Television’s 10 Greatest Villains of All Time

By ·May 23, 2016 6:00 am

In cinema, it is often the villains who remain the most memorable and stunning components within a franchise (Darth Vader, The Joker). In television, villains are allowed even more time develop. This affords TV villains the unique opportunity to evolve and grow into complex, robust nemeses. After much careful consideration, love and attention, we have compiled our top 10 TV villains of all time.

It should be noted that this is the top 10 TV villains so far, as, 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 Anti-Heroes and Television’s 10 Greatest Anti-Villains, which we urge you to check out.

First, it is important to define the term ‘villain’:

villain is defined as the bad guy – the mad, the cruel, the corrupt, the mortal aspects of pure evil – who instigates the conflict in a story.

Below you will find a list of the villains who enthralled us the most – those evil antagonists who elevated the quality of the shows that they were in and who proved to be truly exceptional adversaries.


Number 10 – Red John

Patrick Jane observes the signature smiley face that Red John leaves behind after he has committed murder.

  • Show: The Mentalist

  • Arc: Seasons 1-6
  • Portrayed by: Uncredited and Xander Berkeley

Red John would almost certainly have achieved our number 1 greatest TV villain spot, if only the ultimate reveal of Red John’s identity in Season 6 had been better. Prior to that Season 6 reveal, Red John was an utterly captivating, menacing and ingenious antagonist. Red John not only massacred Patrick Jane’s wife and small daughter, but he then played mind games with Patrick across the entire arc of the show.

Best line:

[Red John’s note to Jane] “Dear Mister Jane, I don’t like to be slandered in the media, especially by a dirty money-grubbing fraud. If you were a real psychic, instead of a dishonest little worm, you wouldn’t need to open the door to see what I’ve done to your lovely wife and child.”

Most villainous moment:

At the very beginning of the show, Red John murders the wife and child of a Patrick Jane just because Patrick spoke negatively about Red John on a talk show.

Coolest moment:

In the Season 3 finale, Strawberries and Cream, Red John sends Timothy Carter in his place, to claim to Patrick that he is Red John. Timothy does this and Patrick shoots the man claiming to be Red John dead on the spot.


Number 9 – Al Swearengen

Al Swearengen

Al sipping tea on the balcony of his saloon.

  • Show: Deadwood

  • Arc: Seasons 1-3
  • Portrayed by: Ian McShane

Al Swearengen is definitely the most foul-mouthed entry on this list and we love him for it. Add to that his blisteringly dark penchant for violence and mayhem, and what results is one very memorable and striking villain. Al runs the saloon in the town of Deadwood, but profits from his own illegal side-business.

Best line:

“Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair or f*cking beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man and give some back.”

Most villainous moment:

When Al places a pillow over a preacher’s face and explains the way to suffocate a man to Jimmy, who is observing timidly, Al explains: “Apply pressure, even and firm like packing a snowball.”

Coolest moment:

When Al shouts to a gathered crowd: “God rest the souls of that poor family… And p*ssy’s half price [for the] next 15 minutes.”


Number 8 – The Lich

The most evil entity in all of Ooo - The Lich.

The most evil entity in all of Ooo – The Lich.

  • Show: Adventure Time

  • Arc: Seasons 1-7
  • Portrayed by: Ron Perlman and Ethan Maher

The Lich is probably the most purely evil character in this list. We are absolutely glued to our screens every time The Lich makes a speech about the history of the universe or how he intends to conquer it. Currently he is stuck in a regressive state as a young boy named Sweet Pea, who is a sweet and innocent child.

Best line:

“And now for your education. Before there was time, before there was anything, there was nothing. And before there was nothing, there were monsters.”

Most villainous moment:

When The Lich wears the skin of the hero Billy, who Finn and Jake look up to, to trick them into thinking that Billy is still alive.

Coolest moment:

In the Season 4 Finale, The Lich, Finn has a croak dream in which everything is weird as hell. As Billy sits there laughing, you suddenly see a very, very quick flash of The Lich in Billy’s place.


Number 7 – Gustavo ‘Gus’ Fring

Gus Fring holding his weapon of choice – a razor blade.

