The game of thrones may be dizzyingly complex, but there’s one simple rule that still holds true: Like any competition, it requires people to root against. That’s where the characters on our list of the HBO show’s greatest villains come in. Sure, the story prefers to color its conflicts in shades of gray rather than black and white, but that doesn’t stop it from boasting some of the best worst people the small screen has ever seen.
Some are complicated characters who’ve revealed both good and bad sides of themselves over time. Some are products of their culture, conditioned by brutality to become brutal in turn. Some are grade-A psychopaths who get off on murder and mayhem. And one is an immortal ice demon leading a zombie army to exterminate all life on the planet. Where do they all rank? Steel yourself for a journey through the Seven Hells and read on to find out.
30. Euron Greyjoy
“I am the storm, brother. The first storm and the last. And you’re in my way.” Behold, the Game of Thrones villain equivalent of John McClane telling Hans Gruber he’s “the fly in the ointment, the monkey in the wrench, the pain in the ass.” It’s too soon to tell whether House Greyjoy’s black sheep will amount to much beyond killing his kingly brother Balon and forcing his niece and nephew into exile. But if he’s able to make good on his delusions of grandeur — the Ironborn worship the Drowned God; this dude proclaimed “I am the Drowned God” — he’ll be a force to be reckoned with in the show’s closing seasons.
29. Randyll Tarly
In a series with no shortage of bad dads, it takes some doing to stand out from the fearsome-father crowd, especially when you’re only introduced in Season Six. So kudos to the chrome-domed daddy of lovable Night’s Watchman Samwell Tarly, who established his awfulness in a single indelible dinner-table scene. Sure, Sam had told stories of being threatened and disinherited by his old man, but it took seeing the guy up close and personal as he insulted single mothers, body-shamed his own son, and spewed racist invective — in other words, acted like a Republican with a Valyrian steel sword — to drive the point home.
28. Pyat Pree
Daenerys Targayren has faced down several sinister one-percenters in her march through the the faraway cities of Essos, and few of them — from smooth-talking merchant prince Xaro Xhoan Daxos to foul-mouthed slaver Kraznys mo Nakloz — have emerged unscathed. But none made a stronger impression than the kohl-eyed warlock Pyat Pree, whose black magic bedeviled the khaleesi back in Season Two. From creating doppelgangers to kidnapping her “children” (say it with us now: “Where are my dragons???”), the bald sorcerer gave an otherwise lackluster storyline a distinctive Lynchian flair.
Meet the man who defeated the Kingslayer single-handed, so to speak. With a heart and a sense of humor as black as his goatee, Locke was a “hunter” from House Bolton who tracked down Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth after the two were dispatched by Catelyn Stark to free her daughters. Infuriated by the the golden boy’s imperious demeanor, he matter-of-factly chopped off his right hand, reducing the realm’s greatest swordsman to a shadow of his former self. A huge shock in its own right, it also served as an appetizer for the main-course depravity of the tracker’s Bolton bosses, Roose and Ramsay.
26. Septa Unella
“Shame! Shame! Shame!” The fanatic who serves as the High Sparrow’s right-hand woman seared her one-word catchphrase into pop-culture immortality as she presided over Cersei’s walk of shame. A major player in the takedown of Margaery Tyrell as well, she’s every nun who ever humiliated or terrified you in Catholic school, crossed with the above-the-law impunity of a Guantanamo guard.
25. Karl Tanner
He lacks the name recognition of many of his villainous counterparts, but for sheer shittiness, the ringleader of the Night’s Watch mutineers who murdered Lord Commander Mormont is tough to top. Condemned to take the Black for his career as a hitman in King’s Landing, he returned to his old ways north of the Wall when he killed the incestuous wildling collaborator Craster and sparked a gruesome free-for-all of rape and betrayal. Actor Burn Gorman, who made an impression with offbeat parts in The Dark Knight Rises and Pacific Rim, looked uncomfortably comfortable drinking wine from a skull in this role.
