The Golden Age of Television is said to have begun with The Sopranos, debuting in 1998. Depending on the person, it could've either ended with Game of Thrones's spectacular fall from grace or carried on to this day, thanks to the high-quality shows that networks and streaming services put out every year.
Whether or not it's over, the last decade for the Golden Age of TV gave fans many great characters, including some of the medium's best and most unforgettable villains. From evil queens to one-eyed depots to cunning drug lords, these antagonists were chilling, brutal, and utterly memorable, elevating their respective shows and cementing their place in the pantheon of TV brilliance.
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10 Peter Pan (Robbie Kay) — 'Once Upon A Time' (2011-2018)
There have been many versions of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie's beloved creation. However, no adaptation was more daring than Once Upon a Time's, which reimagined Pan as a villainous character and the ruler of Neverland. In the show's context, Pan was an adult man who, refusing to own up to his responsibilities as a father, exchanged his son for eternal youth in Neverland.
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The show's version of Pan was instantly memorable thanks to Robbie Kay's sinister, bratty performance. Moreover, Once Upon a Time never tried to redeem Pan, instead portraying him as the one character from the fairy tale world beyond salvation. Once Upon a Time jumped the shark shortly after Pan's storyline, but its depiction of the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up remains an all-timer.
9 Joffrey Baratheon (Jack Gleeson) — 'Game of Thrones' (2011-2019)
Some villains are straight-up terrifying; others are intimidating. Then there are those who are despicable and utterly hateable; Joffrey Baratheon is the latter. Spectacularly played by Jack Gleeson, Joffrey is Westeros' king. He's a cruel, sadistic, and incompetent child more concerned with getting his way than ruling his kingdom.
Game of Thrones always excelled at depicting complex characters in morally-grey areas; Joffrey isn't one. On the contrary, he is as straightforward as they come, but with good reason. Joffrey is evil, a spoiled brat who finds himself in a position of absurd power and believes he can get away with everything. Joffrey is easily Thrones' most hateable character, a worthy feat considering the parade of loathsome figures that went by the show.
8 Harmony Cobel (Patricia Arquette) — 'Severance' (2022)
Severance was 2022's biggest surprise. The Apple TV+ series centers on a group of workers at Lumon Industries, a company that separates their non-work memories from their work ones. When Mark, a Lumon worker, meets a fellow employee outside of work, his life unravels as he discovers the truth behind his work.
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Oscar-winner Patricia Arquette plays the series' villain, Harmony Cobel. Cold and calculating, Harmony is Lumon embodied, relentlessly pursuing the company's interests without caring about the employees. Harmony is a nightmare for everyone trapped in the never-ending gears of corporate America, making her a terrifying figure for many in the audience who will doubtless see many real-world similarities in her.
7 Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) — 'American Horror Story: Coven' (2013-2014)
The long-running anthology series American Horror Story starred two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange throughout its first four seasons. While the revered actress always delivered, she had her absolute best role in season three, subtitled Coven. Lange played Fiona Goode, the ruthless Supreme of a coven of witches willing to do everything to hold on to her massive power.
Wicked, macabre, and surprisingly funny, Coven is the best season of American Horror Story, largely thanks to Lange's tour de force performance. The actress humanizes Fiona without excusing her sinister actions, crafting a compelling, three-dimensional villain that ranks among the Murphyverse's finest creations. In lesser hands, Fiona would've been little more than an evil witch; however, Lange imbues her with fierce vulnerability, turning her into an instant tv icon.
6 The Governor (David Morrisey) — 'The Walking Dead' (2010-2022)
Like many long-running shows, The Walking Dead has introduced many villains throughout its seasons. However, few can stand beside David Morrisey's sociopathic Philip "the Governor" Blake. Introduced in season 3, the Governor is the charming but dangerous ruler of Woodbury, Georgia, and the show's first true villain.
