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


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.


Newman, ‘Seinfeld’

"Helloooo, Newman." Wayne Knight's nosy neighbor was such a noxious presence in the lives of Seinfeld's gang of four that he generated a trademark villainous catchphrase from someone else — the sitcom equivalent of the Death Star making Luke Skywalker say  "I have a bad feeling about this." Whether part of the vast Postal Service conspiracy or all on his own, Newman was a nuisance in human form, and a type recognizable to anyone petty enough to have their own low-key arch-nemesis, which is basically all of us. "Perhaps there's more to Newman than meets the eye," Elaine once mused. "No," Jerry spits back. "There's less."


Head Six, ‘Battlestar Galactica’

Or Cylons: It's Complicated. Played with smoldering menace by Tricia Helfer, "Head Six" was so named because she was the Six-model Cylon (the humanoid robots bent on exterminating humanity) who seemed to exist only in the head of sleazy scientist Gaius Baltar. Maybe she was a hallucination, induced by trauma or guilt over accidentally enabling humanity's partial demise. Or maybe she was some kind of cybernetic transmission who seduced him into triggering the apocalypse. Regardless, Head Six was of the great sci-fi allegory's big ideas about morality, loyalty, deception, technology, and spirituality, all wrapped up in a little red dress.


Boyd Crowder, ‘Justified’

The Joker to Raylan Givens's Batman, Boyd Crowder was the villain whose existence makes the hero possible. Thanks to actor Walton Goggins (who's name sounds the moniker of a Justified villain),  Boyd's Southern-friend charisma helped him blow past a demise the writers planned for his very first appearance and made him as indispensable to the show as Timothy Olyphant's straight-shooting protagonist. Through his many reversals of both fortune and morality, his compelling presence was a consistent throughline no matter which side of the law he wound up on.


Rowan Pope, ‘Scandal’

From Don Draper to Darth Vader, bad dads dominate our collective conception of villainy — and Rowan Pope makes those guys look like candidates for father of the year. As befits the mind-racingly twisty soap/political drama/thriller centered on his daughter Olivia, Papa Pope takes the morally dubious dynamics that make her such a compelling antihero and cranks them up to 11. Anything she can do, actor Joe Morton's cold-blooded black-ops expert can do meaner, and has most likely been doing since before she was born. To him, she's merely one of his many achievements — and as monologues like the rip-roarer above indicate, if he can't have her, no one will.

Boardwalk Empire; Gyp Rosetti; Villians



Gyp Rosetti, ‘Boardwalk Empire’

"Nothing's personal? What the fuck is life if it's not personal?" That's the beauty of the berserk Prohibition Era gangster who stole the third season of Boardwalk Empire — and, nearly, said empire itself — out from under Nucky Thompson's nose. Wish him good luck, tell him it's nothing personal, and he'll take these harmless conversational niceties as insults worth murdering you for. Actor Bobby Cannavale dug into this role like a starving mafioso with a plate of pasta, and the resulting feast won him an Emmy. The sight of him walking through a shot-up whorehouse, blood-soaked and bare-assed naked with an autoerotic-asphyxiation belt still dangling from his neck, is one for the ages; the dude was an animal, and at that moment, it showed.


J.R. Ewing, ‘Dallas’

"Who shot J.R.?" That was the question that commanded the pop-culture zeitgeist of a nation, after the oil-magnate patriarch of primetime got popped. A better question: Given the opportunity, who wouldn't have? As played by Larry Hagman, Ewing was proof of Hamlet's lament "that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain"; no matter how dirty his deeds, he looked like he was having the time of his life. And given the subsequent ascendency of Ronald Reagan's big-business, greed-is-good conservatism, the Dallas villain ended up being as much a prophet as he was a profiteer.


Catwoman, ‘Batman’

Cats have nine lives, but all it took for this particular kitty to attain pop-culture immortality was three. Actresses Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt, and (in the big-screen cash-in movie version) Lee Meriwether each slipped into the black catsuit and slinked their way into the pantheon of Batman villains — no small feat, given that the Caped Crusader has the strongest rogues' gallery in the entire superhero genre. Of course, compared to Cesar Romero's Joker, Frank Gorshin's Riddler, or Burgess Meredith's Penguin, Catwoman certainly had sex appeal on her side, but there's more to her than that. Any connection between this femme fatale and feminism was likely unintentional on the part of the producers, but the way her feline wiles made total fools of the Dynamic Duo spoke, or purred, for itself.


