When TV's good guys go bad

Feature Emma Matthews 24 Jan 2014 - 07:00

Sometimes, good people do bad things. Sometimes goodies turn into baddies. And sometimes, it's more fun when they do...

Warning: contains plot details for Supernatural, Buffy, Angel, GrimmBreaking Bad, Weeds, True Blood and Community.

If our regular visits to TVland have taught us anything, it’s that the lure of the dark side is a powerful one. It seems that no matter how upstanding, smart or sensitive your favourite characters are, very few of them can resist, at the very least, taking a mini-break in the darkest recesses of their psyches.

With, among other things, crime sprees, drug habits, wilful death, an impressive array of weapons and an excellent line in witty retorts at their disposal, these dark-hearted creatures are always infinitely more interesting, more flawed and more real than their sunny counterparts. It’s almost as if there’s an adage among those responsible for the glorious TV that we devour in our millions: lots of people like a good guy, but everybody likes a good guy gone very bad. Or something.

And while it’s almost always a short layover on the road to redemption, when it’s done properly, there’s nothing more electric than watching a character you’ve become fond of come messily and, if possible, dangerously, apart at the seams. That may very well say something telling about us, the great viewing public, but it makes for fantastic television. Here are our favourite dark-side vacationers...

Sam Winchester

There are at least three candidates in the Supernatural-verse worthy of consideration for favourite good guy gone bad, what with Dean and Castiel both being quite happy to dip the occasional, large toe into the dark side. From Dean’s guilt and anger-fuelled violence extravaganzas, to Castiel’s unleashing of the Leviathan during one of his more megalomaniacal moments, both are worthy contenders.

However, only one of the Supernatural boys enjoys the pleasures of the dark side just that little bit too much. From icky demon sex to ingesting more of Ruby’s blood than Gazza’s had pints of Newkie Brown, Sam Winchester is clearly far more interesting than his nigh-on decade-long whining would have us believe. Need the apocalypse kick-starting? Looking for a way to loose the devil on an unsuspecting world? Then look no further than demon-magnet Sam Winchester. Just don’t blame us when he moans about it for the rest of eternity.

Buffy Summers

Like Supernatural, the Buffy-verse also has its fair share of heroes who like to holiday in the shadows every now and then. Surrounded by so much death and destruction, it’s actually surprising that more of Sunnydale’s residents didn’t end up completely batshit insane. The Scoobys definitely suffered more than most though, most notably Willow and her short-lived need to flay alive anything that moves after the death of her girlfriend.

But for us, while Willow’s was the most pronounced change, it was Buffy’s slow-burn self-destruction after coming back from the dead that rates as one of the most complete turn-arounds ever broadcast on TV. Her total 180 from reluctant but earnest and well-meaning hero to heartless vixen was phenomenal, and made all the more so by virtue of Buffy being, as you may or may not have noticed, a girlie. How many female characters in the two decades since she first graced our screens have been so openly violent, so openly sexual, and so openly hostile to the assumption that she’ll save the world because there simply is no one else? The dark side is a poorer place for her absence...


We're not generally the types to tell Joss Whedon how to do his job, but he may have missed a trick when planning Buffy spin-off Angel – he made it about the wrong vampire. Sadistic, hilarious and with a great line in revenge, Angelus – the vampire without a soul – is the most charming 200-year-old embodiment of evil you’re ever likely to meet. The perfect antidote to his over-earnest, somewhat mirthless alter-ego, the show was never better than when vacationing on Angelus’ darkest side.

Present in some of the best early Buffy episodes, and allowed to cause havoc, albeit too briefly, when Angel ran off to LA, TVland’s most twisted could easily have carried off his own series, and it would have given the criminally underrated David Boreanaz something a little more taxing to do than frowning while looking great in coats.

Nick Burkhardt

UK Grimm viewers should look away now, as Nick Burkhardt's transformation from good-hearted Grimm to zombie rampager takes place in the opening episodes of season three. The season two close saw our hero zombiefied by the Cracher-Mortel Wesen, Baron Samedi, a scrape the Scooby Gang are eventually able to get him out of, but not before Detective Burkhardt causes some carnage.

The bikers zombie-Nick dispatches in the attack weren't exactly innocents, but the family he went for before the antidote was administered definitely puts him in the 'gone bad' zone, even if normal-Nick was later traumatised by what he'd done under the influence.

One of Grimm's most intriguing themes is that of Nick, as Renard puts it, "walking in two worlds", and the moral conflicts his Grimm duties impose upon his white-hat police work. We've seen him go against procedure, dispose of evidence, and cover up for his own and other characters' crimes enough times to warant him a place on this list of TV good guys flirting with darkness.