Superficially charming but deeply mistrustful, paranoid, and ruthless, the Governor is a product of his lawless world. Unrepentant and without moral boundaries, the Governor kills, maims, and tortures anyone he considers a threat to his rule. Suffering from a massive savior complex, the Governor is self-deluded and brutal, a character who lives up to his show's infamous violence and then some.
5 Godmother (Olivia Colman) — 'Fleabag' (2016-2019)
The mighty Olivia Colman plays one of the most odious characters in modern television in Phoebe Waller-Bridge's tragicomedy, Fleabag. The Oscar winner stars as the Godmother, Fleabag's godmother-turned-stepmother, who emotionally and verbally abuses her.
It takes a brilliant actress of Colman's caliber to deliver the Godmother's honey-laced poison and get away with it. Luckily for the show, Colman excels, making the Godmother a modern-day witch out of a fairytale. Cruel, arrogant, and with a dangerous superiority complex, the Godmother is Fleabag's ultimate nemesis, a woman who wants to have her cake and eat it too, often at the expense of everyone around her.
4 Homelander (Anthony Starr) — 'The Boys' (2019-)
The Golden Age of superheroes also produced some of pop culture's greatest villains, none as impressive, memorable, or terrifying as Homelander. Played by Anthony Starr, Homelander is the leader of The Seven, a violent and corrupt Superman-like figure who believes himself a god among men.
The Boys sharply satirizes the superhero genre through Homelander, a sadistic narcissist with every power in the world. In a few words, Homelander is everything a superhero shouldn't be: violent, reckless, merciless, insecure, vindictive, selfish, paranoid, and outright cruel. Homelander is a perfect creation for the 21st century, an unstoppable killing machine devoid of empathy and the embodiment of the rampant hypocrisy of the world's most powerful institutions.
3 Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) — 'Fargo' (2014-)
The Coen Brothers' black comedy crime masterpiece Fargo received the television treatment in 2014. The anthology show, also titled Fargo, centers on a different story every season; its junior effort introduced the character of Lorne Malvo, played by Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton.
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Machiavellian and manipulative but charismatic enough to deceive, Malvo is a sinister creation worthy of standing alongside the Coens' best characters. Further elevated by Thonrton's chilling performance, Malvo is chaos personified, a disruptive and self-serving figure whose mere presence causes terror. Giving into his primal instincts, Malvo is an effective killer lacking remorse and one of modern television's most unforgettable villains.
2 Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) — 'Game of Thrones' (2011-2019)
Although Game of Thrones spent eight seasons preparing for the battle against the Night King, the show revealed the truth in its final episodes: Cersei, not the White Walkers, was the ultimate enemy. Played to perfection by Lena Headey, Cersei Lannister is the cold and cunning Queen of Westeros and the woman responsible for the Starks' misery.
Selfish and short-sighted yet fierce and dangerous, Cersei is willing to burn the world down if it means protecting her interests and those she loves. Poisoned by fear and hatred, Cersei would be a tragic figure if she wasn't so cruel. Yet, her evil isn't one-note or absolute; thanks to Headey's performance, Cersei is a layered and deeply humane figure. While the show never justifies her actions, it goes out of its way to flesh out her psyche, revealing a flawed but ultimately fascinating woman who ranks as one of television's greatest characters.
1 Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) — 'Better Call Saul' (2015-2022)
It wouldn't be an overstatement to call Breaking Bad and its prequel, Better Call Saul, the greatest shows in modern television. Rivetting and complex, the shows introduced many timeless characters, including Giancarlo Esposito's stoic and terrifying Gustavo "Gus" Fring.
First introduced in Breaking Bad, Gus returned for Better Call Saul, with Esposito delivering yet another stellar performance. Close-minded and relentless, Gus is a brilliant and cunning businessman, meticulous and calculating; he sees everything through a narrow approach, viewing people as pieces and believing himself better than most, if not everyone, around him. Thanks to brilliant writing and Esposito's virtuoso performance, Gus is a brilliant figure who redefined the limits of villainy on television, becoming immortal in the process.
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