This article contains Game of Thrones spoilers, of course.
Very few works of fiction, on television or otherwise, can elicit primal reactions like anger, indignation, and even despair. Yet those feelings for the worst of the worst in George R.R. Martin’s vision of Westeros are as common as the snowflakes on Winterfell’s ramparts. Whereas most TV shows are satisfied to create one despicable big bad, Game of Thrones provides a legion of them with variously complex and simple motivations for villainy and viciousness.
And during the final two episodes of season 6, their fiendishness led to many audience members reacting to the sight of a man having his face ripped off by his own dogs with, “It should have lasted longer.” The death of Ramsay Bolton might have been cruel and unusual, but it never could have been enough for audiences (or Sansa Stark) to be fully satisfied.
That kind special hell made flesh for tens of millions of viewers every week is one of the many reasons why Game of Thrones is as popular as it has become. Hence why with another season on the way, and Cersei still holding court, we thought it was time to rank exactly the series’ villains, from worst to best.
Special Note: We are only including those who are human and tip the scales more toward what is generally considered as “evil” over “good.” Or in other words, like showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, we are not including the Night King on the list, because he is more of a force of nature than a fully-fledged character. Similarly, characters who live in an ambiguous gray area, like Jaime Lannister or Melisandre, are thusly not getting ranked despite their crimes.
22. Lancel Lannister
We start with one of the many wide-eyed believers who saw the light during the recent season finale, and it looked an awful lot like wildfire. Lancel Lannister was a traitor to his family and his name when he sided with the Sparrows over his father and (admittedly awful) cousin while in a search for direction. Carving a seven-pointed star into his forehead, this sad sack went from being pathetic as Cersei’s lackey to just creepy as a more effective sidekick working on behalf of the High Sparrow.
Most Heinous Act? Confessing to sleeping with your cousin and getting her arrested on behalf of your new church is likely Lancel’s signature pious douchebag move. Cersei might be the worst, but so is betraying kin for a pat on the head.
Was Justice Served? Cersei deciding to nuke a fifth of King’s Landing is no form of justice, but having the demise of Lancel’s kooky little cult literally blow up in his face was all sorts of satisfaction. We’d drink an early morning glass of bordeaux to that too!
21. Xaro Xhoan Daxos and Pyat Pree
This double act from Qarth were more a headache-inducing nuisance than an actual threat to Daenerys Targaryen. Coming off like a sleazy venture capitalist wanting to “invest in your vision” while wooing Dany, as opposed to an actual suitor with designs to take over Westeros, Xaro might have orchestrated the murder of plenty of Dany’s friends, but he and Pyat didn’t seem to realize that dragon fire would hurt like a mother. Their mistake.
Most Heinous Act? I suppose having Doreah strangle Irri would probably count, but since it happened off-screen, it was about as effective as everything else in this weak link storyline from season 2.
Was Justice Served? Payback came in the most delicious sense when Daenerys had the dragons toast the warlock who was too stupid to realize what would happen when he placed the dragons next to their mother. Xaro also wound up locked away in his impenetrable vault. Talk about not thinking outside of the box.
20. Karl Tanner
Here ‘twas the man who started the Night’s Watch revolt. Short lived was his time leading this stupid cult.
Most Heinous Act? Stabbing Lord Commander Mormont fits the bill.
Was Justice Served? It sure was, and it tasted like Valyrian Steel.
19. Ser Janos Slynt
Westeros is a world filled with political gamblers and thrill-seekers on all sides. Ergo, there has to be a few cowards hidden within the cracks somewhere. Thus enters Janos Slynt, the former City Watch captain and overeager baby-killer that betrayed Ned Stark for 30 pieces of silver in the shape of a ruined Harrenhal. He thought in addition to a title alongside that stone heap, he’d earn the Lannisters’ loyalty, especially with Tyrion coming to town as the new Hand of the King.
How’d that work out for you, Janos?
Most Heinous Act? Murdering a baby in season 2, because Joffrey didn’t like having a city filled with supposed half-brothers.
