I’ve written about TV’s most malignant characters, including the likes of Livia Soprano on “The Sopranos,” Pete Campbell on “Mad Men,” and Logan Roy on “Succession.” These people have excelled at showing us the worst of human nature, provoking all kinds of suffering and misery on others — without using guns, knives, or, you know, a staircase.
Now I need to add a character to the long list, which also includes Boyd Crowder on “Justified” and Aunt Lydia on “The Handmaid’s Tale.” He is the most malevolent character without a gun to grace TV screens this year, providing us with an unsettlingly detailed portrait of an endlessly despicable man. He is a villain — a sleek, well-dressed villain who could double as a GQ model — and he is a mansplainer extraordinaire for whom no quarrel is too petty. He is, to put it mildly, a sadist who, as a wee lad, we’re told, took great pleasure in drowning frogs in glasses of milk.
He is Jean Paul Williams on “Bad Sisters,” the wonderful Apple TV+ series set in Ireland whose first (and only?) season wrapped up this week. When we first meet this loathsome fellow in the show’s opening moments, he lies dead in his open casket with a case of “post-mortem priapism,” as one character explains. He is the show’s malefactor, and with an emphasis on the first syllable. The question that drives the 10-episode story forward is: Who rid the world of this controlling monster? There are so many people who had reason to off him, not least of all his wife, Grace, and her four sisters, the Garvey family, each of whom he has harmed in some way.
“Bad Sisters” is a dark comedy, and much of the humor is connected to Jean Paul’s awfulness, as it just keeps getting more awful. The minute you think JP has hit the lowest of the lows, he does something even worse. At one point — around the time he falsely frames the lovely next-door neighbor as a pedophile — he torments his daughter’s cat by spraying it with water, causing it to run into the street and get run over. It’s bad, as he remorselessly leaves the dead cat in the street, and then it’s worse; Grace comes home and thinks she killed the cat, and JP lets her and their daughter believe that’s what happened.
Let’s see what else: He promises to fund one sister’s massage studio then pulls out at the final moment, he tortures and threatens another sister over her extramarital affair, and he is responsible for yet another sister’s lost eye. Oh, and he tries to ruin the career of the oldest sister, show co-creator Sharon Horgan’s Eva, along with committing a brutal crime against her that is revealed in the finale. We root for the Garveys to succeed in killing him, which becomes funny in a morally queasy kind of way, and then their repeated failures also provide a great source of humor.
But there’s straight-up drama afoot, too, and JP — masterfully played by Claes Bang — is mordantly amusing until he isn’t. He can be cartoonish, but he is not a cartoon, a distinction that Bang manages to perfection. The “Bad Sisters” writers, in concert with the actors, have beautifully developed each of the other characters — including the two insurance men investigating JP’s death in hopes they won’t need to pay out — so that we come to care about them. JP’s cruelty is often hard to watch, and his self-righteousness is too. His scenes with Grace can be particularly difficult, as the abusive husband does everything he can to humiliate and oppress her.
There’s a complicated and ugly Freudian layer to JP, as well, gestured to when he calls Grace “Mammy” and won’t have sex with her. He has big issues with women (his mother, we learn, dressed him in his sister’s clothes after the sister died), which gets to the crux of his evil and the symbolic value and weight of the character — particularly coming at a time when women’s rights are under attack.
The Garvey sisters are a tight-knit group of women, driven ever closer after the deaths of their parents in a car accident. Except for Grace, who is in need of liberation, they are each independent and dynamic. JP can’t stand their strength; it threatens his masculinity. In short, he is the epitome of a toxic male, and he is driven to disempower them in every way he can. He doesn’t succeed, and the “bad” (as in good) sisters prevail. But he nonetheless wins ... a place in the TV villains Hall of Fame.