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40 Greatest TV Villains of All Time

From serial killers to cylons, mobsters to murderous moms — counting down the TV characters you love to hate

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Cyborgs and serial killers, crime bosses and capitalist pigs, literal demons and just plain dickheads: Evil takes many forms on television, and rare is the show that would be any good without it. After all, a memorable villain does more than provide someone for the main characters to punch, shoot, or wrestle into a pond in evening attire — they reveal the protagonists for who they are by demonstrating who they're not. And let's face it, they usually get the coolest lines.

Below you'll find the 40 finest villains ever to (dis)grace your TV screen. No antiheroes here: Rather than clog up the list with the Don Drapers, Piper Chapmans, Walter Whites, and Tony Sopranos of the world, who drive their own stories, we stuck strictly with the characters who exist to run the others off the road. And believe us, this crew is the best at being the worst.

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40

Kilgrave, ‘Jessica Jones’

"Jessicaaaaa!" If you've ever been filled with dread simply by hearing your own name called by someone who "loves" you, the telepathic predator no doubt struck a nerve. Actor David Tennant is best known for playing one of TV's most iconic heroes on Doctor Who, and his turn as a villain sees him feed more than a little scenery into his maw. But the Kilgrave concept is so chilling, and so resonant with all-too-real abuse, that the character still belongs in any discussion of TV evil.

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39

Ace, ‘Girls’

The murderous metahuman called Sylar from NBC's Heroes was Zachary Quinto's breakout role, but an even better villain awaited him. That would be Ace, the preposterously awful hipster who blew up the lives of multiple characters in Girls' fourth season. Given the charges of millennial self-absorption frequently leveled at Lena Dunham's dramedy, creating the worst possible Brooklyn stereotype imaginable — from his jaunty cap to his trademark toothbrush, it’s like he was sprung from the same place the fraudulent chocolate brothers bought their beards — to be the core crew's antagonist was a masterstroke. His best line, "Let's take some selfies and get weird," is what the Borg would tell people if it was going to assimilate them into Williamsburg.

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38

Thomas Barrow, ‘Downton Abbey’

Of course, the show's greatest villain is the British aristocracy itself. But if we limit ourselves to actual human beings, then scheming, sneering footman Thomas Barrow takes top billing. Embittered by both life in the closet and the underappreciated existence of the servant class, Thomas takes it out on his fellow employees with DGAF devilishness. Striking actor Rob James-Collier imbues his every scheme with a vibe that's half snake charmer, half snake. But over time, as Thomas' plight deepens — cowardice during the Great War, countless social-climbing attempts gone wrong, his attempts to "cure" his homosexuality — so does our sympathy.

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37

Skeletor, ‘He-Man and the Masters of the Universe’

The action cartoons of the 1980s were full of memorable villains, which made good financial sense:  Many were glorified commercials for toy companies, and kids needed figures for their heroes to fight, right? But of all the big names — Cobra Commander, Megatron, Hordak, Mumm-Ra, the Shredder, the Misfits — Skeletor stands out from the pack. His skull-faced character design is a perfect encapsulation of what a "bad guy" would look like to a child, and that imperious cackling voice (courtesy of actor Alan Oppenheimer) is the sonic antithesis of He-Man's heroic "By the power of Greyskull" battle cry. And most importantly for young viewers, he never wins.

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36

The One-Armed Man, ‘The Fugitive’

Less a villain than the idea of a bad guy, the One-Armed Man was the human maguffin who drove The Fugitive's basic story — the real killer of Dr. Richard Kimble's wife, whom the good doctor was on a quest to catch and thereby clear his name. Played by Bill Raisch, he was only glimpsed a handful of times before the end, but his influence lingers on: He bequeathed his moniker and disability to a prominent Twin Peaks character (real name: Philip Gerard, after the cop tracking Kimble down), and he's synonymous with the mystery culprits that conspiracy theorists and accused killers alike concoct to explain seemingly open-and-shut crimes.

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35

Reverse Flash, ‘The Flash’

You have to hand it to the writers of the show, one of the best and brightest of superhero TV's new breed. (Spoilers ahoy!) After painstakingly establishing scientific genius Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh) as the Scarlet Speedster's yellow-clad, time-traveling opposite number, they then revealed that Wells wasn't Wells at all — he was Eobard Thawne (Matt Letscher), who murdered the man and stole his identity to accelerate his villainous schemes. The whole story is the kind of bait-and-switch a supervillain would love.