  • Show: Breaking Bad
  • Arc: Seasons 2-4
  • Portrayed by: Giancarlo Esposito

Gus proved to be one of the coldest and coolest villains on what is often hailed as the greatest show on television. The simplicity of his everyday cover – managing a fast food chicken restaurant – only added to his charm. When Walter White grew enough bravado to try to take Gus down, Gus almost proved too smart a villain to defeat.

Best line:

“A man, a man provides. And he does it even when he’s not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and does it. Because he’s a man.”

Most villainous moment:

In Season 4, Episode 1, Box Cutter, Gus shows his ability to murder his own men by viciously slashing Victor’s throat with a razor blade.

Coolest moment:

In Season 4, Episode 9, Bug, when Gus is being fired at and – realising that the shooter is aiming to miss and intimidate only – Gus walks towards the marksman, with his arms stretched out wide, in a “come at me”-pose.


Number 6 – The Governor/Philip Blake

The Governor stands calmly in front of a burning building.

The Governor stands calmly in front of a burning building.

  • Show: The Walking Dead

  • Arc: Seasons 3-4
  • Portrayed by: David Morrissey

The Walking Dead chose to adapt The Governor a little differently to the comic books and this is one of the rare instances where the show actually excels past the comic book content. Philip quickly rose into a dictatorial role once the apocalypse hit and then gradually grew more and more wicked. The Governor is not afraid to kill his own people when they disobey him, he dispatches his enemies swiftly and gruesomely, and most importantly: in Season 4 the writers give him a somewhat redemptive arc; when Philip finds himself among people who don’t know him, he chooses to act kindly and we see a good side to Philip (before he then descends into bloody villainy once again, which is why he doesn’t quite make our anti-villain list).

Best line:

“Now, if you join me, I promise you you will never have to worry about whether you were doing the right thing or the wrong thing. Because we will do the only thing.”

Most villainous moment:

When The Governor mows down a whole group of his own soldiers/people with an assault rifle. This scene shows the true extent of both his lack of empathy and the ferocity of his anger.

Coolest moment:

When he chooses to have that sit down conversation with Rick in the warehouse in Season 3. At this point the two of them are at the peak of their rivalry and the way in which Morrissey handles this scene and his dialogue is superb.


Number 5 – The Man in Black

The Man in Black threatens his brother and nemesis, Jacob.

  • Show: LOST

  • Arc: Seasons 1-6
  • Portrayed by: Titus Welliver

The Man in Black not only murdered his twin brother by finding a loophole to the island’s rules, but he also proved to be the black smoke (and the appearing dead on the island) that had been plaguing our survivors since Season 1. When John Locke died in Season 4, then appeared to return, alive in Season 5, no one suspected that this might not actually be Locke and the show blew us away with the reveal in The Incident that it had in fact been The Man in Black assuming Locke’s guise. The Man in Black holds no faith in the goodness of men and will stop at nothing to get off of the island.

Best line:

“They come, they fight, they destroy, they corrupt. It always ends the same.”

Most villainous moment:

In the Season 5 finale, The Incident, the Man in Black – under the guise of John Locke – manages to persuade Ben Linus to murder the Man in Black’s twin brother and protector of the island, Jacob.

Coolest moment:

Using his smoke monster ability to appear as any dead person, the Man in Black appears to Jack Shephard on the beach in Season 1 as his father – Christian Shephard – confusing Jack and deceiving viewers early on.


Number 4 – Wilson Fisk/Kingpin

Wilson Fisk giving his thoughtful yet intimidating glare.

  • Show: Daredevil

  • Arc: Seasons 1-2
  • Portrayed by: Vincent D’Onofrio

Wilson Fisk is the Kingpin of Hell’s Kitchen; a criminal overlord with a fierce intellect and temper. D’Onofrio does a superb job of bringing a really chilling power to the role. Fisk is calm and rational most of the time, but certain things are prone to setting his temper alight, and this is when you see the true Kingpin come out – a wrathful, relentless man, with a strong self-perceived grandeur.

Best line:

“It means that I am not the samaritan. That I am not the priest or the levite. That I am the ill intent, who set upon the traveler on a road that he should not have been on.”

