Starting Nine is the method a lineup nerd uses to rank his personal favorites. These are not necessarily the nine all-time best entries of the subject being covered. It’s an exercise in finding the entries that best fit the profile for each spot in the batting order.
I’m a lineup traditionalist: I like dependable table-setters in the 1 and 2 spots, world-beating franchise powerhouses 3rd and 4th, potent sluggers 5th and 6th, hard-nosed role players 7th and 8th, and an underrated, dirt-dog workhorse in the 9-hole.


For the past couple decades, the best live action entertainment being made has been on television. As great as some comic book, space opera, and war epics are, TV dramas have been creating much more interesting characters than anything you’ll find on the big screen for quite some time.

I think this all started when HBO began producing its own drama series. Before then, nothing could make air on television unless its language, action, sex, and themes were toned down to a PG level, leaving very little meat on the bone for bad guys to work with. Dallas, Dynasty, and Beverly Hills 90210 were about as steamy and violent as anything you’d ever see on TV until Oz introduced the viability of presenting weekly, episodic dramas with adult content that did not have to meet FCC regulations.

Once the kid gloves came off, it made perfect sense that the best villains would be on TV. Nowadays, creators have anywhere from six to over twenty hours per season to develop deep, interesting bad guys that can be as intelligent, sexy, violent, and psychopathic as the imagination can conjure. Even basic cable channels considerably loosened their content restrictions once HBO and Showtime began cranking out superior programming that cleaned up at the Emmys and Golden Globes. Now, with a jillion different streaming services competing for our precious subscription dollars, there are more and more untethered showrunners raising the bar of greed, lust, and sadism to give us reprehensible, yet relatable evildoers for us to root against.

You’ll notice that the vast majority of the players on my Starting Nine of TV Drama Villains come from a specific era.

The era when TV writers were finally granted permission to create characters that acted and spoke like grownups.

The era before we got spammed with a thousand different drama series per year, each one touting the next megalomaniacal flavor of the month.

The era when TV drama rose to the top of the mountain.


1. Tywin Lannister – Game of Thrones

I relate to my leadoff man more than any other villain I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing. For all his coldblooded scheming, I completely understood and respected each of his machinations because of the nature of his position. As lord of the wealthiest family in Westeros and Hand to the King, Tywin had to face off against the most powerful people on the planet, many of them as conniving as murderous as he, in order to secure the Lannisters’ place within the game of thrones. Had he cared for his children anywhere near as much as he cared about the reputation of his family name, Jamie, Cersei, and Tyrion may have loved and supported him rather than merely respecting and fearing him. The man with the stones to send the ruler of the seven kingdoms to bed without his dinner can hit at the top of my lineup any time.


2. Gustavo Fring – Breaking Bad

He wasn’t nearly the talker that Lord Tywin was, but he was every bit as smart, ruthless, and willing to order somebody’s death if it was best for business. He was both the perfect business partner and the perfect archenemy for Walter White. Fring was always respectful of the wayward chemist’s brilliance and wherewithal, but he was also bitterly resentful at White’s unwillingness to conform to the Los Pollos Hermanos proprietor’s proven business model. Of all the nemeses Walt went up against during Breaking Bad’s historic run, Fring was undoubtedly the only one who could match him on every front. Every time Walt appeared to find his way out of Fring’s clutches, Gus managed to use his connections and powers of manipulation to stay one step ahead. And even though Heisenberg finally came out of their long-running duel on top, everybody on the Blue Magic management chain would agree that Fring was the superior entrepreneur.


3. Marlo Stanfield – The Wire

It’s all in the game.
Avon Barksdale loved the game. Proposition Joe mastered the game. But Marlo Stanfield needed the game.
Drug kingpin was the only role on this planet that Marlo was fit to occupy. No other position could have ever satisfied his monumental lusts for power, dominance, and universal street cred. He’d put a hit out on anybody, be it a vengeful street thug or a fatherly mentor, if helped fasten the crown atop his head. He started a gang war to dethrone Avon and Stringer, disbanded the cooperative that had brought peace to the Baltimore drug trade, and walked out on his chance to become a legit member of high society. And he did it all because he was happy exactly where he was: on top, by himself, stomping on anybody who tries to knock him down. He didn’t give a damn about any unwritten rules of the game, going straight, or getting the cops off his back. Marlo’s only concern was being top dog, and making sure everyone knew it.
“You want it to be one way … but it’s the other way.”


