On TV everyone has their reason for going to the dark side: revenge, love, betrayal — not to mention the albatross of carrying on life as a brunette in Beverly Hills. We’ve seen just about every motive, and the villains we empathize with most are usually the ones who have human qualities we can relate to. If they’re really convincing, they might even have us believing we too could break bad one day. Enter Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher turned meth lord whose moral descent has won us over the past four years — or weeks if you’re a latecomer who just finished one helluva summer TV marathon in time for the new season, which debuts Sunday. In anticipation of the premiere — or, as declared by those foreboding trailers, the rise of the “new king” — we’re taking a look at other TV characters who memorably crossed into dark territory. Their transformations certainly pale in comparison to Walt’s, but we have to give them credit, because let’s face it: good is not only boring, it’s unrealistic.
Battlestar Galactica: Felix Gaeta
We feel for Gaeta, and it’s not just because he had the singing voice of an angel. At the beginning he was just an idealistic CIC guy with unwavering loyalty to his commander and the old ways of democracy — as was made evident when he refused to let Roslin get away with rigging the presidential election at the end of Season 2. But after a betrayal on New Caprica by a Number Eight, he revoked any trust he put in the Cylons, while his own people — the humans — moved closer to an alliance with them. Determined to turn the world “right-side-up” again, Gaeta led a coup against his own ship, and all but ejected himself from the airlock when he ordered the execution of Adama, the man he once would have died serving.
When the assumptions of “good” and “bad” are completely undone — or, in the world of BSG, when your once sworn enemy suddenly becomes your ally, spouse, or even yourself (see: Boomer) — this can really mess with a person. Not unlike the very war the show allegorizes, some people were destined to become collateral damage when boundaries blurred, and Gaeta was one of them.
The Wire: Michael Lee
Although he was only around for two seasons, Michael Lee’s transformation from quiet eighth-grader to contract killer struck a real chord with fans, putting him near the top of those controversial character ranking systems you might have heard something about. His deal with the dark side (Marlo’s crew) was especially heart-wrenching because Michael believed it was the only way to save his younger brother Bug from the abuse and poverty he had endured growing up. And while his first murder at the end of Season 4 might have ostensibly clenched his transformation, his farewell to Dukie in Season 5 was an equally defining moment in his arc. As the two shared their last moment together in Michael’s car, Dukie tried to lighten the mood with the memory of a summer day when they threw “piss balloons” at some tennis players, which Michael confessed he couldn’t remember (see above). These moments of self-realization — when a former good guy realizes there’s no turning back — are always pretty sad because they signal a sense of loss, and Michael’s case was especially haunting because he couldn’t even recall who he once was.
Smallville: Lex Luthor
Sure, Lex Luthor had daddy issues and a creepy obsession with Clark Kent that eventually got way out of control, but he was a great character. Bald from a young age, Lex compensated for his lack of hair with confidence, sense of humor, and knowledge about power and money. He even gave Clark one of his most famous tag lines (see an early episode in which Lex quipped to his young friend-of-steel: “Just remember, the man of tomorrow is forged by his battles today.” ) Yes, he was cocky as hell, but that made him way more interesting than predictable CK (except of course when he was “Clark Luthor” on Earth 2). So it’s no surprise that in their final stand-off it was Lex (in a new body comprised of cloned parts and the heart of his dead alt-reality father) who stole the show with a searing speech about accepting their destinies as enemies because “Every villain is only as great as his hero.” We have to give it to Lex for accepting his fate with valor — not to mention incredible elocution and vague scholarly references. For a CW superhero series, that was poignant stuff.
Community: Ben Chang, i.e. “General”
We’ve seen several Greendale students “break bad” to a degree: Season 2 Pierce, Abed under the influence of the darkest timeline, the earlier, more manipulative Annie, and of course Starburns, campus meth cook. But it was Chang’s Greendale takeover at the end of last season that shocked us the most, because frankly we didn’t think he was capable. How did the sad sack of a Spanish teacher, student, and husband become a ruthless dictator (or as Britta put it, “Just like Stalin back in Russia times”)? We guess enough rejection and back-up (in the form of the pre-teen “Changlorious Basterds” and one Dean-o-ganger), can induce anyone to turn. And although his rule was short-lived, Chang’s exile in the City College air ducts certainly left the door open for a possible collaboration with Dean Pelton’s longtime nemesis Dean Spreck. We assume he’s now crossed the point of no return, and good for him if that’s indeed the case, because evil conspirator is a much more respectable status than study group outlier.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Willow Rosenberg
We were careful not to include anyone on this list who broke bad in an evil doppelgänger/monster reincarnate situation (Cooper in Twin Peaks, Locke on Lost), but we’re counting Willow’s transition to Dark Willow because a) it was still her, just under the influence of dark magic and b) unlike the Vamp Willow storyline, which was a two-time alt-reality deal, her shift was precipitated by years of uncertainty about her place in the world, and ultimately the death of Tara, the person who finally gave her a real sense of belonging. The challenge of making a good character — especially one as sweet as Season 1 Willow — go bad is making it believable, and Whedon did an exceptional job pacing this arc and convincing us that the emotional toll of always being the trusty sidekick, in conjunction with dark magic and loss, really could lead to a near-apocalypse.
