Television is one of the best places for a villain to grow. Movie villains are great, but they’re confined to a two hour runtime and a strict three act structure. With television, there’s a long, serialized storyline that could go on indefinitely, so there’s the time and space to really develop your antagonist. It’s like with comic books. The reason that the dynamic between Batman and the Joker is so compelling is that we’ve been reading about it for almost eighty years. Their unusual relationship has been developed and evolved to the point where they’re perhaps the most interesting hero/villain combination in all of fiction. That’s why TV villains are so compelling. The writers have dozens of episodes in which to flesh them out. Hell, some villains even start off as good guys and slowly start to turn, because there’s time to do that! There are some villains who manipulate you into liking them, even though they do some of the most abhorrent things you’ve ever seen (such as taking Glenn’s eye out with a baseball bat). TV has given us many, many complex and flawed and deeply troubled villains to feast our eyes on over the years. Here are the 10 most menacing!
10. Robert Daly
The most devilishly brilliant thing about the writing of the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister,” the dark Star Trek/VR satire that opened the recent fourth season, is the way it presents its central character Robert Daly to you. You start off feeling sorry for the guy – his key card doesn’t work, no one got him a coffee, his office gets mixed up with the bathroom, he’s been overshadowed by the CEO etc. – but then we start to peel back the layers of his psyche. He starts to get weirder and weirder as the episode goes on. First, we see that he likes to stare at pretty women from across the office. One layer is peeled back. Then we see that he’s been taking the DNA of his co-workers so that he can create digital clones of them to kiss and beat up. Another layer is peeled back. Then we see that when he doesn’t get his way, he psychotically takes away someone’s face as revenge or brings in a clone of their child just so he can kill the kid in front of them. And all the layers come drooping back. This is a truly psychopathic individual. No wonder nobody ever gets him a coffee. Some critics have compared Daly to Harvey Weinstein in his abuse of power and sexual perversions, which is another interesting (and sinister) angle.
Would you believe that Jerry only actually speaks the words, “Hello, Newman,” a total of 15 times over the course of the entire series? It seems like he said it every single week! Jerry’s contention with the United States Postal Service worker Newman was always a good source of humor in the series. Wayne Knight’s performance as the devilishly menacing villain was always so delightfully over the top that he was a joy to watch. To add to the mystery of this enigmatic character, his first name is never revealed. When we see his business card, it simply says: “NEWMAN.” However, Jerry doesn’t buy any of this enigmatic stuff about Newman. When Elaine suggests he’s “a mystery wrapped in a riddle,” Jerry quips that he’s “a mystery wrapped in a Twinkie.” Another thing that’s never revealed is why exactly Jerry hates Newman so much. The real Jerry Seinfeld has explained, “The real answer for why I hated Newman was because it just seemed funny to hate Newman…Everybody has one very eccentric friend that is kind of out there. You’ve got your friends that are like you, then you have that one friend that’s really not like you at all and that’s what you like about them – they’re kind of an outer orbit. And their friend is someone you cannot deal with at all…[but] there was no real reason for me to hate Newman. He never did anything bad to me. It was just fun. Fun to hate him.” Well, either way, he’s an iconic villain – and so much fun!
8. Lorne Malvo
A lot of cinephiles were extremely skeptic when FX announced their plans to adapt the Coen brothers’ black comedy classic Fargo for the small screen. How dare they?! That’s a cinematic masterpiece! Don’t you dare touch it! That was the general consensus. But Noah Hawley sure put those naysayers in their place with the utterly brilliant first season of the show, which told a dark, grisly, funny, unusual, pitch black, surreal story of its own about the relationship between the timid and repressed salesman Lester Nygaard and the deeply mysterious Lorne Malvo. The character of Malvo is uniquely haunting, and that is reflected in the addictive performance by Billy Bob Thornton. You can’t take your eyes off of him! He does the most terribly brutal things, and yet he’s also really amusing. Thornton delivers every one of Malvo’s lines in a beautiful deadpan fashion to show you that this is a man who knows exactly what kind of person he is, exactly what he’s doing, exactly how terrible and immoral it is, and he doesn’t care one bit. The genius of the character is that you start asking yourself halfway through the season if Lester is more evil than Malvo – but it was Malvo who started him on this dark road. Before Malvo showed up, Lester was just a mild-mannered schlub.
7. Sideshow Bob
Sideshow Bob, whose full name is Robert Underdunk Terwilliger, Jr., has always been one of the most sinister villains in The Simpsons – and this is a show in which Mr. Burns and Fat Tony make up the rest of the villain roster, so it’s saying a lot. Anyone who would dedicate his entire life to plotting the murder of a 10-year-old boy is clearly a very disturbed and sick-minded individual. He definitely has a few screws loose – but he knows what he’s doing. He’s a very smart guy. He graduated from Yale University with a PhD. He’s just a psychopath, that’s all. No matter how diabolical his plans to kill Bart are, Sideshow Bob always manages to fail miserably. But each time, he seems to get closer and closer to actually doing it. Kelsey Grammer was the perfect choice to bring his rich, brooding voice to the role of Sideshow Bob, and he’s been erring between the pure evil side and the goofy and downtrodden side of the character for years. Sideshow Bob has been consistently popular with both fans of the show and critics for decades. IGN ranked him to be the second best “periphery character” on The Simpsons (second to the iconic Troy McClure, of course).
