15 TV Show Villains That Everyone Loves to Hate
A good villain is hard to pull off, especially in the medium of television, when a villain needs to remain conceivably threatening and entertaining on a recurring basis. The villains that succeed in doing both tend to stick with viewers, sometimes even overshadowing the protagonists of the series in viewers’ minds.
Let’s take a look at the greatest TV villains in recent memory to see what makes them so singularly terrifying, involving, or even funny. The following are ranked in order from least to most hated — you won’t believe what villain ended up in the No. 1 spot.
15. Lorne Malvo, Fargo
Billy Bob Thornton brought a certain smarmy charm to the character of Lorne Malvo in FX’s Fargo, playing a smiling drifter who loves to kill almost as much as he loves to pervert the morals of others. His influence transforms put-upon everyman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) into a monster in a matter of months.
Thornton’s portrayal of Malvo, sporting a bad haircut and mischievous smile, wins out for the sense of pure, gleefully deceptive evil — half prince of darkness, half innocuous next-door neighbor.
14. Walter White, Breaking Bad
Breaking Bad had no shortage of memorable villains, from the short-fused maniac Tuco to the collected kingpin Gus Fring, whose outer cool hid the potential for violent, vengeful outbursts. Ultimately, however, the protagonist Walter White became the most imposing of them all, going from cancer-stricken chemistry teacher to meth kingpin with terrifying efficiency.
What Walter White became is almost as scary as the process of watching him become it.
13. Hannibal, Hannibal
To be fair, Hannibal Lecter didn’t originate on television, but his namesake series expanded the brilliant, sadistic, cannibalistic doctor’s role to create maximum suspense and surprise. The most terrifying aspect of Hannibal, as portrayed here by Mads Mikkelsen, is knowing that his scheming ways allow him always to be one step ahead of anyone else, leaving the viewers and the series’ protagonists always struggling to keep up. Evil always seems to outpace us, however.
12. Joffrey Baratheon, Game of Thrones
Few villains inspire such outright rage as King Joffrey on Game of Thrones, an entitled young sadist who wields his inherited power as king like a child pulling the wings off of flies. Credit to Jack Gleeson, for having such a punchable facade, and to George R.R. Martin and the series’ writers, who manage to distill our hatred of the upper classes who abuse their power without regard for the little people into one spectacularly hateful character.
11. Vic Mackey, The Shield
Years before Walter White became the world’s favorite good guy turned bad, Michael Chiklis was playing crooked Los Angeles detective Vic Mackey. His role as an aspiring family man was often challenged by his own inability to stay on the straight and narrow. Over his run as the show’s antihero, he robbed drug dealers, got his friends killed, and eventually sold his surviving friends out to the police in exchange for his own safety.
10. Mr. Burns, The Simpsons
Who says a villain can’t be funny? Mr. Burns manages to be both an imposing villain and the butt of a thousand jokes, for his advanced age and weak, skeletal frame, among other things. Like most Simpsons characters, Mr. Burns represents one facet of American society, embodying the greedy, withered billionaire whose corporate interests always exceed the human ones of other Springfield-ians. I
n theory, Burns hits uncomfortably close to home, and in practice (particularly in the show’s early years), he generates more belly laughs per minute of screen time than almost any other character on television.
9. Moriarty, Sherlock
Moriarty, the official nemesis of detective Sherlock Holmes, never did much in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, but the updated BBC version of the source material turned him into a mad shadow-version of Benedict Cumberbatch’s upright Sherlock. A consulting criminal instead of a consulting detective, Andrew Scott portrays the enigmatic villain as a cackling but brilliant madman who believes himself superior to others and truly enjoys tormenting Sherlock, who he considers his only equal.
The character is all the more effective for his sheer commitment (see: the final episode of Season 2) and for the questions he raises about the goodness of our title character.
