Television’s Top 20 most memorable psychopaths

They’re mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Psychopath

noun 1. a person suffering from chronic mental disorder with abnormal or violent social behaviour.

Killing Eve has once again pushed the psychopath character into the spotlight, with Jodie Comer’s Villanelle a real showstopper of a baddie – sassy, smart, outrageously cool and utterly deranged. This is everything that TV psychopaths should be. They should at once be likeable, funny, normal even but liable to go off on one at any moment.

There’s something magnetic about a psychopath – we’re like moths to a flame – and throughout the history of television, there have been some really incredible, dangerous characters. Some have been people you perhaps wouldn’t mind hanging out with, some have been traumatised, some have been sadists and some have been plainly insane – whatever their traits, affectations and strains they all come under the umbrella of the psychopath.

Of course, psychopathy is a serious business. The debate still rages around whether out-of-control compulsions are there within us all at birth, lying dormant until a traumatic event prizes the lid off the Pandora’s box, or whether psychopathic behaviour can be taught.

Whatever the reason, psychopathy and psychopaths exist freely in television drama. So, as a tribute to one of the more beguiling and terrifying new characters to hit our screens in a while – Villanelle – we’re going to celebrate the TV psycho.

But only from a distance.

20 Ralph Cifaretto, The Sopranos
Joe Pantoliano

In a cast of characters full of sociopaths and psychopaths – including Tony Soprano himself – Ralph Cifaretto was arguably the nastiest and most unhinged of the lot. Returning to Jersey from a stint in Miami, you knew there was going to be trouble as soon as his volatile, wild temper took hold. Which was often. Always chipping away at Tony, always with that huge chip on his shoulder, and with a sadistic, evil side to him, Ralph took great pleasure in killing and plotting his next move.

19 Tommy Lee Royce, Happy Valley
James Norton
Recently released from prison after serving eight years for drug-related offences, the quiet, shy and unassuming Tommy found himself a job working for Ashley Cowgill, who develops property and runs a caravan site. Through Ashley, Tommy Lee became involved in the kidnap and abduction of Ann Gallagher, the daughter of local millionaire businessman Nevison Gallagher. And that was just the start of a downward spiral into increasing brutality – in series two he used his charm to manipulate Frances Drummond from inside prison and engaged in a terrifying vendetta against Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire).

18 Sideshow Bob, The Simpsons
Kelsey Grammer
A cartoon character in our top 20 list of television’s most memorable psychopaths? Why not? Sideshow Bob (Kelsey Grammer) may be played for laughs, but there’s something terrifying about his relentlessness in his pursuit of Bart Simpson. A CHILD. Robert Underdunk Terwilliger Jr. began his career as a sidekick on Krusty the Clown’s television show, but after enduring constant abuse, Bob attempted to frame his employer for armed robbery. The plan was foiled by his arch-enemy, Bart Simpson, and Sideshow Bob was sent to prison. Ever since then, like every bad recurring nightmare, Bob pops up from time to time to try and take out his nemesis. Just when you think he’s done, he comes back. Again and again.

17 Sam, Born To Kill
Jack Rowan
One of the more rounded explorations of psychopathy, this British series asked that perennial question: is psychopathy nature or nurture. At the centre of this conundrum is Sam, a 16-year-old boy on the brink of adulthood. A secret about his father and an intense first love affair triggered his burgeoning psychopathy and we soon saw that beneath the surface of his charismatic persona, Sam experienced more than the usual teenage angst – a psychopathic urge to kill. His family and friends had no idea what he was capable of.

16 Amma Crellin, Sharp Objects
Eliza Scanlen
Popular at school and the centre of attention at home, Amma was used to getting what she wanted, whenever she wanted it. She ruled the small town and her gang of acquiescent teens with an iron fist, demanding attention all the time. How did she get what she wanted? She was an arch-manipulator quite unlike anything we’ve seen before, learning all she knew from her deranged mother, Adora. Her interest was piqued by her distant half-sister Camille, who was in town to investigate a string of unsolved murders – one of them perpetrated by Amma herself in gruesome fashion. The fact that her doll’s house was made up of body parts from her victim should tell you everything you need to know. Stay clear at all costs – underneath this butter-wouldn’t-melt exterior is someone very dangerous.

15 Purple Man, Jessica Jones
David Tennant
Kevin Thompson was a man who was experimented on by his parents since his childhood in order to treat a neurodegenerative disease, but the treatment ended up giving him the new ability to control people’s minds at his will. Assuming the name Kilgrave, he began to use his powers for personal gain and developed a cruel nature, eventually coming across Jessica Jones who he kept as his personal sex slave for several months – a case of cruelty and imprisonment begetting cruelty and imprisonment. A psychopath with superpowers. Now that’s scary.

14 Paul Spector, The Fall
Jamie Dornan
Paul Spector is a father, husband and professional man – a bereavement counsellor – and, on the outside, a normal man. His family provides him with the outward appearance of normality but since he confessed, falsely, to an affair with a young babysitter, that mask of normality has been shattered. Over the course of three series we saw him carry out some gruesome, sadistic killings (he was revealed to be the murderer from the start), and The Fall’s study of psychopathy then went into different territory – never a cheap whodunit, more a deadly cat-and-mouse game with the cool and detached Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson).

13 Marlo Stanfield, The Wire
Jamie Hector
In a series that was packed with extraordinary characters, Marlo Stanfield was one of the more extraordinary. Introduced in series three as an up-and-coming drug player who controlled many corners in West Baltimore, Stanfield was part of the new breed of dealer – ruthless, murderous and hell-bent on domination in his ward. This refusal to play by the rules allowed his psychopathy to run riot.

12 Nina Myers, 24
Sarah Clarke
In a series known for its twists and turns, Nina Myers provided many of the best ones, not least because of her absolute insistence and determination to bring down Jack Bauer. Bauer’s one-time lover and assistant turned out to be a double agent who killed freely.  Not only did she sell secrets to an evil terrorist organisation, but she also gunned down Jack’s wife Teri at the end of the first season. Did she do it for money? Love? Because she wanted to take down the government? No. She did it just because she felt like it.

11 Lorne Malvo, Fargo
Billy Bob Thornton
Manipulative and charismatic, deadly hitman Malvo held almost no moral values, killing who he needed to – and who he was paid to murder – to get his job done. He was also willing to kill those who were vital to his job or career to prove a point, as could be seen when he murdered three people while in Las Vegas with the hapless Lester Nygaard. Most of all he held a cold willingness to kill innocent people and to cause trouble in his daily life for his own amusement. The really interesting thing about Malvo was his relationship with Nygaard, a frustrated, hen-pecked man who he manipulated mercilessly into crime. ALSO SEE VM VARGA (FARGO SERIES THREE)

10 Albie Kinsella, Cracker
Robert Carlise
Albie was a white, working-class Liverpool FC supporter with a chip on his shoulder that soon turned toxic and psychopathic. He and his father survived the real-life football disaster that took place at Hillsborough Stadium in 1989, but when cancer took his father five years later, Albie’s ingrained trauma intensified beyond words. This grief was the catalyst for what turned into a series of cold-blooded murders for which Albie provided a bitter, sociopolitical explanation. As ever with Jimmy McGovern, there were real, believable reasons behind Albie’s terrifying behaviour, made all the more terrifying because they felt so real.

9 BOB/Leland Palmer, Twin Peaks
Frank Silva
Where do you start with BOB? Was he a ghost? Was he a demon? BOB was a terrifying entity played by the late Frank Silva and was the embodiment of evil, a man who turned up in your nightmares and was often to be found at the bottom of your bed and creeping over your sofa in the dead of night. He was the archetypal bogie man and he was terrifying. But you can’t mention BOB without mentioning Leland Palmer – the man who murdered his daughter, Laura. Leland was possessed by BOB, who came from another dimension. So the question is, was BOB the actual human manifestation of psychopathy? We think so.