Walter White

Proving that holidaying on the dark side isn’t just an 18-30s nightmare, Walt long ago earned his place on everyone’s favourite good guy gone unbelievably, irretrievably bad list. Perhaps the most complete, the most dramatic and the most delicious character change ever seen on screen, Walt’s five-year journey from mild-mannered terminal case to the death-dealing meth king of TVland was perfection from start to finish.

Embodying the frustration and suffocation felt by much of the forgotten middle classes of middle America, Walt’s rise to bad ass drug baron carried with him the (slightly frightening) wish fulfilment of a nation.

Nancy Botwin

From mild-mannered soccer mom to mafia moll, via the vagaries of being the friendly neighbourhood drug dealer, Nancy Botwin’s descent into darkness from heavenly suburbia was a joy to behold. Setting out her slow fall at the very end of season one with the sublime Godfather homage, and going on to chronicle every single crime necessary to claw your way to drug queen pin, like Buffy, Nancy’s transformation is made all the more affecting by her being female. In Weeds' male dominated world of illegal activity, busy soccer moms who find the time for death dealing, human trafficking and using their unborn children as leverage for their lives are few and far between. More’s the pity. While you wouldn’t necessarily want her as your mother, dysfunction through criminality always makes superb TV – see Walter White for proof.

Bill Compton

Yes, the archetypal southern gentleman vampire had had something of a dalliance with the dark side himself of late. Admittedly, he was possessed by the spirit of a blood-obsessed, biblical demon, but still. Beheading governors, dismissing Sookie’s impending death by nuptials, and generally making the cold as the Arctic Eric look like a tree-hugger, demon Bill was almost unrecognisable from his all too polite usual self.

Tearing up the gentleman’s code with a bloody set of fangs, and so enslaved by Lilith as to look the other way when children are murdered in his front room, the day-walking almost-deity might not have reached Angelus’s sadistic heights, but he got damn close. And if nothing else, it made a welcome change from the puppy dog eyes and excellent, if slightly samey, manners.

Ben Chang

Greendale’s very own teacher-turned-dictator proves beyond a shadow of a doubt those suspicions you’ve always had about teachers: those who can do, those who can’t, teach and then slowly degenerate into despotic, maniacal rulers of their classroom. Although Ex-Senor Chang’s breakdown can be blamed on his obsession with one Jeff Winger – weird how he only has that affect on mental cases – and his shallow almost-existence before he becomes a full-time liar once again. Living in air conditioning ducts, chasing a bad-tempered monkey and attempting to the kill the entire student body are all things, we’re sure, teachers often fantasise about, but for Ben Chang, that’s just the reality of his pathetic, albeit hilarious, mental condition.

Thankfully for the students at Greendale, Chang’s schemes are all too easily foiled by the collective wit of the Study Group he so desperately wants to be a part of, so he’s probably the least dangerous nut job on the list. Having said that, he’s also the nuttiest baddie on this list, so we should all be thankful that, in this case, the line between madness and genius is more like a gorge. God knows what would have happened if Chang actually had a brain. Even a brain like Troy’s would be lethal in Chang’s hands...

Grimm season 3 starts on Wednesday the 5th of February at 9pm on WATCH in the UK (Sky TV 109 & Virgin TV 124).

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Wow, absolutely no love for the flawed yet brilliant Angel series? Really? In some ways it is better than Buffy. And definitely more sophisticated.

Hi James, don't worry, as 2014's the 10 year anniversary of it finishing, Angel's going to get plenty of love on the site in the coming months!

In hindsight Buffy in Season 5 is innovative, daring and a massive accomplishment. It's only now that I've re-watched the whole thing, that I really appreciate what was being done with the characters. At the time however, it horribly depressing and actually got a little boring.

One of the great things about modern tv is that a lot of tv shows don't have completely good or completely bad charcters but characters that inhabit a more moraly grey area. For instance you mention Bill Compton. I rooted for Sookie and Bill for the first three seasons but he was never America's most lovable vampire. Yes he was always a gentleman to Sookie (up untill a certain point) but he did some pretty horrendous stuff in the meantime. And let's be honest from season 4 onwards Bill's kind of a dick. A supercool dick but definitely not the polite, mostly caring vampire he used to be. So his complete transformation to murdering almost baddie (Bill still ended up on the right side in the end) shouldn't have really come as that much of a surprise. And as we're mentioning good guys gone bad: why no Theon Greyjoy? I think he goes through arguably the biggest transition in tv history. (spoilers abound) going from loyal (if somewhat dickish) Stark supporter to Winterfell invader and child murderer.