Most villainous moment:

In Season 1, when Fisk uses a car door to smash a man’s head into pulp.

Coolest moment:

When Matt Murdock visits Fisk in prison in Season 2 and amidst a conversation Fisk suddenly starts smashing Matt against the table and shouting threats at him.


Number 3 – Kilgrave/The Purple Man

A disgruntled Kilgrave.

A disgruntled Kilgrave.

  • Show: Jessica Jones

  • Arc: Season 1
  • Portrayed by: David Tennant

Netflix took The Purple Man from the Jessica Jones comic books and adapted the character into something brilliant, all under Tennant’s glorious performance. Kilgrave has the ability to simply state a command and the the listener will act upon that command. It is a form of mind control that only a few are immune to. Kilgrave has such a twisted outlook that he truly believes that he is doing giving Jessica a good time when he keeps her under his control for years, rapes her and makes her kill for him.

Best line:

“I have Hope. The feeling, not the person. Well, the feeling too! I’m a hopeful man!”

Most villainous moment:

When Kilgrave commands of two captives: “If I’m not back in two hours, take the skin off of each other’s faces.”

Coolest moment:

When Kilgrave escapes from his cell by ordering his own Mother to stab herself. On his way out he orders Trish Walker to put a bullet through her skull.


Number 2 – Hannibal Lecter

Hannibal Lecter

Will Graham converses with Hannibal after he has been incarcerated.

  • Show: Hannibal

  • Arc: Seasons 1-3
  • Portrayed by: Mads Mikkleson

Bryan Fuller’s show painted Hannibal Lecter so beautifully. Hannibal is a suave, sophisticated intellectual, who is also a brutal, heartless, cannibal with somewhat of a god-complex. We feel that Mads and Fuller provided the best a version of Hannibal to date. The character’s fixation with Will is one of his most engaging attributes. Another is his fighting style once his is backed into a corner.

Best line:

“Nothing happened to me… happened.”

Most villainous moment:

In Season 3 when Hannibal gives the twisted killer Francis Dolarhyde the address of Will Graham’s family, telling the killer: “He has a family. Save yourself. Kill them all.”

Coolest moment:

The fight in the Season 2 finale, where Hannibal takes on Jack and fights viciously and relentlessly, all the while in a bloody shirt.


Number 1 – Stanton Parish

The suave and sophisticated Stanton Parish (right) with his protege (the daughter of his enemy), Dani Rosen (left).

  • Show: Alphas

  • Arc: Seasons 1-2
  • Portrayed by: John Pyper-Ferguson

Stanton is an immortal who has lived through the Civil War and many other famous historical events. In the present, he fills a Magento-type role as he seeks to gather those with super abilities to his side, so that they can leave the human race behind and become the future.

Stanton’s etiquette is perfect and you will always find this villain in a three-piece suit. Stanton and his rival, Dr Lee Rosen, often have perfectly amiable sit down discussions in places like coffee shops, during which Stanton is actually politer to Dr Rosen than Rosen is to him, despite Stanton being the villain.

It is Stanton’s combination of immortality, lofty refinement, and the way in which John Pyper-Ferguson plays this suave super-human that makes Stanton the greatest TV villain of all time for us.

To bring this list full circle, we always thought that if we were allowed choose someone from an entirely different show to play Red John in the Season 6 The Mentalist reveal, John Pyper-Furgoson’s Stanton Parish would have been the absolutely perfect choice.

Best line:

“I was shot again at cold habour, and again at San Juan Hill. I fought at Verdun, in the streets of Berlin … Every change brings bloodshed. We can stop that.”

Most villainous moment:

Managing to turn the daughter (Dani Rosen) of his enemy to his own side.

Coolest moment:

Season 2, Episode 3, Alpha Dogs, which is a flashback to Stanton’s past, when he went under the name of Jacob Dunham and fought in the Civil War. There is something unbeatable about getting to witness an immortal character’s time throughout prominent historical events.

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

Image credits: Cartoon Network, SyFy, AMC, Netflix, HBO, NBC, ABC, CBS.

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.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *