The best heroes are sometimes the worst. Take a look at our favorite TV antiheroes.
Protagonist tropes are largely reflective of a society’s ideals at a given time. Captain America is a great example of this, having been first introduced during the Second World War as an inspiration for fighting the Axis powers. In recent years, the protagonists frequently presented in television are much different from the Steve Rogers type. Although the antihero trope has been around for decades, we’ve been seeing increasingly more depictions of morally gray ‘heroes’ in television lately. Some of these traits have even seeped into the conventional ‘good guy’ type, giving typical heroes more substance and less blandness.
But before we get into our favorite television antiheroes, let’s first define what an antihero is. Simply put, an antihero is the protagonist of a story who embodies opposing traits of a conventional hero. These traits include greediness, selfishness, violent tendencies, immoral behavior, inability to empathize, and dubious motives to justify their objectives. Despite the fact that many of these characters are wholly unlikeable, we often find ourselves rooting for them even though we know we shouldn’t.
Annalise Keating – ‘How to Get Away With Murder’
You don’t get much more immoral than with a lawyer.
There’s no doubt Annalise is good at what she does but it takes a certain skill set to get there. She’s a great liar, she doesn’t get weighed down by a conscience, she had an affair with a married man, cheated on her husband, helped cover up a murder, and had her lover arrested to help keep herself safe, just to name a few. Her entire M.O. is self-preservation and she’s really good at it.
It’s great to see a leading lady who isn’t so clear cut. She isn’t a goody-two-shoes, nor is she pure evil. Maybe that’s why audiences love her so much, because it’s not common to see a woman in a leading role who is so complex, albeit not very likeable.
Dexter Morgan – ‘Dexter’
Dexter is a strange kind of antihero. It could not be easier to classify him as a villain. He’s a serial killer, no question about it. But it’s his story that we follow, so how can an audience watch a whole series of a main character being so monstrous? The simple solution: Make him only kill ‘bad guys.’
It’s clear Dexter is violent (he has a murder suit after all), and he definitely has difficulty empathizing, but somehow he has a childlike demeanor that endears us to him, and we as an audience accept him as our protagonist. Albeit a sociopathic and murderous one.
Frank Underwood – ‘House of Cards’
We should’ve known he was bad news right from the start. Anyone who can kill a dog without flinching has to be trouble.
Frank will quite literally do anything to get what he wants. He cares about no one but himself and is extremely power hungry. He’s broken laws to get to where he is, and ruined people’s lives in the process. He’s also killed two people.
He lacks conscience and morality, yet audiences often find themselves crossing their fingers for his victory. Perhaps this is because we feel a much stronger affiliation with Frank than we do others on this list. Frank breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to us allows the audience to feel involved. We’re as much a part of Frank’s journey as he is. Without this gimmick, the show might have been a very different experience. It’s possible we would have seen him as an ‘other,’ and felt frustrated as he continued to climb the political ladder.
Hannibal Lecter – ‘Hannibal’
It’s easy to label Hannibal as a villain. After all, he kills people, harvests their organs, and eats them for dinner. But for some reason, it’s hard to stamp Hannibal so harshly.
Hannibal has placed Hannibal so centrally in the show that oftentimes he appears as more of an antihero than an antagonist. We want him to fail, but at the same time, we don’t. He’s just too smart. Whenever it seems like he’s about to get caught, he figures out a way to get out of it. It’s admirable and intriguing. Even though he’s a terrible person, without him there’s no story. He’s what keeps the show going and keeps audiences watching every week. But that should come as no surprise. The show is named after him.
Helena – ‘Orphan Black’
Helena does not embody many of the antihero traits, especially because she’s likeable. But those she does have she has in spades. She has very strong violent tendencies, having been raised as an excellent marksman and fighter, and her means to achieve her goals are often questionable. She has a difficult time carrying out plans without doing something immoral and violent.
It’s easy to forget what she’s capable of sometimes. She’ll make you laugh, she love kids, and occasionally demonstrates those endearing qualities a child has. She’s so cute, right? Just wait until you make her angry and you’ll see exactly what she can do with that fork.
Jaime Lannister – ‘Game of Thrones’
He pushed a kid out of a window in the first episode, what more needs to be said?
But really, as antiheroes go, Jaime is one of the most complex. He’ll make you feel all kinds of things. You love to hate him and you hate to love him. He’s selfish, greedy, and a scumbag jerk, but he’ll also make you laugh, and occasionally he’ll pull on your heartstrings. He’ll hurt someone you care about, then he’ll help someone you care about. He’s no hero and he certainly isn’t a good guy, but he also isn’t inherently bad. At least, not anymore.
Jax Teller – ‘Sons of Anarchy’
Jax went down a long and dark path throughout the series. He was involved in illegal gun trade, drug trade, he’s killed countless people, and killed brutally. It’s true that Jax wanted to make the club more legitimate and less criminal, but his path to get there was beyond dirty and left a long trail of blood along the way.
