Recently, I did a list of all-time television anti-heroes, and among the suggestions made by readers were the characters on this list.
But the difference between the anti-heroes and the villains on these two lists is that the anti-heroes have a villain to oppose them — one who is an equal or greater character in the show.
It’s only recently that recurring villains have become common, as TV shows have become more serialized. In fact, in the first show to feature a recurring villain, he barely appeared—and his description is far more famous than his character’s actual name.
13. The One-Armed Man—The Fugitive
He only appeared in ten episodes, and we never learn that much about him, but the real killer of Dr. Kimble’s wife cast a large shadow over a show that had a huge impact on television despite only lasting four seasons.
The Fugitive was the first television show to be dominated by the protagonist’s back story—even though it was still episodic TV, with new situations that were resolved weekly. One can argue that he was more of a McGuffin than a character, but more than 25 years later when the movie was made, audiences still expected the one-armed man to make an appearance.
12. Wo Fat—Hawaii Five-O
He appeared in the first—and arguably best—episode of Hawaii Five-O, and the last, 12 years later. Chinese spymaster Wo Fat was the best bad guy in a show in which the bad guys were far, far more interesting than the good guys.
Played by Kenneth Dickerson (who later changed his name to Khigh Dhiegh), who essentially was playing a similar character to his memorable role as the Chinese brainwashing expert in The Manchurian Candidate, Wo Fat’s appearances in Hawaii Five-O always brought out the best in the show’s writers, who generally built special two-hour shows around him.
11. The Trinity Killer—Dexter
While this list is reserved for recurring characters, John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer in Season 4 of Dexter certainly had more cumulative screen time than the one-armed man, and is the most memorable villain in a show in which each season was built around trapping a memorable predator.
10. Hannibal Lecter—Hannibal
While Anthony Hopkins’s showy performance as Thomas Harris’s infamous serial killer Hannibal Lecter is better known, for three years on TV’s Hannibal, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen put his own chilling take on the brilliant monster.
Unfortunately, as I wrote here, the show followed the same downward moral spiral as the books and the movies. But that wasn’t Mikkelsen’s fault, and he was arguably the best Hannibal yet.
9. Black Jack Randall—Outlander
I have a theory that if any British TV show I like is on long enough, Tobias Menzies will show up in some role or another. In the time-traveling bosom buster romantic adventure drama Outlander, Menzies has two roles. One as our heroine’s devoted husband in modern (1940s) times, and the memorable role of her husband’s ancestor, the sadistic Redcoat, Black Jack Randall.
From the moment time-traveling Claire arrives in Jacobite Rebellion Scotland, Randall—a dead ringer, of course, for her husband is her nemesis. And the episode where Jack tortures her 1700s romantic interest, the kilt-wearing hunk Jaime, is one of the most intensely evil, and psychologically acute hours you will ever see on your television.
8. Joffrey Baratheon—Game of Thrones
How many times in TV history have audiences justifiably, and without reservation, cheered the death of a teenager?
But with Joffrey Baratheon, the capriciously and enthusiastically sadistic king whose cruelty shocks even that of his scheming mother, Queen Cersei, no one could possibly feel anything about his death other than worrying it wasn’t painful enough.
7. The Governor—The Walking Dead
If The Walking Dead continuously argues that human depravity is much more dangerous than mindless cannibal zombies, it has never argued it more effectively than in the person of the Governor.
British actor David Morrissey brought just the right amount of angst and arrogance to the role of a guy who can’t figure out why people just won’t submit to his brand of order to keep them safe from a world gone crazy. And he’s not wild about having people escape his clutches, either.
Unlike the sadistic (and ultimately tiresome) excess of last season’s Negan, the Governor’s more understandable motives make him still The Walking Dead’s best villain.
6. Antwon Mitchell—The Shield
In Season 4 of The Shield, Vic Mackey puts aside his criminal enterprises — just enough to make us wonder if he’s on the road to redemption — in order to go after truly vicious gang leader Antwon Mitchell. Comedian Anthony Anderson was so chilling in the role that it took me quite a while to get used to him as a bumbling father in Black-ish.
And while Mitchell’s arc is mostly a Season 4 thing, he plays a key role in later seasons as Mackey’s criminal conspiracy begins to unravel.
5. Boyd Crowder—Justified
After a great, long-running role as a corrupt cop in The Shield, Walton Goggins was next cast as Boyd Crowder, the nemesis and former friend of Marshal Raylan Givens in Justified.
Of all the characters on this list, Boyd is the most enigmatic, and during the end of Season 1, we actually wonder if he’s seen the error of his ways.
Boyd was supposed to die in the first episode, but showrunner Graham Yost realized what he had in the chemistry between Goggins and star Timothy Olyphant and changed the direction of the show to basically be the classic Western The Virginian as seen through the filter of Elmore Leonard. The result was TV greatness.
4. J.R. Ewing—Dallas
Of all the glitzy soap opera villains of 70s and 80s rich people melodramas, Dallas’s J.R. Ewing still dominates. If you ask someone of a certain age, “Who shot J.R.?” they can either tell you or will start wracking their brains saying, “Come on, I know this.”
J.R. was gleefully played by Larry Hagman, who was previously most famous as the all-American straight man astronaut in I Dream of Jeannie. He was so memorable as J.R. that 21 years later he was recast in the same role in a Dallas remake (that basically died when Hagman did).
3. Stringer Bell/Marlo Stanfield—The Wire
While the criminal enterprise targeted by the cops on The Wire was the street gang founded by thug Avon Barksdale, it was his brainier partner Stringer Bell and his even more vicious successor Marlo Stanfield who stood out the most in television history’s best collection of crooks—and made stars out of Idris Elba and Jamie Hector.
2. Al Swearengen—Deadwood
Possibly the most aptly named villain on the list, Al Swearengen is loosely based on a real brothel owner and all around bad guy in the Old West mining town of Deadwood.
Besides his amoral cunning, tendency to feed anyone who gets in his way to some hungry pigs, and his near enslavement of the women who work for him, Swearengen is most known for the most colorful language in television history.
Forget anything you heard on The Sopranos. In the character of Al Swearengen, producer David Milch and writers brought truly memorable and breathtaking purple prose to the small screen.
Veteran British actor Ian McShane was the perfect choice for Swearengen, and the perfect foil to the forces of good represented by eventual sheriff Seth Bullock (the role that made Timothy Olyphant a star and gave overdue recognition to Bullock, the real-life Wyatt Earp of the North).
1. Ma Soprano—The Sopranos
In a show about the corrosive effect of evil, no one was more evil or corrosive than Olivia Soprano.
Every season, Tony Soprano confronted a rival who was more needlessly vicious or sadistic than he. Or had to contend with his Uncle Junior jealously plotting against him.
But even after her death, Ma Soprano’s dark cloud of ill will hung over every life she ever touched.
It’s hard to imagine anyone but the late great Nancy Marchand even touching this role. And even after repeated viewings, her character can still make you shudder.