Mother’s Day is in the rearview mirror, Father’s Day looms up ahead, and all year round, TV gives us reasons not to celebrate. Many of the best dramas and comedies on the small screen are driven by mean moms and bad dads who’ve neglected, smothered, abused, and confused the kids in their care, wreaking havoc well into adulthood. While some are unrepentantly awful, others are far less malignant, doing their best to make sure their issues don’t get passed down like receding hairlines and the family hatchback. To separate the Mommie Dearests from the Mama’s Familys, we spoke to Dr. Donna Tonrey, director of the Counseling and Family Therapy Master’s programs at La Salle University. With her profiles in place, we’ve ranked nine TV parents from best to worst, and didn’t even have to cough up a co-pay.
9. Mad Men: Betty Draper
Waged a lifelong power struggle against her daughter Sally until a terminal cancer diagnosis gave her the strength to call a truce.
“It sounds like the mother may be acting in a courageous way, and the daughter thinks she’s just creating more drama. Typically, we project out what we feel inside. So the mother, who doesn’t seem like she cares so much about her kids, could look like she really cares only about herself, but she really may not care that much about herself either. It’s interesting: Death has a way of making each of us go deeper inside ourselves. It is possible that when the mother was faced with the reality of her own death, she could have gone deeper inside to who she truly is. She may not have been so good at mothering, but that doesn’t mean that she’s not a good person. Maybe she did go into a deeper part of herself and just accepted [her death] in a way that may not make sense to her daughter.”
8. The Slap: Rosie Weschler
Underdisciplined, overindulged, and unnecessarily breast-fed her son Hugo into peak slappability.
“A mother that’s breast-feeding a child at 5 years old is not taking care of the child — the mother’s taking care of the mother. There’s something going on for the mother where she can’t give the child the independence that’s appropriate and needed at that time. She’s getting her needs met over the needs of her child. It’s not just about the breast-feeding, which is probably more of a symptom, in that this mother is taking care of her needs regardless of the impact it has on the child. However, because she is trying to get her needs met by breast-feeding for so long, she may overcompensate by indulging the child in other areas so that she can continue to get her needs met in a way that some part of her probably knows is inappropriate.”
7. Homeland: Carrie Mathison
CIA agent who ditched the daughter she had with a double agent for terrorists, then almost drowned the kid in the bathtub when she returned.
“This is a person who knows she would be a bad parent, so she leaves the child in the care of [her sister], someone who she trusts would be a better [guardian]. At that age, an infant bonds with the caretaker; the infant’s not necessarily damaged at this stage because the infant doesn’t know any better, because the infant’s being taken care of. Now she comes back, and possibly when this baby’s going under the water, she doesn’t really let it happen, but she lets herself see the possibility of it happening. It becomes an avenue for her to say, ‘See, I’m a bad parent, let me get outta here,’ a way for her to give herself another opportunity and excuse to exit.”
6. Veep: Selina Meyer
Bumbling politician who failed upwards into the Oval Office, yet still manages to somehow be even less attentive to her daughter than she is to the stewardship of this great nation.
“This parent sounds really narcissistic. She is really only taking care of herself, and doesn’t have a regard for her child. A teenage or adult child still needs the approval and support of their parent, so if this parent is truly putting herself and her work ahead of her child, she’ll fail. A child is entitled to expect that a parent come through for them in the way that they need, emotionally. They brought them into this world, and they have this responsibility. A child is right and correct to expect that; however, it doesn’t always mean that they get that. So in this particular case, this child is not getting that, even though she deserves it.”
5. Empire: Lucious Lyon
Recording mogul and family patriarch who literally tossed his gay son in the trash, among countless other crimes.
“Yes, he’s an unyielding father, and he has a problem with homosexuality. But the question is, does this put a question about his own masculinity in mind? It could be that he’s questioning his own self; he’s obviously projecting all his anger onto his children. Bad parenting? Yes. But my guess is that there’s something deeper going on with this man: What are others going to think? What will people think of me? The complexity is beyond just parenting. There sounds, to me, to be something very personal going on.”
4. The Americans: Philip and Elizabeth Jennings
Husband-and-wife Soviet spies who’ve let their teenage daughter Paige in on their big secret.
“What makes this particularly powerful and problematic is that this child is 14 years old, which is around the most difficult time of development. At that time, the child, rightfully so, is trying to form her own sense of identity. She’s trying to pull away from her parents in order to do that — especially the same-sex parent, the mom — while at the same time still needing to go close. It’s kind of a push-pull. Now we have a child going through what they’re supposed to be going through, and we have parents not only letting this child know that everything’s been a lie but burdening her at a time that is incredibly hard to handle. It’s obviously bad parenting, but it’s also incredibly bad timing.”
3. Game of Thrones: Cersei Lannister
Westeros’s queen of mean, currently using religious fanatics to menace the family of her kingly son’s wife.
“When it’s a parent who’s trying to drive a wedge between spouses, one [of which is their] child, in a sense, that’s no longer parenting. They’re just being … evil. Now they’re manipulating, they’re interfering, they’re purposefully going against another person who happens to also be their child. In a sense, it’s compounded by the fact that it’s a loved one. For a parent to go against their child in that way, I would say, is the ultimate in betrayal.”
2. Bates Motel: Norma Bates
A boy’s best friend is his mother… but normally, friends don’t let friends grow up to be serial killers with Oedipal complexes.
“That’s narcissism on steroids. It’s not really that much different from the mother that we talked about who’s breast-feeding her child at 4 or 5 years old — she’s doing that for herself. This mother’s doing this for herself. That’s that same narcissism. However, there’s so much other damage that’s being done to others as well. But at least he feels loved. It’s unhealthy, it’s improper, but he feels it.
1. Scandal: Rowan Pope
Cold-blooded covert-ops expert who treats his daughter Olivia like an enemy combatant.
“You’re never really sure whether this man loves his daughter or he doesn’t. You don’t know even if he would kill her or not! If he wouldn’t kill her, that’s an indication that he loves her — but that’s pretty sick, if the only way you can tell that a parent loves you is that he wouldn’t kill you. [Laughs.] The way that role is [written], if it wasn’t his daughter, she’d be dead. I think that it’s trying to indicate that he does have love for her. But even in the most unhealthy, the most abusive, the most damaging relationships, typically, at the core of it, a parent loves their child. It’s not healthy love, but I would just say there’s something that we’ll call love that stops him from killing her. But Olivia never feels it. She never knows that she’s loved. She can never be sure. As bad as Norma Bates is, at least Norman feels it.”