truly loves. The plot arc relies on him struggling to get his shit together such that he and Karen can finally get married and live happily ever after. But every time he has another fling, despite her beauty and understandability of the circumstances, you start to question how serious is he really about making he and Karen work together? There are major consequences to having sex but Hank cannot for the life of him turn his big brain on and turn his little one off.


And for those keeping count, he’s had 26 confirmed sexual partners in 5 seasons, so far.


Don Draper has an entirely different problem when it comes to sex. For him, sex is not about the actual act of physical or emotional enjoyment—it’s about the hunt and it’s about power. It’s about reassurance than he is indeed an alpha. Maybe it’s an extension of his abandonment issues such that he needs constant reinforcement that he’s wanted and loved (and for him, “love” is proven via sex, which would make sense based on his whorehouse upbringing). He wavers back and forth on the emotional attachment spectrum, but it’s difficult to conclude that he can actually fall and stay in love. His wife is gorgeous and supportive. His ex-wife was also gorgeous and completely devoted to him. What made him fall out of love with each?


Unlike Hank, though, Don thrives on the taboo of the affair as opposed to just random hook ups that fall into his lap. Don cannot stay happy, and every woman with which he sleeps represents the happiness he could have with some other person that’s not his wife. But it wouldn’t matter if he could be with the other woman (regardless of which “other woman” it may be) because he would always be searching the horizon for the next patch of greener grass.


Once again, this may simply be a manifestation of a different core dysfunction (abandonment, perhaps), but it certainly puts him on the list of alphas with unhealthy sex attitudes.


Score: 17 confirmed partners in 6 seasons of work.


Marty Kaan has a similar affliction to Hank Moody in the sense that he cannot forego sex in the moment despite a full understanding of its potentially disastrous consequences in the future. Marty certainly has an incredibly casual attitude about sex and very often sleeps with people he knows he should not—his drug addict ex-wife being the primary example (who also works for his consulting firm’s rival). Marty cheats on his girlfriend, a really good thing in his life, in a divorce arbitrator’s office with his ex-wife. You can see the look on Marty’s face as it’s about to happen—he doesn’t even want to do it. It’s almost how I imagine an addict looks at their addictive substance after they’ve tried to get clean; even though they know it will kill them eventually, they just can’t stop the relapse from happening when it’s right in front of them—almost like a foregone conclusion. We know that Marty will cave in that moment because he is incapable of resisting his ex-wife’s sexual advances. He knows what will happen and what it will mean if he allows her to seduce him, but he honestly just can’t help himself.


Carrie Mathison has had the fewest on-screen sexual partners by far. But, the showrunners give us a glimpse into her damaged emotional psyche very early on in season one. You see Carrie go out for a night on the town where she puts on an engagement ring and a little black dress (even though she’s not engaged) and picks up a guy in the bar with uber aggressive tactics with the explicit intent of having a one night stand. She even states that she wears the ring to “weed out guys looking for a relationship.” In another scene in the pilot episode, she comes home in the morning after a late night out, takes off her party dress, wipes her crotch with a wet washcloth, takes off the fake engagement ring, and immediately heads into the office. When she is trying to prove that Sgt. Brody is an al-Qaeda terrorist, she ends up having sex with him while she is investigating him. Now, you might pass this off as her using any and all means at her disposal to identify terrorists and protect the good ol’ U.S. of A, but it certainly seems as if there is more to the story than that. As we will get to in the next section, Carrie has a serious case of mental imbalance on account of her bipolarity. In addition to that, putting someone of that mental status in the most dangerous, stressful, and traumatic situations possible cannot be good for the mind. I’m sure her unhealthy sexual habits emanate from a combination of bipolar disorder and PTSD, but that being said, she has shown time and again that she does not maintain a healthy approach to opposite sex relations.



Mental Imbalance

Mental imbalance takes on varied forms and can be characterized by many symptoms depending on the type of disorder. The same is true of the alphas on the list of mentally unbalanced characters. From bipolarity and schizophrenia to alexithymia, our alphas suffer from a assortment of mental issues.


