There’s a sweet, full-circle moment in the Breeders series finale on FX that wouldn’t have been possible without the rage, narcissism, and dereliction of Paul Worsley (Martin Freeman) these past four seasons. After years of dissecting and addressing the very worst traits of fatherhood, it’s a well-earned payoff that not many — if any — other series have accomplished.
The world is full of bad TV fathers, thanks to the one-dimensional Frank Gallaghers and Homer Simpsons out there. It’s also rife with aspirational TV Land dads like Jack Pearson or Philip Banks. But where are the complicated dads? The ones who try their best but continuously fail? Who are ready to give up? Those who represent the real-life complexities of modern-day fatherhood and all of the exhaustion, anger, love, and existential questions that come with it?
Over the Breeders run, Paul Worsley has proved that fatherhood is more than just one thing, and it isn’t always pretty. From the opening act in Episode 1, as Paul tried to talk himself off the ledge and not shout at his rambunctious children so he could work (only to cuss them into a shocked silence instead), it was clear this was a game-changing take.
Sure, there are many male antiheroes and even more think pieces dedicated to why viewers love them. Most of these men are also terrible fathers. But those Tony Sopranos, Walter Whites, and Don Drapers are products of their external worlds, not their home lives. Their decisions affect their families and create tension, but their families aren’t the ultimate reason for their continued bad behavior.
In that category of TV fathers, Paul Worsley stands alone.
As Breeders progressed, both in story and timeline, it often created the sense that life was much better for this guy before he became a dad. He loved his kids, but home life was far from idyllic. Road trips turned into nightmarish bathroom breaks. Bonding moments never panned out how he planned. His children weren’t into the same things he was, and he didn’t know how to connect with them. Selfishly, he didn’t always want to, because that would require putting in extra work, and isn’t being a dad already exhausting enough?
Then there was the rage — the sheer, blinding rage. It isn’t until you become a parent that you realize just how extreme your emotions towards your child can be. Many speak of loving their kid so much they would die for them, but at the same time the gut-deep anger that a misbehaving tot can produce is blinding, scary, and overwhelmingly guilt-inducing.
Paul’s journey with his rage isn’t every parent’s story, but it is an incredibly relatable one. That’s why it is so essential that Breeders never shies away from what that type of rage represents: a loss of control, the mourning of your old life, and the hopelessness that can overwhelm you when you realize this is your new normal.
Paul’s inability to embrace the positive aspects of parenting and his hyper-focus on small injustices or blips were his parenting downfall. His fury spilled over into his work life and affected everyone around him, in particular his wife Ally (Daisy Haggard) and her relationships, as she doled out her equally complex take on motherhood.
This wasn’t a show with teachable moments or saccharine heart-to-hearts making up for bad behavior at the end of these blowouts. As Paul’s rage festered and simmered, it created a slow burn that allowed showrunner Simon Blackwell and the rest of the writers to explore what it can do to a marriage and how children growing up in such an environment might develop. By the end of Season 2 both (now older) children had developed anxiety, for example. Ava (Zoë Athena) was scared to be anything but perfect for fear that she would disrupt the calm. Luke (Alex Eastwood), who often doubled as his father’s therapist in later episodes, snapped during one of Paul’s verbal tirades and punched him in the face.
That last incident was a pivotal scene that allowed the show to further address some of these TV dad tropes head on. Paul discovered how peaceful time to himself could be when he moved out so Luke could heal, as the show explored the reasons a father might disconnect and become absent. When Paul developed an emotional bond with another woman and began discovering himself again, it led to conversations surrounding emotional infidelity.
As Paul and Ally explored the path of divorce, they began to question who they were with and without each other, and wondered when, if ever, it would be “their time.” With aging parents and Luke expecting his own baby in Season 4, the answer was never. Once you begin breeding, you’re locked in for life. The best you can do is dig in and enjoy the ride, because even though there are ups and downs, it’s a ride worth taking.
Paul and Ally realized that in this season’s pivotal “No Kids” episode, when they took a planned family trip without the children. Spending time with each other away from their now-adult(ish) kids forced them to face some hard truths. Paul’s biggest growth moment — speaking to an employee about the kids in the adults-only pool rather than staging a giant confrontation — proved that things do get easier. But the episode also highlighted just how much parents with older children can miss the chaos of the past.
It’s hard to understand how accustomed you’ve become to something until it’s gone, at which point you’re in a better place to look back and realize the mistakes you’ve made along the way. Paul may remember singing a song to his son in a public restroom so that he would feel more comfortable, but Luke’s memory of Paul yelling at Ava that same day trumped it. Parenting is embracing the good and the bad, and knowing you’re not perfect. It takes more than love; it also takes showing up and trying. Over and over again.
By the time Paul and Ally got that phone call letting them know their grandchild was on the way more than a month early, Paul was ready to be a true support system to his son. That led to the aforementioned full-circle moment in the finale, when Paul recognizes what would have supported him to be his best self back then. As the series wraps, the hope is that he can provide that support to Luke in an honest way. It’s a cycle-breaking moment that may help Luke do better with his own child and avoid repeating those mistakes of the past. Or, perhaps not.
After all, the parenting path is different for everyone and no one is perfect. Breeders, which was inspired by Freeman’s own fatherhood journey, has always been honest about that — even when those imperfections were downright ugly. It’s a show that rewrites the narrative on “bad dads” and instead showcases all of those honest trials and tribulations that make up the dad life.
The Breeders series finale airs September 25 at 10:00 PM ET on FX. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Amber Dowling is a Toronto-based freelancer, CCA member and former TCA president. Her work has appeared in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Metacritic, The Globe and Mail, Playback and more. Follow her on Instagram: @amber__dowling.