TV’s Five Faces of Evil
In a previous article about my love of Breaking Bad, I called to attention America’s everlasting love of villainy. From westerns about train robbers at the dawn of American cinema to organized crime noirs like The Godfather to now, the road to hell fascinates us more than the road to redemption–just look at the box office for the 2010 film Redemption Road. Now, with television production values skyrocketing, sophisticated tales of organized crime, tyrannical leadership, and diabolical ineptitude have taken this nation by storm. Below I present my personal favorites among TV’s most wicked do-badders, in no particular order:
Minor Spoilers Ahead!
“Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things.” ― Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight
“Animals don’t behave like men… If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.” ― Richard Adams, Watership Down
Nucky Thompson, portrayed by Steve Buscemi and based on the real-life Atlantic City kingpin Enoch Johnson, tricked himself into believing he could flout the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act without resorting to violence, thuggery, and tribalism. His protege Jimmy Darmody quickly freed him from this delusion with the immortal words, “You can’t be half a gangster.”
Three seasons of Boardwalk Empire have seen Nucky trying to start a new family while also trying to maintain grips on his bread and butter, the illegal sale and transport of alcohol, with the two lives constantly butting heads until Jimmy’s words had truly sunk in. With the realization that his business affairs would never be justified in the eyes of the God his wife Margaret Schroeder remains beholden to, Nucky has closed the divide between him and his henchmen, perfectly willing to do the dirty work he’d ask anyone else to do.
Does this make him a more honest man? Perhaps to himself. The law, he shuns. To his rivals, he’ll sooner deliver a bullet or a well-paid cop to take care of them rather than unwittingly shake their hand in compromise.
The evil Nucky represents is a familiar one, harking back to Michael Corleone and Henry Hill in their respective decades; men trying to profit from the void created by government and societal temperance without becoming animals. Yet, time and time again, the act of flaunting the law of the land–even ill-conceived laws such as prohibition–leaves you stranded, untethered by any law, and the only power structure that counts is who holds the most tommy guns. Just ask your buddy Al Capone!
Game of Thrones
“We are what we are. Nothing more, nothing less. There is good and evil among every kind of people. It’s the evil among us who rule now.” ― Anne Bishop, Daughter of the Blood
“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall.” ― Mahatma Gandhi
Joffrey Baratheon, portrayed by Jack Gleeson of Batman Begins fame-ish, represents the worst kind of evil: the 12-year-old kind. Born of incest and raised to believe the entire realm is his to pluck apart like the legs of a spider, Joffrey sits atop the Iron Throne and casually, sometimes gleefully, hands down decrees to have his enemies tortured, beheaded, or crushed under hoof on the battlefield he refuses to set foot upon. In between torturing prostitutes and his bride-to-be, of course.
There’s no question the audience was meant to hate Joffrey from day one of his smirky little reign. The question that stands is whether his maniacal nature is a by-product of his twisted birth, or entirely the result of a spoiled, sadistic upbringing. His scheming mother Cersei certainly did his soul no favors by building him up so ruthlessly, but even she confesses to Tyrion that his brutality is now beyond her control.
Either way, not since Lord of the Flies has a tale of children behaving badly sent a chill through our spines such as this. Without having read any of George R.R. Martin’s series, I can only pray that Joffrey’s death comes at the hands of someone who can truly relish it.
The Walking Dead
“Man is the cruelest animal.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
“Don’t ever call me mad, Mycroft. I’m not mad. I’m just … well, differently moraled, that’s all.” ― Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair
Recently, billionaires like Rodney Lockwood and inexplicable public personas like Glenn Beck have begun advocating for independent commonwealths, tax-free privilege shelters wherein residents can safely disregard any responsibility to the people outside their walls. Replace Obamacare with roaming flesh-hungry corpses, and Glenn Beck with a manipulative megalomaniac (shouldn’t be hard), and you have the Governor of Woodbury, portrayed by David Morrissey.
