The Most Complex Pop Culture Villains


It was a devastating week in celebrity deaths, concluding with the passing of Harry Potter’s Alan Rickman, the English actor known for playing normally complex villains. Rickman showed us that our bad guys didn’t always reveal themselves as scowling maniacs.

“The best ‘villain’ actors bring a dash of warmth, humor, and kindness to their roles. Rickman always did that. He was just fun to watch,” critic Scott Weinberg tweeted. Although he was a classically trained actor, Rickman’s most famous role was that of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter film adaptations, a wicked, yet morally ambiguous character who is a study in opposites — suspicious and trustworthy, cruel and kind.

We explore other morally complex fictional characters in pop culture — our eternal fascination. Leave us your picks, below.

Michael Corleone, The Godfather

The Godfather twists our perception of the world around us, allowing audiences to see inside a criminal underworld that espouses family and honor, out into a society that no longer prizes tradition. Roger Ebert wrote about Michael’s descent from college grad with plans for an all-American life to his father’s successor and a killer himself:

Pacino is very good at suggesting the furies and passions that lie just beneath his character’s controlled exterior. He gives us a Michael who took over the family with the intention of making it “legitimate” in five years, but who is drawn more and more deeply into a byzantine web of deceit and betrayal, all papered over with code words like respect, honor, and gratitude. By the film’s end he has been abandoned by almost everyone except those who work for him and fear him, and he is a very lonely man. But what was his sin? It was not, as we might have imagined or hoped, that he presided over a bloody enterprise of murder and destruction. No, Michael’s fault seems to be pride. He has lost the common touch, the dignity he should have inherited from his father. And because he has misplaced his humanity he must suffer.

Al Swearengen, Deadwood

Actor Ian McShane on playing Deadwood’s pimp saloon owner:

To a great extent, it’s McShane’s sly-eyed Al Swearengen who sits at the heart of the unfolding drama. Best known for his starring part in the British series Lovejoy, his marriage to Sue Ellen Ewing on Dallas and his work in the recent feature Sexy Beast, McShane is as much at home playing Swearengen as Swearengen is at home on his balcony in Deadwood, where he can often be found of late, surveying his town and the people who live there. “Swearengen is the most aware character in the series—he f—- up, and he knows he’s f—– up,” says McShane, lighting an unfiltered Lucky Strike. “He’s not at peace, God knows, with his torturous background, but he’s at home in his own character, which is more than you can say about most of the other characters. “You rarely get to play someone who’s as complicated as Al is but also simple at the same time. He is the smartest guy in town. And as the show has progressed, Al is becoming less and less a villain, and we’ll see that the hat, the hero figure, Seth Bullock, is not so simple either.”

Omar Little, The Wire

“Omar Little is one of the most rich, complex characters ever written for television,” writes BuzzFeed’s Kelley L. Carter. “He’s a drug dealer who abides by a strict moral code of honor; he doesn’t kill people who aren’t in the game, doesn’t use profanity, is a Robin Hood of sorts, loves Honey Nut Cheerios, and is openly gay. Dude walks around in broad daylight with a shotgun rifle and dares someone to test him. ‘You come at the king, you best not miss.’” Being a 21st-century Robin Hood from the hood makes Omar charming, eccentric (who else would wear silk pajamas to buy Honey Nut Cheerios in the middle of the night?), and bold (calling out a lawyer for being an “amoral parasite,” same as him).

Patty Hewes, Damages

Glenn Close clearly delights in playing morally complex characters. Her Marquise in Dangerous Liaisons sees seduction and betrayal as one in the same, toying with her ex in a game where he should make love, but never fall in love. In Damages, Close plays the manipulative Patty — a powerful woman in a man’s world who views everyone as a pawn. From Bitch Flicks:

The award-winning actress Glenn Close brings Damages‘ corporate lawyer and anti-heroine, Patty Hewes, to life with complexity, subtlety, and sheer force of presence. Patty Hewes is the uncannily successful proprietor of the law firm Hewes & Associates. She has high-up connections that she thinks nothing of exploiting, and she has no problem circumnavigating the law and propriety to win a case or to get what she wants. She thinks nothing of, say, attempting to murder her protege, Ellen, and succeeding in murdering Ellen’s fiance or blackmailing witnesses or judges. Patty has a reputation for ruthlessness, and, basically, people know she’s not a woman to be fucked with because she will toy with her opponents before unleashing an unholy shit storm that utterly destroys them. She’s beyond smart; she’s brilliant. She’s dedicated, ambitious, addicted to winning seemingly unwinnable cases, and cares more about her career than she does about anything else in her life.