24. Ser Meryn Trant
When you absolutely, positively need a knight of the Kingsguard to beat and humiliate a teenage girl, murder a master swordsman, and indulge in outright pedophilia, Meryn Trant is the man to call. A constant presence in King’s Landing dating back to Season One, the worst member of Westeros’ Finest was King Joffrey’s go-to guy for smacking Sansa Stark — which made it all the more fitting that he shuffles off this mortal coil courtesy of her kid sister, Arya, in a Braavosi brothel. The slaying was payback for his own murder of Syrio Forel, the “dancing master” who trained her how to use a sword (quite well, as it turns out).
23. Balon Greyjoy
What the King of the Iron Islands lacked in screentime, he made up for in longevity. Taking advantage of the big Stark-Lannister-Baratheon battle brewing on the mainland, this crusty old sealord rebelled against the Iron Throne for the second time and seized most of the North for good measure. True, conquest was shortlived, thanks in part to the overreach of his impetuous son Theon. But his reign outlasted that of Renly, Robb, Joffrey, and Stannis, all of whom met their makers before his own brother Euron pushed him off that rickety bridge.
22. Lysa Arryn
Mother knows breast! The Lady of the Eyrie ought to have been one of House Stark’s greatest allies, her unusual habit of breastfeeding her royal son deep into elementary-school age notwithstanding. After all, she was Catelyn’s sister, and it was her hot tip about her husband Jon’s murder that triggered the feud between the Northerners and House Lannister. (It turns out, of course, that she was the culprit.) Paranoid and unstable, her sole contribution to the war she helped start was nearly tossing both Tyrion and Sansa out the “Moon Door,” until her newlywed husband Baelish sent her flying instead.
21. The Waif
A girl has a bad attitude. An acolyte in the House of Black and White, this nameless young woman is nominally training Arya to become a Faceless Man assassin. But she seems to have taken a most unseemly glee in tormenting the young Stark, culminating in stabbing the kid in the gut repeatedly as punishment for disobeying the cult’s orders. She’s the Game of Thrones equivalent of the worst bully in school, and all the more memorable for how relatable her villainy is.
Yes, life did this poor kid dirty, but this is Westeros — who hasn’t had their parents brutally murdered before their very eyes? In the case of this farmboy from the far North, wildlings led by Jon Snow’s ex-girlfriend Ygritte and future ally Tormund Giantsbane massacred his village, leading him to join the Night’s Watch and defend the Wall. But when Lord Snow let the Free Folk pass rather than abandoning them to the White Walkers, the angry young man betrayed his boss, luring him to his murder by a cabal of mutineers. He was hanged for his role in the plot — a tragic end for a minor but memorable antagonist.
Weird science: That’s the specialty of the kindly old creep currently serving as Cersei Lannister’s Master of Whisperers. Originally associated with House Bolton, which tells you something right there, this defrocked maester accompanied Jaime to King’s Landing but soon entered the orbit of his sister, who soon put his intelligence and amorality to good use. In addition to heading up her spy network, he also used the forbidden practices that got him kicked out of his order to revive Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane as a blue-faced zombified killing machine. It’s always the quiet ones!
Talk about a devil’s bargain. The grizzled wildling outcast called Craster was an invaluable ally to the Night’s Watch during their forays north of the Wall, providing them with food, shelter, and intel on his fellow Free Folk. But in exchange, the Watch turned a blind eye to his abominable behavior: raping his small army of daughter-wives while handing over his infant sons to the White Walkers so they’d leave him alone. He was a one-man embodiment of both the brutality of the Westerosi system and the grim compromises made by those tasked with upholding it.
17. Theon Greyjoy
It’s almost to remember after spending several years with “Reek,” but before the heir to the Iron Islands was Bolton-brutalized and broken, he was a deeply detestable enemy in his own right. Tasked by his foster brother Robb Stark with rallying the Ironborn to his side; instead, he lead an invasion of Winterfell and murdered two peasant children to cover up the disappearance of Bran and Rickon Stark. At that point it seemed he deserved a fate worse than death — it’s to Game of Thrones’ great credit that it taught us to be careful what we wish for.
16. Ser Alliser Thorne
Westeros’ answer to R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket, Ser Alliser was the Night’s Watch veteran tasked with training Jon Snow, Sam Tarly, and their fellow recruits. The grudge he developed against the aristocratic bastard festered for years, eventually leading to Lord Snow’s assassination. But Thorne was also a stalwart soldier for the Watch who fought fiercely and bravely, proof that even among those who wear the black, things are rarely black and white.
