Recently I’ve seen theories about Booth-the-gambler in a number of places (not just Toberlove’s recent post, but elsewhere as well.) I enjoy them – I like thinking through the different ways people view the characters and the show.
But there’s a position I’ve not seen, (which doesn’t mean it’s not out there, of course) and, well, fair’s fair, right?
First, a disclaimer or three:
Addiction is a sensitive topic for many. Statistically, there are people reading this blog who’ve been affected by addiction – either in a family member or in their own lives, and I want to be sensitive to that. Nothing I say here is intended to diminish those experiences. In fact – I’m a child of addiction. I can say with Booth, ‘my dad drank.’ (Based on what we know of Booth’s childhood, my experiences were both better and worse than his.) I’m also not unfamiliar with gambling addiction due to another close male family member.
And what I know from all that (plus that psych degree I’ve mentioned before) is that people aren’t round pegs to be shoved into square holes, perhaps especially in their pathologies. As a psych student, I benefited from research on Adult Children (of Alcoholics, etc.). I figured out why I did some of the things I did, and what truly healthy alternatives were.
But I deeply resented – still do – being told that I must react a certain way because of my childhood, that I was foreordained to behave in self-destructive ways because my father was an alcoholic. It’s not that we can’t learn from looking at some of the common behaviors, but when we stop seeing people as individuals…we can do as much damage as the addiction.
Okay, enough of that…time to think about one of my favorite topics, Seeley J. Booth. What I want to do here is to consider what we really know about his gambling, as well as what we don’t know, and go from there.
The show tells us quite a bit, but leaves out a lot as well. We know that he was gambling before he met Brennan – we see him playing billiards for money right before they met. We know that Cam knew he was gambling and called him on it – at least in the sense of letting him know she wasn’t fooled.
We see him tell Brennan he’s got a gambling problem, ‘but is dealing with it.’ We then see him make a deliberate choice not to gamble after Brennan leaves in the cab.
We don’t know how much time has passed between that point and The Soldier on the Grave because we don’t know how long they’ve been working together at the end of S1 in terms of the show. But it’s presumably well over a year, possibly closer to two, when he tells his buddy Hank that he’s been going to GA meetings.
In The Woman in the Sand, we learn that he did the Vegas strip with Frankie when they returned from the Gulf. Earlier, he’d told Brennan that his first time, he’d walked in with $35, won $10,000 and then blown it all the following night – plus wiped out his ATM trying to get it back. We don’t know for certain that that first time he tells her about and the time with Frankie, post-war, are the same, but there’s also nothing to indicate they weren’t. So it seems possible he started gambling after returning from war. We also learn that craps ‘was his game’ despite the billiards he was playing when he and Brennan met. He’s not limited to one game.
In The He in the She, he and Sweets make a casual bet on who’s right (Booth loses). Neither Brennan nor Sweets comment on it in respect to his gambling.
In Fire in the Ice, he tells Albie he’s reformed.
In The Couple in the Cave, he says about an aspect of AA, that “It’s a good way to assess the, you know, damages they’ve done in their lives and make amends” which leads the woman they’re talking to to assume he’s in the program. His response is to say, “Well, I’m a gambler but I haven’t laid a bet in years — but I do miss the coffee here though.”
To the best of my memory, those are the scenes/episodes where his gambling past is addressed.
But there’s a lot we don’t see, things I’d expect to be present given some of the assumptions I see about him in respect to his gambling.
Parker would have been about three when Booth and Brennan have that first meeting, when Booth is clearly gambling. We know from several episodes that Booth and Rebecca’s relationship isn’t always smooth sailing…and yet, when she tells Brennan why she turned him down, she doesn’t mention his gambling. It simply doesn’t appear to be a factor in how she viewed him when she refused him, or now, for that matter. She doesn’t have stars in her eyes over him – she’s furious with him when he does the background check on her boyfriend – but she never expresses any reservations about his role as father. She views him as a good dad, and tells both Brennan and then Booth himself that. She doesn’t qualify it in any way, doesn’t say, ‘you’ve been a marvelous father since getting your act together on the gambling front.’ And that tells me that Parker has never suffered due to Booth’s gambling. Booth has never neglected to pick him up because he lost track of time at a game, and Rebecca doesn’t strike me as the kind of woman to call him a ‘wonderful father’ if he’d missed support payments due to gambling.
It’s just not there.
Another person who never references Booth’s past as a gambler is Jared. He’s critical of him – in a non-direct way – while trying to make himself look like the successful one to Brennan in Con Man in the Meth Lab, and he’s furious with him (justifiably so, IMO) in Dentist in the Ditch, but he never throws the gambling in his face. Not when Booth calls him on his own drinking, not over the background check Booth did on Padme. It’s simply not an issue. To be fair, that may not mean as much as Rebecca not referencing it because if Booth really didn’t start gambling until after the war, Jared may not have been around Booth often enough to be impacted by it.
