Television’s 10 Greatest Anti-Heroes of All Time

By ·May 25, 2016 6:00 am

There is something daring and captivating about seeing a hero protagonist act contrary to the a-typical good guy role that they have been placed into. This is typically known as an ‘anti-hero’ and after much careful consideration, love and attention, we have compiled our top 10 TV anti-heroes of all time.

It should be noted that this is the top 10 TV anti-heroes so far, because, of course, there may be villains in the future who could steal places in this list.

This list is also a companion piece to two other articles – Television’s 10 Greatest Villains and Television’s 10 Greatest Anti-Villains, which we urge you to check out.

First, it is important to define the term ‘anti-hero’:

An anti-hero is defined as a protagonist who has the opposite of most of the traditional attributes of a hero.

Below you will find our list of the anti-heroes who enthralled us the most – those who elevated the quality of the shows that they were in and who showed us that good guys holding bad qualities is a great combination.

 

10] Walter White

Walter in his Heisenberg outfit – a persona elaborated upon to scare criminals into fearing him.

  • Show: Breaking Bad
  • Arc: Seasons 1-5
  • Portrayed by: Bryan Cranston

Walter White starts off as a chemistry teacher and evolves, throughout the show, into a criminal overlord of the drug business. With this evolution, his morals sway and his acts become ever more sinister. It’s simply one of the greatest character transformations in television. Towards the end of the show Walt reveals that he didn’t do all of that because he needed to; rather – he admits – he did it because he loved it. This shows the wickedness of the man who the shows paints – at least in the beginning – as being our hero. The only reason that Walt doesn’t rank higher on this list is that he is less likeable than the other entries.

Best line:

“I am not in danger, Skylar. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot. You think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMEq1mGpP5A

Most anti-heroic moment:

Poisoning the young boy named Brock, using the plant named Lily of the Valley, in order to manipulate Jesse.

Coolest moment:

Walter’s “say my name” speech in the desert. He brashly commands that a criminal speaks his name aloud – that name being Walt’s Heisenberg persona.

 

9] John Luther

A contemplative, sorrowful John Luther.

A contemplative, sorrowful John Luther.

  • Show: Luther
  • Arc: Seasons 1-4
  • Portrayed by: Idris Elba

John is such a tragic and troubled character. He has a good heart, but is willing to cross the moral line in order to achieve the ultimate good. From allowing a criminal to fall to his death, to using unorthodox methods to acquire information, Luther has been investigated by his colleagues, who noticed his tendency to sway from the rules and sought to put a stop to it. Luther also allies himself with the killer Alice Morgan.

Best line:

“Do you ever step outside yourself, wonder what you’re doing and think you’ve gone mad?”

Most anti-heroic moment:

Right at the beginning of the show, when Luther allows Henry Madsen to fall to this death. This sets the tone for the show and showed us from the off just how much of an anti-hero Luther is.

Coolest moment:

Luther’s entirely unethical DNA gathering technique, when he puts on sunglasses, gloves and a winter hat, then smashes his arm into the face of his suspected target as he walks past him on the street, solely to acquire some of the blood that flows from the killer’s broken nose.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyK4R8QlhBo

 

8] Rick Grimes

A bloody Rick Grimes sits contemplative.

A bloody Rick Grimes sits contemplative, after a brutal and bloody act.

  • Show: The Walking Dead
  • Arc: Seasons 1-7
  • Portrayed by: Andrew Lincoln

Rick Grimes is another protagonist who started off as a generic “good guy”, but then evolved over time into something close to monstrous. Rick’s evolution is a product of his environment, combined with the burden of leadership. He delicately walks that line between hero and becoming exactly like the villains that he fights (such as The Governor). Rick will do anything to protect his group and there have been times where that means descending into absolute animalistic killing; from biting out a chunk of Joe’s neck, to murdering Peter in front of everyone in Alexandria, to having his group kill people they don’t know in their sleep. We love seeing Rick emerge from these scenes, bloody and mad-eyed.

Best line:

“You don’t know what it’s like out there. You may think you do, but you don’t.”

Most anti-heroic moment:

When Rick kills Joe by ripping away a piece of the man’s neck with his teeth. This is a scene pulled right out of the comic books and it effectively shows the sheer barbarity of Rick’s character.

Coolest moment:

When Rick murders two men in a bar. They hold weapons and are effectively holding Rick captive, yet Rick’s quick draw is fast enough to gun them both down before they can react. This is also, notably, the first time that Rick kills people (as opposed to just walkers).

 

7] Charlie Crews

Charlie in prison, reading Zen literature, which grows to become a crucial part of his philosophy.

Charlie in prison, reading Zen literature, which grows to become a crucial part of his philosophy.

  • Show: Life
  • Arc: Season 1
  • Portrayed by: Damien Lewis

Charlie was wrongly imprisoned for years, during which time he read a lot of Zen literature, which then grew to become a crucial part of his philosophy and the way he approaches every day life. It is mainly Charlie’s willingness to kill his enemies that makes him fall into the anti-hero category. Charlie seeks revenge for being wronged and charts the connections between his enemies on a serial-killer type chart on his wall.

