In an age of superhero movies and TV anti-heroes, fictional villains are more complex than ever before. This week, Vulture examines villainous entertainment in all its forms.
On Game of Thrones, every week is villains week. Since the show is about the moral cost of war, pretty much every character has done something awful — and with very few exceptions, even the worst have qualities that elevate them from pure darkness, which makes sorting out the sprawling cast in ascending order of evil a tricky proposition. Let’s give it a shot anyway! Below you’ll find 88 major Game of Thrones characters, starting with the most good-hearted and ending with the show’s biggest scumbags and sociopaths. Let Westeros tremble.
88. Samwell Tarly
Bookish, kind, socially awkward, a true friend to Jon Snow, willing to risk his life to rescue the wildling girl Gilly, and protect Gilly’s baby from White Walkers, Sam truly lives up to the ideals of the Night’s Watch. If all the watchers on the Wall were like this dude, Westeros would be a better place.
His mind may have been accidentally shattered by a time-traveling Bran Stark, but Hodor’s loyal heart was untouched. He cheerfully toiled to make his crippled young friend’s life better long before he followed the order to “hold the door” and save the Stark psychic from the undead.
Kidnapped and sold into slavery as a child, she rose from Daenerys Targaryen’s translator to her chief adviser to her successor. And despite ample opportunities, she never mistook cruelty or vengeance for justice. Bonus: She’s teaching a eunuch how to love!
85. Gendry, Gilly, and Hot Pie (tie)
Not everyone who gets caught up in the game is a player. These characters are just ordinary folks: a bastard blacksmith’s apprentice, a rogue wildling’s abused daughter, a young hoodlum who knows his way around the kitchen. They’re fundamentally nice people in a fundamentally not-nice world.
84. Princess Myrcella Targaryen, Princess Shireen Baratheon, and Rickon Stark (tie)
Even royals pay the price when their parents play the game of thrones. Myrcella, Shireen, and Rickon are sweet kids, but their sweetness doesn’t save Myrcella and Rickon from execution by one of their families’ enemies, or Shireen from being burned at the stake as a sacrifice by her own father.
83. Bran Stark
He was just a kid when he uncovered royal incest between the queen and her brother, which got him dumped out a window for his troubles. Now his latent telepathic powers seem to be a key weapon in turning back the apocalypse. As forces for good go, that’s tough to beat. Sadly, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some Hodors, but that isn’t really the kid’s fault.
82. Jon Snow
A reformer with results. Ned Stark’s (alleged) bastard rose from the ranks to become Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, then rose from the dead after his underlings murdered him for being too humane to their lifelong enemies, the wildlings. He then helped liberate the North from the bloody grasp of House Bolton. He’s also a generous lover (“You know nothing, Jon Sn — oh!”), a secret Targaryen prince, and most likely the messiah.
81. Sansa Stark
There’s a line in George R.R. Martin’s books about how alone among the Baratheon brothers, Robert was “the true steel,” strong and sharp and flexible and durable. Out of the Stark siblings, Sansa is the true steel. She’s shaken off a short lifetime of sexist princess stories, survived the lethal court intrigues of King’s Landing, weathered the untoward attentions of Littlefinger and the Hound, outlived her rapist Ramsay Bolton, and saved her brother Jon’s life. It’s possible that Petyr Baelish may win her over to the dark side, but until that happens, she’s on the side of the angels.
80. Eddard Stark
Ned is dead, but he didn’t deserve to be. He made moral compromises over the course of his life, from lying to his wife Catelyn and everyone else about Jon’s parentage (including Jon himself) to playing the game of thrones alongside his dissolute old friend King Robert. But in the end, he sacrificed his honor to save his daughters’ lives. It’s not his fault that Cersei, Joffrey, and Littlefinger repaid his kindness with a knife in the back and a sword through the neck.
79. Jojen and Meera Reed (tie)
Hailing from the swampy southern reaches of the North, this sibling duo — the children of Ned’s close companion, Howland Reed — had one job: escort Bran Stark past the Wall to the lair of the Three-Eyed Raven so he could be instructed in the ways of the Westerosi Force. They pulled it off, and they were nice to the kid to boot, even if Jojen had to die to make it work.