Was Justice Served? In one of the most satisfying executions in series history—which is saying a lot—Jon Snow proved to be every bit as stark in his sword swinging capabilities as Ned and Robb. During his last moments, the petulant and empty-headed Janos changed his tune about listening to Jon Snow’s orders at Castle Black. Unfortunately for him, the only command left was die!
This creation for the TV show was not necessarily one that Benioff and Weiss spent the most time on building up. After all, they only gave him one name. Still, what Locke lacked in character development he made up for in depravity. After being thwarted in enjoying a rape at Brienne’s expense by Jaime Lannister, he settles for permanently crippling and breaking the Kingslayer’s ego by separating him from his sword hand. He would go on to reveal he is also pals with Ramsay Snow, which makes one realize feeding Brienne to a bear was him on a nice day.
Most Heinous Act? Well, he did try to rape Brienne, then feed her to a bear, and eventually later slaughter a cripple and defenseless kid named Bran Stark. All of those probably count, but the only sadism he succeeded in was cutting off Jaime’s hand, which might’ve actually been a boon for that character’s soul.
Was Justice Served? Hodor, Hodor, Hodor! (That’s Hodor for “bad man go bye-bye.”)
17. The Waif
Here was a fellow Faceless Man that could have been pleased to just teach Arya Stark the ropes of being a trained assassin. Instead, she took pleasure in beating Arya, belittling Arya, and then finally trying to kill Arya. Her only mistake might have been playing with her food by doing a T-1000 impression instead of getting on with it.
Most Heinous Act? Stabbing Lady Crane to death was pretty messed up.
Was Justice Served? They say justice is blind, and apparently so was the Waif before the end.
16. Grand Maester Pycelle
This deceptively spry old goat managed to survive six seasons in the eye of the King’s Landing hurricane by keeping his head down. Not necessarily successful at anything other than complying to Cersei’s wishes regarding a terminally ill Jon Arryn in events right before season 1 started, there is still something incredibly skeevy about this creep who switched sides in courtier politics almost as often as he frequented brothels.
Most Heinous Act? Probably ensuring Jon Arryn went to that Big Eyrie in the Sky. But while actually onscreen, it would have to be his raging flippancy to Tyrion Lannister, including lying about him in court.
Was Justice Served? As Qyburn said, even Pycelle didn’t deserve to die alone in that dark, dank place while being cut up by the Charles Dickens brigade.
Craster might have been a friend to the Night’s Watch when their Rangers needed a place to rest, but there is not a single positive thing to utter about this shining example of human excrement.
Most Heinous Act: He was a wildling who raped his daughters and fed his incest-born sons to White Walkers. So…
Was Justice Served? Since he was stabbed to death by mutinous Night’s Watch men, probably not. It would have been more fitting for him to be tried for his crimes, slaughtered by the White Walkers, or especially gutted by his “wives.” Alas.
14. Ser Meryn Trant
The Hound is oft to say he has nothing but hatred for knights. When you meet this nasty shark in shining armor, you understand why. Sansa dreamed of going to a palace of knights, and Meryn was all too physically delighted to break her of those illusions by beating her while she looked on at her dead father’s severed head and later stripping her naked before the court. Tyrion asked if this sort of barbaric savagery made him happy as a knight? As it turns out, it did—at least as gleaned from his afterhours adventures in Braavos.
Most Heinous Act? Demanding his purchased female companionship be young and innocent… and then robbing them of the latter in the evilest of ways.
Was Justice Served? I’m not sure if Arya needed to blind him before she stabbed him to death. But it didn’t hurt to watch.
13. Viserys Targaryen
The son of the Mad King often liked to call himself the Dragon. But the only thing he could burn away was people’s patience with his transparent ineptitude and perpetual whining. Also, Targaryens might be down with the incest, but viewers aren’t. So in addition to selling his sister to a potential rapist, he also molested her.
Most Heinous Act? It’s hard to beat his speech in the first episode about how he’d let all of Khal Drogo’s men and horses rape Dany if it’d get him the Iron Throne, but he found a way when he threatened to kill her baby while still in the womb with his sword just six episodes later!
Was Justice Served? His final scene still remains one of the gold standards for despicable characters getting deserved demises.
