Spoiler alert Walking Dead Fans: The Governor is dead. Long live the Governor! Err, or not. Therein lies the beauty of the character such . Despite all the evil he’s perpetrated (Can we even get an accurate body count at this point?), there’s always been a sliver of likability. Walkers or no, it’s difficult not to relate to a desperate parent.
In honor of The Walking Dead’s (Governor-free) return, here’s a list of some of TV’s meanest, darkest villains who have defied the very label by maintaining veins of complexity that go beyond the traditional, mustache-twirling antagonist. This list isn’t meant to be exhaustive. For the most part, the entries are culled from a more recent crop of complex adversaries. No, consider this instead an induction of sorts, as Angel, Al Swearengen and a host of others get some added company. It isn’t always pretty—actually, it usually isn’t—but it does make for some riveting television.
Yeah, yeah, we get it—marriage is difficult. And being assigned a mate and then being deported to another nation where you can’t speak your own language, tell anyone why you’re there, and—oh yeah—attempt to bring down the country’s government is damn near impossible. But if we were to place blame on one of The Americans’ central characters, it would have to be Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell). While husband Phillip (Matthew Rhys) views their mission as a means to an end (the strangling and poisonings and espionage to be done between trips to the Tastee Freez with his family), Elizabeth remains solemnly on book, toeing the line for a nation where she was starved, sexually assaulted and unceremoniously stripped of her past. Sure, she and Phil engage in some of the same morally sketchy behaviors—some extra-marital sex here, some double-crossing there. But one can’t help but feel that Elizabeth’s ability to deny her feelings adds a chilling, extra layer of villainy to the story.
A slithering villain of Shakespearean proportions, Damages’ Patty Hewes (brilliantly portrayed by Glenn Close) will do whatever it takes to get the job done. Her husband may be distant and her teenage son on the verge of all-out rebellion, but at work she’s got a legion of henchmen to do her bidding, ensuring she’ll never soil her Chanel suit. When a star witness happens to be related to a promising young lawyer named Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne), she uses the promise of a cushy job to manipulate Parsons into delivering the goods. Pity about the pooch—but in Hewes’ world there’s no such thing as collateral damage.
Is there any greater television shorthand for evil than “white supremacist?” Throw in a stint as a failed messianic figure, and you’ve got a first-class villain. Granted, with the love of his ex-sister-in-law-turned-lover, he’s not prepared to slip to such mind-numbing depths again—but there’s certainly enough low-lifes in Kentucky for him to tempt fate.
The leader of Woodbury, Georgia, one of the few strongholds after the Walker infection spread, The Governor is mourning both the death of his wife and transformation of his daughter, Penny, from little girl to flesh-eating walker. But when his Jim Jones-like authority is questioned by Rick Grimes, The Governor’s simmering weirdness (seriously, what exactly were those heads in his living room?) comes to a boil, ending in the death of his lover, Andrea, and dozens of town citizens. He’s offered a temporary promise of redemption, becoming the unlikely, one-eyed savior of a family with a young daughter who reminds him of his own. But alas, by then he was too far gone, taking a few vital characters down with him in his violent demise.
Sure, Walter White will always be our favorite antihero, but no way could his crimes hold a candle to drug kingpin, Gus Fring. We don’t know much about his past (refugee or active participant in the Pinochet government?), or the exact nature of his relationship with fellow immigrant Max Arciniega (Lovers? Just really close pals?). A caring and hands-on boss with the employees of his fast-food front business, he’s also quite hands on with the employees of his drug operation—going so far as to slice throats when they’re no longer of use to him. But no matter how gruesome the task, his zen-like sense of calm never wavers. Even in death, he still manages to hold on to his preternatural pose, adjusting his tie one last time before leaving the world for good.
Orange is the New Black’s strength has always been complex characterizations, its fully fleshed-out players juggling elements that could have easily become exploitive (complex sexual histories), standard prison fodder (Abusive guards! Being thrown in the hole!), or simply the stuff of bad comedy (Crazy-Eyes). Still, even after her backstory is fleshed out, we can all agree: Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett is kind of a bitch. An unrepentant meth addict, Doggett shot a nurse at an abortion clinic for a snide comment. Still not seeing the light, she goes on to embrace religion because it allows her to play her favorite role of all—the messiah. When last we saw her, she had abandoned her post during the Christmas pageant to threaten our hero Piper Chapman with a shiv fashioned out of a cross.
The head of a minor house, Petyr Baelish, better known as “Littlefinger,” is a man with flexible loyalties. (Show him the cash, and he’ll flex.) It’s worked so far, as he has wormed his way from nobody to treasurer of the Seven Kingdoms under King Robert Baratheon. Like his house symbol, the Mockingbird, he has a set of ears listening nearly everywhere. More remarkable still, he’s clearly at ease with working the system, having once sagely remarked, “Only by admitting who we are can we get what we want.” Still, nothing will bring him peace when it comes to his unrequited love for Catelyn Stark—although his legions of prostitutes are sure willing to try.
There’s no arguing that Alice Morgan is cold. After all, she’s a child prodigy turned nihilist who killed her own parents just because. Despite her faults (again—calculating murderer), she’s become a friend to the equally troubled Luther, who despite having equally deep personality quirks has managed to position himself on the side of good. At least in a desperate attempt to win his approval she has used her skills to take out a noted bad guy, serial killer Henry Madsen. Still, Luther would be well advised not to get too close—Morgan has always wanted to be a widow.
Rejection hurts. We feel you, Frances Underwood. But when the House Majority Whip (played by a fabulously cunning Kevin Spacey) gets passed over for the big Secretary of State gig, he forgoes the pity party, instead becoming one of politics’ greatest villains since (insert topical comparison here). Extramarital affairs, blackmail, leaking stories—it’s all in a day’s work. Granted, his campaign of terror isn’t without an upside. Can you really oppose dicey political action when it ends a teachers’ strike and helps pass an education bill? (Someone please think of the children!) But if that’s what it takes to secure the Vice Presidential nomination, one has to wonder what he’ll do to keep it.
It’s easy to stay calm when you’re holding all the cards, eh, Benjamin Linus? The head of “The Others,” Linus never broke a sweat over Lost’s six seasons, instead using “The island demands it” to justify his increasingly dark deeds. (Oh, Locke…) Sure, he was a passable father figure—but let’s not forget he assumed the role by taking his adopted daughter from her mother by force. Then again, he did apologize. Sometimes there’s room for growth in even the darkest of hearts.