78. Davos Seaworth
A one-time smuggler turned Hand of the King to Stannis turned counselor to Jon Snow, this gruff but good-hearted salty dog may well be the only man over 30 years old on the show who hasn’t gratuitously murdered anyone at some point. He’s also quick to remind everyone to keep their eyes on the prize, i.e. escaping annihilation at the hands of the White Walkers.
77. Brienne of Tarth
She may be a misfit, but she has a way of bringing out the best in (almost) everyone else. In quick succession, she’s either served or befriended Renly Baratheon, Catelyn Stark, Jaime Lannister, Sansa Stark, and Sansa’s brother Jon, saving and taking lives as each situation demands. Let’s hope she and Tormund Giantsbane make it out of all this and settle down to raise gigantic babies together.
76. Syrio Forel
Arya Stark’s “dancing master” served as First Sword to the Sealord of Braavos, the powerful island nation off Westeros’s eastern coast, so it’s safe to assume he shed some blood before we met him. But once he hooks up with Arya, all he does is teach her how to be brave and use a sword in an adorable accent, then give up his life so she can escape from Lannister goons. “What do we say to the god of death? Not today.”
75. Podrick Payne
He’s served as squire to Tyrion Lannister and Brienne of Tarth, an odd couple of bosses if ever there was one. He’s saved both their lives. He’s also apparently dynamite in the sack. He’s Podrick Payne, the Boy Wonder of Westeros.
74. Grey Worm
Or: “What if Missandei were a man who was castrated as a child and was subsequently trained to be a perfect enslaved killing machine, but developed a conscience anyway?” You can see his difficult path written all over his face.
73. Daenerys Targaryen
Dany has more than a touch of her family tree’s madness in her, and she isn’t above burning or crucifying her enemies to make a point. But her enemies are generally monstrous. As a political leader, she’s like a combination of William Tecumseh Sherman and Jesus Christ, cutting a messianic path through the slaver societies of the world. And it sure seems likely that the icy White Walkers will have a tough time dealing with her trio of dragons.
72. Talisa Stark
Born to a noble family in the far-off slave city of Volantis, Talisa rejected her upbringing to become a combat nurse in the battlegrounds of Westeros. There she fell in love with the King in the North, Robb Stark, and became his queen — only to suffer the absolute slaughter of the Red Wedding when his envious underlings turned on him. A classic case of the road to hell paved with good intentions.
71. Robb Stark
And here’s the King in the North himself — a decent and dutiful kid forced into war by the Lannisters when they waylaid, captured, and murdered his family members. Robb’s real crime was putting matters of the heart ahead of matters of state and marrying Talisa instead of his ambitious bannerman Walder Frey’s daughter. A whole lot of people died so he could follow his heart.
Winterfell’s friendliest sex worker makes her way to King’s Landing, falls in with the wrong crowd, and gets shot full of crossbow quills. As one of the show’s few working-class characters, Ros tells us a lot about how tough it is to navigate the machinations of the high-born with body and soul intact.
69. Catelyn Stark
Robb’s mom and majordomo worked tirelessly to protect her family and keep the peace between rival claimants to the Iron Throne. It didn’t do her much good. Her husband gets killed, and then her son and daughter-in-law and grandchild-to-be follow suit, leaving her to helplessly and hopelessly slit the throat of Walder Frey’s child bride before she gets killed in turn. You win or you die, as they say.
68. Tommen Baratheon
The kindly kid brother of lunatic boy-king Joffrey Baratheon, Tommen inherits his sibling’s throne, his crown, and his bride, the beautiful and brilliant Margaery Baratheon. But his desire to see everyone get along leads to his undoing, as he cedes far too much authority to the fanatical High Sparrow and ignores the threat posed by his own mother, Cersei. She winds up wiping out all her enemies, Tommen’s wife included, and the kid kills himself for his failures.