As the series progressed, it became difficult to side with him. Many of his choices were far from noble and he turned merciless. You wanted him to succeed, his intentions were great, but he had so much difficulty getting there. At his core, Jax was a good person, but it was often difficult to remember that when he was beating someone to a pulp.
Jessica Lange’s Characters – ‘American Horror Story’
No matter which character Jessica Lange has played on American Horror Story, they all have something in common: they’re all leading ladies and they’re all nuts.
Season 1 introduces us to Constance Langdon, mother of four at some point in time, to mother of none (one of them was killed by Constance’s command). She shot and killed her husband and maid, and fed her dead ex to her dogs. Sister Jude takes over in Asylum, demonstrating strict and abusive methods of ‘treatment’ for legitimate and illegitimate illnesses. In season 3, Fiona Goode lets her vanity and greed get the better of her, killing anyone she can to help her maintain her power. Finally, Freak Show has Elsa Mars as the ringleader, and like the predecessors, she resorts to murder out of jealousy and a desire to further her status.
American Horror Story has a real penchant for antiheroes, at least when it comes to Jessica Lange’s characters. We often don’t agree with these characters’ actions but we love watching all the same.
Klaus Mikaelson – ‘The Originals’
Klaus has a different progression from the rest on this list. He started out as an antagonist on The Vampire Diaries, but after becoming the lead on The Originals, suddenly he becomes an antihero. He’s now the star of the show and we’re supposed to follow his journey instead of watching him screw up someone else’s.
Klaus has a short, volatile temper, he thirsts for power, he has difficulty empathizing, and oftentimes he doesn’t know how to act ethically. Yes, he loves his family, but even that is skewed love. How many times has he stabbed them and hid them away in a box after a tantrum?
Oswald Cobblepot – ‘Gotham’
While Jim Gordon would be considered the lead character of Gotham, it’s Cobblepot’s story that keeps audiences engaged. He looks unassuming and unthreatening. He often has a smile on his face. He loves his mom. Audiences love watching him and his gradual ascent into power. He has a silver tongue, a proud attitude, and a short temper. One moment he’s smiling and laughing with you, the next moment, he’s still smiling. But there’s a knife sticking out of your chest.
Cobblepot lacks compassion for all but his mother, and he’ll do anything to increase his status or save his neck, including brutality. But we love watching him. He has a strange charisma and his ability to slit your throat at a moment’s notice keeps audiences on their toes. He’s certainly stolen the show and made audiences love him as much as they fear him.
Ragnar Lothbrok – ‘Vikings’
Like a true viking, Ragnar and his Norsemen cohorts are far from the hero type. They are selfish, greedy, violent, and immoral. Their idea of a good time is raiding, pillaging, and claiming various lands from those who have done nothing to antagonize them. Yet we love them.
What’s interesting is that we are not given much else to compare them to. Supporting characters are typically worse than Ragnar and co. Moreover, Athelstan is probably the only inherently good person we frequently see on the show. But Ragnar treats Athelstan with such kindness and devotion that it’s hard to see him as a truly bad person. There’s warmth somewhere in those icy blue eyes, so it becomes easy to forgive the unnecessary assaults on characters we barely know.
Rumpelstiltskin – ‘Once Upon a Time’
While Rumple has a few more sympathetic traits than most of the characters on this list, he is still an antihero through and through. He lies, manipulates, cheats, and murders more often than he makes deals, and he’s a prime example of one who feels the ends justify the means. Except more often than not, his ends are not altogether noble either.
While characters like Regina are doing their best to become good, Rumple’s efforts are always in vain. For every helpful act he carries out, he commits at least two more deceitful ones. He’s always looking out for himself, even when he thinks he’s not, and has a very skewed idea of what it means to love somebody.
Sue Sylvester – ‘Glee’
You could categorize Sue as an antagonist, but she is a main character in her own right, with her own ambitions, and it can definitely be argued she is also an antihero. Glee is at the point now where many viewers side with Sue in her objective of taking down the glee club. They feel that it just needs to end once and for all. With that viewpoint, Sue would be an antihero.
No, Sue has never killed anyone but she is still greedy, selfish, violent, and makes unethical choices to pursue her goals. She’s not particularly likeable, but the show would not be the same without her. She provides much needed humor and honesty, although at times the comments go too far and are inappropriate.
She’s prone to aggressive tantrums, she’s more than willing to push people (literally and figuratively) out of her way to get what she wants, she’s a habitual cheater, and her sense of morality is almost non-existent. Despite all that though, her presence would be missed if she wasn’t around.
Walter White – ‘Breaking Bad’
Of course you feel bad for the high school teacher, husband, and father who finds out he has cancer and can’t afford to pay for treatment. But the sympathy disappears quite quickly when the guy constantly lies to his family, aids in one of their murders, poisons a kid, and puts his family in jeopardy because he’s so greedy and he just can’t stop.
Walt claims that everything he did was for his family. While that was probably true initially, over time it was just a lie he told himself to help justify his actions. He could have stopped. He should have stopped. But the power and the money got to his head and his true colors came out.
It was great watching him navigate the criminal world and try to keep his activities a secret from his family, but make no mistake, an engaging character does not equate a sympathetic one.