Pycelle’s counterpoint on the Small Council, this disgraced almost-maester is a major upgrade for Cersei Lannister. On top of being far more loyal than any of her underlings have ever been in the past, he is also Westeros’ freaky alternative to Victor Frankenstein, having turned the Mountain into an undead demon.
Most Heinous Act? Making the Mountain into a stitched together monster is disturbing, but I imagine we haven’t seen his worst travesties that were hinted about from before his time on the show. Unnecessary surgery and the like.
Was Justice Served? Not yet; he is alive and well, and likely planning to make the Mountain a bride any day now.
11. Ser Alliser Thorne
In typical military narratives, the hard-ass drill sergeant eventually reveals he has a heart of gold and concern for his boys. But not Alliser Thorne!
A bastard in all but name until the very end, Thorne tormented Jon Snow from day one simply because of Snow’s competency and last name. And when Thorne lost the election to become Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch to Jon Snow four seasons later, he decided to have a runoff in blood. He might love the Watch, and even defended it during the Battle for the Wall, but he disgraced it for all time… and gave Jon Snow an excuse to leave the brotherhood in its hour of need.
Most Heinous Act? Orchestrating the Julius Caesar-styled assassination of Jon Snow springs to mind.
Was Justice Served? Indeed, it was. This just goes to show for those who think Game of Thrones is too cynical, you’ll eventually be rewarded if you just hang in there.
10. Mirri Maz Duur
Mirri was only in a few episodes, but her impact on the series is almost unparalleled since she represents the definition of what happens to protagonists who blindingly think they’re nice people. Daenerys saved Mirri from being gang-raped by the Dothraki who conquered her village… but only after she had already been raped several times up to that point and her family was slaughtered. Instead of showing blind gratefulness to Dany, Mirri tricked the silver haired queen into allowing her to curse Dany’s husband and unborn child with an eternal comatose existence and death… still, this also paved the way for three dragons entering this world.
Most Heinous Act? Secretly planning the mutilation and murder of a baby with magic probably tops the list.
Was Justice Served? I hesitate to say that being burned alive at the stake ever can be considered just. But Daenerys is a Targaryen, this is their version of a slap on the wrist!
9. Roose Bolton
Now getting to the real “big bads” on the show, Roose Bolton was masterfully played by Michael McElhatton as a Machiavellian menace with ice water in his veins. Every bit as sadistic as his bastard son, Roose also displayed top-notch restraint, never wavering in his ambition with an eye on the prize. In fact, if he wasn’t so blinded by his loyalty to a mad dog offspring, he’d be higher on this list. Ultimately, however, he mostly paved the way for Ramsay’s macabre reign.
Most Heinous Act? Obviously, it’s stabbing his lord and king, Robb Stark, in the heart during a wedding feast. However, it’s even more chilling that he mockingly let Catelyn Stark know it was coming beforehand by showing her his chainmail hidden beneath his finery.
Was Justice Served? Being slaughtered by a son that simply wanted to eliminate any threats, including Roose and his newborn babe, is not at all a satisfying end for the man that betrayed the Starks in the most personal way possible during the Red Wedding. Nevertheless, his dumbfounded shock as he bled out in a fate similar to Robb’s remains a small consolation.
8. Ser Gregor Clegane (the Mountain)
Despite being played by three actors, the Mountain’s impact on Westeros has been consistently horrific since the first season. Most remembered for what he did do 17 years ago during the siege of King’s Landing—where he killed Elia Martell’s babes in front of her before raping her to death—he has nonetheless increased his nastiness throughout Game of Thrones’ run. From setting the Riverlands on fire to randomly torturing smallfolk to death by having their insides devoured by rats, the Mountain truly should have died the day he met Prince Oberyn Martell.
Most Heinous Act? Off-screen, his murder of Elia Martell and her children goes to the top of the list. Onscreen, what he tried to do to Gendry at Harrenhaal certainly is worth considering… as well as whatever happened to Septa Unella when that door closed.