While the narrative trajectory of the Walking Dead comic series is different from the TV show’s, they both feature this leader of a haven safe from zombie attacks who, at first glance, appears only to desire security for his people. A few zombie sports fights and almost-rapes later, it becomes clear that Phillip Blake is either a mad villain or a villainous madman. Turns out that in order to run an effective makeshift utopia, you need to take what rolls your way, such as guns off the corpses of the National Guard, and preemptively eliminate all possible threats, such as another group of survivors trying to endure on their own.
As a key antagonist, like Shane before him, the Governor has really driven home the motto, “Fight the dead. Fear the living.” The critical success of The Walking Dead has rested largely on its narrative exploration of humans pushed to the limits of civility when all of civilization crumbles, in a similar vein to Battlestar Galactica just a few years ago. In a world with no central governance, with no social safety net, and in which every living thing fears death around every corner, what’s most frightening about the Governor is that his leadership may prove better than our hero’s.
“Stupidity is the same as evil if you judge by the results.” ― Margaret Atwood, Surfacing
“Never ascribe to malice that which can adequately be explained by incompetence.” ― Napoleon Bonaparte
Ken Jeong’s Señor Chang, aka El Tigre Chino, aka Sgt. Chang, aka Kevin, was always a little intense. He didn’t take kindly to students questioning the merits of an Asian Spanish teacher, and he always got a little too close to Annie for comfort. But after losing his job (for not having a teaching degree), being kicked out by his wife, and constantly being shunned by Greendale’s foremost study group, Chang had had enough.
As Greendale’s head of security, Chang was constantly on the lookout for a major crime bust, but knew he could never effectively stop all campus crime without sctrict new rules of enforcement, not to mention a personal army of heavily armed Jewish teens. Dean Pelton, who had sided with Chang against all reason in the past, decided it was time to draw the line. Chang wasn’t having it. A plan was put in motion which saw the study group not only expelled, but declared insane. For only a truly warped mind could convince seven friends that they’d all lost theirs.
The evil of Señor Chang came to fruition when an inept man, incapable of connecting with his students and peers due to unfiltered weirdness, became aware of his limitations and decided to take advantage of the little power he’d been given. Now, with Chang suffering the self-termed ailment of “Changnesia,” perhaps there is hope for his redemption. Hopefully there’s hope that Community will rediscover its groove this season, too.
“Human reason can excuse any evil.” ― Veronica Roth, Divergent
“There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said — no. But somehow we missed it. ” ― Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Of all the modern tales of self-corruption, the tale of Walter White, played Emmy-winningly by Bryan Cranston, fascinates me most. Here we have a man with no criminal family, whose only glimpse into the world of dealing hard drugs was through the eyes of his protege Jesse Pinkman. A family man who had just turned 50, upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer, decides to take drastic measures to ensure financial stability for his wife and kids and, in doing so, discovers the dark potential that’s always lingered within.
Walter White’s trajectory towards meth kingpin is the ultimate descent. Despite resorting to violence, to organized criminal distribution, to murder, including most recently of a child whose only crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, White can justify it all to himself. Even as his family life unravels, and his wife Skyler tries to distance herself from the damnation that envelops all around him, Walter will see his empire built, and all rivals will come to fear and revere the name “Heisenberg.”
With the finale so tantalizingly close, it’s impossible to predict how White’s story will play out. Will the criminal empire he built outlast him? Will he die along with his dreams of notoriety? It seems unlikely that all major characters will come out of this struggle alive, with particular eyes on Skyler, Hank, and Jesse as all very real targets in Walt’s madness. All that’s truly certain is this: Walter White is not the hero of his own story. But the horrifying genius of Breaking Bad is that so many watching from home are still rooting for him.
Hope you enjoyed the list! A few honorable mentions: Dexter‘s Dexter Morgan, a serial killer killer struggling with overwhelming homicidal urges; House of Cards‘s Francis Underwood, a slighted politician seeking revenge on all his former compatriots; and Whitney‘s Whitney Cummings, for somehow securing a second season. Feel free to add more!