It’s hard to tell how often they saw each other during Jared’s early years in the Navy, but perhaps it was seldom enough that Jared was unaware of what was going on, particularly since Booth probably went to some effort to hide it. Jared seems to have a very narrow, not entirely accurate view of Booth in the first place which may have made that easier. Still, it’s odd that if he was aware of it at all that he didn’t throw it in Booth’s face at some point when angry or trying to prove he wasn’t just the little brother screw-up. And no matter how seldom they saw one another during those years, if Jared didn’t know about it, it says something about just how big of a role gambling was playing, or wasn’t, in Booth’s life.
Most people I know who have someone in their life with an addiction are aware of it on some level. They may pretend not to be, but they’re aware of it. And Jared’s so frustrated with their roles it’s hard to imagine him not using it as a weapon if he’d known about it.
Pops doesn’t mention it, either, and I think he’s more significant in that way than Jared. He’s not the clueless younger brother who never really got to know his protective older sibling. Pops knows him, and I don’t think either not seeing one another often nor Booth’s attempts to hide it would have mattered.
Another thing we never see is evidence that not gambling now is hard for him. In fact, apart from that night outside the pool hall after Brennan leaves in the cab, we don’t see him react to any gambling situation he encounters. I don’t think he looks particularly tempted while in the casino in Vegas, nor when Albi tries to tempt him in Fire in the Ice.
Here’s a question: how does Booth view himself? He tells Albi he’s reformed and tells Hannah he’s not a betting man, while telling Brennan, “I’m the gambler,” in agreement with Sweets. I expect the answer varies according to what he’s talking about, but will say that I don’t think his personality is big on risk taking generally. He’s a sniper, which is, of course, a very risky job, but it involves a lot of precision and patience, not so much impulse. And if he was generally bent towards impulsive behavior or taking risks, I don’t know that it would have taken Sweets’ prompting to get him to take the risk he does in the 100th.
Then again, perhaps one of the reasons he gambles is because he’s not normally impulsive, and sometimes just wants to let go and see what happens.
So what am I saying? Not that his gambling past isn’t important. He may refer to himself as reformed when talking to Albi and may tell Hannah he’s not a betting man, but he agrees with Sweets in the 100th when he tells Brennan, “I’m the gambler.” But one way mental health professionals evaluate addictive behavior is through consequences to the individual and those around them. And the obvious places we might look to see consequences from Booth’s gambling don’t show any.
That’s not unusual. My friend thevaliumsofa reminded me that 75-80% of addicts lead functional lives. In other words, they still function normally in society, to varying degrees. There’s also a continuum of consequences. On the one end, for a gambler, we might have the homeless guy who’s gambled away everything and yet spends the few bucks he gets on lottery tickets, while on the other hand, we might have someone …who looks suspiciously like Booth, with very few outwardly obvious consequences. My family member was in the middle somewhere. He’s in his 70’s now and has never missed a mortgage payment or any other bill…but he did miss seeing his sons grow up because he spent every weekend playing poker or going to casinos.
Booth spent, that we know of, at least two years going to GA meetings, and based on his comment to the woman in The Couple in the Cave, seems to have believed there were people in his life he needed to make amends to. I’m not discounting those realities even while noting that we don’t know the details. Any of them. I realize the show doesn’t show us everything. It can’t. But given what we do see of his relationship with Rebecca, wouldn’t we expect her to comment on it if it had been a factor?
Another thing we don’t know is what his triggers are, if he has any. People assume he does – Brennan does, in fact, in The Woman in thee Sand, when she likens being in a casino to taking an alcoholic into a distillery. But while there are viewers who keep expecting him to fall off the wagon, he never has. Not when his life was turned upside down by a brain tumor, not in response to Brennan’s rejection, not in response to being back in a war zone, and not in response to Hannah’s refusal of his marriage proposal.
I suspect that the one that might have come closest was the return to Afghanistan. As noted above, the only clues we’re given to when he may have started gambling were those in Woman in the Sand, which make it seem possible his first experience was that $10K win/loss while with Frankie on the Strip when they returned from war. (Though note, we don’t know if it was leave, a reassignment, or when he separated from the army.) Although we know even less about his war experiences time line than we do his gambling, we know he was tortured, that he tried to protect friends, and that he lost guys he cared about.
Addiction is more complicated than people tend to think. For example, with alcoholism, there can be a genetic component – some children of alcoholics become alcoholics themselves, while others drink socially all their lives without issue (consider Booth and Jared in that sense) while at the same time it’s not hard to find alcoholics (and those addicted to other chemical substances) who don’t come from a family with a history of it.