Best line:

“We are none of us alone. Even as we exhale, it is inhaled by others. The light that shines upon me shines upon my neighbour as well. In this way everything is connected. Everything is connected to everything else. In this way I am connected to my friend even as I am connected to my enemy. In this way there is no difference between me and my friend. In this way there is no difference between me and my enemy. We are none of us alone.”

Most anti-heroic moment:

In the Season 2 finale, Charlie kills his nemesis Roman Nevikov, mainly for kidnapping his partner Dani Reese.

Coolest moment:

When Charlie drives in a flashy car, stating aloud to no one: “I am not attached to this car, I am not attached to this car. I’m just a little attached to this car.”

 

6] Sameen Shaw

Sameen getting up close and personal with her future lover, Root.

  • Show: Person of Interest
  • Arc: Seasons 2-5
  • Portrayed by: Sarah Shahi

Sameen Shaw is certainly contrary to the classic hero in that she always acts serious and grumpy, and often takes a quiet inward merriment in getting to be violent. Her lover Root describes her as so: “She has an Axis II personality disorder, which means technically she’s a sociopath. Incapable of caring for others. But the thing about Shaw is, she does care.” Shaw is one of the best things about POI and we can’t wait to see her return in the show’s soon-to-air final season.

Best line:

“I could stab you with my stiletto.”

Most anti-heroic moment:

This would be all of Shaw’s time working under the villain named Control. Although Shaw was unaware of exactly the kind of person that she was taking orders from, she still acted upon these immoral missions.

Coolest moment:

In Season 4, Episode 11, If-Then-Else, when Root decides to sacrifice herself to active the lift override button, so that her team can escape. Before she does, she grabs Root (a character who had expressed romantic interest in Shaw before then) and kisses her, before locking her friends in the lift and shooting her way to the override button.

 

5] Kevin Garvey

Kevin Garvey

Kevin dressed as an assassin in the afterlife, in The Leftovers‘ greatest episode – International Assassin.

  • Show: The Leftovers
  • Arc: Seasons 1-3
  • Portrayed by: Justin Theroux

The Leftovers is one of the best shows on television and we’re thrilled to be getting a third and final season from HBO. Kevin Garvey is the show’s protagonist. He’s the head of the Garvey family and an ex-Chief of police, so he is certainly a man painted into the “good guy” role. However, Kevin has cheated on his wife, kidnapped a woman (head of the Guilty Remnant, Patti, who then plagued him after her death), killed a little girl in the afterlife, constantly tries to kill himself, and is not always viewed positively by others. These are the remarkably interesting traits that push Kevin outside of the hero role and firmly into the anti-hero category. The woman who Kevin cheats with first asks him: “Are you a good man?” before they sleep together. Kevin’s answer is: “No, I’m not.”

Best line:

[after returning from death for the second time – this time after having been shot by John Murphy – John states “I killed you!” and Kevin calmly tells him] “…Nope.”

Most anti-heroic moment:

In Season 2, Episode 8, International Assassin, while in the afterlife Kevin is told that in order to succeed he must kill Patti. When Patti appears to him as a little girl, he is challenged with having to murder a child. When it comes to that crucial moment, Kevin pushes the young Patti down a well without a moment’s hesitation.

Coolest moment:

When Kevin is in the home of Michael’s pedophile Grandfather, who claims he can rid Kevin of Patti (who appears to Kevin even though dead) forever, but that Kevin needs to die first. When Kevin sees Patti appear he tells her (about his father): “He told me the voices were gone, that he was cured. When I asked him how, you know what he told me, Patti? He said he finally just did what they told him to do.” Kevin then drinks poison without hesitation, knowing that it will kill him and says: “goodbye, Patti.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmNobfKi2D0

 

4] Number 6

Number 6, bursting through a door and bringing his usual commanding presence.

Number 6, bursting through a door and bringing his usual commanding presence.

  • Show: The Prisoner
  • Arc: Season 1
  • Portrayed by: Patrick McGoohan

Known only as ‘Number 6’, which is the name that The Village assigns to him, Number 6 is an ex-spy, now forced resident of The Village. Throughout the show he relentless tries to escape and the head of The Village – Number 2 – relentlessly tries to break Number 6, with the goal of trying to find out why he resigned. Patrick McGoohan brings absolute brilliance to this role; he crafts a character who is commanding, clever and endlessly resilient. Number 6 falls into the anti-hero category due to his rebellious nature and his reluctance to play by the rules.

Best line:

“I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own. I resign.”

Most anti-heroic moment:

Probably the ultimate reveal that is is in fact Number 1 and thus in control of The Village and its oppressive regime, although the sheer wackiness of the finale, Fall Out, leaves even that reveal open to debate.

Coolest moment:

In Episode 10, Hammer Into Anvil, when Number 6 decides to turn the tables on Number 2 and set out to break him, in which Number 6 succeeds.