Dexter demonstrates probably the most pronounced mental issue of all the alphas, which makes sense because the central precept of the plot arc revolves around him being a serial killer. I would categorize his mental disorders into two camps—antisocial personality disorder and alexithymia. APD is characterized by “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood” and “an impoverished moral sense or conscience." Alexithymia, on the other hand, “is a personality construct characterized by the sub-clinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self.” What that basically means for Dexter is that he is amoral—he is not evil, he just has a complete inability to feel any sort of emotion paired with a propensity to violate the rights of others. His stepfather recognized this early in Dexter’s life and taught him to harness that need to harm others by only targeting those deserving harm (killers, rapists, etc…). It’s very Boondock Saints-ish, but instead of being commanded by God, it’s spurned on by severe psychological disorders.


Tommy Gavin definitely suffers from some sort of schizophrenia. As discussed a couple of times in this article series, when he gets smashed (which is regularly), he has the ability, or the burden depending on how you look at it, to see and talk to his dead friends and relatives. Seeing people who aren’t there is a telltale sign of schizophrenia regardless of the cause. For Tommy, it began after 9/11 in which his cousin and best friend died in the World Trade Center. It’s very easy to see that his overwhelming grief and longing to see his loved ones again combined with his alcoholism drives this disorder. Regardless, Tommy Gavin definitely suffers from some form of schizophrenia.


Don Draper is in precisely the same boat as Gavin in the sense that he suffers from some form of schizophrenia. His psychosis revolves around flashbacks from his life whereas Gavin’s are truly encounters with people that no longer exist. Throughout Mad Men, Don Draper will experience visceral flashbacks from his life but set in the present. Now, the writers almost certainly do this to give the audience more insight into the upbringing and psyche of the protagonist. Don is a very complex character—trying to “figure him out” provides one of the more compelling reasons to continue tuning in. He struggles to relate to and connect with others; these flashbacks provide valuable insight into why. The same is true for his philandering and general unhealthy sexual attitudes—we learn a lot about his general mindset and motivations for acting unfaithfully through the flashbacks he experiences in real-time. Despite it being a helpful cinematic tool for the writers, it also lands Draper on this list of mentally unbalanced alphas.


Carrie Mathison’s mental tribulations are one of the central tenets of Homeland. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder earlier in life and her doctor sister prescribes drugs illegally for Carrie so that she can continue to work at the CIA. Claire Danes does an unbelievable job in the role, truly making the audience feel her manic highs and depressive lows. We find out later in the series that her father also suffers from the same ailment, so we can be pretty sure that despite suffering from PTSD, the bipolarity predated that. Carrie struggles with her disease mightily, even agreeing to undergo electric shock therapy to try and overcome her bipolarity. This “dysfunction” drives much of the show’s plot arc and lands her on this list of gifted yet dysfunctional alphas that suffer some form of mental unbalance.




An offshoot of the mental imbalance list would be characters that suffer from some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  PTSD is characterized by three symptom types: intrusive memories, avoidance and numbing, and increased anxiety or emotional arousal (hyperarousal).


Symptoms of intrusive memories may include:

  • Flashbacks, or reliving the traumatic event for minutes or even days at a time
  • Upsetting dreams about the traumatic event

Symptoms of avoidance and emotional numbing may include:

  • Trying to avoid thinking or talking about the traumatic event
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Avoiding activities you once enjoyed
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Memory problems
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty maintaining close relationships

Symptoms of anxiety and increased emotional arousal may include:

  • Irritability or anger
  • Overwhelming guilt or shame
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drinking too much
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Being easily startled or frightened
  • Hearing or seeing things that aren't there


Unlike many of the similarities I’ve chronicled, this is a root cause of dysfunction as opposed to a symptom thereof. It’s very possible that many of the dysfunctions stem from a specific traumatic event in the life of these characters. With that being the case, I will simply break down the list of characters by event and resulting symptom of PTSD.


