As far as TV is concerned, there’s nothing better than a good bad guy. The worst characters are the most fun to watch: countless lists compile characters we “love to hate,” characters that are so obviously craven or deliberately in the way of our protagonists that it’s difficult not to yell at the screen whenever they’re on. (Game of Thrones practically subsisted on “love to hate”s for a while — first there was Joffrey, then there was Ramsay, Cersei, Littlefinger, the list goes on.) And if this year’s Emmy nominations are anything to go by, all that meddling and scheming pays off.
The success of House of Cards, which is sold on the backs of its nefarious characters, is clear evidence, and there’s no need to look further than Doug Stamper. For five seasons, actor Michael Kelly Jr. has been wreaking havoc as the right hand man to the Underwoods. 2017 marks the third year in a row that he’s been nominated for Supporting Actor in a Drama Series, and each of those years has seen Stamper’s moral code fray further and further as he’s backslid into bad habits and a rising body count. He’s covered up countless crimes, not to mention committing a few of his own, notably murdering former prostitute Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan) in the third season of the show. Despite the fact that — or rather, because — his behavior has only gotten worse and worse even as guilt threatens to overtake him (as well as a near-death experience), he’s the biggest presence on the show besides the Underwoods themselves. And the further Stamper goes down the rabbit hole, the more recognition Kelly has deservedly received.
2017 also marks Ben Mendelsohn’s third year at the Emmys, nominated for his role as Danny Rayburn in Netflix’s Bloodline. He’s racked up a nomination and a win for Supporting Actor in a Drama Series in 2015 and 2016, respectively, and scored a nomination for Guest Actor in a Drama Series this year. While the show is stacked with bad people doing bad things, Danny stands out, in part because he’s the only one who knows exactly what he’s doing and still doesn’t shy away. The first season follows his attempt to exact revenge upon his family for their decades of mistreatment before meeting his demise at the hands of his brother John (Kyle Chandler, miles away from Coach Taylor). While there’s still some meat on the bones of his story in the second season, as he returns both in flashbacks and as something of a malevolent ghost, he’s barely present in the third — his nomination as such is testament to the strength of his performance, and of the character. Chandler is the only other cast member in the series to have been nominated at the Emmys, but Mendelsohn is the only one who’s won.
Both Doug and Danny might as well have “born to be bad” tattooed across their foreheads. They’re set up as villains, as agents of chaos; they push the character scale so far around the circle that hate becomes indistinguishable from love (e.g. every discussion on Doug Stamper is a heated one, whether it’s calling for more of him or for his death on the show). The key here is that, from rock bottom, they’ve got a lot of license to play around. These supposed villains don’t have anywhere to go but up, whereas most heroes (or even antiheroes), while still expected to grow, don’t have quite as much to work with in terms of change. For instance, Frank Underwood’s arc is never going to involve repentance, but it’s obvious that Doug’s got a ways to grow, even if the task is relatively Sisyphean.
The best baddies are the most complex, and a look back through past Emmy nominees surveys a crop of the best of them. Bobby Cannavale as Gyp Rosetti in Boardwalk Empire, Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring in Breaking Bad, Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder in Justified; all of them were characters that were introduced as villains, only to become some of their respective shows’ most compelling characters by the end of their series’ run. Mad Men’s Pete Campbell is the patron saint of this character sub-species. Played by Vincent Kartheiser, Pete was a creep of the worst kind, self-pitying and narcissistic, constantly trying to grasp some imagined better life and losing the life he had in the process.
He was nearly universally hated throughout Mad Men’s run, but he was (and is) also one of the most-discussed elements of the show. What set him apart from the rest of the cast was the fact that he was instantly relatable in a way that nobody wanted to acknowledge. More than any other character, he was obvious in his petty resentments and envy. In a show that was, on a surface level, glossy and glamorous, he was a starkly human sore thumb. As such, it felt vindicating when, over the course of the show, he began to grow, getting called out on and then learning from his past mistakes. Doug and Danny follow the same prototype — Danny in particular, as his troubles aren’t entirely self-inflicted. Though it’s the bad attitude these characters sport that initially gets a viewer’s attention, it’s their all-too-human weaknesses and flaws that give them currency. As much as we may not want to, we can see ourselves in their imperfections, and ultimately, it’s hard not to root for them.
That’s not to say that unrepentant villains can’t be compelling, too. They grab our interest not because there’s something in them to latch onto, but because they’re ticking time bombs. Game of Thrones’ Joffrey (Jack Gleason) is the most obvious example. Joffrey was irredeemable; he wasn’t going to learn or grow, and it was just a matter of time before he bit the bullet. The question was just how much damage he’d do on his way out. Now, there’s David Thewlis, nominated this year for Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie for his role on Fargo as the villainous V.M. Varga. Convinced as he is that he’s untouchable, Varga acts with no regard for others except as far as what he can get from them. Thewlis himself described the character as “out and out foul,” and to wit, he spends the season terrorizing the rest of the cast, putting Michael Stuhlbarg’s Sy Feltz into a coma and mocking Carrie Coon’s Gloria Burgle when he’s finally apprehended because he’s so confident he’ll get away once again.
On red carpets and during press junkets, actors cast as villains are fond of saying that it’s more fun to play the bad guy. As it happens, bad guys are more fun to watch, too, and the way they stack this year’s Emmy nominations are the evidence, as Kelly, Mendelsohn, and Thewlis are only a few of the more morally grey nominees. Whether they’re relentlessly bad, or mirrors of the most inherent human vices, they’re the most compelling characters on TV, and the most impressive to pull off. For the havoc they wreak on the shows they’re on, they reap gold during awards season.