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Ten Of Television's Best One-Season Big Bads

By Dustin Rowles and Joanna Robinson | Lists | November 8, 2011 |

By Dustin Rowles and Joanna Robinson | Lists | November 8, 2011 |

As we discussed earlier today, the majority of network and cable dramas these days are gnarly, morally murky affairs. At times it’s hard to tell the heroes, anti-heroes and villains apart. But somebody’s gotta be the bad guy. Without the bad guy, who would we root for? And while some of our favorite television villains (Al Swearengen, Ben Linus, Patty Hewes) had several seasons to stick around and run the gamut from hostile antagonist to wary ally, we’re not here to praise or bury them. Today we celebrate the “Big Bads.” Those villains who fulfill Joss Whedon’s One-Season Formula. They came, they saw, they were vanquished. With the tight One-Season timeframe comes a greater burden to make an impression. We, the viewers, are fairly certain our heroes will prevail, so for any tension to exist, that villain had better be great. These, in no particular order, are simply the best. And thus we conclude unofficial “Joanna and Dustin Watch All The Television So You Don’t Have To” Day not with a bang, but with a piteous, cringing whimper.


Mayor Richard Wilkins — “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”: As we said, Joss Whedon was the king of all things Big and Bad. And while many of his villains stood out, none shone brighter than Harry Groener’s Richard Wilkins. (The Angelus thing is too complicated, too entrenched to count as a single season villain.) The Scooby Gang often referred to Wilkins simply as “The Mayor,” part of Whedon’s effort to demonize every day life. Impervious yet germaphobic, it was Groener’s genius Ned Flanders-esque delivery that made the Mayor such a chilling threat. Hell, the man made even Eliza Dushku seem three-dimensional. (“Miniature… golf.”) As we’ve since learned, that ain’t easy. — JR


Agent Stahl — “Sons of Anarchy”: Introduced in Season Two, Agent Stahl — played with ugly, sinister, bitchy ferocity by Ally Walker — didn’t become the series real Big Bad until that season’s finale, after she shot Edmond Hayes and placed blame on Gemma. And thus began Agent Stahl’s game of evil, luring Jax into a scheme to turn on the Irish, playing him against the rest of SAMCRO and ultimately ratting him out to the club in a move that left us wondering if it were possible to despise any character on television as much as we despised Agent Stahl. Gemma knew all along. “Don’t trust that bitch!” she repeated frequently. Ultimately, Jax Teller didn’t, and after Kurt Sutter bloodied the face of narrative logic, he pulled off one of the most satisfying season finales in recent years, allowing Opie to kill Stahl (who had been responsible for his wife’s death). It was as satisfying a demise as it was because Stahl was so reviled. There wasn’t an ounce of anti-hero in her: Her death felt good. —DR


William Hinks — “The Practice”: Before he lied and cheated and manipulated all over Polar Bear Island, Michael Emerson tormented Lindsey Dole on “The Practice.” Serial killer William Hinks only appeared in six episodes (dead for a few of those, in fact) and Emerson was a relative unknown when he landed the role. Nonetheless his performance was so chilling, so unnerving that it landed him an Emmy and that “Lost” gig. While Emerson has acknowledged certain similarities between his performance as Hinks and Benjamin Linus, he is significantly more unsettling on “The Practice.” Without the leisurely sprawl of the “Lost” mythology, Emerson had only a few hours to capture our attention and chill our blood. And he did it. Masterfully. —JR


The Master — “Doctor Who”: It is something of a cheat to include The Master among a list of one-season Big Bads since The Master has been a recurring character on the sci-fi show for decades, but in the 2007 season’s three-part climax, The Master — played primarily by John Simm — generated as much animosity as most villains can generate in an entire season of television. The Master was so effective a villain, in part, because he showed absolutely no mercy, nonchalantly killing one-tenth of the Earth’s population, ruling the planet for a year, turning whole nations into work-camps and bases for a fleet of war rockets, and artificially aging the Doctor almost to the point of death. Not only is he seconds away from destroying the Universe, he relishes that fact, as he forces Martha Jones to kneel. There is also the added satisfaction in The Master’s anguish when the Doctor forgave him instead of killing him, providing the maximum comeuppance (before his damn wife shot him and he was able to return a small amount of satisfaction in refusing to regenerate). — DR

Irina Derevko — “Alias”: Before things got supremely screwy, “Alias” was a fantastic show. The first two seasons were a masterclass in adrenaline, twists, sex appeal and intrigue. And while the magnificent Arvin Sloane served as the show’s over-arching villain, it was Lena Olin’s turn as Sydney Bristow’s duplicitous mother, Irina Derevko, in Season Two that packed an extra emotional wallop. Already dealing with her father’s double life, Sydney is nearly unmanned by her mother’s machinations. Derevko spends much of the season behind bars, purring lies and half truths, slyly manipulating everyone to get what she wants. Her ultimate betrayal hurts us because it hurts the ones we love (poor Syd and the besotted Jack Bristow). I’m not a huge fan of female villains who use their sex appeal for evil gain, but Olin’s brand of sexuality is so inherently predatory, so delectably slow-burning, that it was a joy to watch her combust. — JR