  • Dexter
    • Traumatic Event: As an infant, witnesses the brutal murder of his own mother. A police office, who becomes his eventual stepfather, finds him sitting in a pool of his mother’s blood after she was cut up using a chainsaw.
    • Intrusive Memories: Not really.
    • Avoidance and Emotional Numbing: Out the ass. Complete inability to feel emotion or connection to others.
    • Anxiety or Hyperarousal: Not so much.
  • Tommy Gavin
    • Traumatic Event: First responder to 9/11 in which his cousin and best friend died.
    • Intrusive Memories: Dwells on the event and replays it in his head constantly.
    • Avoidance and Emotional Numbing: N/A
    • Anxiety or Hyperarousal: Very irritable at times. Self-destructive behavior for sure (although he is genetically predisposed to alcoholism based on his family history). Hears and sees things that are not there (covered extensively in the previous section)
  • Carrie Mathison
    • Traumatic Event: CIA agent. Has witnessed torture, death, murder, imminent personal danger, you name it. Also blames herself for not preventing 9/11 from happening.
    • Intrusive Memories: N/A
    • Avoidance and Emotional Numbing: Tough to say if her emotional status or difficulty maintaining close relationships is due to PTSD, bipolarity, or both
    • Anxiety or Hyperarousal: Definitely feels overwhelming guilt about 9/11. Irritable all the time. Indulges in self-destructive behavior, specifically when it relates to sex. Has trouble sleeping (but that could be due to an understandable paranoia about enemy combatants wanting to kill her)
  • Don Draper
    • Traumatic Event(s): Saw his father die via horse kick to the head. Also fought in the Korean War which haunted him in the middle seasons of the show.
    • Intrusive Memories: As covered in the last section, suffers from flashbacks all the time.
    • Avoidance and Emotional Numbing: Difficulty maintaining close relationships as demonstrated by his philandering, one divorce, and another imminent divorce based on the ending to season 6.
    • Anxiety or Hyperarousal: N/A
  • Walter White
    • Traumatic Event: Contracted cancer and the very real possibility of his death. Has witnessed murder as well as done it himself at multiple points in the show.
    • Intrusive Memories: N/A
    • Avoidance and Emotional Numbing: The longer the show has gone on, the more emotionally numb Walter White becomes. The longer he is mired in the stink of the drug trade, the fewer emotional connections he feels or relationships he keeps.
    • Anxiety or Hyperarousal: N/A




Unlike Part II of this series, in which I drew many conclusions regarding the pattern of gifted, yet dysfunctional alphas driving our great drama series, I don’t really have much to say as to why these specific dysfunctional similarities exist. To be honest, I think it mostly has to do with the fact that these are, in general, rather common issues that people deal with everyday. Writers and directors want to explore and portray issues that affect a great number of people because it makes their shows more relatable. Furthermore, it can also make their shows impactful if they are able to portray heroes or heroines overcoming the same respective dysfunction as audience members (or friends/family of audience members). Substance abuse, obsession with power/success, abandonment issues, unhealthy sex attitudes, mental instability, and PTSD are common issues that millions of people deal with in some form or another every day. It only makes sense that dramatic characters  would share these commonalities as they’re representing ostensibly real people. Furthermore, nothing is sweeter than victory earned despite harrowing obstacles. These dysfunctions provide the obstacles that, should the protagonist prove victorious, will make that victory heroic.


We are in a golden age of television. Real Housewives of wherever and The Jersey Shore notwithstanding, dramatic television has entered a true renaissance period. Bill Simmons has commented on his podcast that it used to be that if you made a great TV series, you graduated to feature films. Now it seems that if you have a complex vision and the creative chops to pull it off, you do so on cable or premium television channels as opposed to the theater. This, to me, is a great development because it allows the creators to give their characters more depth and realism than that achievable in 2+ hours. Your emotional involvement ratchets up every season as you come to know and love or loathe respective characters. And finally, you don’t have to wait years for a new installment in the series—you get an episode every week within the season and a new season every year until the series ends. You can digest it with your friends and families and talk about it before you know how the story will end. You can debate about your favorite characters or which show reigns supreme every week. And, the shows are imminently accessible because you can watch them from your home. Netflix has enabled us to rewatch our favorite series or introduce great shows no longer on the air to our uninitiated friends at the drop of a hat. And in so doing, we get to introduce our loved ones to our favorite gifted yet dysfunctional alphas.