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Buzzsaw | Matthew Gilbert

The best villains on TV

Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister on “Game of Thrones.”
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister on “Game of Thrones.”(HBO via AP/File)

Since the millennium, one of the big topics in the TV conversation has been the complex antihero. With Tony Soprano in 1999, an era began in which viewers embraced thorny leading characters, defying the common network belief that viewers could only handle extremely bad guys and extremely good guys. TV’s moral palette changed from black and white to gray.

So as TV’s scripted heroes and heroines grew less easily categorized, what of the villains? Here are nine post-millennial baddies whose wickedness is often cut with bits of decency, victimization, or gentility. While many superhero shows continue to traffic in one-dimensional super villains, the sophisticated dramas give us more ambiguous wretches. Sometimes, they even cross over to the good side — although we know that some, notably Gus Fring, who’s about to return on the “Breaking Bad” prequel series “Better Call Saul” on Aug. 6, definitely do not.

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Cersei Lannister, “Game of Thrones”

Played by Lena Headey

There are a lot of villains on “Game of Thrones,” each worse than the next, including Joffrey Baratheon, Ramsay Bolton, and the Night King. But Cersei is the most complicated one. She is, without doubt, a horrible, vindictive, short-sighted, petty, and twisted person, the latter obvious in her incestuous relationship with her twin brother, Jaime. Once upon a time, for example, an angry Cersei exploded the Great Sept of Baelor, wiping out half the city and killing hundreds. But she is also a mother who has lost all of her children, and she is a political wannabe who, unlike Jaime, finds her ambitions quashed because of gender oppression. And then there is the Walk of Atonement, an endless scene that actually manages to trigger sympathy for her.

Rob James-Collier as Thomas Barrow
Rob James-Collier as Thomas Barrow(Nick Briggs/PBS/Masterpiece via AP)

Thomas Barrow, “Downton Abbey”

Played by Rob James-Collier

The guy is a major two-face, treating his equals like dirt while kissing up to the bosses. He has great ambitions, and in his quest to achieve them his weapons include blackmail, theft, sarcasm, and lying like a rug. He alienates all of the other downstairs people at Downton except the even more nefarious O’Brien, his smoking buddy. But Thomas is also a victim of the times, with the illegality and shame of being gay even driving him to try a physically painful “cure.” His bitterness comes to define him, although by the end of the series he appears to have worked through many of the issues leading him to villainy. His worst enemy, he ultimately realizes, is himself.

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Boyd Crowder, “Justified”

Played by Walton Goggins

He is a career criminal, who has been known to use white supremacy and Christianity to get others to do his bidding. He’s smarter than the average thug; he’s also led astray by his impulses and passing obsessions. But he is charismatic and fascinating, largely thanks to Goggins’s committed performance, as he speaks pretty drivel that only sounds like it makes sense. And his love-hate rapport with the hero of the show, Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan, is the heart and soul of the show, humanizing both of them.

Alice Morgan, “Luther”

Played by Ruth Wilson

This is Wilson’s best and most beguiling performance. Alice is a genius, which would be good news except that she is also a psychopath, and she uses her intelligence to bad ends. To wit, the murder of her parents and their dog, which she gets away with (she hides the disassembled gun in the dog, which is cremated) and of which she is quite proud. But, you know, she’s awfully kind to Luther, as she helps him with criminal profiling, and at one point she finishes off a job Luther doesn’t finish, by killing a pedophile. The show isn’t quite as heady when she’s not in it, so relax; Wilson has signed on for season five, due next year, even though Alice was supposedly killed.

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Nancy Marchand as Livia Soprano
Nancy Marchand as Livia Soprano(Anthony Neste/HBO)

Livia Soprano, “The Sopranos”

Played by Nancy Marchand

All mothers love their children and treat them like gold and are willing to throw down their own lives to save them — NOT! Livia puts the lie to the common assumption of maternal love, as she torments son Tony and ultimately tries to have him killed for putting her in a nursing home. She’s not just a whiny, paranoid elderly person; she’s vicious. OK, she loves her grandchildren, she is never grandiose, and so much of her misery is fueled by her helplessness. But still, she’s a lethal crank who is unfrightened by the mobsters and murderers who surround her.

Aunt Lydia, “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Played by Ann Dowd

When she is onscreen, it’s hard to watch any other character. Aunt Lydia, brought to roaring life by Dowd, is able to scare her handmaids to death in order to exact a degree of loyalty from them. She rules by fear of hanging, or by religious dogma, or by cattle prod, if she happens to have hers at hand. She is especially touchy about June: She hates the woman she calls Offred for her rebel attitude and her escapes, and then, repulsively, she honors her for becoming pregnant. She is the worst kind of “family values” character. And yet, and yet . . . we do see moments when Aunt Lydia appears human, such as when she agrees to watch over June’s baby and when she confesses that her own sister’s baby died, hinting at some guilt by saying, “It wasn’t my fault.”

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Gus Fring, “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”

Played by Giancarlo Esposito

I’ll never forget the image of Gus, his face half blown-off, appearing to walk away from an exploding bomb before dropping dead. The drug kingpin only seems immortal, calmly dodging his enemies and competitors for decades. On one level, Gus has been a gentle guy, and, as a young man, he was a loyal and appreciative friend to his mentor, Los Pollos Hermanos cofounder Max. But after Max is murdered, Gus grows ruthless, vengeful, and manipulative, and his gentleness morphs into a strategic inscrutability.

Idris Elba as Stringer Bell
Idris Elba as Stringer Bell(Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

Stringer Bell, “The Wire”

Played by Idris Elba

A coolly ruthless man not prone to emotional explosions, Stringer will do anything in his power to protect his business — even turn on his boss. He is efficient, having studied economics, and he looks like a legit businessman, but his intentions are never good. The reason he’s here is because Stringer is one of the show’s more unusual bad guys, one who uses his mind instead of brute power to get his way. In the world of the street, he’s an oddly fascinating figure. He also has a slick sense of humor.

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Ben Linus, “Lost”

Played by Michael Emerson

The leader of the Others, he is painfully calm throughout the series as he makes dark demands to — supposedly — support the interests of the island. He manipulates and lies, getting Sayid to murder for him, although it’s hardly worth going into detail on his many dirty deeds since they ultimately didn’t matter in light of the show’s misguided finale. He is consistently bad or baddish, and he manages to be the show’s most dynamic character despite his inexpressiveness, largely thanks to Emerson’s chilling performance. In the end, though, he appears to have changed and decides to stay on the island with Hurley to protect it.


Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.