Tyrion Lannister’s sex-worker significant other is a mysterious figure, not least to him. Her affection for the Imp appears genuine, even if there’s a financial transaction involved. When she helps frame him for the murder of King Joffrey at his trial, Tyrion reads it as a betrayal, but given the power of his enemies, what choice did she really have? Certainly less of a choice than Tyrion had when he strangled her to death on his way to kill his father Tywin.
66. Loras Tyrell
He’s a formidable warrior and a pretty nice guy, but the Knight of the Flowers has a secret that ultimately gets him killed: He’s gay. His only real crime was his willingness to play along with the overreaching ambitions of his boyfriend Renly and grandmother Olenna.
65. Margaery Tyrell
Marge in charge of our days and our nights: In many ways, the flower of House Tyrell is the one character who combines shrewd realpolitik with an innate moral center. But her willingness to side with a series of crueler characters, from Joffrey to her own grandma, leaves her caught in the crosshairs of the war between Cersei Lannister and the High Sparrow, and she doesn’t survive the experience.
64. Arya Stark
This poor kid. A tomboy who doesn’t conform to the strict gender segregation of her society, Arya winds up on the run after the execution of her father. She comes under the tutelage of a series of violent substitute father figures: Yoren, the Night’s Watchman who escorts her from King’s Landing; Jaqen H’ghar, the elite assassin who frees her from captivity; Sandor Clegane, the ronin who escorts her across the war zone. She winds up as brutal a customer as any we’ve come across, though considering her traumatic background, it’s hard to fault her at fault.
63. Barristan Selmy
Barristan the Bold is where the rubber meets the road, in terms of Westeros’s ideas of honor and duty. He was the Lord Commander of Mad King Aerys’s Kingsguard, sworn to uphold his liege’s most inhumane decrees. When he fell in battle against the rebel lord Robert Baratheon, he got pardoned and served King Robert instead, turning a blind eye to his new lord’s drunken, abusive rages. When he was unceremoniously fired by Robert’s successor Joffrey, he fled to fight by Daenerys Targaryen’s side, where he was killed helping to quell a pro-slavery insurgency. At least he died serving a monarch worthy of his service.
62. Beric Dondarrion and Thoros of Myr (tie)
Behold, the big brothers of the Brotherhood Without Banners. Dondarrion is the low-ranking lord whose old life ends in an ambush by Gregor “the Mountain” Clegane, and Thoros is the drunken priest who somehow figured out how to bring Beric back from the dead. Now they lead a guerrilla company against any and all armies who threaten the smallfolk — but they aren’t above sleazy behavior themselves if it’ll help bankroll their campaign.
Con: We first met this wildling woman when she threatened to murder Bran Stark in order to reach safety. Pro: Osha really did need safety, considering the demonic goings-on north of the Wall, and everything she did afterwards showed she was a thoughtful, loyal, loving person forced into terrible circumstances. She deserved a better death than Ramsay Victim No. 37.
59. Brynden “the Blackfish” Tully and Edmure Tully (tie)
Catelyn’s crusty uncle and kid brother both survive the Red Wedding, but in very different circumstances. Edmure is kept as the prisoner of the Lannister-Frey alliance (it was his wedding!), while the Blackfish escapes to keep up the fight even after House Lannister has defeated everyone else in the Northern-Riverlands alliance. Even Jaime Lannister is impressed by his willingness to sacrifice for the cause, and by Edmure’s willingness to surrender rather than lose more lives unnecessarily.
57. Jorah Mormont
One the one hand, he sold some poachers into slavery, got himself exiled, and narc’d on the Mother of Dragons for a pardon. On the other hand, he repented from his traitorous ways and became Dany’s most faithful servant … before she found out his past and exiled him all over again. On the other other hand, well, that particular hand is turning into stone because he caught the grayscale plague. In conclusion, Jorah Mormont is a land of contrasts.
56. Tormund Giantsbane
The fiery-bearded behemoth who leads the wildlings after King-Beyond-the-Wall Mance Rayder is executed, Tormund takes a shine to Jon Snow despite having been betrayed by the kid when “Lord Snow” was working undercover. He also nurses a serious crush on Brienne of Tarth, and who can blame him? Like many characters, he’s done terrible things, but they were in the name of preserving the lives of his people.