Dexter Morgan, Dexter

Dexter is a serial killer who only kills those who have evaded the justice system. It’s a way of controlling his own “dark passenger,” though no one in Dexter’s life would ever guess he’s a murderer given his affection for his son, clever humor, and shyness. Bustle’s Alicia Lutes explains what makes Dexter different from other TV antiheroes:

The difference between Dexter and The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, is that Dexter Morgan was never trying to genuinely live the American dream — merely use and abuse it as a cover to allow for bad behaviors. And the show manipulated you into thinking there would be an arc (rather than a story about a man who is chemically incapable of having that sort of change), because it was trying to make itself believe that was possible. Ultimately, though Dexter Morgan could go through the motions, he could never really exist in a world where the consequences of his actions were real, because he doesn’t accept personal responsibility — a vigilante justice-seeker always believes they serve a higher purpose.

Everyone in Breaking Bad

No one fully occupies a moral center in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad — from Walter White’s cancer patient turned meth kingpin and Aaron Paul’s drug dealer with a heart of gold, to Bob Odenkirk’s crooked lawyer who roots for the little guy and Jonathan Banks’ world-weary hit man. From the Harvard Political Review:

“We end up identifying with and sympathizing with somebody who’s a villain. And then we are lectured at by the author as to why this is wrong,” [Dr. David] Koepsell says to explain the dilemma of the audience, who are torn between a desire to denounce him and a desire to cheer him on. Perhaps the most important moral question introduced by Breaking Bad is its constant need to make the audience question our ethical allegiances. Gilligan morally assaults the audience, asking us if sympathizing with Walter White makes us complicit in his crimes. Breaking Bad makes the powerful point in its illustration of a once-moral man’s decline that there is no person of Platonic virtue. Instead, it chillingly emits a haunting reminder: we are all breaking bad.

Pennsatucky, Orange is the New Black

Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett is a self-proclaimed redneck, unhinged lunatic, and mean-girl meth head who does time for shooting a nurse at an abortion clinic. It was her fifth time having the procedure done, but Pennsatucky becomes the unlikely hero of the pro-life movement after the killing and decides to embrace her godlike status, wielding it without care behind bars. But the arc of her character shifts when Doggett is raped by a correctional officer and begins to have remorse about her past. The most recent season ends with Doggett taking back her power, which ultimately puts Diane Guerrero’s character Maritza Ramos in a scary, vulnerable position. How Doggett eventually deals with or avoids the situation will twist the character’s moral compass further.

Humbert Humbert, Lolita

Guardian writer Claire Armitstead digs into the morally warped Humbert Humbert, Lolita’s seductive narrator:

Rereading the novel in 2014, I found that the scariest beast isn’t Quilty, the perverted Jimmy Savile figure, but the evasive Humbert, who is intoxicated by his own language and confirmed in his smugness by the chain of lucky coincidences in which Nabokov enfolds him. . . . But if his language insulates Humbert, it also condemns him. The key to his monstrosity lies in his very first sexual encounter with Lolita, when he masturbates with her sitting innocently in his lap. “With the deep hot sweetness thus established and well on its way to the ultimate convulsion, I felt I could slow down in order to prolong the glow,” he says. “Lolita had been safely solipsised.” The point about solipsism is that it is a condition of the individual. You can’t solipsise someone else. The verb didn’t exist before Humbert invented it in order to have his wicked way with a child whose own agency, and identity, are erased by his actions. “What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation … encasing her; floating between me and her, and having no will, no consciousness – indeed no life of her own.” In his epilogue, Nabokov insisted that Lolita has no moral. But the corruption of that single word – “solipsise” – epitomises what the novel means to me now, and why it is still worth reading. It reveals what is fundamentally abusive about abuse: not just the act, but the absolute denial of another person’s right to autonomous existence.

Anton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men

The Coen’s No Country for Old Men, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, introduces Javier Bardem’s ruthless hitman Anton Chigurh as a cold-blooded killer capable of strangling a sheriff in order to escape the law. The novel describes him as a man of code and principles, despite the fact that he kills his own corrupt employers who hired him to recover some drug money. But Chigurh doesn’t actually care about the two million dollars, because there are bigger things at stake. He sees himself as justice and fate personified — usually leaving his victims’ lives up to a coin toss. His execution is swift, but he’s just the catalyst.

Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones

From Lit Reactor on Lena Headey’s deliciously wicked queen:

As a result, while we may not agree with the decisions of morally gray characters, we are often given the opportunity to understand their underlying motives. Cersei provides a good example of this. She’s easily one of the most hateable characters in the show and books, but her background justifies her choices. She’s obsessed with power—but why wouldn’t she be after a life of powerlessness? This is a character who was told she can’t inherit land and titles, who was married off for her family’s benefit, and who was stuck in a loveless marriage with a whore-monger of a husband. Her “out” was a secret life that offered her love (albeit with her brother) and children (even if one of them is pure evil). We can understand Cersei’s obsession with reclaiming power and with protecting the children that represented the one element of her life that was truly hers. Are her choices suddenly admirable? Of course not. But it moves actions from the realm of “evil” to something far more rich. To avoid being merely arbitrary, the actions of morally gray characters must find a justification within the character’s messy life and worldview, and that makes the characters more believable, resonant, and interesting.