Here are some of my favorite fictional evil people:
1. Good vs. Evil: Jerry Lundegard is a car salesman with money trouble. He embezzles from his employer, who happens to be his father-in-law, and attempts to make right this misstep by arranging a fake kidnapping of his wife. The plan is to use the ransom money to cover up the money problem.
Jerry never takes responsibility for his wrongdoings. He blames circumstances for whatever goes wrong in his life. He does not want to do evil. He only wants to cut a few corners so that he can fix this little problem he has. If he could just fix this little problem, everyone would be happy, and everyone would like him. Even his father-in-law. Jerry is insecure, deceptive, arrogant, and naive. This last quality, the naiveté, becomes the major driver of the gore and horror that ensues.
William H. Macy rocketed into my pantheon of acting gods with his portrayal of Jerry in Fargo (1996). We see the increasingly desperate turning of wheels in his mind as Jerry is confronted by the heroic Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). I loved watching Jerry writhe in this battle of good vs. evil. We have a touch of empathy for him…but only to a point. Then Good must out Evil, and Jerry must have his comeuppance.
2. Good vs. Good: In comedy, everything is just a misunderstanding and all will be well in the end. Nonetheless, even comedies have their occasional true villains. Tammy Swanson, a.k.a. Tammy Two (played by Megan Mullally), is an evil library director in territorial battle with Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) in Parks & Recreation. She is amoral, power-mad, and arrogant. She wields a frightening sexual power over ex-husband Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). To me, the single funniest thing about Tammy is that she is a library director, offering Leslie opportunity to make snarky and hilarious anti-library comments, and demonstrating there is a little bit of Tammy in Leslie. The most evil thing about Tammy, however, is not that she wants to steal Leslie’s beloved Lot 48 for a new library branch, but what she does to Ron…particularly what she does to his hair. Tammy has the ability to make Ron be not-himself, and exercises this power without remorse, thereby placing herself in direct opposition to the spirit of the show, which celebrates the potential of everyone to become their best selves.
In comedy, evil lacks potency, overcome as it is by all the good intentions that surrounds it. Its attempts to upset the order of the comedic universe backfire, and all is good.
3. Bad vs. Bad: It’s a tie between Walter White of Breaking Bad, and Cersei Lannister of Game of Thrones.
Walter (Bryan Cranston), like car salesman Jerry, begins by needing just to cut a few corners…for the greater good, of course. His position is a sympathetic one, at least initially. He is dying of lung cancer. He is a high school chemistry teacher with not a lot of money, has a special needs son, and they are a one-income family–wife Skyler stays at home to see to Walter Jr.’s needs. The diagnosis is a death sentence; Walter only wants his family to be taken care of after he’s gone. He has expertise in chemistry, and so he’ll just cook a little meth, make some money, and die having accomplished his goal.
Walter is pulled into the monstrous evil of the Albuquerque-to-Mexico drug scene, but he is not overwhelmed by it. On the contrary, he finds himself growing into his new enterprise. He sees himself as smarter and quicker than those he deals with. He is a massive control-freak. He becomes addicted to his new-found power. As the seasons progress, one moral boundary after the other falls, and we see just how evil a “good” person can become. But Walter isn’t “good.” He didn’t “break bad.” He always was bad, infected with a frustrating, thwarted psyche, just waiting for an opportunity. Indeed, a professional career counselor couldn’t have picked a better field to display his aptitudes and interests.
I also love to watch Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) on Game of Thrones. The character is born into a culture of violence and sexism, where a highborn woman is someone to use for the forging of political ties, through marriage, where perhaps she may wield influence, but perhaps not. Every female character in this saga has to deal with slightly different circumstances, is afforded slightly different opportunities, and makes slightly different choices, based on her character and her talents.
Cersei is ruthless. She is smart, but as her horrible father tells her, not as smart as she thinks. She is expected to marry when told. She does marry one man, but has her children by another, her twin brother, Jamie. She thinks she knows everything there is to know, but she is willfully ignorant of quite a bit. She is unable to see beyond her own prejudices. Something of an atheist, she simply doesn’t believe in the monsters beyond the wall. She is likewise in thrall to her hideous son, Jeffrey. As with Jerry in Fargo, I love to watch the wheels turn in her head as she struggles to keep control, but is constantly blindsided by evil that is smarter and quicker than she.
Next post, I’ll throw out some of my favorite heroes.