The Spider is Westeros’s one-man NSA, a spymaster who employs a network of child informants to put down dissidents and traitors. Yet he really does seem to have the realm’s best interests at heart (in the show, if not the books), hence his alliances of convenience with Ned Stark, Tyrion Lannister, and Daenerys Targaryen. He’s got blood on his hands, but he’s putting those hands to relatively good use.
54. Mance Rayder
The King-Beyond-the-Wall is basically the Varys of the North. Like the Spider, he exploits the hard reality of the world to work toward the preservation of the realm. In his case, the realm is all the people (and giants!) stuck north of the Wall, and the goal is to break south and escape the onslaught of the demonic White Walkers. Sure, he employs a few cannibals and war criminals to get the job done, but if the alternative is getting turned into zombies by ice monsters, who can blame him?
53. Salladhor Saan
Davos’s pirate buddy helps him out of several jams during our too-few encounters with him. He’s a pirate, though, which means he’s probably tossed a few inconvenient people overboard.
52. Doran and Trystane Martell (tie)
The sickly ruler of Dorne and his hunky young son don’t do a whole lot, for better or for worse. They mostly brood over the deaths of their loved ones — Doran’s sister and brother and Trystane’s girlfriend Myrcella — until Ellaria Sand and her daughters do them in for standing in the way of their revenge.
50. Renly Baratheon
The baby brother of King Robert and Lord Stannis is an interesting case. He’s a much nicer guy than either of his older siblings, and unlike them he’s had to struggle with living in the closet in a society that punishes homosexuality. On the other hand, he stakes his claim on the Iron Throne based on sheer ego alone, risking the lives of countless thousands in the process. I’m sorry he got killed by his brother’s shadow baby nonetheless.
49. Tyrion Lannister
The Imp is a challenging figure. He’s a brilliant tactician, a shrewd politico, and a innately decent dude, but he employs all those skills on behalf of his nightmarish father Tywin and sister Cersei. And when his relationship with Shae is shattered by false accusations, he murders her before also killing his sinister dad. Perhaps working for Daenerys is his form of penance? Peter Dinklage may be the breakout star of the entire series, but Lord Tyrion is a tough nut to crack.
48. Yara Greyjoy
The female scion of the Iron Islands has a lot in common with the diminutive Lion of Lannister. Like Tyrion, she’s a basically okay person stuck in service to a deeply shitty family. Like Tyrion, she’s also extremely horny. And like Tyrion, she eventually breaks free of her family’s bloody-minded greed to join her cause to that of Daenerys Targaryen. She even shares Tyrion’s brotherly love — he cares about his big bro Jamie in much the same way that she looks after her sibling Theon.
“You know nothing, Jon Snow.” As it turned out, this wildling warrior was wrong about that — her boyfriend Jon knew a great deal about defending Castle Black from her people, and about being a pretty romantic guy. More than any other character, Ygritte embodied the moral compromises of war: In order to preserve the lives of herself and her people, she was willing to take the lives of others indiscriminately, and she died at the hands of one of her victims for it.
46. Daario Naharis
This hunky mercenary slaughtered and smoldered his way into the heart and pants of Daenerys Targaryen herself. Throughout their relationship, he made his moral position crystal clear: He did whatever he did for fun and for money. If it happened to be for a good cause, great! If not, well, so be it.
45. Oberyn Martell
He loves for kicks. He lives for kicks. He kills for kicks. He’s the Red Viper, and he screwed and slayed his way across Westerosi society in the name of the sister he lost to the Lannister’s murderous ambitions. Sadly, he wound up coaxing a confession from her killer, Gregor Clegane, at the cost of his own cranium.
44. The Three-Eyed Raven
Here’s the thing about the psychic mastermind portrayed by legendary actor Max Von Sydow: He sees all and knows all. Which is great, if you want to train Bran Stark to be your heir apparent and the main magical opponent of the Night King and his evil army. But it’s not so great if you don’t want to mentally and physically cripple various children in order to make that battle possible.
