See all of our Best TV of 2015 here.
A hero’s tale is inextricably linked with the villain’s, because that’s how heroes are made. The more terrible the villain, the more the hero can shine. In the past few decades, dramas have moved away from white hats and black hats in order to create characters who exist on more of a moral spectrum, with muddled motivations and complex codes of ethics. But with the rise of the superhero show, heroes and villains are becoming more polarized once again, to great effect.
Still, not all of the year’s best villains were in superhero series (though many of them were). Some of 2015’s dramas highlighted the dark depths of just regular ol’ depraved human souls. But whether they were physically frightening or just terrifying in their world views, the following villains really left a dark impression, sometimes long after their series were through.
(Note: I know not everyone is caught up with every show, so the following rundown will remain as vague as possible, with a few specific notes that aren’t spoilers).
It’s easiest, perhaps, to pinpoint the physically imposing villains first, the ones whose statures instantly command attention and assert dominance. The mysterious Zoom on The Flash looks like his mouth is held together with tar. He can do everything Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) can do, but better, faster, and with far more strength. He’s also an impenetrable darkness, one that is both beguiling and terrifying. Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’nofrio) also falls into the category, alternating between being a passionate man who enjoys the finer things, and a rabid bulldog. He and Banshee’s Chayton Littlestone (Geno Segers) are both men with a tunnel vision for their causes, and they use their physicality to brutally assault and kill those who oppose them.
That violent, righteous certainty is a trait also shared by Arrow’s Damien Darhk (Neal McDonough). Though he uses supernatural powers and an army of human drones he’s created through a serum, Darhk (like Fisk) is a man who presents himself initially as having a refined power. He appears controlled — until he isn’t. And the results can be terrifying.
No villain, of course, is more refined and barbaric all at once than Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen). Hannibal’s third season dripped in exquisite pretension, all revolving around Lecter’s gothic countenance. Food is a key to Hannibal’s story, and the production positively basked in the ornate, baroque presentations of the doctor’s feasts, and the ambiance surrounding them. Yet Lecter is, of course, capable of horrific acts of violence. But what made him so endlessly fascinating wasn’t just that dichotomy, but rather, his personal relationship with Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a man whom he loved dearly and whose skull he cuts into one night during dinner.
Not all foils are villains, but some villains make for exceptional foils. The Reverse Flash (Tom Cavanagh), who — in The Flash Season 1 — acted as a friend, mentor, and father-figure to Barry, was also the man who killed his mother, and was looking to raise Barry up as a means to an end (to return to his time). That relationship was so beautifully complicated, and only continued with those layers of trust, doubt, and even friendship between Barry and Harrison Wells in Season 2, where Wells remained the face of Reverse Flash, though no longer actually him. (It’s complicated).
That complicated interplay also exists between Lucas Hood (Antony Starr) and Kai Proctor (Ulrich Thomsen) in Banshee, but in the reverse. The two start out at odds, and largely remain there. But there is an acknowledgment of utilitarianism in their interactions that occasionally allows them to work together, even as they double-cross one another and turn murderous. Proctor is a villain, without doubt, but he has so many shades to his character that it’s easy to — as happens to Hood — believe that maybe he’s not always all bad. The same is true of the wonderful Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins), and his adversarial relationship with Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) of Justified. Were there any words this year on TV that bore into the soul more than the simple, yet endlessly complicated, “we dug coal together”?
Sometimes, of course, a villain doesn’t actually realize they’re bad. Jessica Jones’ terrible villain Kilgrave (David Tennant) has been controlling people’s actions for so long, he’s numb to it. He is a neutral chaotic, not caring who he slaughters or how, often making a game out of it for himself. That apathy, coupled with his mind-control abilities, makes him one of the year’s scariest villains, as he can program anyone to do his bidding, and then dispose of them once they’ve completed their task.
Back on the more human side of that, though, there’s The Knick’s Everett Gallinger (Eric Johnson), an unapologetic racist and eugenicist. There’s a moment early in Season 2 where it seems like Gallinger could be redeemed, but then he spirals ever further into his dogged belief that only those who are deemed “fit” should procreate (and actually goes so far as to sterilize patients against their understanding). What’s terrifying about him is not just that he believes that he’s right both in his sabotaging of Algernon (Andre Holland) and in creating master race by preventing “undesirables” to procreate, but that people like this exist. Not just in historical terms, but today. (Inserting a mention here as well of Robert Durst in The Jinx: terrifying and real. Burp!)
That is why, sometimes, it’s just more fun when a villain is completely fictional, purely evil, and incredibly crazy. Hannibal’s Mason Verger (played in this past season by Joe Anderson), fits that bill beautifully, and the show allowed him to be so absolutely insane that his grotesque desires and revenge strategies were, occasionally, played with the darkest humor. I mean really … he takes out his sister’s womb, and then plants what would have been her baby into a pig? And that’s only the start. Penny Dreadful’s Madame Kali (Helen McCrory, and the only woman on this list — why are there not more female villains?) is also a fan of committing horrible and depraved acts on tiny babies, like when she cuts out their hearts and puts them into voodoo puppets. Again, only the start of her absolutely insane yet literally spellbinding villainy.
Kali is driven by dark impulses, ones that are wrapped up in a desire for power and immortality. Hannibal (with the most villains of the list) echoed this theme with its portrayal of The Red Dragon (Richard Armitage), who is haunted by a desire to “transform” and “become” William Blake’s mythical poetic creature. He commits horrific acts of violence and villainy in the service of these impulses. The same is true of Outlander’s Captain “Black Jack” Randall (Tobias Menzies), who attempts to rape and humiliate Claire (Caitriona Balfe), and sexually brutalizes Sam Heughan’s character Jamie Fraser for almost two entire episodes. It’s more than rape, it’s the breakdown of a man’s soul, such that he doesn’t believe he can ever come back. Randall is obsessed in both his desire to punish and control Jamie, and it’s a storyline that plays out over the course of the show’s entire first season, manifesting finally in that twisted set of final episodes.
Then there are the group efforts, ones who may or may not have control of their impulses, who may or may not be human, but who are a particular kind of scary, especially when they arrive en masse: zombies. They were everywhere on TV this year, from The Walking Dead and its Fear the Walking Dead spinoff to Ash vs. Evil Dead, and of course (rather memorably) in Game of Thrones. Less feral examples also starred in iZombie and The Returned (American and French versions), but it’s the more frightening human-consuming ones that bare mentioning. Maybe they aren’t villains in the traditional sense, but sometimes (like in Game of Thrones’ excellent “Hardhome” episode), they are memorable monsters who create heroes through their chaotic, apocalyptic actions.
2015 was stacked with exceptional television, and most of it is thanks to these beautifully twisted, sometimes absolutely terrifying relationships between the year’s heroes and villains. Each was unique, with every villain given a specificity that has made them stand-out in an increasingly crowded TV landscape. So for once, cheers to the villains, both for creating our heroes and for giving us some extraordinarily frightening, exciting, and ultimately compelling stories to remember from this year.