This January marked twenty years since The Sopranos debuted on HBO and introduced the world to mafia boss Tony Soprano. It was a television coup. On paper, Tony Soprano was morally reprehensible and yet for six years, audiences tuned in in droves to root for him. In the Golden Age of TV that has followed, there has been no shortage of disturbingly winsome protagonists to both revel in and revile. Flashforward to present day, coming off the end of another wildly popular HBO drama that had audiences hooked to the very last battle scene (Game of Thrones, ever heard of it?).
Ranking the top antiheroes of modern television history is indeed a challenge — how does a vigilante of Baltimore’s crime-ridden streets stack up to an advertising executive set in 1950s Manhattan? Or a chemistry teacher turned drug dealer to the vice president of the United States? Can you really compare the violence of Tony Soprano and Cersei Lannister to the manipulative schemings of Annaliese Keating and Patty Hewes? Needless to say, our rankings are purely subjective, but these eight antiheroes and antiheroines had us enthralled from season to season. Whether you hated them empathized with them, we were definitely compelled to keep watching them and their stories unfold.
Tony Soprano (The Sopranos)
“A gangster goes to the therapy.” In those six words, the ultimate antihero is born. The Sopranos chronicles the struggles of patriarch Tony Soprano (the late James Gandolfini) as he tries to find himself amidst the American mobster culture of violence, backstabbing, extramarital affairs, and ruthless codes of honor. Yet he’s the everyman. He has unruly teenage kids and panic attacks. In therapy sessions with the enigmatic Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), Tony grapples with his inner demons — confronting childhood traumas, failed attempts to become legitimate, and the pressures of maintaining his power as a boss, a husband and a father. It just so happens he runs the mob.
Best Tony Soprano quote: “There’s an old Italian saying: you f— up once, you lose two teeth.”
Walter White (Breaking Bad)
Ever felt in over your head and done something drastic to get out? This is how we meet Walter White (Bryan Cranston), an unassuming high school chemistry teacher who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Determined to provide for his family, he gets into the methamphetamine game, because it turns out that high school chemistry teachers cook way better meth than your average high school dropout. Which is who he teams up with in the character of Jesse, his former failing student (Aaron Paul). We suddenly find ourselves in the unlikeliest of buddy dramedies, which takes dark and twisting turns. Yet as Walter digs his own grave deeper and deeper (and other people’s graves too, literally) we still, somehow, root for him to win. Or we want the man he started as to win. But as the body counts mount, the odds of him breaking free narrow down to slim to none. Still, for five seasons we tuned in. Would his redemptive moment ever come?
Best Walter White quote: “I am not in danger, I am the danger.”
Omar Little (The Wire)
“Omar coming!” That call reverberated like a bat signal across the Baltimore streets in HBO’s hit series The Wire. Anyone hearing it immediately knew the stakes just ratcheted up. Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), toting a shotgun and clad in a trench coat, is an anti-gangster antihero, as if Robin Hood were dealing drugs. He robs other dealers and sells their product back to them at a markup. He subverts the city’s drug game for his own vigilante justice. He is the constant x-factor. Based on real-life criminal and anti-crime-advocate Donnie Andrews, Omar navigates the shadows, just beyond the reach of his enemies on the street and often the police. Fans — including the likes of President Obama — watched as his paradoxical morality played out in a world just beyond his control.
Best Omar Little quote: “You come at the king, you best not miss.”
Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones)
For eight nail-biting seasons of HBO’s dynastic fantasy drama Game of Thrones, Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) was the villain audiences loved to hate. From incest with her brother Jaime to enabling her sociopathic son Joffery to putting a hit out on her other brother Tyrion and orchestrating the murder of scores of enemies and civilians alike. But that isn’t the whole story because she operates along the same morally repugnant continuum as many male leaders do. Her actions are driven by an extreme desire to protect her family (and herself) at any cost. It’s easy to hate her, but it’s equally thrilling to watch her wield her power and wait for her downfall to come.
Best Cersei Lannister quote: “The only way to keep your people loyal is to make certain they fear you more than they do the enemy.”
Annalise Keating (How To Get Away With Murder)
Imagine that your world renowned professor tells you she’s going to teach you how to get away with murder. As an attorney. In the courtroom. But then the promise of the dramatic title is fulfilled and the professor, Annalise Keating (Viola Davis) has to help her students get away with an actual murder. She leads the charge as the misdeeds mount. As her motives become increasingly questionable, she holds onto power and runs the show. As she struggles to find solid ground in her personal life, the mysteries continue to deepen. But above all... we want her to win the trial of their lives.
Best Annalise Keating quote: “Make me out to be the villain if it helps you sleep at night, but don’t you ever screw with my cases.”
Selina Meyer (Veep)
If you thought antiheroes only exist in gritty dramas, guess again. Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is the protagonist of HBO’s hit series Veep. She glibly shows her true colors in this political satire as she offends and insults everyone from her staff to her constituents to the lobbies they ply for cash, all in the name of her legacy. She’s absurd and obscene, but her faithful, often idiotic, staff give their one hundred percent. They believe in her, for better or worse. Her biggest humanizing force comes in her daughter Catherine (Sarah Sutherland), who has been profoundly shaped by her mother’s absence while on never-ending campaign trails. Selina is (mostly) oblivious to the impact she’s had on Catherine’s life while her focus has been on the voters at large. But when those moments do hit home for Selina, the sacrifices she’s made to get to where she’s going come into sharp focus. And then we want her to have the legacy she’s always dreamed of, too.
Best Selina Meyer quote: “I’ve met some people. OK, real people. And I gotta tell ya, a lot of ’em are f–king idiots.”
Don Draper (Mad Men)
The poster child of failing up, Mad Men’s Don Draper (Jon Hamm) gets his antiheroism from his ability to charm the socks off most people in the room despite being a complete megalomaniac. He works his way up the cutthroat advertising industry of the 1960s with smooth charisma and classic good looks. But his past continually nags at him – he’s a Korean War deserter who assumed the identity of a fellow soldier to reinvent himself. His efforts to maintain that persona take its toll. His struggles, from womanizing to alcoholism, humanize him in ways that made viewers groan over his foibles, but ultimately, sympathize.
Best Don Draper quote: “It’s over when I say it’s over.”
Patty Hewes (Damages)
Legal dramas lend themselves to stories chock full of backstabbing, righteous standoffs, and shady ethics. Damages, the FX series that ran from 2007 to 2012, is no different. Starring Glenn Close as Patty Hewes, a no-BS attorney who climbs to the top of her profession with the tunnel-visioned focus of a master manipulator, dares viewers to root for her all the way. As we learn more about her life beyond the courtroom walls, from abusive father to cheating husband, that empathy arrives. She channels her ruthlessness to fight against her former mentee Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) but more importantly, to win justice for her clients. We’re with her in the ring all the way.
Best Patty Hewes quote: “A man should want to be in charge. Now the trick is... making him feel like he actually is.”