15. Jaime Lannister
Kingslayer, kinslayer, oathbreaker, sisterfucker, child-chucker: The litany of crimes committed by the golden-haired Lannister during the show’s early seasons is undeniably a long one. Indeed, by tossing little Bran Stark out a window for catching him and Cersei in the act, he set the show’s shocking tone right in the pilot. But once he lost his hand to Locke’s knife and befriended Brienne of Tarth, he began turning over a new leaf; as such, he’s perhaps the prime example of how the show fleshes out its antagonists to turn them into empathetic anti-heroes.
14. Viserys Targaryen
As his sister Daenerys said, shortly after her husband Khal Drogo murdered him, “he was no dragon.” But the khaleesi’s older brother and long-time tormenter was a stronger character for his weakness. Played by actor Harry Lloyd with the same aristocratic blonde-1980s-teen-movie-villain vibes that Joffrey Baratheon would later epitomize, he let his guard down long enough before getting his face melted to reveal the frightened, lonely outcast behind the bravado — equal parts malevolent and moving.
“The night is dark and full of terrors” — and the Red Woman was one of them. Before her current role as Jon Snow’s unlikely savior, this priestess of the Lord of Light was firmly on Team Stannis, though it was never entirely clear if she was following him or he was following her. What’s for certain is that she enabled some of his most heinous crimes, from using a shadow-baby demon to assassinate his own brother to burning his delightful daughter Shireen at the stake as a human sacrifice. All this in the name of waging war against the darkness, an end that in no way justified the means.
12. Sandor “The Hound” Clegane
We know him now as the lovable lunk who made up half of a road-movie buddy-comedy duo with Arya Stark, at least until she left him for dead. But back in the day, the Hound was once one of House Lannister’s most fearsome enforcers. His trauma-induced nihilism and embrace of killing as the defining aspect of human nature made him a more unnerving foe than the snide and sadistic nobles who commanded him, soft spot for the Stark sisters notwithstanding.
11. Roose Bolton
Like a shark in human skin, Lord Bolton was the coldest, most calculating villain this side of the Night King himself. Played with quiet Putinesque menace by Michael McElhatton, he insinuated himself into Robb Stark’s inner circle so slowly it was almost invisible, then used his proximity to power to deliver the final, fatal gift at the Red Wedding: a knife in the Young Wolf’s heart. His bastard son Ramsay eventually got the better of him, dispatching him in much the same way, but the knowing smile he shot Catelyn Stark before the slaughter began is still the stuff of nightmares.
10. Walder Frey
Roose’s fellow Red Wedding planner has gotten way less screen time, but it’s quality, not quantity, that counts. And man, does actor David Bradley make every moment with this crotchety old ghoul count. Insulting his guests, berating his legion of failsons, terrifying his succession of child brides — all of these would have earned him a place on this list. But if you’re curious as to why he’s so high up, check out that look he gives as House Stark is slaughtered: that’s a level of glee you’d normally get from watching a wedding band doing a particularly strong version of “Uptown Funk.” He virtually defines the term “the man you love to hate.”
9. Stannis Baratheon
To some fans, he’s Stannis the Mannis, the guy whose uncompromising will to win — and last-minute rescue of the Night’s Watch at the Wall — makes him the one true king of Westeros. To others he’s a glowering goon whose pursuit of the Iron Throne cost him his humanity — and his brother, wife, and daughter their lives. In the end, he himself seemed to take the latter positioning, surrendering to Brienne of Tarth’s sword as if he accepted her guilty verdict. “The good does not wash out the bad, nor the bad the good,” he once said of human behavior. He was living proof.
8. The High Sparrow
One of the show’s top casting coups, which is saying something, Jonathan Pryce has been pitch-perfect as the grandfatherly fanatic heading the fundamentalist movement that’s turned King’s Landing upside-down. His kindly demeanor and clever, self-effacing arguments are the carrot with which he’s manipulated King Tommen into following his lead — while his command of the warrior monks of the Faith Militant are the stick with which he’s beaten everyone else into submission. Empowered by Cersei only to turn on her, he’s a lesson in blowback we could easily apply to the radical religious factions our own geopolitical meddling has unleashed.