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34

The Trinity Killer, ‘Dexter’

Talk about killer casting. Actor John Lithgow had long walked the line between manic and maniac in his performances, comedic or otherwise, but his role as Arthur Mitchell — the so-called "Trinity Killer" was — saw him leap that line in terrifying fashion. Initially seen as a family-man role model, he's revealed to be Dexter's most prolific and disturbing murderer — evil in a way not even our homicidal antihero can stomach. This makes him the titular killer of killers' most formidable target; it also places the people Dexter cares about in grave peril, as he learns to his lasting devastation.

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33

The Gentlemen, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’

Faith, Angelus, Spike, Drusilla, Glory, the Mayor, Dark Willow: Joss Whedon's influential horror-action-teen-drama hybrid had no shortage of memorable baddies, big and otherwise. But sometimes one episode is all it takes to cement your place in the horror hall of fame, and that's the deal with the Gentlemen — the smiling, silent, spectral stars of the landmark episode "Hush." Other Buffy villains may have wreaked more havoc or broken more hearts, but these entities were genuine nightmare fuel.

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32

Constance Langdon, ‘American Horror Story’

We'll say this for Ryan Murphy's over-the-top anthology series: When it comes to creating memorable villains for talented actresses, the show is an assembly line. Take Constance Langdon, the murderous woman scorned at the center of the show's first season, commonly called "Murder House." Leaving a trail of dead bodies and cutting one-liners in her cigarette-scented wake, she was played by Jessica Lange like a one-woman crossover between Sunset Boulevard and The Amityville Horror.

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31

Black Jack Randall, ‘Outlander’

Racist, rapist, killer, colonialist, self-loathing closet case — plenty of actors would take this sadistic British army officer straight into moustache-twirling territory, and Starz's bodice-ripper practically demands it. But Tobias Menzies does something special with Black Jack Randall, glowering and growling through every scene as though he's a man incapable of experiencing pleasure at all, except at the expense of other people. While sexual sadists like Ramsay Bolton on Game of Thrones (on which Menzies briefly co-starred as Robb Stark's doofus uncle Edmure Tully) delight in their depravity, Black Jack is harrowingly joyless.

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30

The Master, ‘Doctor Who’

He's the Doctor's fellow Time Lord, and the entire multiversal spacetime continuum ain't big enough for the both of them. Created to be the Moriarty to the do-gooding Doctor's Sherlock Holmes, the Master has seen a number of incarnations over the course of the long-running British sci-fi series, from Roger Delgado's Satanic approach to John Simm's Tory-sociopath vibe. ("He" is currently a woman, played by Michelle Gomez.) But no matter who plays him or what he looks like, his goal is clear: Conquer the universe, and make the Doctor pay while doing it.

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29

Lucretia, ‘Spartacus’

By any reasonable standard, Lucy Lawless' warrior princess Xena would rank high on a list of TV's greatest heroes. But like the god Janus, she has two faces, and her Spartacus villain Lucretia is the glorious result. Clawing her way up the social ladder at the side of her equally loathsome husband Quintus Batiatus, she views her slaves as little more than sexual playthings and disposable work animals; the revolt led by the couple's prize gladiator is an inevitable response to that kind of cruelty. But there's a tragic element to the fate that befalls her, too — it's not hard to hear echoes of her arc in that of Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones' similarly dangerous grand dame.

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28

Vee, ‘Orange Is the New Black’

For some villains, how they die is almost as important as how they live. Played by Lorraine Toussaint (whose defense attorney Shambala Green would rank high on a list of the best recurring Law & Order characters, by the way), Vee was OITNB's second-season antagonist, a position she earned through psychological manipulation and brute force alike. A Fagin-like figure who used kids like Taystee as drug runners back in the day, she brutally assaulted Red and viciously manipulated Crazy Eyes before escaping. But her freedom was short-lived, thanks to a van-tastic demise that ranks as one of the great TV villain death scenes. Always so rude, that one!

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27

Alexis Carrington, ‘Dynasty’

Few actor/character combinations have ever felt as seamless as Joan Collins's embodiment of Alexis Carrington. She spent her tenure on the glitzy Eighties primetime soap making the lives of her ex-husband, oil magnate Blake Carrington, and his wife Krystle a living hell, all while looking and sounding like she just stepped off the Iron Throne. More than just a schemer, she was a physical threat as well: Her catfights, particularly the knock-down drag-out brawl with Krystle that saw them splashing and thrashing through a pond full of lilypads, were the stuff of legend.