On a side note, we just noticed that Willow’s transition to Dark Willow (see above) bears strong resemblance to Lily Aldrin’s “You’re dead to me look.”
Game of Thrones: “Prince” Theon Greyjoy
We couldn’t help but notice how Theon’s impetuous turn last season felt very much like an Anakin Skywalker tantrum circa Revenge of the Sith. Even Sir Rodrik’s last words, “Gods help you Theon Greyjoy. Now you are truly lost,” evoked Obi-Wan’s admonishment of Anakin on Mustafar after he declares the Jedi are evil (to which Obi-Wan responds, “Well, then, you are lost!”). And the wild look that crossed Theon’s blood-stained face after beheading his former master, juxtaposed with a sudden downpour of rain and doomsday music, couldn’t have dramatized his crossover to “the dark side” more (see above).
In Theon’s defense, he captured the people who had held him prisoner for eight years, and even if he regretted his decision, he decided to own it instead of making a quiet exit to the Night’s Watch. “I’ve gone too far go pretend to be anything else,” he conceded to Maester Luwin with uncharacteristic pensiveness, and carried on (until getting clocked on the head and dragged off with his head in a sack).
24: Tony Almeida
When a character needs a motive to go turncoat, he need look no further than those five words immortalized by The Beatles: “All you need is love.” In other words, a broken heart is admissible evidence in TV villain land, and the reason why, when Jack Bauer’s best friend joined a terrorist organization in the name of avenging his dead wife and unborn child, we just had to go with it. In defense of his character arc, Tony Almeida had committed treason on behalf of his lady love before, so when the former CTU agent attempted to launch a biological attack on account of personal feelings near the end of the series, it wasn’t completely implausible. And thanks to his exceptional motive rant (see above) we can begin to understand his logic: “It’s about justice,” he tells Jack. Ah yes, the words every villain tells himself so he can sleep at night.
Batman: The Animated Series: Harvey Dent, i.e. Two-Face
Thanks to a little Batman movie that came out a few summers ago, Two-Face’s origin story is common knowledge in today’s zeitgeist, but if you’re looking for a more psychological take on the Gotham DA turned villain, we recommend the animated series’ two-part episode “Two-Face” (which originally aired in 1992 and you can watch at the WB for free). We won’t give the whole thing away, but we’ll tell you that in this version, Harvey Dent’s turn to the dark side was precipitated by a second personality known as “Big Bad Harv” that he created as a child to help him overcome the guilt of seriously injuring a bully he punched. So while his facial disfigurement sealed the deal, Harvey’s battle with the dark side had been festering within him for years — pretty impressive backstory for a villain in an animated superhero saga.
Weeds: Nancy Botwin (and family)
The woman certainly didn’t start out a saint, but the initial premise of the show — a widowed mother trying to support her family by peddling pot to rich people — was fairly innocent. But then the bodies and threats started adding up, mom got a little too comfortable with a knife (see above), and the entire family was forced to flee their Agrestic home only to get further sucked into Nancy’s messy affairs, including one evil Mexican drug-lord-baby-daddy. In this last and final season a kind, remorseful, and fanny pack-clad Nancy has emerged in the wake of her near-death, which almost seems like a direct response to all the fans who felt like the show had gone too dark over the years. Will she turn over a new leaf? It’s too early to tell, but her takedown of the hospital’s evil-clown drug dealer on this week’s episode was clear evidence that she hasn’t lost her bite.
90210: Brenda Walsh
You know how we were just saying Nancy Botwin’s dark turn created some fan backlash? Well, that has nothing on the hate inspired by Brenda Walsh — the sweet, brunette Minnesotan who became a Beverly Hills mean girl. It’s been speculated that the dislike of this character (and the actress who originated the role) pushed Brenda even closer to evil until Shannen Doherty finally left the show, but whatever happened, there’s no denying she rubbed people the wrong way. For starters, check out this MTV news story circa 1993, which covered the official “I Hate Brenda Newsletter” published by the underground zine Ben Is Dead. One fan in the segment claims Brenda’s evilness lies in her unkempt bangs. Ah, the earliest strains of hate-watching (communication studies undergrads, we see a thesis in this).