4. Ralph Cifaretto – The Sopranos 

Say what you will about Marlo, at least he always knew what he was.
Ralph Cifaretto, while being about as terrible a human being as you’ll find anywhere in real life or fiction, actually saw himself as a victim of sorts. Despite being a criminal, murderer, sadist, sexual deviant, and about fifty other things that nobody should ever hope to be, Ralphie enjoyed every sordid aspect of his unholy life. He was the best earner in the DiMeo crime family, yet still the worst possible choice for the rank of Capo because he was so volatile and incapable of relating to human beings on any kind of emotional level. He saw Tony Soprano as a domineering bully simply because Tony objected to the countless disgusting acts he perpetrated. Ralph just couldn’t comprehend why anyone would have an issue with him mocking the intelligence of a man who had recently suffered brain damage, beating a prostitute to death with his bare hands, or burning a racehorse alive for the insurance money. The fact that a guy like Ralphie could climb so high up the ladder was one of David Chase’s staunchest critiques of organized crime.


5. Wilson Fisk – Daredevil

Talk about a middle-of-the-order slugger. This guy beats grown men to death with his bare hands, and the fear of his wrath leads others to impale their faces on jagged chain-link fence posts rather than rat him out. The Kingpin (not Marlo, the other Kingpin) was a wealthy socialite with sophisticated tastes and a pleasant, if not somewhat awkward disposition if you catch him at an art gallery or a romantic dinner for two. But do not mess with his love life, his mother, or his businesses, or you will find yourself at the mercy of his considerable temper, not to mention the full force of his vast criminal empire. Vincent D’Onofrio is a dynamic actor that gives layers of depth to Fisk, who was basically a one-dimensional crime lord in every other medium where he was showcased. His attempted escape from custody, as minions armed to the teeth assault his paddy wagon while he patiently waits to be freed, is a particularly menacing display of his icy patience and resolve.


6. Arthur Michell – Dexter

The Trinity Killer was another complicated villain. Posing as a kind family man who taught high school and was active in the church and community charities, Arthur Mitchell was as crazy as crazy gets. He killed people for thirty years; slashing, dropping, burying, and bludgeoning victims in complex cycles of four that mirrored the emotional abuse and trauma he suffered as a child. His typical suburbanite façade hid a narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive monster that tormented his family and lived to prey on innocent strangers. The fallout of his arc on the show, particularly the tragedy that is discovered right after his death, makes him Dexter’s most worthy adversary. Trinity is Dexter’s greatest reminder of how doomed he, and anybody close to him, will always be due to the impulses of his Dark Passenger. Being played by John Lithgow, one of the great villains of all time, certainly doesn’t hurt either.


7. Armadillo Quintero

The Shield is one of the great shows in basic cable history, and it gave us some incredible villains. Armadillo is undoubtedly the best, and by that of course I mean he was the most reprehensible, of them all. Seeking to consolidate the Farmington drug enterprise and unite all the Latino gangs under his flag, Armadillo’s methods included dousing his rivals with gasoline, hanging a tire around their heads, and setting them ablaze. He even assaulted the girlfriend and (very) little sister of one particular victim, forever branding them afterwards by tattooing a dove on each of their faces. His depravity enraged Detective Vic Mackey (as it did to all of us watching at home) to the point of branding Armadillo in his own fashion … by melting the side of his face on a red hot stove. The conflict between Mackey and Armadillo would only get more personal from there, resulting in a blisteringly tense season that established The Shield as my all-time favorite cop show. Armadillo was a coldblooded bastard that gave zero bucks.


8. William Rawls – The Wire

You can probably guess how infuriating I used to get watching this show. Not only do I have the amoral street king hitting in the three-hole, I have the devious, self-serving a$$hole police administrator at the bottom of the order. Rawls was just about as evil as Marlo, showing complete indifference toward the concept of actually reducing Baltimore crime in deference to “juking the stats” and giving the mere illusion of successful police work. Rawls was a creature of pure ambition, more than willing to support policies that put Baltimore civilians at risk if it could result in a bigger office and heftier paycheck for himself. He dished out threats to subordinates who attempted revolutionary crimefighting tactics, always covering his ass and siding with whichever politician could do the most good for his career. Rawls may actually be the scariest character in The Wire. Watching him just gives us the feeling that corruption like this truly exists in police departments across America.
It’s all in the game.


9. James Horton – Highlander: The Series

If you’ve read my Starting Nine columns before, you may remember that I’m a big fan of Highlander: The Series. The first season is actually pretty crappy, but it really picks up early in season two when we meet The Watchers, a group of historians tasked with recording the movements and conflicts of the Immortals who are scattered across the world. Horton leads a sect of Watchers who believe Immortals like our hero, Duncan MacLeod, are evil conquerors that wish to dominate the human race. Feuding Immortals have to follow an ancient system of rules, squaring off in single combat, unable to be killed unless they are decapitated. Opportunistic mortals like Horton, however, travel in packs, wielding automatic weapons and ambushing Immortals one at a time before beheading them while they are stunned. He’s an evil man that feels like he is doing good for humanity, a complex trope which is often a recipe for success. The inclusion of Horton’s Watchers elevated Highlander from a derivative sci-fi show with potential to a surprisingly dark, complex drama with fascinating story arcs and a constant sense of foreboding.

By Luke

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