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26

Wilson Fisk, ‘Daredevil’

The kingpin of crime in Marvel's first Netflix series brought a welcome complexity to comic-book black-and-white morality. Yes, he was a vicious ganglord, using an army of interconnected ethnic mobs to clear the way for his even more rapacious white-collar crimes of gentrification. But he was also a softie who genuinely cared about his mom, his girlfriend Vanessa, and, in his own perverse way, the city he tried to rule. The great Vincent D'Onofrio played Fisk like an overgrown toddler — vulnerable one minute and filled with tantrum-like rage the next. The performance risked alienating an audience for superhero media used to clear-cut crowd-pleasers, which is Fisk's boldest move of all.

Yellow King; true Detective; VIllians

HBO

25

The Yellow King, ‘True Detective’

You know you've got a good villain on your hands when he manages to drive not just his victims but the entire viewing public insane. The figure at the center of the anthology show's first season was the minotaur in its labyrinth of occult references and Satanic-panic creepiness  — a boogeyman who turned out to be Errol Childress, odd-job worker and an enthusiastic serial killer of women and children. But this inbred good ol’ boy was best known as the Yellow King, the hallucinatory identity that Rust Cohle and Marty Hunt hunted for for years. It didn't hurt that he was played by Glenn Fleshler, who's carved out a nice niche as TV’s go-to heavy (see Boardwalk Empire, Hannibal, Billions).

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24

Nina Myers, ’24’

Move over, Benedict Arnold: America has a new top traitor in town. Over the course of  the show's first season — ahem, first day — Nina went from heroic CTU operative to hated, murdering mole, serving as Jack Bauer's archenemy for two more seasons before finally receiving the same lethal punishment she'd doled out to so many others. Actor Sarah Clarke gave Nina a steely-eyed glare and an equally unyielding personality, separating her from the jittery, guilt-ridden double agent Nicholas Brody whom 24 staffers Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa would go on to create for Homeland.

Duck Phillips; Mad Men; Villians

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23

Duck Phillips, ‘Mad Men’

For every Draper, there is an equal and opposite anti-Draper. Not-quite-recovered alcoholic advertising executive Duck Phillips (Mark Moses, in a challenging role) was a recurring thorn in the side of Mad Men's main man, a fact made all the more frustrating by the fact that Don hired him to begin with; he also stood as the single strongest example of Peggy Olsen's terrible taste in men. Whether attempting to shit in Don's office, staging a drunken swing-and-miss brawl with him in the men's room, or (most unforgivably) ditching his family dog, Duck never had his ducks in a row. It didn't make him the office's resident alpha male, but it did make him the perfect foil for Draper's unbeatable combo of looks, lies, luck, and raw talent.

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22

Vern Schillinger, ‘Oz’

Long before he terrified Peter Parker as J. Jonah Jameson or triggered PTSD flashbacks for music majors everywhere in Whiplash, J.K. Simmons was the influential HBO prison drama's equivalent of the Wicked Witch of the West. Only instead of a broomstick and an army of flying monkeys, he had penchant for rape and terrorizing the penitentiary's inmates, with an army of white-supremacist gang members to back it up. And his torment of, and payback by, his nebbishy "prag" Tobias Beecher was the show's most visceral example of Oz's villain/victim dynamic.

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21

The Cigarette Smoking Man, ‘The X-Files’

It was intended to refer to the likely longterm result of his tobacco habit, but this conspiratorial character's second sobriquet, "Cancer Man," is in many ways more apt. He and his shadowy Syndicate ate away the system from the inside, preparing the planet for alien invasion with a ruthless, decades-long cover-up — which, ironically, only Mulder and Scully managed to uncover. Played with weathered gravitas by William B. Davis, he is perhaps the prime example of the mastermind model of TV villainy.

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20

Amanda Woodward, ‘Melrose Place’

Quick: Name a show about a high-powered, highly sexed advertising executive who emerged from an abusive past by seducing, fighting, lying, and occasionally actually earning their way to the top, even faking death to start a new life. Good guess, but Melrose Place did it with Amanda Woodward when Don Draper wasn't even a twinkle in Matthew Weiner's eye. Introduced late into the era-definining drama's first season and played by Heather Locklear, whose stint on Dynasty gave her an impeccable primetime-soap pedigree, Amanda's unpredictable secrets and voracious appetite for the male characters made her a sensation. Like several villains on this list, she was an afterthought addition who wound up taking over the whole damn show.