But gambling’s chemical component has to do more with the person, with what’s going on in their brain, specifically in respect to the release of dopamine. I don’t want to go all Brennan here (mostly because I make a really bad Brennan) but when dopamine is released, there’s an intense feeling of pleasure and satisfaction. One of the things that’s been shown to trigger that release is rewards – we do something well, are rewarded for it, and experience pleasure at the accompanying release of dopamine. But studies have also shown that unexpected rewards – those not on a predictable schedule – result in higher releases.
Gambling, almost by definition, is a system of unexpected rewards. The wins never come on any schedule, there’s always an element of surprise which increases the amount of dopamine released. Though I’ve not seen it studied, I have a theory that most serious gambling addicts had a big win very early on. They got a really big reward (Booth’s $10,000, for example) – a massive rush of dopamine and pleasure, and ever after that point, they’re trying to score that big win again, that big hit of dopamine.
The question, or one of them, is how the individual interprets that win. That fate smiled on them? Just that they were particularly lucky that day? Or something else? In Booth’s case, I think the latter might be the answer. As Seels said to me, “Perhaps what Booth is addicted to is being awesome or the best, in which case, he & Brennan share that.” Winning that $10K – and every time he won after that – was a reward in the literal sense in his mind, for being very, very good at the game. No, he didn’t win the next night, in fact, he lost it all and then some. But I’ll bet he was studying the game, figuring out the angles. Learning what he needed to do to be the best, to earn that reward. And I think he did that with every game he took up. We see him win at billiards in the 100th, and I suspect that’s norm.
It seems possible to me, then, that the reason the gambling triggered the dopamine (and thus the intense pleasure we’ll call a ‘high’) is because he likes being good at stuff. He likes being the best, likes being rewarded for that. So gambling becomes a way of guaranteeing those bursts of pleasure…right when he’s coping with the effects of war, torture, loss of comrades, and his own questions about having been a sniper.
When he meets Brennan, he’s already a special agent, and is probably very good at his job, just as being a good father is a priority. He wouldn’t be otherwise. The problem, though, is there’s nothing to challenge him, really, and thus the appeal of gambling, the chasing after those highs that prove another skill set. But then Brennan does challenge him – not just professionally, to be the best at what he does because she is, but also personally. She intrigues him and then rejects him.
So now there’s something he wants more than those bursts of pleasure/rewards he gets when he wins a game. He wants her, wants to be worthy of her. So he stops gambling, begins to go to GA. Does he need to, if this is all true? Yes, because there’s another component to addiction, and that’s habit. He was in the habit of gambling and even if he wasn’t actively harming himself or anyone else (i.e., by gambling away his rent or forgetting Parker), he might well have needed help in breaking that routine. Plus, free time and boredom are nearly always problems for recovering addicts, so having someone to call, to say to, ‘hey, let’s go grab a bite or take in a hockey game’ can be an important aspect of their recovery.
Does the fact that he stopped gambling because he wanted Brennan mean she somehow replaced it for him? I don’t think so, and here’s why: we’re all addicts in some fashion. While some are more sensitive to dopamine than others (perhaps deriving a greater sense of pleasure from it) we all feel good when it releases, and we all seek after what makes us feel good. Most of us don’t equate love with addiction, even if we might say we ‘need’ someone.
Perhaps the clearest indication to me that he’s not addicted to her is what we see in The Boneless Bride in The River. She asks him if she should go with Sully, and he says yes. He’s not wild about the idea, but it’s a thoughtful, sincere response that he gives her. I’ve seen people who were addicted to relationships, and not one of them would have been able to do what he did there.
What about now? How does he view himself, and what role does the poker chip he carries and tosses on the bar at the end of Daredevil in the Mold have? I don’t know, but I wonder if it’s to remind himself of the consequences of gambling, of taking chances. And he throws it on the bar in frustration because he’d taken a risk (a not-very-well-thought-out one) with his proposal, and had it bite him.
I re-watched The Blackout in the Blizzard the other night and was struck by something I’d not really thought about before. When they discuss making love while in the elevator, he has a besotted look on his face. He’s imagining what it would be like to make love to her, and likes the idea a great deal. But then reality intrudes and the man who said in the 100th, “I believe in giving this a chance,” and “there’s no reason we can’t” is now saying, “as a couple, me and you would never…” He’s lost his confidence. He’s not normally impulsive, which is why it took as long for him to approach her as it did in the 100th. But then she turned him down, and his efforts to get over her with Hannah blew up in his face. He’s not the best at anything at the moment, particularly relationships…or feeling worthy of love, perhaps.
Ah. You see, when I consider Booth, it’s not his gambling that I see tripping him up (as is probably clear from this post.) But the weight he carries from being the child of a drunk? Yeah, that causes him to stumble at times, in a variety of ways. Not as often as some think, I believe, but it’s there, and takes a toll on him – and his relationships.
So in my follow-up post, I’ll look at that, at the effects on him of being the child of an alcoholic, and the difference Brennan has made for him there.
(Note: several people commented on aspects of this, but it flat-out could not have been written without thevaliumsofa’s assistance.)