Agreed, the whole Cordy of season 4 was awesome, Angelus, Faith, that Rock dude, evil Cordy, Cordy giving birth. And that ending of season 5...

Depressing? Yes. Boring? Yes - hated Glory.... ick

I'm adding Gul Dukat from Deep Space Nine :) Technically he was never really a "good guy" but more of an "ex-bad guy" who was no longer doing bad stuff (usually). Then in season 5 he returns to his old "bad" self with Cardassia joining the Dominion.

His line to Kira was "You and me on the same side. It never felt quite right, did it?" My inner child was like :0

I was going to add Gaeta to this list, but BSG was never as black and white as that. Gods, I think a rewatch is due.

I'm currently working my way through a rewatch, Not got to that point yet though, only at the end of season 2.
No mention of Nelson Van Alden? Although I suppose he did the opposite y joining the bootleggers (from the point of view of the series, anyway).

Oh far worse than that, they made him *sympathetic*! Remember in Defiant (Thomas Riker steals the Defiant) when Ducat and Sisko are speaking about Ducat having to break a promise to his son and how he knows that his boy won't remember the detail, only that a Marquis was responsible and that this will turn to hate? Or being demoted and disowned for admitting to having a half-Bajoran daughter, ending up as captain of a freighter which he promptly trades in for a Bird of Prey and uses to engage a one man war against the Klingons? The normal hero arc was there and he was so far along it... then came the Dominion and everything went off the rails.

Worst part was it all made sense. They never flipped his motives around, he always acted with the best interests of his people at heart and tried to do the right thing as he saw it. Of course that's what made him such a good character.

There should be definitely be a spot on this list for Londo Mollari. His descent into darkness (and redemption) drove most of Series 2 through 4 of Babylon 5 and, along with G'Kar, gave us the most wonderful double act Sci Fi has ever seen. Always wonderfully performed and given so much time to develop that his story became absolutely fascinating.

Well remembered! The long-term character development in DS9 really does outweigh any of the other Trek series in my opinion :)

I think Nikita's dark side was worth a mention, muc of her psyche was centered on perceiving herself as a monster or evil, much like Buffy too few women are able to go to those dark places,

What no love for Mitchell (being human). Various BSG, Locke (Lost). Tom Quinn/Lucas North (spooks)

Huh. I think that you're referring to Buffy after her second death, but "heartless vixen" doesn't seem to cover that at all. I'm not sure how you could call Season 6 Buffy a heartless vixen. I'm guessing you're talking about Season 3 then? When she goes a bit bad under the influence of Faith? But that was so long after her first death that you must be referring to Season 6 Buffy. Huh. Not sure what show you were watching there.

Missed Connie James (Spooks)

Good article, but I haven't seen most of the mentioned TV shows. But I've seen Breaking Bad. And Community. Hilarious connection you came up with. Never would've thought about it. Kudos just for that.

Well she was definitely the selfish/heartless one in her "relationship" with Spike in season 6, she took advantage of his feelings for her own convenience.

I don't see Tony Almeida from 24 in this list...

I'm surprised the Tenth Doctor's 'Time Lord Victorious' turn isn't featured on this list.

By a country mile, shame they dropped any trace of that stuff for Voyager. When you watch DS9 back these days it's a bit of an odd one, its at its absolute best when the 'traditional' Star Trek stuff gets out the way. IMO it's also got the best crew with everyone getting interesting, detailed character arcs that genuinely change the characters and make sense over the series as a whole.

Plus, of course, it has Ben 'The' Sisko, about which all you need to know was best summed up by SF Debris in the Siege of AR-558 review:

"Let me put it in perspective for you: Picard faced the Borg, and after it was done ruining his life, he stood in his office and drank Earl Grey. Sisko faced the Borg and after it was done ruining his life, he fumed in an escape-pod... then went off to design a ship whose only purpose is to kill Borg. It's a set of guns strapped to an engine. Then he called it Defiant, a name that practically shakes its fist at the Borg. That was his second choice, Starfleet felt that the "USS Ben Sisko's Muthaf'n Pimp Hand" was too long."

I guess I just object to saying that she's "gone bad", when she's going through some pretty severe depression. Obviously, she ends up hurting a lot of her friends as a result, but I feel that classifying her relationship with Spike as her being a "heartless vixen" is so spectacularly missing the point.

Wesley Wyndom-Pryce?

Caleb temple's transformation comes to mind when he inherits the mantle from sheriff buck prematurely, leading to lucas taking advantage of the situation to vanquish two birds with one stone; ala goodbye merlyn temple.

Sadly that was at the end of season one cliff hanger of "American Gothic" and season two never got picked. Ahead of its time.

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