Jan 22, 2017; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) points to teammates as head coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft look on after the 2017 AFC Championship Game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

“This game is like a narcotic. You would do anything and everything to stop the fear of losing. Anything,” former Patriots exec Scott Pioli muses minutes into The Dynasty, Apple TV’s riveting 10-part docuseries chronicling the rise and fall of football’s most polarizing franchise. “Your relationship with the drug changes. Instead of euphoria, it’s relief. And when you lost, it was dark.”

In doing so, Pioli quickly establishes a prevailing paranoia, a tangible dread director Matthew Hamachek (Tiger) shrewdly globs onto, squeezing the Patriots’ collective angst for every last narrative drop. In a saturated content space rife with pointed vanity projects and empty nostalgia, The Dynasty, through four, heart-pounding episodes, feels different, painting its complicated subjects with the texture they deserve.

A less-ambitious filmmaker would have played the hits, presenting New England’s holy football triumvirate of Robert Kraft, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick as heroic figures, genius disruptors responsible for the most talked-about dynasty of the 21st century. Fortunately, Hamachek has higher aims, eschewing kid gloves for something meatier. An inescapable melancholy permeates the Patriots, who, in transforming from David to Goliath, become prisoners of their own success.

Beneath this bubbling cauldron of male egos is a universal truth. Corrupted by scandal and shameless self-preservation, we see the Patriots unravel (even as their trophy case swells with new accomplishments), illustrating what Hamachek highlights as the documentary’s central conflict—sustained greatness comes at an immense physical and mental cost.

Compared to recent, low-stakes entries in the sports doc genre (Derek Jeter’s decidedly bland The Captain and Johnny Manziel’s equally forgettable Johnny Football come to mind), this undercurrent of tension qualifies as a fresh perspective. The Dynasty doesn’t pander, offering sports fans a welcome trip down memory lane (Brady’s miraculous ascent from unheralded sixth-round pick to the greatest winner in NFL history hasn’t lost much of its novelty) without playing favorites, presenting a flawed, at times bluntly honest portrait of excellence.

As the series nears its halfway point, what’s so striking about The Dynasty is how downright normal Brady, Belichick and even Kraft appeared in their early years, showing few if any signs of the narcissists they would later become, brash alphas corrupted by fame. “With Spygate, I saw a different side of Bill,” noted former Boston Globe columnist Michael Holley, citing the incident as the turning point in Belichick’s relationship with the media, treating them with bitterness and contempt for the remainder of his Patriots tenure. “Nobody ever thinks that when they reach the top, they’re going to change. Nobody thinks that. But they do.”

“You could feel a certain type of energy in the building. A certain type of anger. A certain type of vengeance,” Pioli agreed. “The game of football is all about control, control, control.”

We tend to celebrate this trait in athletes, regarding Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant as dogged competitors obsessed with their craft, determined to win at all costs. Their passion is admirable, though it doesn’t excuse their monstrous, bordering on sociopathic behavior, alienating everyone around them in pursuit of a singular goal. The “Patriot Way” practiced by Brady and so many others afflicted with this debilitating sickness (even as a rookie, Brady was prone to explosive outbursts, denting the walls of his apartment by launching Nintendo controllers whenever he was losing in Tecmo Bowl) isn’t a remotely healthy lifestyle, nor is it anywhere near sustainable. The Dynasty reflects this paradox better than any sports doc in recent memory. Were Brady and Belichick groundbreaking innovators or ruthless tyrants? The answer is unequivocally both.

Hamachek’s sprawling epic invites the audience to question our own definition of success. History will surely remember the Patriots as winners, but given how miserable they were throughout their decades-long dynasty, taking a blood-splattered hatchet to work-life balance, you have to wonder if it was all worth it. Like the transactional hellscapes explored in corporate dramas like Succession and Billions, backstabbing and betrayal come with the territory, pitting Kraft against Bill Parcells (who hijacked the week leading up to Super Bowl XXXI with his aloofness and frustrated body language), Brady against Drew Bledsoe and Belichick versus anyone bold enough to question his genius.

