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 as Lorne Malvo, wearing a long grey trenchoat in the snow, holding a suitcase in his right hand

Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo | FX

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

Walter White, wearing sunglasses and a porkpie hat, looking to the left of the frame

Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad | AMC

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

Hannibal wearing a plaid suit, looking up

Mads Mikkelsen In Hannibal | NBC

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

Geoffrey gasping and holding his throat on Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones | HBO

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

Michael Chiklis as Vic Mackey, wearing a leather jacket and pointing his gun

Michael Chiklis as Vic Mackey | FX

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

Mr. Burns is looking down at a platter that has the three-eyed fish on The Simpsons.

The Simpsons | FOX

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, with his legs crossed and a grey suit, sitting and looking into the camera

Moriarty | BBC

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

Frank Underwood leaning over the desk in the Oval Office, looking directly at the camera

Kevin Spacey in House of Cards | Netflix

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

John Lithgow wearing a purple shirt, staring menacingly into the camera

John Lithgow as Arthur Mitchell | Showtime

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 

Eric Cartman, sitting on a couch on the phone, next to a back of chips on his lap

Eric Cartman | Comedy Central

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

Zachary Quinto as Sylar, holding his left arm out, and telepathically choking his foe while looking into the camera

Zachary Quinto as Sylar | NBC

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

Negan, wearing a red scarf, with a barbed-wire baseball bat on his shoulder

Negan on The Walking Dead | AMC

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

Ramsay Bolton, wearing a brown leather vest, and smiling menacingly off to the left of the frame

Ramsay Bolton | HBO

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

The Master wearing a bagging black sweatshirt, smiling and spreading his arms out wide

The Master | BBC

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

David Tennant as Kilgrave, smiling into a microphone against a purple background

David Tennant in Jessica Jones | Netflix

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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