Was Justice Served? It would have been if the Red Viper hadn’t decided to showboat when he was within seconds of going the the full Mandy Patinkin on his colossal opponent. Sure, in the long-run the Mountain has suffered grievously from having kind of died and been resurrected as a zombie slave. Still, his true punishment remains elusive.
7. The High Sparrow
Nothing stinks of greater villainy than those who wrap themselves in a cloak of self-righteousness. Convinced he is pure and good because he talks so positively about the gods, the High Sparrow is the kind of reformist fanatic who preaches an end of vanities while demanding complete obedience and worship in the process. He turned the Seven Kingdoms upside down when overnight he disgraced a king and then got the said monarch to grovel for forgiveness in the process.
Most Heinous Act? Parading Cersei Lannister through the streets nude is the definition of misogyny, crystalizing a disdain for all women. Jonathan Pryce is also sublime at hinting at the lust underneath that condescending piety. It’s not flesh he covets to glean; it’s the shame and misery from others who fail to meet his prideful gaze.
Was Justice Served? Yes and no. Cersei orchestrating the High Sparrow’s inevitable fall from grace was deliriously good. Whenever the Church oversteps its bounds next to secular power, these things are unavoidable. But since she also killed a few thousand people in the process, the High Sparrow met not so much justice as genocide.
6. Ramsay Bolton (But Really a Snow)
Ramsay, Ramsay, Ramsay. Always the torturer and never the tortured (at least until the end), this piece of work probably caused most HBO subscribers to resist the urge of punching a hole through their television. Played with cheerful creepiness by Iwan Rheon, Ramsay clearly and intentionally channeled Heath Ledger’s “mad dog” version of the Joker from The Dark Knight.
Yet, instead of playing sociopolitical games that tested the morality of civilized society, he mostly just enjoyed the sounds of people screaming as he skinned them, raped them, or fed them to ravenous beasts. Always finding a chipper spin on his latest mutilation, Ramsay somehow avoided ever being one-note, albeit his simplicity of motive keeps him just out of the top five.
Most Heinous Act? Some will say forcibly castrating Theon with a curved knife. Others will say raping young Sansa again and again. Let’s call it a tie.
Was Justice Served? I usually am remiss to condone, even in fiction, feeding your enemy’s face to his own pets… but in this case, I’ll allow it. Own that smile, Sansa.
5. Walder Frey
While not as showy or heavily featured as Roose and Ramsay Bolton, Walder Frey did more to devastate the realm of the Seven Kingdoms—as well as how viewers will ever perceive cable dramas again—than just about any single character. By shattering the Guest Right and murdering his king, Walder Frey willfully, and gleefully, condemned his name in history as synonymous with malevolence and treachery. In a thousand years’ time, the people of the North will still likely spit on you if you say your name is Frey.
And why did he do this? Because Robb Stark made the petty slight of deciding not to marry Walder’s daughter, even though Frey still had his liege lord in one Edmure Tully join the family.
Most Heinous Act? Red + Wedding = Heartbreak.
Was Justice Served? Like a steaming, fresh meat pie, Arya gave this lecher the time of his life when he finally met a young woman who could fight back. Titus Andronicus would approve.
4. Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish
At first glance, Petyr Baelish doesn’t amount to much. This assessment has been Littlefinger’s advantage all his life. Dismissed as first a weaselly brothel keeper, and then a weaselly Master of Coin, and then a weaselly Lord of Harrenhaal, he finally weaseled his way into being Lord Regent of the Vale, and became an instant threat to the newly crowned King in the North. After all, Littlefinger wanted Sansa to have dominion over Winterfell once he married her, which would have made his next power grab in King’s Landing’s direction even easier.
Litlefinger also most secretively started the War of the Five Kings by having Lysa Arryn murder Jon Arryn, and then convincing her to tell the Starks that the Lannisters were responsible. He feasted off chaos, and every time thousands die, his status in the world climbed.
Most Heinous Act? Off-screen, it’s starting the War of the Five Kings with a fateful letter meant to send Ned Stark on a suspicious rage. Onscreen, it is then betraying Ned Stark in the throne room and putting his head on the chopping block.
Was Justice Served? In the most satisfying way imaginable. The lone wolf dies, but the pack survives.
