Television used to be far simpler. You had your good guys and your bad guys, light and dark and never the twain shall meet. But, in the past fifteen to twenty years, a new figure has emerged between the two, a sort of gray character who moves seamlessly between heroism and villainy: the anti-hero. These characters straddle a fine line, making bad look oh so good. Often times, they possess qualities of a typical black-hat villain, such as questionable morals, avarice, and violent tendencies. But, at the same time, the anti-heroes less than heroic tendencies are tempered by more human traits: self-loathing, a complicated and heartbreaking backstory, a love of family. For these reasons, the anti-hero is often the most layered and complex character on the TV show, vacillating between wanting to do good and protect that which he holds dear, but performing amoral acts in order to secure the ends. The anti-hero has become so prolific in TV that it’s hard to pick just ten, but these ten anti-heroes are the ones we love (and love to hate) the most.
Be careful, there are spoilers for some of the characters below!
10. Omar Little (The Wire)
With his sawed-off shotgun, facial scar, and tendency to whistle children’s songs as he stalked the street of Baltimore, Omar Little (Michael K. Williams) was a notorious stick-up man, best known for his impressive abilities to rob low-level drug dealers. What made Omar an anti-hero, and what made him one of the most popular characters on the hit HBO show, was how moral and upstanding the thug really was. Omar refused to kill or harm innocents; he monitored his language to avoid profanity, and possessed a private tender nature toward his partners. His Robin Hood like personality coupled with a kill or be killed mentality against the rough Baltimore streets, made Omar a man that audiences rooted for. His ultimate demise in season five was a hard hitting moment for viewers.
9. Rumpelstiltskin (Once Upon a Time)
Cable television has anti-heroes aplenty, but broadcast TV has begun turning them out in droves as well. On this ABC fantasy show, in which famous fairy tale characters have come to our world, there is no one more devious than Rumpelstiltskin (Robert Carlyle). In the past, audiences saw that Rumpel manipulates, lies, deceives and murders. Even his appearance, with his scaly green-gold skin and black claws, warn audiences that Rumpel is not to be trusted. But the show turned everything on a dime when they delved into Rumpel’s backstory. An abused outcast who was labeled as a coward, Rumpel’s life was never easy. When it looked like his only son would be taken off to war (and surely die) Rumpel took on an ancient curse to make him the most evil wizard in the forest. And when Rumpel lost his son because he would not give up his magic, he spent the next 300 years trying to move worlds to find his boy. Rumple might have no qualms about violence, but his desire to reunite with his son makes him a fan-favorite and the one to root for.
8. Francis Underwood (House of Cards)
It takes an impressive amount of bravery to introduce your main character by having him kill a dog while breaking the fourth wall and telling the audience that he has no patience for useless things. Such was the way that Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey) was introduced on Netflix’s original series, House of Cards. Over the course of two seasons, Francis breaks every law there is for the sake of his own power. Season one finds Francis manipulating a fellow Congressman to fall off the wagon and back into alcohol, drugs, and prostitutes. When the Congressman still won’t play by the rules, Francis coldly kills him and makes it look like suicide. Outside of political machinations, Francis is never faithful to his wife, and has a tendency to disrespect everyone around him. So why do we root for him? Because he’s just so good at what he does. Francis may have secured a place in the White House through less than moral means, but we can’t wait to see what President Underwood has in store for us when the show returns for a third season.
7. Jack Bauer (24)
Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) is the most dangerous weapon the United States government has. He’s fluent in several languages, he knows many fighting methods, he’s an expert at interrogation and persuasion techniques and he is skilled with firearms. But while he’s a deadly killing machine, Jack longs for a normal life with his family. His wife is murdered and his daughter and he have a contentious relationship. These obstacles to normalcy elicit sympathy from the audience and make us root for Jack to get out of every conceivable situation so he can get home and be with his family.
