Shows like The Sopranos and The Shield set the benchmark on a new kind of hero: the anti-hero, which is a morally complex character who has the intentions of doing something good but does questionable actions that challenge the duality that a traditional hero would never do. Television today is filled to the brim with anti-heroes, but the true question is, which five stand tall as the best? This list will highlight the five best anti-heroes in television history. I’ve opted to exempt Tony Soprano, Omar Little, and Dexter Morgan from the list. They’re without a doubt some of television’s best characters, but I wanted to focus more on names that don’t particularly get as much of the spotlight.
Philip and Elizabeth Jennings
Ok so, I’m cheating a bit, but they play a married couple so Philip and Elizabeth Jennings get a pass here. In truth, The Americans have a strong cast full of incredible characters, and the FX series has made its mark as one of the best television shows period. The main reason for that is due to the incredibly complex protagonists, who are undercover KGB officers hiding in plain sight of Washington D.C. It isn’t just the fact that these two are spies that makes them so memorable, but their entire marriage as a whole. In the beginning, Philip and Elizabeth feel like acquaintances who care more about serving their mission. However, the show did an excellent job developing both characters, especially Elizabeth Jennings, who is the more cold-hearted one of the two. The missions that the Jennings had to do made for a fascinating exploration of their spy life, as it was compelling to watch these two characters disappear into anyone’s persona while balancing a traditional married life. Of course, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys deserve credit for their tremendous acting ability. The Americans is the definition of a perfectly written show. It wasn’t your typical spy drama and each season raised the stakes higher than before. Here’s hoping that the couple is happily living in Russia.
Who knew that an ordinary chemistry teacher turning to sell drugs in order to pay for his cancer treatment could be so entertaining? Breaking Bad started off with an attention-grabbing opening and that never stop until White’s heart stop beating in the final season. It was thrilling seeing the mild-mannered husband navigate through the drug world and turn into a monster who no longer did his side hustle to pay for his treatments. Of course, Bryan Cranston was simply tremendous; Who would’ve guessed that the dad from Malcolm in the Middle would’ve been able to play such a multi-layered role? White wasn’t just some monster who wanted to rule the drug world, he was still a simple man with a son and wife that he dearly loved. The story of Walter White may have not had a happy ending, but the legacy of the character will live on for eternity.
Vince Gilligan created another compelling arc out of a Breaking Bad favorite. The story of Jimmy McGill has been a compelling one from the beginning; watching his battle against his own flesh and blood into him slowly working himself into the criminal world, Vince Gilligan has a knack for crafting excellent characters and exciting worlds. What helps make the story of Saul Goodman so rich is the men and women surrounding the shady lawyer. Goodman’s world is rocked with each new character that he meets; however, the most intriguing relationship involving Jimmy happens to be his girlfriend, Kim Wexler. Originally, the lawyer seemed like the source of good that Jimmy needed in his life to hopefully turn him back into the straight and narrow, but Goodman’s lifestyle is seemingly pulling Kim down deep into the dark rabbit that’s notably changing Ms. Goody too shoes. There’s no telling what the future lies for Kim as she’s never seen in Breaking Bad, which makes the final season of the show all the more compelling.
Detective Vic Mackey
One of the more influential shows that’s somewhat phased in the background due to the fact that the anti-hero arch-type has become such a popular genre within the last decade or two. Detective Mackey, in his own words, was “a different kind of cop” behind closed doors and in public. Often times, Mackey operated worse that the criminals he put behind bars but was seen as a hero in the eyes of his community. The moral complexity of Anti-heroes is on full display here as it’s always compelling to watch the different layers that these men and women balance throughout their lives. Mackey is a corrupt officer, beating suspects and murdering two gangsters and a cop, but his moral code is by any means necessary. It’s essentially the “In order to beat the monster, you have to become one” moniker that he follows in his work life. He’s never the easiest one to root for, but that doesn’t make him less captivating.
Kevin Garvey is more of a different kind of anti-hero. He doesn’t go around beating or murdering people, but his mental state makes him do some questionable things throughout the three seasons of The Leftovers. The show is a thrilling exploration on the effects that grief can have on human beings, and Kevin is a tragic case of a man with good intentions that sometimes goes left. Unlike the other names on the list, he doesn’t do anything completely deplorable, but his moral complex is consistently challenged and episodes such as International Assassin do a strong job of diving deep into this troubled human being. Kevin ultimately gets a happy ending, but the journey leading up to that moment was surely gut-wrenching.