3. Tywin Lannister
The world of George R.R. Martin seemed just a little bit smaller after Tywin Lannister died on the privy. An infinitely complicated patriarch of countless hypocrisies and double standards, Charles Dance’s performance as this bundle of exposed ego was a marvel to behold. Dismissive and vindictive toward his children, and ruthless for his enemies, Tywin still always reacted out of a place of utilitarian logic, as well as even love—a love for his family’s name, if not its members, and a love for a long dead wife. He also technically had no role in the start of the war, he just masterfully orchestrated vile conclusions at the Red Wedding and on the shores of Blackwater Bay.
A brilliant tactician and a morally bankrupt fraud, Dance’s Tywin cut quite the bloody figure throughout the first four seasons of Game of Thrones, and is sorely missed.
Most Heinous Act? Ordering the death of his own son. And taking pleasure from it.
Was Justice Served? In a world like this where the moneyed and the powerful are untouchable, his nigh Shakespearean demise at the hand of the son who most resembled him, just writ small, is the very best we can hope for.
2. Cersei Lannister
Cersei Lannister hails from a life of much suffering. Forced into a loveless marriage by society at a young age, she tried to make it work even as she was raped nightly, and even after her first child was a stillborn. This still does not excuse her growing frigidity that only heated up the crazier she became.
Initially content at planning the murder of her husband, and wrongfully accusing her younger brother of foul play, Cersei has grown as ambitious as she is shortsighted in her foolish game moves. As Tywin once surmised, she is not as smart as she thinks she is, which makes her increasingly dangerous. Once father was gone, she invited the Sparrows into power to destroy her son’s wife, and after that backfired, her actions led to the same child’s suicide when she blew up a quarter of her capital, killing thousands.
Now uninhibited by concern for her last living child, Cersei is totally unchecked as Mad King Aerys II reincarnated. And the only thing that’s certain is Lena Headey will play her character’s final descent into madness with wicked grace.
Most Heinous Act? Killing thousands, including Margaery Tyrell, just to get back at the High Septon she handpicked for power.
Was Justice Served? In abstract terms, the death of all three of her children is a fitting reward for the woman who so proudly sought to have every Stark placed in the ground. But a more literal punishment awaits in season 7 when her short and bloody reign comes to an inevitable close.
1. Joffrey Baratheon
By all accounts, Jack Gleeson is a lovely fellow. Well-read and intellectually curious, he has given up acting to pursue a career in academia. He is also a delight to work with. So bully for us then that he can turn all of that off at the drop of a crown to embody this sniveling, petty, viciously stupid demon spawn that is buried somewhere from deep within.
Joffrey Baratheon is not only the best villain on Game of Thrones; he might be the best villain in television history. To be sure, there are more complicated villains, and those that we can even root for as our protagonists like Walter White or Tony Soprano. But while Joffrey has no whites in his black, he is nevertheless a textured and brilliantly realized sociopath that gets his jollies from maiming and torturing strangers while inexplicably also being afraid of other people. This petulant boy-king flaunts his royal authority to dangerous results, yet lacks the conviction to convince even himself he can stand up to his dwarf uncle or eternally unimpressed grandfather. So he’ll just take it out on Sansa with another round of beatings.
Most Heinous Act? While torturing prostitutes to death and humiliating his uncle at his wedding are all more skin-crawling, the choice to publicly execute Ned Stark is as woefully ignorant as it was cruel. Beyond just breaking his word to show mercy, he elevated a short-term war into a generational conflict that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Aye, we are still living through the consequences of that brattiness going into season 7.
Was Justice Served? Honestly, no. Like everyone else, I took a special delight in watching his face turn purple as Joffrey failed to gasp his last breath. However, it was neither a Stark nor an actual person he wronged that killed him; it was the schemes of Littlefinger and Lady Olenna to create yet another tide of crisis that’d raise their ships. As a consequence, Tyrion suffered mightily for it. Even in death, Joffrey escaped true punishment for his malice.
So those are the rankings of Game of Thrones’ villains. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comment section below or by sending me a raven on Twitter @DCrowsNest.