6. Marlo Stanfield
There were plenty of drug lord characters depicted in The Wire over the years, but none of them were as brutal or as violent as Marlo Stanfield. He was given the number 2 spot in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 40 Greatest TV Villains of All Time. When the cops brought down the Barksdale organization, a gaping hole was left in the Baltimore drug trade, and Marlo Stanfield was the one to swoop in and fill it. He rose to the top of the game pretty quickly, and do you know how he managed that? By being ruthless! Marlo was a guy who was willing to stop at nothing to make his way to the top, and he gets there. His attorney gets him cleared of all charges brought against him and his drug empire makes him a multimillionaire. But he’s not the go-getter that Stringer Bell was. Stringer wanted to be a successful businessman, even if it meant getting his hands dirty along the way. But Marlo relished the chance to get his hands dirty. At a party celebrating his victory and his success, Marlo doesn’t stick around. Instead, he goes out into the streets and beats up a stranger. For Marlo, it was more about the chase than the catch. The catch was just a nice bonus.
5. Trinity killer
Over the course of eight seasons of the show, Dexter Morgan tangled with his fair share of fellow serial killers. But none of them were more compelling or interesting or, well, downright terrifying than Arthur Mitchell, a.k.a. the Trinity killer, played by the great John Lithgow. In playing Trinity, Lithgow managed to walk a very fine line between his usual lovely family man persona and the sickest, darkest, most menacing murderer you’ll ever see in your entire life. The acting was phenomenal, as he struck fear into every episode of the fourth season of the show, and his incredible work won him a Primetime Emmy Award. The serial killers that Dexter usually took on were just that – soulless killers. But Trinity was different. He was just like Dexter. He had a family and he was living a double life between being the guy who knifes women to death in bathtubs and the guy who builds houses for the community. Usually with the villains in Dexter, they would get to the end of the season, Dexter would catch the killer, kill them, and that would be that. But season 4 had an added twist. Sure, Dexter caught Trinity and killed him – but not before Trinity got to his wife, Rita.
4. Ramsay Bolton
How many fictional characters are there that you can say you were glad to see dogs eat their face off? It’s possible that Ramsay Bolton is the only one – but that’s because he is the absolute worst! He may be even worse than Joffrey Baratheon. He certainly filled the Joffrey-shaped hole left by that little weasel’s death by poisoning. In the masterpiece of an episode “Battle of the Bastards,” it was going to go one of two ways – either Ramsay Bolton was going to die a brutal death, or Jon Snow was. And thank God it was the former, because that sinister little dude really needed to go. Remember all the terrible, abhorrent things that Ramsay did over the years? He tortured Theon and mailed his severed penis back to his family, he raped Sansa, he skinned the Ironborn alive, he fed members of his family to bloodthirsty hounds – the list is endless. Ramsay Bolton is, without a doubt, one of the most horrible people ever created. George R.R. Martin seems to get a kick out of challenging himself to create more and more monstrous characters. God forbid he should come up with a character who’s even worse than Ramsay.
3. Gus Fring
Breaking Bad fans still have the image of Gus Fring exiting Hector Salamanca’s nursing home room with half of his face burnt off, adjusting his tie, and falling the ground dead etched in their memories, because it’s so powerful and haunting. It was the perfect send-off for one of the most iconic and frightening villains in TV history. The actor Giancarlo Esposito always played the role magnificently (and he’s continuing to do so on the Breaking Bad spinoff/prequel series Better Call Saul since his return in the third season), as he could leave the audience and the other characters in a scene totally unnerved and terrified just by standing there with a smile on his face. He brought a chilling presence to the character, and it made him an unforgettable adversary to Walter White. Gus was a unique villain in that he was a pillar of the community – always kind to his customers and supportive of the local law enforcement – but we were the only ones who knew that it was all a facade. Behind that smile and those good deeds was the leader of Albuquerque’s criminal underworld, a man who would threaten to murder a baby to keep his employees in line. Truly chilling guy.
2. Ben Linus
Ben Linus is one of the most brilliantly complex characters in TV history. For starters, his introduction was pretty mind-blowing. We’ve come to take it as commonplace that there are other people on the island in Lost, but the revelation that there is a whole other group of people that inhabit this island called “the Others” was a real shocker back in the day. Ben is their leader, and he errs between sympathetic and pure evil, which is an extremely difficult line to walk. Most characters are either one or the other, but Ben manages to be simultaneously both. He was just good enough (or rather manipulative enough) for Jack and the gang to keep him under their wing and protect him from anyone who wanted to hurt him, but he was also capable of some really awful things. Remember when he killed Locke? He’s a heartless, soulless, callous dude. But he’s also a very smart dude, so he was able to worm his way back into Jack’s bosom, no matter what he did wrong. The fantastic Michael Emerson never failed to captivate his audience in the role of Ben, and he was duly rewarded with many awards, including an Emmy.
Negan had to be number one. He’s the reason why most people even watch The Walking Dead anymore. It’s some feat for a show to bring in a villain who uses a barb wire-wrapped baseball bat to beat the living hell out of the show’s most beloved character, leaving him as nothing but a puddle of blood and guts, and then subsequently go on to take his place as the new most beloved character. But it’s impossible to resist Negan’s smirk and the witty, expletive-ridden remarks he makes, and it’s especially impossible to resist the charm that the fiercely brilliant Jeffrey Dean Morgan brings to the role. For better or for worse, even though he’s a terrible and sadistic person who does the most abhorrent things you’ll ever see on television, Negan is always a joy to watch! That’s why Morgan has picked up a Critics’ Choice Award, an MTV Movie Award, and a Saturn Award. Negan came along at a time when The Walking Dead was on the rocks. The show needed a good shaking up, and we got that in the form of a mesmerizing, jaw-dropping, unforgettable new villain. Negan is the villain you both hate to love and love to hate. It must be a very difficult balance to strike, but somehow the masterful Morgan makes it seem effortless.