Thursday Five: TV Antagonists

There are many types of villains that appear on the small screen, be they weasel-like liars, cerebral manipulators or just plain mentally bananas. On this week’s Thursday Five, we look at five of the more prominent examples of televisual antagonists.

1. Benjamin Linus, Lost

Ben Linus’ introduction in the second season of the smash hit show Lost seemed to start innocuously enough, before rapidly growing and evolving at a ridiculous rate. Originally appearing to a minor pawn of the threatening group of Others captured by the survivors of Oceanic flight 815 on the island, Linus slowly rose to prominence as his leadership of the hostile group became more obvious to the crash survivors.

Once the reveal of Ben’s nefarious inclinations were made clear, television saw the birth of one of its most vindictive and manipulative villains in its history. While psychologically dissecting the crash survivors’ reasons for being on the island and influencing them to unintentionally do his bidding, Linus’ evil reputation grew exponentially and was the finest antagonist the show created. Add on top of this an over the top, evil theme that followed him whenever he did something bad, a troubled childhood and an absurd tendency not to tell the truth and you have the makings of a sociopathic genius that may never be replicated. In a telling sign of just how delightful a character Linus was, his popularity with the audience grew the more he was on screen, and the writers had no choice but to turn him into one of the good guys upon bringing the show to a close.


2. The Joker Batman

Decades before Heath Ledger earned numerous accolades and much critical acclaim for his portrayal of archetypal Batman villain The Joker, Cesar Romero brought the comic character to life for the small screen, and what resulted was a disturbing and colourful interpretation of a madman. The luminous purple jacket combined with the pale face and maniacal laugh were and still are the hallmarks of The Joker character, yet it is in this atmosphere that the character is particularly creepy. The mixture of Romero’s shrieking laugh with the blatant absurdity of the entire show equals a bizarre and disconcerting blend, and is a villainous portrayal that needs to be experienced to be believed, especially when bearing in mind the show’s target audience.

Considering the show was aimed at youngsters and aired at an early prime-time spot, the depiction of such an obviously mentally unhinged character haunted many children for years. Added to the overwhelmingly psychedelic feel of the show and the bright, campy colours that The Joker adorned, this depiction seemed like a subversion of what a villain was meant to be in regards to his intense unpredictability and it’s this which defined a character for a generation.


3. The Master, Doctor Who

In some sense related to later explorations of the relationship between Batman and The Joker, The Master in Doctor Who reaches such a pinnacle of villainy not only for the fear that he causes through his evil actions, but more through his relativity to the show’s hero and titular character The Doctor. While it is perhaps the Daleks and the Cyberman that are synonymous with driving the antagonistic theme of the show, The Master offers an infinitely higher amount of dread and threat to the main star.

This conclusion is reached due to the definitive separation between The Doctor and for example the Daleks. Their threat in comparison is marginalised to the degree that they are so far opposite from The Doctor that it is clear that the main character’s overwhelming good will inevitably overcome the Daleks absolute evil. The marked difference between them means The Doctor understands how to outwit and defeat them

In comparison, The Master is simply the other side of the coin to The Doctor, their characters only separated by the thinnest boundary of experience in their youth. In this sense, The Master is substantially more threatening, as The Master is clearly on a par with The Doctor at least. With such a similarity in their structure, The Master is not merely a hoard of Nazi robots or communistic cyborgs, instead a very real and credible danger. Separated by a singular character trait, in a parallel universe The Master could very well be perceived as the protagonist and it’s in this shade of grey that The Doctor’s arch-nemesis earns his place as one of the greatest villains of all time.


4. The Trinity Killer, Dexter

John Lithgow’s portrayal of a murderous family man in Showtime’s hit Dexter earned him a wealth of awards and acclaim, and his sinister interpretation can perhaps be credited with reviving his career. While primarily recognisable as a comedy actor from having starred in Third Rock from the Sun for so long, Lithgow’s expert tackling of this dramatic role is perhaps what makes the character so menacing and the best antagonist that the show has seen throughout its run.

Again, we see that the villainy is caused by deep-rooted issues that occurred in the backstory of the character, yet the overriding evil of Trinity makes you unsympathetic and makes you want to see Dexter get his man. What makes Trinity so compelling is his growing faux-relationship with an investigating Dexter, and the parallels between the two killers are there to be seen. However, the apparent morality of Dexter’s quest is what allows you to remain on his side, but it is unquestionable that Trinity acts as the perfect foil for the protagonist and his presence makes this the finest season of Dexter that exists. Make sure you watch all the way to the end for the stellar conclusion though, and don’t read any spoilers like I did by accident.


5. Number Two, The Prisoner

Whether you look at the ever-changing, paranoia-infusing face of the British original of The Prisoner or the virtuoso performance from the legendary Sir Ian McKellen in the 2009 American miniseries on AMC, it would be strange not to round out this list with an appearance from the nefarious leader of the mysterious Village.

The cult show follows an ex-British spy who has recently quit his job only to find himself captured and held against his will in a quaint seaside village, filmed in Portmeirion, Wales. Dubbed Number Six by his captors, the spy rejects his number in an infamous quote that transcends the show now and attempts his escape from the Village. Stopping him is the enigmatic Number Two, who by logic’s sense isn’t even in charge merely acting on behalf of a sinister and seemingly absent Number One. In the era of the Cold War, the show is a study in collectivism versus the individual, and Two’s obsession with assimilating Number Six borders on the perverse.  Although Two is an all-encompassing term for different entities as the leader, their consistent villainy and patient desperation to make Six accept his number and place in the Village is what makes the position such an important example of the perfect cerebral antagonist.



That caps off this week’s Thursday Five. Next week, I’ll be covering a tangent of this article in exploring the role of five anti-heroes on screen.


~ by jrhett on February 9, 2012.

2 Responses to “Thursday Five: TV Antagonists”

  1. The British original of The Prisoner is one of my all time favorite shows. When I thought about antagonists No. 2 slipped my mind. Probably because it was represented by a different person each episode, but was still very sinister.

    Great post. Ben Linus was fantastic as well.

    • It’s such a classic show, well-deserving of its cult following. McKellen did a magnificent job with it in the remake too, which is well worth a watch too even though it’d never live up to the original. Thanks for taking time to comment.

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