As TV dramas get murkier and murkier these days, the line between “anti-hero” and “villain” continues to blur in lurid and exciting ways. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a morally compromised protagonist. Heck, even our lawmen ain’t what they used to be. And, to be honest, that just makes for better storytelling and more interesting television. We can trace the beginning of this TV trend to the magnificent James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. But even Tony couldn’t hold a candle to some of these charmingly twisted killers. Feel free to add your favorites in the comments, but for this particular experiment I limited the entries to shows that are currently or will soon be airing. Enjoy.
Hannibal Lecter — “Hannibal”: As “Hannibal” oozed its way to an uncomfortable but inevitable-seeming conclusion this week, I found myself completely astonished that it’s going to receive a second season. This is thanks, in large part, to Mads Mikkelsen’s astonishing performance. Of course he had big shoes to fill, and he did so. Dapperly. Beyond the elegance of his lifestyle (seriously that office, seriously), Mikkelsen’s Dr. Lecter possesses a curious tragedy, a strange, intractable sympathy that makes it hard to reconcile the man with his actions. He’s deeply psychopathic, so I suppose that’s the point.
Boyd And Ava Crowder — “Justified”: Our star-crossed, tragic Bonnie and Clyde of The Holler had a rough go of it this year. From the highest highs to the lowest lows, we watched their entire dizzying trajectory with knuckles clenched. It’s Olyphant’s show, sure. But despite all the tragedy and darkness Raylan faced this year, it’s the Crowders who, ultimately, had our sympathy.
Ray Seward — “The Killing”: Ray Seward is far from lovable, for sure. And who knows where this season will go. He may not even end up being a killer at all. But thanks to Peter Sarsgaard’s reptilian charm, he’s currently one of the more compelling characters on TV. Watching him f*ck with his guards may make you hate him, but the hollow way he admits “they won a long time ago” must surely tug at something in you.
Jaime Lannister — “Game Of Thrones”: Without a doubt, Jaime Lannister had the most compelling arc this season on HBO’s blood- and gore-fest. And while most of the people walking around Westeros are some form of killer, Jaime Lannister *did* push a kid out of a window and later choked his own kinsmen to death. But you love him. You maybe want to have babies with him. And why? Redemption? Is he a good man now? Does that erase his past? It’s hard to say. And it’s why his is the best plot line.
Alice Morgan — “Luther”: As much as I love love love Idris Elba, I was disappointed by the significant lack of Ruth Wilson in Season 2 of BBC’s grittiest crime drama. But she’s back at the end of summer for Season 3, and I couldn’t be happier. She’ll kill you with a look and you’ll die happily.
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings — “The Americans”: This FX drama was a little shaky in its freshman season, but there was enough good there to keep me coming back for more. The good, of course, was the marital drama between Philip and Elizabeth. Not the espionage (though watching Keri Russell cat burgle her way into a car was delightful), not the wigs, but the ordinary story of two people trying and mostly failing to love each other. It’s almost enough to make you forget how many people they slaughtered. Almost.
Jesse Pinkman — “Breaking Bad”: SPOILER ALERT FOR LAST SEASON OF “BREAKING BAD.” If I had written this list a year ago, it would Mike here. But he’s no longer with us. And as I’m not one of the many weirdos who still think Walter White is sympathetic, I’m going to hang this title on Pinkman. Sure he’s not an indiscriminate or frequent killer. And sure he killed Gale because he “had” to and Joaquin Salamanca was self-defense. But as long as he’s in this game, he’s putting people at risk. And not matter how racked with guilt he feels, he keeps coming back. Sure he’s being expertly manipulated, but it’s his choice to keep coming back. But that won’t stop us from loving him or curling into a ball of despair if he ends up as collateral damage. Because, I mean, come on, just look at him.