8. Frank Underwood, House of Cards
House of Cards isn’t high art, but it presents an engrossingly pulpy portrait of American backdoor politics, centered around Kevin Spacey’s manipulative Frank Underwood. With his evil disguised in a cloak of Southern gentleman-style charm, Underwood is able to maneuver up the political ladder speedily, while intriguing viewers who can’t help but wonder what he might do next.
While it’s often fascinating to see villains who exist on the fringes of society, Underwood thrills because he exists and even succeeds at the very center of our culture.
7. Arthur Mitchell, Dexter
Before going irreversibly off the rails in its final seasons, Showtimes’s serial killer detective series Dexter spawned one of television’s most memorable villains in John Lithgow’s Arthur Mitchell, aka the Trinity Killer.
As with many villains, he’s a reflection of the protagonist, who sees a potential future in Mitchell as a hateful killer tormenting a supposedly-happy family. Lithgow, a character actor with a knack for the villainous, makes the initially unassuming Mitchell appear both evil and tormented, haunted by his past and forced into committing compulsive, ritualistic murders.
6. Eric Cartman, South Park
As South Park has aged, it’s become increasingly about tearing down the fads and pretensions of American culture, rather than being about the lives of four boys growing up within that world. So too have the characters evolved. Eric Cartman has transformed from the annoying, selfish friend we all had growing up into a distillation of all that’s wrong with American culture, a monstrous but consistently hilarious portrayal of racism, xenophobia, greed, hypocrisy, sadism, and opportunism.
That show creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone can make such a monster of a child so entertaining is a testament to the show’s wicked sense of satirical humor.
5. Sylar, Heroes
Before Heroes imploded in its second season, it was a thrilling and promising hybrid series of comic book tropes and real-life melodrama. The writers found their greatest character in Zachary Quinto’s Sylar, a sadist who hunts down heroes so he might slice them open and absorb their powers for himself.
Quinto can be convincing as a sinister stalker and an undetected every-man, and his expanding arsenal of powers makes him ever more threatening. The character is also interesting for his tragic past. Sylar was once Gabriel Gray before his powers drove him into madness. In one memorably tragic episode, we catch a glimpse of the life Sylar could have if the world, and even his own mother, could be convinced to understand him.
4. Negan, The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead has featured a smattering of easy-to-hate villains, but Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s performance as Negan takes the cake. Morgan plays the part in a gleefully violent way that can make your stomach turn, delighting in exacting his brutal form of justice on our primary characters.
Suffice it to say, we’re counting down the days until he’s inevitably vanquished. At the very least, it would infuse an ounce of happiness into a show that’s become a grim slog where people regularly get their brains bashed in.
3. Ramsay Bolton, Game of Thrones
Joffrey Baratheon may have been a horrific spoiled brat, but it’s Ramsay Bolton who takes the title of “most hated villain in Game of Thrones history.” Bolton’s crimes ranged from having his trained dogs devour his stepmother and her baby, to regularly forcing himself on his teenage bride. And all that’s without even talking about a lengthy run of episodes where he tortured Theon Greyjoy into insanity by cutting off his man-parts.
In the end, his defeat at the hands of fellow bastard Jon Snow, and subsequent dog-related death felt all too deserved, sending the eminently despicable Bolton to an early grave.
2. The Master, Doctor Who
In a lot of ways, the Master is the Doctor’s Moriarty. He’s equally as clever and intelligent, is obsessed with his counterpart, and is a master manipulator who emerges from the shadows.
Of all the various villains Doctor Who has featured, he’s the one who’s come closest to vanquishing the Doctor once and for all, and despite eventually suffering defeats, still persists to this day.
1. Kilgrave, Jessica Jones
Marvel may have a problem with crafting compelling villains for their movies, but over on Netflix, they’ve been absolutely killing it. Most prominently, we have Kilgrave, played to sinister perfection by David Tennant. Aside from the fact that he essentially used his mind control abilities to sexually abuse women, the sociopathic, and often unsettling gleeful aplomb he committed those crimes with sealed his fate as TV’s most easy-to-hate bad guy.
Additional reporting by Nick Cannata-Bowman.
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