6. Jax Teller (Sons of Anarchy)
Outlaw motorcyclist and president of his motorcycle club, Jax (Charlie Hunnam) has done his share of bad things. He has been in prison for smuggling and gunrunning, he left his pregnant wife who subsequently slipped back into her drug habit and birthed a crack-addicted baby. Jax can be brutal and harsh and refuses to play by society’s rules. But at the same time that Jax is laying down the law for his own club, his father’s memory haunts him, and Jax begins to question the laws and morals of the club. There is a real desire on his part to bring the Sons of Anarchy back to their original intentions, instead of being so violent and dangerous. Jax’s relationship with his son, Abel, is also a key feature to his anti-hero status. Violent and law breaking, Jax loves his child and was named on of TV’s best dad list by Dadcentric.com.
5. Nancy Botwin (Weeds)
Suburban housewives do not suddenly become drug dealers. But for Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) once she was left widowed with two children, it seemed like she had very little choice. Over the course of eight seasons, Nancy goes from local small time pot dealer to the leader of a major drug cartel. Nancy becomes deeply embroiled in the politics and machinations of the drug world, but while she’s dealing the illegal substance, she desperately tries to keep her children out of the dangerous and hazardous life that comes with drugs. Audiences root for her because of her desire to keep her family safe and to provide for them, but her anti-hero status is secured by her actions and how she grows to relish the power of being a drug dealer.
4. Don Draper (Mad Men)
Ad man extraordinaire, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is a belligerent, self-absorbed, egotistical, womanizing pain. Don yells at his subordinates, defies his betters, taunts clients, and generally walks around the office as if he owns everyone and everything. Don spends his work days drunk and napping (or leaves early in order to drink and sleep around), he has never been faithful to either of his wives and he has a distant and sometimes neglectful relationship with his three children. So why do audiences love Don Draper? For one, Don is incredibly charismatic. He can take you down a few pegs with a rousing speech, and despite being insulted, you’ll applaud him. Secondly, Don’s backstory, which slowly unfolds over seasons, is one of neglect and abuse. Don was the offspring of a whore and a father who was drunk and violent. He spent his younger years living in a whorehouse where he was assaulted and beaten. When the chance came for a new life, he grabbed it, made a new name for himself and never looked back. Audiences want Don Draper to find happiness and peace because his life is sorely missing it.
3. Dexter Morgan (Dexter)
Serial killers are not uncommon on TV. But serial killers who try to abide by a strict moral code? That’s something new. Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) has had homicidal urges since he was young. His “Dark Passenger” is often too strong to resist, so Dexter will give in and let his serial killer tendencies take over. Like many serial killers, Dexter feels cut off from humanity and kills in order to feel alive. What makes Dexter different from your average serial killer on TV, are the relationships he forms and rules he lives by. While Dexter considers himself incapable of love, he is fond of his sister Deb, his stepchildren, and his adopted father Harry. It was his adopted father Harry who taught Dexter how to reign in his urges and only let the Dark Passenger out for those individuals who were murderers themselves. When a criminal escapes justice, Dexter takes it upon himself to right the wrong and satisfy his own blood lust. The ironic heroism of a man upholding the law by killing perpetrators is what makes Dexter a man to both fear and love.
2. Walter White (Breaking Bad)
If you found out you were dying and your family would be in dire straights financially after your death, what would you do to ensure their survival? And thus begins Walter White’s (Bryan Crantson) descent into “bad.” Mild mannered high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin, Walter declares that what he does, he does for family. Over five seasons, Walter becomes deeply embroiled with drug cartels, sells his almost perfect product, lies to his family, murders his enemies, and even harms the innocent—in one notoriously bad move, Walter poisons a little boy to ensure that his partner will continue to cook with him. But even with all that going on, there is a softer side of Walter in his devotion to his family. Walter might be the one who knocks, but he tries to be grounded by his family.
1. Tony Soprano (The Sopranos)
Any of the anti-heroes on this list are good enough to take the top spot. But, really, could the number one position belong to anyone else? James Gandolfni’s incredible performance as the Jersey mobster is the reason this top ten list can exist. Without Tony Soprano, there would be no Walter White or Don Draper. Tony Soprano might seem like your typical mob boss—ruthless and violent—but unlike other depictions of mob bosses, the audience is allowed inside Tony’s head. We get glimpses of his depression, panic attacks and desire to please both his crime family and his actual family, which makes Tony the man to root for.