Top TV Antiheroes (2000s)

Through the first twenty years of the new millennium, television has provided us with a vast array of interesting characters, and many of those characters have become firmly cemented in pop culture lore during this golden age. I’ve always been less drawn to the classic hero, e.g. Daredevil, Rick Grimes, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in favor of the antihero: the character who embodies traits of the hero and the villain, and who generally works for personal gain but occasionally acts heroic. These types of characters tend to be more complex and interesting, so I’m going to break down my four favorites (warning: this contains spoilers).

Sandor “The Hound” Clegane (Game of Thrones): The Hound is far and away my favorite character on any medium. He’s a gruff, mysterious, vengeance-filled killer with a rudimentary moral code, and his character development throughout Game of Thrones’s eight seasons is fascinating. Our first impression is that he’s a villain, but we learn that there’s a touch of softness in him. The horrific burns that his brother (the accurately named “The Mountain”) purposely inflicted on him fuel his hatred for the world and his pessimistic perspective of the people in it. In his own words, “Hate’s as good a thing as any to keep a man going.” He’s a mean SOB, but he still protects Arya and Sansa Stark at various points in the show, revealing himself to be a man who doesn’t tolerate bullies (even though he’s one himself a lot of the time). The Hound has emitted some of the greatest one-liners in television history, and he usually follows them up with a legendary ass-kicking. The massive, armor-clad mercenary is easily the best fighter in Westeros, and he proves that time and time again. He’s committed plenty of atrocities--these include murdering a young boy, beating a poor farmer and stealing his silver, and treason--but over the course of the show he follows the trail of redemption, spurning the vicious king Joffrey and assisting Arya and Jon Snow when it counts, including saving Arya’s life by sacrificing himself.

Favorite moment: The Hound enters an enemy-filled tavern with Arya Stark, talks shit to a Lannister soldier, takes said soldier’s beer and crushes it, demands chicken, and subsequently murders everyone in the room with a slight assist by Arya.

Omar Little (The Wire): Omar operates like a modern Robin Hood, stealing from drug dealers and giving his “earnings” to the poverty-stricken. He’s a constant thorn in the side of Baltimore’s biggest drug kingpins--Stringer Bell, Avon Barksdale, and Marlo Stanfield--and when he struts down the street with his sawed-off shotgun, pushers run the other way, yelling the oft-heard “Omar’s comin’!” He’s perhaps the most interesting and well-developed character in The Wire’s massive cast, and he’s around from start to finish. Omar is a ruthless and incredibly savvy vigilante, but he still honors the code of the street, refusing to snitch and sticking to his own way of operating without the help of Baltimore PD. “A man’s got to have a code” is his best line, and it sums up his character perfectly. His crafty plans and trusty shotgun help him outsmart the villainous Stringer Bell, his biggest adversary through three seasons. If at any point in the series you think Omar is nearing his demise, you’d best think again. He is a borderline hero (as opposed to the others on this list) but still establishes himself as one badass m’fer.

Favorite moment: Omar joins forces with the eloquent, but incredibly dangerous Brother Mouzone to trap Stringer Bell in a vacant building and finally put an end to his reign, blasting him in the chest with his shotgun and sending a shock through every viewer of the show.

Tommy Shelby (Peaky Blinders): Tommy fookin Shelby, the First World War hero and boss of the Peaky Blinders gang, is the most clever and badass main character I’ve ever seen. He consistently outsmarts the police, the government, and rival gangs, and he does so with a stoic demeanor and a cigarette hanging from his lip. Make no mistake, Tommy’s a bad man, but his status as the central character of Peaky Blinders means we’re able to see him sprinkle acts of goodness in there every now and then. His wild ambition carries him from small-town kingpin to international gangster who deals with the likes of Al Capone and Winston Churchill, and it all starts when he stumbles upon a shipment of guns--an “opportunity”, as he refers to it--in episode one. Hearing him utter the words “By order of the Peaky Blinders” never gets old, but he also spits a number of other fantastic quotes throughout the series that stick with the viewer long after the end credits roll on an episode. It’s never a wise move for one to cross Tommy Shelby because he always formulates a master plan and gets what he desires in the end. He’s fiercely loyal to his family, making sure that anyone who does them harm receives a brutal punishment (which usually involves being blinded by the swift slice of a razor blade to the eyes). His service in the Great War is often mentioned in the show and usually plays a part in his strategy to expand his empire. Seeing him, clad in trenchcoat and cap, swaggering down the grimy streets of Birmingham, England, in slow-motion (with a blues rock tune playing) will never get old.

Favorite moment: We think Tommy’s finally been bested by the cocky Luca Changretta and his New York Mafia, but he informs Changretta that he’s established a new working relationship with one Alphonse Capone, which means that Changretta’s men now work for Tommy, the “highest bidder.” Tommy then proceeds to beat the hell out of a stunned Changretta with his mad-dog accomplice and brother, Arthur, who finishes him off with a bullet to the head.

Walter White, a.k.a. “Heisenberg” (Breaking Bad): High school chemistry teacher-turned meth kingpin Walter White is the driving force of one of the greatest shows of all-time, Breaking Bad. He endures one of the most radical character evolutions ever seen on television, and there comes a point toward the end of the show when we wonder if we should still root for the guy. We do, nevertheless, and it’s one hell of an exciting ride. Whether he’s concocting a chemical mixture to poison a man to death or throwing a pizza onto the roof of his house, he draws the attention of the audience every second he’s on screen. Played masterfully by Bryan Cranston, White transmogrifies from a timid, weak man--but a good father--into a cold-hearted, greedy lunatic who has a claim to the title of most dangerous man in the southwest. Like Tommy Shelby, but to an even higher degree, White consistently finds himself in horrifying situations but always, somehow, manages to weasel his way out of them, thanks to his keen wit and vast knowledge of chemistry. Watching White spiral out of control over the course of five seasons is entertaining as hell, and his last stand is a wonderful, violent cap on the journey. Even when he’s up against a worthy--if not superior--adversary in the sociopathic Gus Fring, he manages to outsmart Fring and finish him off in a fiery inferno. “Say my name” will live forever in pop culture infamy.

Favorite moment: In a final attempt to reconcile with his tortured partner, Jesse Pinkman, White rigs a heavy machine gun in the trunk of his car and pulls off a Tarantino-esque rescue, shredding Pinkman’s white supremacist captors in a fury of gunfire and simultaneously sacrificing himself. In his last moments (and the last of the series, as well), he strolls around a fully-furnished meth lab with a look of awe on his face as Badfinger’s Baby Blue plays in the background.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Rick Sanchez (Rick and Morty)

  • Kenny Powers (Eastbound and Down)

  • Jesse Pinkman (Breaking Bad)

  • Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock)

  • Alfie Solomons (Peaky Blinders)

  • Tony Soprano (The Sopranos)

  • Saul Goodman (Better Call Saul)

  • Michael Scott (The Office)

  • James Delaney (Taboo)

  • Jaime Lannister (Game of Thrones)

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