The Greek — “The Wire”: Stringer Bell and Marlo Stanfield were better villains, but both had more than a season to establish their characters. The Greek — who wasn’t actually Greek — really had only the second season of the series with which to work, but managed to be both cunning and ruthless despite a chilling calm demeanor. Among his many money-making crimes, The Greek imported sex trade workers, allowing 13 women to die in shipping containers. He was brutal in carrying out his executions, too, removing the heads from his victims’ bodies so they couldn’t be identified. In the end, part of what made The Greek such an evil f*cker is that he didn’t get his comeuppance: Like the ruthless capitalistic system that The Greek is meant to represent, those below him are picked off and killed, but he’s soullessly allowed to continue his operations and keep the corrupt system running, replacing one headless body for another. — DR


Cassidy “Beaver” Casablancas — “Veronica Mars”: Whedon’s so-called Big Bad Formula, was used to great effect in Rob Thomas’ “Veronica Mars,” but there was a twist: The identity of the Big Bad was a mystery until the end. In the case of The Beaver, the fact that he wasn’t identified as the Big Bad until the season two season finale didn’t diminish his evil: It made it all the more shocking because, up until the end, he was mostly considered a sympathetic character, someone who was picked on and terrorized. What we discovered in the scenes before Cassidy committed suicide was that he had been behind many of the evil-doings over the course of the first two seasons of “Veronica Mars,” setting up a bus crash that killed the molestation victims of Woody Goodman, blowing up a plane with Goodman on it, and — at one point — raping Veronica and giving her the chlamydia he got when he was molested by Goodman. In the end, despite all his evil, we did feel a modicum of sympathy for Beaver as he leaped to his death: He was a victim himself, and had so much not gone wrong in his life, Beaver wouldn’t have turned out to be the craven, rotten seed that he was. — DR


Trinity — “Dexter”: While the Ice Truck Killer remains my favorite Dexter villain, I think it’s not completely fair to crown him as the best given that the “sympathetic serial killer” concept was still so new in that first season. By the time the fourth season rolled around, Dexter had already conquered several foes. So it would take a tremendous character and stand-out performance to make us worried for ol’ Dex. Enter EGOT contender John Lithgow to make us afraid to go back in the water. Dexter is at its best when the line between our hero and his nemesis starts to blur, making us question our allegiance to Dexter and whether his “Rules” really make him any less of a monster. Lithgow’s Arthur Mitchell presented a warped mirror image of Dexter’s foray into suburbia and fatherhood. (In his daughter, the unhinged Christine Hill, we see the potential damage Dexter could cause to his children.) The bathtub bookends of his appearance and the shocking, deeply personal damage he caused to Dexter, make him an unforgettably villainous presence. — JR


Hartley Winterbottom/Alexei Volkoff, “Chuck”: Season four of “Chuck” was almost a complete failure, but for the periodic appearance of the season’s main villain, Alexei Volkoff. But unlike the other characters on this list, which benefited from great writing and acting, Volkoff was fueled almost singularly by the actor who portrayed him, Timothy Dalton. In season four, we learn that Volkoff is the impetus for much of the series plot developments: He was the original Intersect, but his Intersect turned him into a deliciously evil arms dealer, who apparently turned Chuck’s Mom against the CIA (although, we later learn that Chuck’s Mom was sent to protect him). Volkoff has a very convoluted and somewhat nonsensical arc in season four of “Chuck” — he works under three identities throughout the course of the season — but he nevertheless manages to steal almost every scene he’s in, injecting “Chuck” with a brand of zany evil and providing practically the only source of comedy in the entire fourth season; it’s just too bad that the rest of the season couldn’t match Timothy Dalton’s zeal and energy. — DR


Mags Bennet “Justified”: Anyone who watched Season Two of “Justified” knows why this woman is at the very top of this list. (I know I said “no particular order.” I lied.) A momma bear with claws that eviscerate, Mags will kill you with kindness and generous glass of “pie.” While I was impressed with Margo Martindale from the start, in the scene pictured above, her face communicated the most subtly terrifying quick fire change that I stood up and yelled “HOLY HELL!” And then I rewound, watched again, and yelled again. Her history with Raylan, her unbalanced treatment of young Loretta and her unforgettable, show stopping sermon made us all worshippers at the Church of Mags. The fact that Martindale won the Emmy for this magnetic, expansive, jaw-dropping performance shows that sometimes, just sometimes, they get it right. — JR