The Borg, ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’

"You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile." For a collective consciousness of cybernetic organisms, the Borg sure have a way with words. While great Star Trek villains from Khan to Q draw strength from their individual idiosyncrasies and performances, the power of this alien race stems from the dystopian sci-fi perfection of the concept, courtesy of writer Maurice Hurley. The idea of a vast, cool, unsympathetic intelligence floating through the remote corners of the universe, absorbing entire civilizations unimpeded for centuries, is exactly the kind of heady stuff that characterized the franchise at its best. Of course, making them look like Hellraiser gone cyberpunk didn't hurt either — nor did briefly assimilating Captain Jean-Luc Picard as "Locutus of Borg," literally turning him into his own worst enemy.


Montgomery Burns, ‘The Simpsons’

When our socialist great-grandchildren use collectively funded time machines to travel back to our era, all they'll need to understand capitalism is this man. Homer Simpson's plutocrat boss (voiced, along with his obsequious minion Smithers, by Harry Shearer) is a man so wealthy that he's completely out of touch with the reality that the rabble experience — and so obsessed with becoming even more wealthy that it almost qualifies as both a mental and phyisical illness. We think we speak for all of us when we say Boo-urns!


Gus Fring, ‘Breaking Bad’

Long live the Chicken Man! It's difficult to overstate how crucial this criminal genius was to the appeal of Breaking Bad's central seasons, which first helped solidify the show's cult following before turning it into a massive mainstream phenomenon. A brutal druglord beneath a legitimate-businessman exterior, everything about this fast-food exec-cum-ruler of a meth empire was as carefully constructed as his impeccable wardrobe and soft, precise speaking voice. (We can still hear actor Giancarlo Espositio croaking "I will kill your infant daughter." Shudder.) He simply seemed impossible to outwit or defeat, which made the times Walter White pulled it off all the more impressive.

Deadwood; Villians; Swearengen



Al Swearengen, ‘Deadwood’

Open the fuckin' canned peaches —it's time to celebrate the cocksucker who made David Milch's wondrous Western what it was. Black of both hair and heart, Swearengen wore many hats, though none were ten-gallon: bar owner, pimp, gangster, multiple murderer, and eventually, ersatz community organizer. Ruling from the Gem Saloon like a spider at the center of a web, he wound up just as ferocious in defending the town as he had been in exploiting it, with his hatred of the rich — and pathological fear of the Pinkertons — exposing a human side to his oily insectoid malevolence. Throughout the series, Ian McShane delivered every word of Milch's gutter-Shakespeare patois like a man savoring the best drink he's ever been poured, making Swearengen not just a great villain, but the prime exponent of a great show.


Bob, ‘Twin Peaks’

Behold, the answer to the question: "Who killed Laura Palmer?" As a being from the extradimensional vortex of evil with the red curtains and zig-zag flooring that was Twin Peaks' visual signature, Bob is a kind of demon who relies on possession to perpetrate his horrible crimes. And while we won't tell you whom he took over to commit the murder at the heart of David Lynch and Mark Frost's still-peerless horror-mystery masterpiece, we will say that his every on-screen appearance, from the truly shocking reveal on down, is the stuff of nightmares. Actor Frank Silva, who screamed and laughed his way through the part like he was possessed, was just a crew member until a couple of coincidental glimpses of him on set led Lynch to create the character for him. The result: the greatest ghoul in the history of television, hands down.

Game of Thrones; Joffrey; Villians



Joffrey Baratheon, ‘Game of Thrones’

Seven gods, seven kingdoms, zero redeeming qualities — the atrocious boy king who bedeviled House Stark was a living embodiment of George R.R. Martin's furious fantasy revisionism: If you're a rich man with a good family name, you can get away with literally anything. In Joffrey's case, this included torture, murder, sexual assault, the beheading of the show's main character (R.I.P. Ned, you were too good for this world), and generally being a sneering little shit. He was so hateful that the few times he received any kind of comeuppance—an insult, a slap, a good old-fashioned regicide at the so-called Purple Wedding — are among the show's most meme-able moments. Actor Jack Gleeson retired from showbiz immediately upon completion of the role; by scraping the bottom, he went out on top.




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



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.


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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