40 Greatest TV Villains of All Time - Rolling Stone
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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.

Sopranos

HBO

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Livia Soprano, ‘The Sopranos’

"If you want my advice, Anthony, don't expect happiness. You won't get it, people let you down … It's all a big nothing. What makes you think you're so special?" Has any villain ever wielded a weapon half as effectively as Livia Soprano deployed pure nihilism? This monologue served as a backdrop for six(ish) seasons of her mafia-don son Tony's brushes with death and depravity. Sure, she tried to have him killed, but it was the joyless way in which she lived that truly made her an enemy. The character's story was tragically cut short by the death of actor Nancy Marchand, but in being struck down she became more powerful than Tony could possibly imagine; the damage she inflicted was irreversible.

Stanfield; Marlo; Villains; The Wire

HBO

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Marlo Stanfield, ‘The Wire’

And now an object lesson in evil, courtesy of a purloined lollipop. By the time Marlo Stanfield waltzed out of a convenience store with a stolen sucker, he'd already been established as the crime drama's most ruthless gangster yet — an underworld wunderkind capable of giving both the Barksdale organization and the Baltimore P.D. a run for their collective money. But we wouldn't learn how ruthless until the shop's guard, half-apologetically, told Stanfield he couldn't let that kind of brazen rule-breaking slide. Marlo has the man executed. His crime: the audacity of expecting to be able to do your job without criminals, white-collar or otherwise, enriching themselves by destroying you for it. "You want it to be one way," Marlo tells him. "But it's the other way." If there's an epigraph for David Simon's entire lament for the American city, there you have it.

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Benjamin Linus, ‘Lost’

Like the magical mystery island that changed the lives of those aboard Oceanic Flight 815, Michael Emerson's performance as Ben Linus warped reality around him. Originally cast as a for a brief arc as a castaway who may or may not have been one of the sinister Others, the actor brought such a twitchy, soft-spoken intensity to the work that showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse reimagined the role as the series' Big Bad. Kidnapping, torture, mass murder, the sacrifice of his own daughter — there was nothing Ben wouldn't do to protect the Island from those he deemed unworthy of its secrets.

Yet his nerd-turned-bully demeanor contained a perverse charisma — particularly when played off his odd-couple relationship with Terry O'Quinn's John Locke, the Professor X to his Magneto — that slowly won audiences over. By the end of the series he was almost a co-protagonist, granted a shot at redemption he probably didn't deserve. A series is only as good as its bad guys; Lost had its problems, but Ben Linus was as good as bad gets.

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