43. Robert Baratheon
I can still remember when that Robert used to make me smile. He was just a cool jock in love with bold Lyanna Stark, and he freaked the hell out when it looked like Rhaegar Targaryen ran off with her. The result was a rebellion that brought out the best in Robert, helping him defeat Rhaegar’s psychopathic father and restore peace and justice to the realm … only for it to fall into dissolution and disarray when his earthly appetites proved more powerful than his ability to rule.
42. Olenna Tyrell
The matriarch of House Tyrell is as adaptable as a cockroach. First, she backs Renly Baratheon’s claim to the Iron Throne against both his nephew Joffrey and brother Stannis. When Stannis’s demonic henchman puts an end to his ambitions, the so-called Queen of Thorns throws her family’s allegiance to Joffrey in hopes of making a royal match. When Joff proves too, y’know, insane, she has him killed. And when her grandkids Margaery and Loras are finally murdered by Cersei Lannister, she shifts allegiances once again to Dany’s eastern alliance.
Dirty deeds, done not-so-dirt cheap. The swaggering sellsword who served as Tyrion Lannister’s right-hand man will take on almost any murderous mission for the right price, but fortunately, the Imp was a more noble master than this mercenary was used to. Even after the pair parted company and Bronn hooked up with his brother Jaime instead, it’s hard to dispute the feeling that he and the Tyrion will reconnect at some point.
40. Ellaria Sand
Once upon a time, Ellaria was just the free-spirited paramour of Oberyn Martell. But after the Red Viper of Dorne got his noggin crushed by Gregor Clegane, she turned into an angel of vengeance who would stop at nothing, including the murder of the innocent Myrcella Baratheon, to avenge her beloved. Now she’s part of Daenerys Targaryen’s war council, which should be … interesting.
39. The Sand Snakes (tie)
Obara, Nymeria, and Tyene Sand are the warlike daughters of Ellaria and Oberyn, and they inherited their parents’ propensity for seeking justice at spearpoint. If that means killing their own flesh and blood, as they do when they help Ellaria take over Dorne by killing Prince Doran Martell and his heir Trystane, so be it.
36. Khal Drogo
The Genghis Khan of GOT started off as an extremely cruel character, raping his child bride Daenerys in between slave raids on neighboring communities. But by the time of his untimely death, he was willing to break with Dothraki tradition and sail across the sea to liberate his wife’s lands from her father’s killers.
35. Mirri Maz Duur
Drogo would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for this vengeful healer and magician. A victim of one of the horselord’s brutal raids, she’s rescued from assault by Daenerys, and offers to treat the wound Drogo incurred in battle. But when his condition worsens, she makes a literal deal with demons to punish him, reducing him to a vegetable and killing Dany’s unborn child in the process. It’s hard to blame her for hating the people who destroyed her world, but unleashing dark forces like that is terribly dangerous.
34. Jaqen H’ghar
A man has no name, but a man must have a code. And the code of the elite shape-shifting assassin known as Jaqen H’ghar is one of the show’s most compelling. As a member of the secretive Faceless Men, he frees Arya Stark from the clutches of the Lannisters and tutors her in his mystical, murderous ways. For him, it’s all in service of the many-faced god of death. For Arya, it’s a matter of life and death.
33. Ilyn Payne
The mute executioner who chops off Ned’s head is a terrifying guy, but he has his reasons: Aerys Targaryen cut out his tongue when he heard him talking smack. No wonder he’s loyal to House Lannister, the people who ended the Mad King’s reign.
32. Sandor “the Hound” Clegane
In the early days of GOT, the Hound was one of Westeros’s most fearsome foes: a heavily scarred bruiser who honored basically nothing and no one — not his older brother Gregor, nor his shitty lord Joffrey, nor basic human decency — except the sheer joy of killing. Over time, the Hound went from unrepentant child-murderer to reluctant guardian of Sansa and Arya Stark to born-again crusader for truth and justice among the Westerosi smallfolk. He’s got a lot of sins to atone for, but it seems he may well get there.
