5. Ben Linus, “Lost”
Though his character went on an allegiance roller coaster in the multiple seasons in between, consider the bookends for Ben Linus on “Lost.” Introduced as the wind-swept traveler, even taken the last name Gale, this unassuming, circular-glasses wearing, soft-spoken speaker became so much more than a comic book baddie with a troubled past. As the layers got pulled back and we got to see Ben’s childhood, the show found ways to make him a sympathetic figure, even after as he was revealed to be even more of a monster then people initially realized. Though the series finale gets its share of blowback, one of the truly touching moments is Ben’s self-reflection, realizing he’s not ready to join the rest of the group yet. Self-aware, powerful, and ultimately a human being besieged by regret, Ben became a necessary, vital addition to an already complex show.
4. Mags Bennett, “Justified”
TV had never seen the leader of a crime family quite like Margo Martindale‘s Mags Bennett, a character just as likely to offer you up some homemade dinner as she was to give the order to exterminate one of your relatives. The drug kingpin of Harlan County used the way that people would underestimate her to her advantage, keeping her opponents lulled into a false sense of security before dropping the hammer. As quick to rail on her own family for their ineptitude, Mags was not just a formidable opponent for the ever-cool Raylan Givens. She’s a villain who, even down to her final moments, went out on her own terms.
3. King Joffrey, “Game of Thrones”
“Game of Thrones” is far from a collection of virtuous, clean-handed characters. For every glimmer of a good person, there are 50 Ramsay Boltons ready to smother them. The fact that one character through the first four seasons was able to come out on top as so irredeemable, so vile, so hated at the expense of all others is a testament to how terrible and demeaning Joffrey’s whole existence was built around. Littlefinger was a manipulator. Stannis was power-hungry rebel ready to murder his own family. Cersei is a power-hungry queen ready to murder other people’s families (and gave birth to this little monster in the first place). But between the killings and violations of every kind, it’s little wonder that the show’s fanbase saw Joffrey’s ouster as a triumphant moment.
2. Al Swearengen, “Deadwood”
Al Swearengen, played to motherf-cking perfection by Ian McShane, rises to the top partly by his sheer swagger — and the best use of ranting and swearing among any villain on this list. Based on the real-life saloon and brothel owner, as imagined by David Milch’s pen, Swearengen was a real…well, they knew. “In life, you have to do a lot of things you don’t f-cking want to do. Many times, that’s what the f-ck life is… one vile f-cking task after another.” So true.
1. Gus Fring, “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”
“Breaking Bad” baddie Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), now also seen in “Better Call Saul,” is the ultimate example of how to bring sophistication to villainy. On the surface, Gus is a model Albuquerque leader: His booming Los Pollos Hermanos chicken chain is the epitome of the American immigrant success story. He supports local law enforcement. And he seems like a pretty stand-up guy. But the truth, of course, is that it’s all a smokescreen. Gus is a monster of a drug kingpin, and he’s conveniently using the chicken chain as a front to distribute his supply throughout the Southwest. Gus’ sophisticated operation, however, starts to crumble as Walter White enters his world, putting him at odds with the Juarez Cartel. Their eventual cat and mouse game led to what remains the ultimate face/off in TV history.