7. Tywin Lannister
Once the most powerful man in the Seven Kingdoms, he’s now the most powerful man in the Lannister tombs, slain by the son he abused and neglected all his life. But until then, Lord Tywin ruled House Lannister with an iron fist, bashing his recalcitrant children and grandchildren into line. And the pen he wielded was even more dangerous, brokering the deals that destroyed House Stark and effectively ended the show’s central storyline for its first three seasons. The cold open for Season Four featured Tywin watching as Ned Stark’s sword was melted down — symbolic proof that, for a while anyway, the bad guy won.
6. Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane
He made an impression during his brief appearance back in Season One — it’s kind of hard not to when you decapitate a horse on screen. But it wasn’t until Season Four, when he caved in the Red Viper’s skull and smashed his way into the small-screen-violence history books, that the menace of the Mountain was truly made clear. Not so much played as embodied by towering Icelandic strongman Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, he’s currently wreaking havoc as a nightmarish zombified version of his former self. You can’t keep a bad man down.
5. Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish
Cersei Lannister once said “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” Yet the middle ground is precisely where Lord Baelish operates best; there, or in the shadows. Directly responsible for the deaths of multiple major characters and architect of more game-changing alliances than you can count, he’s quietly manipulated his way to the control of one of Westeros’ largest armies. He’s also made himself invaluable to pretty much every side of the conflict, and if it weren’t for the White Walkers waiting in the wings — can’t make deals with them! — we wouldn’t be surprised if this sociopathic pimp schemed his way right onto the Iron Throne.
4. Ramsay Bolton
To paraphrase Seinfeld: “Perhaps there’s more to Ramsay than meets the eye?” “No. There’s less. We’ve looked into his eyes. He’s pure evil.” As we’ve seen, Game of Thrones tends to operate in shades of gray even where its villains are concerned. Not so with the Bastard of Bolton, who’s basically Ted Bundy with a rich politician for a dad and an army at his beck and call. Mutilating Theon, raping Sansa, murdering Osha, literally feeding his stepmom and her newborn to the dogs: He’s the sort of irredeemable monster you usually read about in books on serial killers. His brand of glibly unrepentant awfulness isn’t for everyone, but it stands out even amid GoT’s usual level of brutality — and that counts for a lot.
3. The Night King
The threat of the White Walkers and their undead army has been built up for years, from rumors and and isolated glimpses to all-out attacks. But the icy menace of their leader is best conveyed in a single image: The Night King, arms raised in “come at me bro” fashion, as the thousands of people he and his minions have just butchered rise up to join his crusade against the living. One of the show’s most powerful visuals, it left both Jon Snow and the audience speechless. More importantly, the shot earned this supernatural entity a place at the table with the richly human antagonists he threatens to sweep aside right along with the heroes.
2. Joffrey Baratheon
Long live the king! Joffrey was insufferable from the moment we laid eyes on him in the pilot, when his inbred good looks sent poor deluded Sansa’s heart spinning. From that point forward, the boy king of Westeros was like an onion, slowly peeled to reveal layer after layer of absolute repulsiveness. Both a sadist and a coward, he made life miserable for friends and foes alike, taking a special delight in savagely misogynistic violence against any woman unfortunate enough to fall into his adolescent clutches. In the end, he died in agony as his parents looked on in horror — the one humanizing moment of his otherwise impeccably evil stint on the show. Actor Jack Gleeson retired from showbiz following Joffrey’s death, but this little shit is immortal.
1. Cersei Lannister
The most dangerous human being in Westeros is also one of the most complex and fascinating characters on television. The matriarch of House Lannister will stop at nothing to preserve her power and protect the few family members she actually cares about, and the Seven Kingdoms are littered with the bodies to prove it. Yet she’s also a strangely sympathetic figure, warped by being treated like an expensive brood mare by powerful men her entire life and genuine in her affections. Her blood feuds with the Starks, the Tyrells, the Martells, and the Faith Militant are a huge part of what keeps the plot moving, but her paranoia and vindictiveness mean that her worst enemy is herself. They say everyone’s the hero of their own story: Cersei has learned through bitter experience that she’s the villain of her own story as well, and that makes her the best villain on Game of Thrones, too.