31. Jaime Lannister
The Kingslayer kicked off the show’s central story line by tossing Bran Stark out a window when the kid witnessed his incestuous liaison with his own sister Cersei. He also helped wound Ned Stark and wage war against his kid Robb. But after his hand got cut off by House Bolton’s chief goon Locke, something changed. Jaime wound up forming a real bond with Brienne of Tarth and emerging as a voice of reason in House Lannister’s councils, no matter how ethically troubling his ongoing sexual relationship with sister Cersei looked.
30. Theon Greyjoy
Oh, Theon. Poor, wayward Theon. Born to a rebellious noble family in the Iron Islands. Held hostage by House Stark. Shipped off to war alongside his foster brother Robb. Sent back home to negotiate with his crusty old father Balon. Turned against his former comrade and shipped back to the mainland as a rival commander who conquers the Stark home of Winterfell. He’s a hapless doofus who has his conquest stolen out from under him by the Stark children, his own men, and the far more vicious forces of House Bolton; a torture victim who was castrated and forced to bear witness to Ramsay’s assault on his former foster sister Sansa; an unlikely savior who helps Lady Stark flee to safety, then rejoins his sister Yara in an attempt to wield the might of the Iron Islands against both House Lannister and his own crazy uncle Euron. Theon Greyjoy, folks: the most complex character in the series.
“The night is dark and full of terrors.” So is Melisandre. The Red Priestess at the heart of Stannis Baratheon’s drive for the Iron Throne is a manipulative sorceress who isn’t above sending shadow demons on assassination missions or sacrificing princesses for her overall goal. But when the shit hits the fan, she’s also the person who brings Jon Snow back from the dead to fight another day.
28. Stannis Baratheon
He’s the only claimant to the Iron Throne who puts his money (and his military) where his mouth is, rallying to the aid of the Night’s Watch against the massive wildling army that threatened to breach the protection of the Wall. But he’s also so determined to take power that he sacrifices thousands of lives, including those of his own brother and daughter. When Brienne kills him as payback for his murder of her beloved Renly, you get the sense he’s being put out of his misery.
27. Kevan Lannister
The brother of Lord Tywin, Kevan lacks the rest of his family’s killer instincts. That’s the problem: By being a dutiful, competent commander and administrator, he helps keep them in power, even if he quits rather than serve Cersei.
26. Alliser Thorne
Remember the Quint monologue from Jaws about how he and the rest of the crew of the USS Indianapolis endured the aquatic assault of a hundred sharks after they delivered the atomic bomb? Alliser is basically that monologue in human form, only way less cool and way more of a dick. He goes hard for the Night’s Watch when the time comes, but he also betrays Jon Snow and pays for it with his life.
25. Grand Maester Pycelle
This beardy old bastard fronts as an impossibly old, impossibly wise scholar, but all along he’s working on behalf of House Lannister (and having sex with prostitutes on the side). His moral compass always points to Casterly Rock, and to hell with anyone who gets in the way.
24. Lysa Arryn
Catelyn Stark’s paranoid sister refuses to come to the aid of her family, choosing instead to spoil her ailing son. It turns out she’s being manipulated behind the scenes by Littlefinger, but that doesn’t excuse her treatment of her sister or her niece Sansa. Nor, ultimately, does it save her life when Littlefinger grows tired of her.
23. Balon Greyjoy
The once and future King of the Iron Islands, for whatever that’s worth — which isn’t much because the Iron Islands are a godforsaken hellhole full of Westeros’s worst. Balon seizes the opportunity afforded him by the chaos of war and sends his sailors to seize control of the North, but their invasion is repelled and his own brother Euron ends his royal ambitions.
22. Xaro Xhoan Daxos
This smooth-talking merchant prince of the far-off kingdom of Qarth saved Daenerys and company from certain death in the desert wastelands to the east of the Dothraki sea. He also sold her dragons out to his warlock chums in an effort to seize the city for himself. Dany locked him and her treasonous servant Doreah in an empty vault to pay them back for their betrayal.
21. The Waif
One of the few trained killers who doesn’t take an instant liking to Arya Stark, this nameless trainee in the Faceless Men bears her young counterpart a grudge, taking pleasure in her eventual assignment to kill the kid. It, uh, doesn’t work out for her.