Whether it was Bledsoe appealing to Kraft (who, at the time, was vehemently against Brady starting) or Belichick gaslighting the media in defense of his high school pal Ernie Adams (the brains behind “Spygate”), everything is moving all the time, with alliances formed and broken at a moment’s notice. The result is a dizzying hamster wheel of conflicting interests, all of it threatening to upend a fragile dynasty built on ego and insecurity. Even Bledsoe, one of the more rational and levelheaded personalities depicted in the documentary, could twist the knife when he wanted to, eager to pounce whenever Brady showed even the slightest vulnerability.

The tragedy of it all is that the Patriots—Brady and Belichick, in particular—weren’t always like this. We see glimpses of Belichick in his younger years, amusing himself at press conferences with cheeky one-liners, playfully chasing his kids around the Browns’ practice facility. Brady, his hair perfectly coiffed with immaculate bone structure and a South Florida glow, shared an anecdote about his first Super Bowl trip to New Orleans, recalling Belichick, still sloshed from the night before, congratulating him on a great season. It’s hard to reconcile this image of Belichick with his sinister final form, stone-faced and monotone, rendered lifeless by his pursuit of greatness.

Bearing little resemblance to the flabby twerp that famously bombed his Combine workout in Indianapolis, Brady’s transformation is just as jarring. Before going off the deep end with performance PJs and avocado ice cream, Tommy, as his older siblings called him, was just one of the guys, chugging cold ones with his offensive line while sharing a condo once owned by his Hall-of-Fame teammate, Ty Law.

“You got to be one of the boys,” said Brady, reflecting on his humble beginnings. “Because you don’t ever want your guys feeling like they can’t talk to you.” Brady’s confidence was always evident—he supposedly told Kraft, when introduced, that drafting him would be “the best decision your organization ever made.” But that was before he became a tabloid fixture, schilling dubious wellness products while altering his appearance with hair plugs and other enhancement procedures.

“He wasn’t Tom Brady, the GOAT [back then],” said Law, harkening back to a simpler time, before Brady became his own economy. “He was just Tom.” How did the Patriots go, in the span of only a few years, from plucky underdogs to scheming villains, hatching nefarious cheating plots (Kraft liaison Robyn Glaser describes, in vivid detail, destroying a tape containing evidence of illegal sign-stealing) in search of even the slightest edge, no matter how small or desperate that advantage may seem?

“Everything you do, every day is about winning,” insists Belichick, trading in his ripped hoodie for a too-tight suit, his shark eyes staring blankly, making little effort to hide his discomfort. Brady, for what it’s worth, doesn’t seem nearly as damaged, addressing sensitive subjects with rare candor including the infamous “Tuck Rule” play, which, now that the Statue of Limitations has safely passed, he can finally admit was a fumble.

Like Jesse Pinkman’s realization in Breaking Bad, Tedy Bruschi admits he “sort of liked” being the bad guy, adopting a “f— ‘em all” attitude that would carry New England to new heights. The Patriots wore their defiance as a badge of honor, channeling their frustration into an undefeated 2007 regular season.

“That team lived long enough and won long enough to become the villain,” said Michael Strahan of the archrival Giants, who, of all the Patriots’ enemies, would be the biggest thorn in their side.

What makes The Dynasty so compelling, beyond the incredible access it provides (it’s a marvel Belichick agreed to be in the documentary at all), is the way it balances these themes, confronting New England’s worst demons while still finding ways to humanize them. Though it’s not exactly a tragedy (how could it be with all the championship banners waving at Gillette Stadium?), The Dynasty serves, in many ways, as a cautionary tale of hubris and the pressures of success, sinking under the weight of unrealistic expectations.

About Jesse Pantuosco

Jesse Pantuosco joined Awful Announcing as a contributing writer in May 2023. He’s also written for Audacy and NBC Sports. A graduate of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications with a master’s degree in creative writing from Fairfield University, Pantuosco has won three Fantasy Sports Writers Association Awards. He lives in West Hartford, Connecticut and never misses a Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots game.