In the old days of TV, it was easy to tell heroes and villains apart: The hero was wearing a white hat, the villain a black one. But as television has become more dramatically complex, so has the good guy/bad guy dynamic. Today, a great villain has to be someone who can, at least in his own mind, considers himself the hero of the story. And when TV shows have “heroes” like Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey, who’s to say their enemies are wrong?
Ten complicated recent TV baddies:
James Callis as Gaius Baltar on “Battlestar Galactica”: Baltar is so smart that, after selling out humanity to the Cylons three times and being put on trial for treason and genocide, he ended the latest season a free man and a religious cult icon. As Dark Helmet from “Spaceballs” said, evil will always triumph because good is dumb.
Christian Camargo as Rudy the Ice-Truck Killer on “Dexter”: When your hero is a serial killer, the only possible villain is another killer — and one without Dexter’s moral code. In the end, Rudy was revealed as Dexter’s long-lost brother, symbolizing how much worse Dexter could have turned out.
Michael Emerson as Ben Linus on “Lost”: Even when “Lost” drags and makes little sense, there’s Emerson to save the day, even as Ben is ruining it for Jack. Emerson was originally a day player, but Ben has become the center of season three, a batty manipulator who claims to only speak the truth yet only lies.
Oded Fehr as Farik on “Sleeper Cell”: How frightening was Fehr as Farik, a jihadist with a silver, forked tongue that justified any atrocity in the name of Allah? So much so that “Sleeper Cell” ended with the apparent death of hero Darwyn, while Farik escaped to fight another day. You can do another miniseries without Darwyn, but Farik’s a must.
Walton Goggins as Shane Vendrell on “The Shield”: For the penultimate season’s antagonist, the writers stayed close to home, turning Vic’s longtime henchman Shane into a killer. Goggins, who co-produced the Oscar-winning short “The Accountant,” is giving an Emmy-caliber performance.
Jamie Hector as Marlo Stanfield on “The Wire”: “The Wire” usually has higher ambitions than dealing with good and evil, but Marlo — a sociopathic drug kingpin motivated only to survive and perpetuate his own legend — is the closest the show has come to the latter. In one episode, he ordered the murder of a security guard whose only crime, an underling explained, was “talking back.”
Ken Jenkins as Dr. Bob Kelso on “Scrubs”: The bad guys often get the best laughs, and this season Jenkins (as the amoral Kelso) has been the secret comic weapon of “Scrubs,” whether he’s acting like a pimp at a medical conference or cutting off Dr. Cox’s latest rant with, “Funny long list, we get it. You need a new thing, big guy.”
Gerald McRaney as George Hearst on “Deadwood”: As Deadwood approached becoming a civilization, polite society was represented by Hearst, a cold monster who viewed all other humans as tools to give him access to more gold (or, as he called it, “the color”). Who knew that, pushing 60, McRaney would deliver the performance of his career?
Zachary Quinto as Sylar on “Heroes”: With a title like that, you need a great villain, and Sylar — a repressed nerd who satisfies his power fantasies by stealing the powers (and brains) of heroes — has been that. Perhaps the most chilling moment on any show this season: the revelation in the flash-forward episode that President Nathan Petrelli was really Sylar, having stolen America’s ultimate power.
Frank Vincent as Phil Leotardo on “The Sopranos”: Phil began as Johnny Sack’s smiling enforcer, but now he’s in charge of the entire New York mob, still nursing a grudge over Tony Blundetto’s murder of his brother Billy. Watching Phil get his revenge by crushing Tony Soprano on every business deal has been like watching a large predator toy with much tinier prey. With the might of New York behind him, Phil is the first man to make Tony seem helpless.