Ramsay Bolton’s paramour was nearly as nasty a customer as her psychopathic boyfriend, participating in some of his most twisted games and jealously guarding her status as his main squeeze. Still, what else was she gonna do? Break up with him?
19. Viserys Targaryen
Consider him the John the Baptist to Joffrey Baratheon’s Jesus Christ. This flaxen-haired heir to the Seven Kingdoms spent his relatively brief life abusing his kid sister Dany — until she and her husband Khal Drogo finally got tired of his simultaneously pathetic and presumptuous ambitions and killed him. He’d have been as much of a nightmare on the Iron Throne as Joffrey was, but deep within him there was a core of fear and loneliness that gave his character a twinge of humanity.
18. Euron Greyjoy
By all accounts, the pirate king who slew his brother Balon to seize control of the Iron Islands — and who wants to finish the job by executing his niece and nephew Yara and Theon — will be season seven’s big bad. For now, however, his actions are limited to cool pronouncements like, “I am the storm” and tossing his big bro off a bridge. If he does indeed turn into a bigger monster than anyone else, we reserve the right to adjust the rankings accordingly.
17. Meryn Trant
Now we’re getting into straight-up villain territory. Ser Meryn is the single worst member of the Kingsguard — the guy Joffrey entrusts with beating his bride-to-be Sansa, and who moonlights as a pedophile in his off hours. The gruesome gutting Arya gives him in a Braavosi brothel is almost too kind a death.
16. Janos Slynt
He’s the commander of the City Watch who promises to have Ned’s back in the showdown with Cersei and Joffrey, then stabs him in the back instead. He also dutifully follows Joffrey’s orders to murder all of King Robert’s bastards, including the babies. When he gets shipped off to the Wall, he defies Ned’s son Jon and pays for it with his head. No one is gonna miss him.
15. Karl Tanner
It’s tough to blame a brother of the Night’s Watch for turning on Craster, the incestuous lord of the manor in his remote wilding outpost. It’s a lot harder to swallow Karl’s subsequent mutiny, leading to the sexual assault and rape of Craster’s daughters and the drinking of wine from the slain Lord Commander’s skull. Fortunately, Craster’s daughter-wives outlive this dipstick.
14. The High Sparrow
One of the show’s greatest casting coups, Jonathan Pryce swooped in to portray the deceptively grandfatherly fundamentalist leader who throws both House Lannister and House Tyrell into total disarray. When Cersei finally wiped out him and his insufferable brothers in a cloud of wildfire, it was almost enough to make you root for her. Almost.
Disbarred and defrocked from the scholarly order of Maesters who serve as teachers, advisers, and philosophers to every Westerosi lord and lordling, Qyburn turns his sharp intellect to darker tasks. Obsessed with the thin line between life and death, he rejects both Roose Bolton and Jaime Lannister to hook up with Queen Cersei, who gives his unholy experiments her seal of approval. May their victims cower.
It’s important to take pride in your work, don’t you think? As the foremost of House Bolton’s “hunters,” the goon called Locke would agree. He’s the dude dispatched to take Jaime Lannister back into custody — and cut off his hand in the process — as well as the assassin deployed to unsuccessfully execute the Stark-Snow siblings north of the Wall. The thought of this guy surviving was enough to send shivers up your spine, so thank goodness he was offed by Bran and Hodor.
11. Roose Bolton
Like a shark in human form, this Putinesque aristocrat exudes the air of a comfortable, one-step-ahead dictator. When he and Walder Frey conspire to destroy House Stark, his primary contribution is direct as possible: a sword through the King in the North’s heart. He probably should have seen his very similar execution at the hands of his own son Ramsay coming.
10. Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish
This pimp turned financial powerhouse fell in love with Catelyn Stark as kid, and has borne a grudge against House Stark ever since. (She wasn’t interested, but when has that ever stopped an entitled creep like this?) Now, he’s got his little fingers in virtually every scheme and crime in Westeros. The deaths of Ned Stark, Joffrey Baratheon, Jon Arryn (the late Hand of the King whose murder sets the entire story in motion), and his own ersatz bride Lysa all bear his fingerprints.
