It used to be much easier to spot a villain.
Often set up as against the heroes, they would typically be dressed in dark clothing and obsessed with power, acting with no mercy and have no redeeming qualities.
However, over the years, particularly since George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones universe has become a cornerstone for how we tell stories in television, we’ve started to examine the idea of villains and antagonists more closely.
Martin didn't invent the idea of the anti-hero nor anti-villain archetype. But Game of Thrones and the newly popular House of the Dragon have popularised a more nuanced approach to evil characters and good characters who, though well-intentioned, do evil things.
Boiled down to their essence, both are stories about politics and strategy, which makes identifying a villain more challenging, as most characters are acting based on self-interest and survival. That doesn't mean that some characters aren't simply evil.
Across the spectrum, from the most merciless to the understandable, with the ones we empathise with and those we never suspect, we’ve listed all the faces of evil from the Game of Thrones universe.
Warning: spoilers for House of the Dragon lay ahead.
No nuance is needed to describe the Night King. He is the personification of pure evil, his only motivation is to turn every living creature into an undead one and create the largest army of the dead.
Far from subtle or discrete, even without uttering a word, his plan and motives were transparent from this first appearance to his demise, never once flinching from his prerogative or betraying any vulnerability, redemption or sign that maybe there is some good lurking beneath his icy exterior.
Looking closely at the head of House Frey’s legacy and his actions, it’s not difficult to understand why he is one of the worst villains in the Game of Thrones universe.
Not only did Walder Frey orchestrate the Red Wedding massacre, coldly killing Rob Stark, his mother Catelyn Stark and his wife Talisa Stark along with their unborn child, but throughout the show, he displays opportunistic behaviour, a lack of loyalty and no redeeming qualities.
Ramsy Bolton’s appearances in three seasons of Game of Thrones were enough to solidify him as one of the worst characters on the show.
Sadistic in nature, getting pure pleasure from unnecessarily emotionally and physically taunting and torturing people, whether it was his wife Sansa Stark or the weak Theon Greyjoy, his vicious nature, while impulsive, is also ruled by an intelligent, keen and tactful mind.
While vicious, cruel and aggressive, with a sick fascination for torture and power, Joffrey Baratheon was also not very smart.
This didn’t stop him from asserting his power from the very first season when he ascended the throne and beheaded good-guy Ned Stark in one of his first acts as king.
As the show progresses, we see Joffrey become fixated with more cruel, pointless forms of torture, petulant outbursts and unexplainable violence.
Calculating, shrewd, unloving and strong. Tywin Lannister is a good leader in many senses and yet is responsible for the strategy and implementation of evil atrocities that befall many of the characters from the show.
There are no excuses for his actions but it's worth noting that he is a military man, who is duty bound to protect the legacy and survival of his house and his people. While it’s hard to reconcile his decisions, from his perspective, they are necessary.
Petyr 'Littlefinger' Baelish
While arguably one of the most despicable and conniving villains from the Game of Thrones universe, it's difficult not to also respect Petyr Baelish, also known as Littlefinger, for his intelligence and strategic thinking.
At first, his intentions and deceit are subtle, making it almost difficult to understand his motivations. It was he who set many of the actions of the show in motion, by poisoning Jon Arryn, which eventually resulted in the death of most of the Starks.
Despite continuing to profess his love for Catelyn, and seeming to position himself as Sansa’s protector, it became clear that he has no redeeming qualities despite being a master at displaying them.
Arguably one of the worst villains of the show, High Sparrow is terrifying because he displays none of the cliched tropes associated with evil. He was humble, dressed in plain garb, walked barefoot, helped the poor and was a man of faith.
Yet, he knew how to play a discerning political game, using religion as both a shield and a vehicle to control and destroy people for his own means.
Perhaps the most controversial, complex and legendary villain in the Game of Thrones canon, Cersei Lannister is a force to be reckoned with, and to be fearful of.
The atrocities that Cersei planned and implemented to remain unchallenged in her position are too many to mention. Most memorable would be murdering hundreds of people using wildfire to blow up the Great Sept of Baelor on the day of her trial, for her role in the death of her husband King Robert Baratheon.
Like her father, she is shrewd, viscous cunning and controlling. However, unlike Tywin, Cersei’s motivations go beyond loyalty to her house and people. Her love and dedication to her children is one of her few, most powerful humanising qualities.
Jaime Lannister is a compelling character whose actions are hard to reconcile with his nature. He is pompous and arrogant when viewers first meet him, and reveals his tendency for evil by coldly pushing Bran Stark off a tower for discovering him and Cersei together.
Yet as the show progressed, Jamie is humbled, his character arc develops and audiences are left conflicted about how to feel about him after witnessing the genuine relationships he develops with other characters and the many acts of good he performs.
Fiery debates still ensue online on whether or not she was truly a villain.
Daenerys Targaryen was, of course, a complex character. While she started off as a weak, controlled princess with nothing to her name, audiences aligned themselves with her journey as she gained autonomy of herself, her dragons and grew a loyal following.
But slowly, and perhaps too subtly, there were hints and signs as the show progressed that she was willing to kill anyone who stood in her way, causing her transformation into more of a villain than a hero.
'House of the Dragon'
From the very first episode of the Game of Thrones prequel, Daemon Targaryen displayed arrogant, cunning tendencies, a thirst for violence and a hunger for power. Yet, also, a vulnerability and odd emotional attachments to people.
As the show progresses, we see these dual aspects of his character come into clearer focus, despite opposing each other. In episode eight, his dedication to his wife, Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen, and her children, had audiences praising him.
Ser Otto Hightower
In many ways, Ser Otto Hightower, Hand of the King, is an archetypal political villain. This doesn’t make him less complex than other characters. In fact, it makes him more treacherous for the sheer fact his loyalties are only to himself and his own ego.
A combination of Tywin’s shrewd, political thinking and Littlefinger's subtle, deceptive navigation and hunger for prestige, makes him one of the most dangerous characters to cross.
A truly complex character, Alicent Hightower was at first a meek pawn in her father Ser Otto’s game. However, as queen, she’s proved herself to be a formidable villain in her own right.
Whether by “accidentally” ordering the death of Ser Harwin Strong, Rhaenyra’s lover, or attempting to legitimise rumours and gossip about her children's parentage, Alicent is willing to do the necessary to ensure her firstborn sits on the Iron Throne.
Yet, she isn’t without redeeming qualities. Her empathy for the plight of other women and her dedication to her ailing husband makes it hard to discount her as a character worthy of sympathy and respect.
Alicent and King Viserys’s secondborn son displays his uncle Daemon’s arrogance and tendency for violence, but is rather a less complex version than one would hope.
He is being set up as an out-of-control, cunning, skilled fighter and dragon rider, but is already presented without any depth and almost like a caricature of a villain with all the cliched tropes — including an eye patch — which makes him less interesting than he could be.