 

Number 3 – Ed Romeo

Ed talking to Patrick “Lights” O’Leary, his boxing pupil.

  • Show: Lights Out
  • Arc: Season 1
  • Portrayed by: Eamonn Walker

In one of televisions most unjust cancellations, Lights Out, Eamonn Walker plays boxing coach Ed Romeo. As his name suggests, he’s a character who wears his heart on his sleeve (having once tried to kill himself over a pupil leaving his tutorage). Ed is also a brilliant thinker (no surprise that he is one of the world’s greatest coaches) and very much a people-person; one of Ed’s charms is that he is so great with Patrick’s daughters and wife.

Best line:

[lifting Katie up and persuading her to touch the aquarium glass as the shark swims by] “Form follows function…  Remember this: everything, even the scariest thing on Earth, has got a weakness. The more you study your enemy, the less scary he is… If you make yourself strong up here [points at his temple], nothing can hurt you… I got you Katy. I got you.”

Most anti-heroic moment:

When Ed gets into a fight with Patrick’s brother Johnny. The two tussle and Ed strangles Johnny, with apparent full intent to kill him. Then Patrick breaks up the fight, but is accidentally stabbed by Johnny, which only happened because Ed started bickering with Johnny in the first place.

Coolest moment:

Revealing the scars that run vertically up his forearms and explaining to Patrick how he tried to kill himself when Death Row Reynolds left him. Ed explains that the boy broke his heart and that this is life and death for him.

 

2] Rustin Cohle

Rustin Cohle

  • Show: True Detective
  • Arc: Season 1
  • Portrayed by: Matthew McConoughey

After losing his daughter, Rust became focused on nihilistic philosophy, unusual meditation and a general willingness to say those crucial truths that others just won’t say. Cohle also sees things; visions that simply should not be there. Cohle is effortlessly cool (his time undercover as “Crash” is incredible) and he’s a man with a good heart too. It is his bleak outlook, his penchant for drinking, his willingness to sleep with his partner’s wife and the general suspicion that the show casts onto him that makes him fall into the anti-hero category. “Do you ever wonder if you’re a bad man?” Hart even asks of Cohle during one of their ride-alongs.

Best line:

“I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself – we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self; that accretion of sensory experience and feelings, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact, everybody’s nobody… I think the honourable thing for our species to do is deny our programming. Stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction – one last midnight; brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”

Most anti-heroic moment:

Sleeping with his partner’s wife in Episode 6, Haunted Houses. This is completely against bro-code, partner-code and is morally wrong.

Coolest moment:

In Episode 4, Who Goes There, when Rust goes undercover as “Crash”. Rust is forced to extract his biker gang mark out of a housing area, whilst an entire gang is trying to kill them. This scene is also one, long, impressive tracking shot.

 

1] Hank Dolworth

Hank (left) with his PI partner and best friend, Britt Pollack.

Hank (left) with his PI partner and best friend, Britt Pollack.

  • Show: Terriers
  • Arc: Season 1
  • Portrayed by: Donal Logue

Hank Dolworth is one half of the best buddy relationship on television – the PI team that is Hank Dolworth and Britt Pollack. Terriers remains one of our favourite shows of all time and, in our eyes, the most atrocious cancellation in television history.

Hank has a heart of gold, yet he is a deeply flawed character. Once having had it all – the woman he loved (Gretchen), a good job, a new home – Hank fell into drinking and became an alcoholic. Hank lost his job as a police officer, Gretchen left him and he fell into despair. Terriers starts when Hank is clean and sober, as he tries to pick his life up again and win back Gretchen.

Here’s a short interview with Logue about the show:

Hank is very witty in every way (even when impersonating a stoner during a phone call, after Hank and Britt accidentally killed one of their enemies and are trying to cover it up), effortlessly resourceful (standing his own against enemies much more powerful than he is) and just all round loveable, yet still fully flawed and broken. This is what makes him the greatest TV anti-hero of all time for us.

Best line:

[to a surfer] “No worries, man. You’re not the dude I wanna kill.”

Most anti-heroic moment:

This would have to be Hank’s past as an alcoholic. It’s what made the love of his life, Gretchen, leave him.

Coolest moment:

When in a lift with his enemy’s henchman, Mr Burke (the man Hank suspects of murdering his friend Mickey), Hank chats to him conversationally then elbows him in the face, stating “that was for Mickey and walks off.

We hope that our top 10 anti-heroes list both aligned with some of your own opinions and also gave you insight into other superb anti-heroes that you might not have seen or heard of before. We urge you to check those unfamiliar anti-heroes out. We can assure you that they are very much worth your time.

Image credits: AMC, NBC, FX, BBC, CBS, HBO, ITV.

Written by Christopher Hart

Lead Writer and Copywriter

Chris is a Copywriter for a major bank. He an MA in Publishing and a BA in Comparative Literature. He's also a self-published author (Altered Stone).

His areas of interest include LOST, The Leftovers, The Prisoner, Y: The Last Man, Supergirl, Wonder Woman, BioShock, Supergiant Games and Josh Malerman.

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