9. Walder Frey
This crusty old bastard orchestrated the Red Wedding, a date that will live in pop-culture infamy. What else do you need?
8. Cersei Lannister
Cersei is in many ways a victim of circumstance, forced by her tyrannical father into a loveless marriage with alcoholic, abusive, over-the-hill warlord Robert Baratheon. But her belief that any and all cruelty is justified in service of her sons and daughter results in the death of all three children — not to mention countless hundreds of others. As portrayed by Lena Headey, Cersei seems primed to be one of the final seasons’ primary antagonists.
Rhymes with “bastard,” almost! This one-time member of the Night’s Watch turned small-time lord of the forest north of the Wall rapes his daughters and sacrifices his sons. But since he provides valuable intel about his fellow wildings, the Watch looks the other way. The delicate balance he struck doesn’t survive, of course: He winds up getting killed by mutinous Watchmen.
6. Tywin Lannister
Wannabe tough guys beware: Lord Tywin is where your willingness to sacrifice human lives to an alleged greater good gets exposed for the cruelty it is. In his relentless quest to strengthen the standing of House Lannister, the family’s patriarch signs off on any number of atrocities. And for what? So that his insane daughter can take over for his equally insane grandson, while his youngest child Tyrion murks him in the process. “The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” indeed.
5. Gregor “the Mountain” Clegane
“I killed her children. Then I raped her. Then I smashed her head in — like this!” With these words, the Mountain That Rides rode into television immortality as a villain for the ages. The sadistic older brother of the Hound was employed by Tywin to end the line of House Targaryen by any means necessary; he subsequently survived trial by combat against Oberyn Martell by crushing his skull. Eventually, he reemerged as “Ser Robert Strong,” a zombified enforcer kept alive by Qyburn’s dark arts. It doesn’t improve his disposition, that’s for sure.
4. Aerys “the Mad King” Targaryen
He’s only been visible in flashbacks, but the monarch who tortured Ned Stark’s brother and father to death — helping to spark Robert’s Rebellion — merits an entry of his own. Before Jaime Lannister decided to break his oath and kill his own king, Aerys planned to detonate tons of green-glowing wildfire throughout King’s Landing, reducing the city to ash and dooming its inhabitants. Only the Kingslayer kept him from committing murder on an unprecedented scale.
3. The Night King
In some ways, this is a cheat. After all, isn’t the Night King the stuff of fairy tales with his ice-blue skin and horrible inhuman eyes? Well, yeah. But the Watch sure seems to believe this particular yarn, and for good reason. This blue-eyed beast and his army of the undead are the true enemy facing humanity, even as various flesh-and-blood factions face off against one another in futile squabbles for power. If they don’t hang together, they shall all hang (or get torn apart by zombies) separately.
2. Joffrey Baratheon
Game of Thrones has such a deep villain bench that this insufferable creep is not the show’s only world-class antagonist — but even so, there’s something special about this blond-haired bastard. Joffrey starts out the series as an ’80s-movie-style bad boy before morphing into something far more sinister and violent. In the end, he’s undone by the even more ambitious family of his own bride-to-be, Margaery Targaryen. The result is the so-called Purple Wedding, a marriage consummated by the poisoning of the groom. But Joffrey, played to sneering perfection by Jack Gleeson, will live forever.
1. Ramsay Bolton
Meet the Joker of Westeros. Played by wild-eyed actor Iwan Rheon, this grinning ghoul makes even Joffrey look like a rational actor. Ramsay takes advantage of his scheming father Roose’s power, indulging his cruelest instincts against defenseless Theon Greyjoy and, eventually, Sansa Stark. He’s a serial killer afforded all the rights and protections of untouchable nobility, but once he kills his own dad, he proves far too impetuous for his own good: Initiating a war against Sansa’s brother Jon leads to Ramsay’s death at the jaws of the hunting dogs he’d previously employed to deliver his trademark coup de grâce. “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention,” he tells Theon at one point. He should have taken his own advice.