8 Reg Christie, Rillington Place
Tim Roth
A man so mundane, unthreatening and ineffectual, real-life serial killer Reg Christie was brought back to chilling life by Tim Roth in Rillington Place. Yorkshireman Christie, of course, was a sexually dysfunctional hypochondriac and malevolent narcissist masquerading as a mild-mannered ledger clerk. An inveterate liar with a long criminal record he none-the-less presented a perfectly cultivated image of respectability and authority as a wounded war veteran and officer of the law. Despite successfully concealing his true psychopathic and sexual perversions from most of the world, he was ultimately unable to resist his urges, eventually murdering at least six women, including his wife. The worst psychopaths are the ones who you least expect to be psychopaths, and Christie definitely fell into that category.

7 Peter Manuel, In Plain Sight
Martin Compston
We now get into the realms of the serial killer as cocky showboater.  Another character based on a real-life person, Peter Manuel killed at least eight people between 1956 and 1958 in Lanarkshire and went about Glasgow engaging in a game of cat-and-mouse with the detective who pursued him to his conviction, William Muncie. Manuel taunted his pursuer, and unlike other serial killers there was no rhyme or reason to his victims – he killed for the fun of it. Pure and simple.

6 Joffrey Baratheon, Game Of Thrones
Jack Gleeson
Arguably the most sadistic psychopath ever to grace our TV screens, and one that didn’t appear in a crime drama. George RR Martin’s hugely popular Game Of Thrones books, and later TV series boasts a number of sociopaths (hello Cersei Lannister) and other horrid, ruthless characters, but none more so than the young king, Joffrey Baratheon. He ordered the beheading of fan favourite, Ned Stark (and looked on in glee), ordered the murder of peasants and then all of the illegitimate children fathered by his dad, and tortured many, including his wife, Sansa. SEE ALSO RAMSAY BOLTON (IWAN RHEON)

5 Alice Morgan, Luther
Ruth Wilson
Deeply unhinged, extremely dangerous and utterly charming, it’s no surprise Alice Morgan makes this list. Alice was the daughter of Douglas and Laura Morgan, and was a child prodigy who enrolled in Oxford University at the age of 13. She met Luther after the murder of both of her parents, who she was suspected but never proven to have killed. In John Luther, she found a worthy foe and a great friend. Before, Alice had seen human existence as insignificant compared to the universe, with its vast galaxies and black holes. But when her philosophy came into direct conflict with Luther’s belief system, she discovered what it is to care for someone else. As she escaped and traversed the globe this equal parts genius, psychopath and malignant narcissist left a well-concealed trail of destruction. But she always kept tabs on Luther.

4 Norman Bates, Bates Motel
Freddie Highmore
How can we have a list of TV’s most memorable psychopaths and not include the younger version of Norman Bates, the character who would go onto be the star of a film called Psycho? This prequel filled in Norman’s backstory, and the relationship with his mother. Initially, Norman lived in Arizona with his parents, Norma and Sam Bates. Norman killed his father after he beat Norma, but didn’t remember the event afterwards. Norma made it look like it was an accident, where a shelf fell on Sam, in order to protect Norman and they started a new life in the infamous motel. That’s where the story really started, and we saw how Noman’s particularly chilling brand of psychopathy developed all, arguably, thanks to his mother whose relationship with her son was deeply troubling and yet, at the same time, absolutely human.

3 Dexter Morgan, Dexter
Michael C Hall
What can you say about Dexter Morgan? One of crime dramas all-times best characters, his slightly nervous, geeky demeanour hid an ice-cold avenging angel. From an early age, Dexter showed signs of psychopathic tendencies (killing and dismembering animals) and his adoptive father, Harry (a homicide detective), realised that Dexter was a potential serial killer. After attempts to curb Dexter’s violent behaviour failed, Harry concluded that Dexter’s need to kill could not be suppressed and went about training his son as a vigilante, to solely hunt and kill other murderers (arguably making society safer). To avoid arrest, Dexter followed a strict set of guidelines, The Code of Harry. Throughout the series, Dexter fought against his compulsions to kill without the code and managed to stay on track. Just.

2 James Moriarty, Sherlock
Andrew Scott
We all thought we knew James Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis and the only human the great detective was even terrified of. But this new incarnation of Sherlock introduced us to the most unhinged version of the character – playful, charismatic, ruthless and extremely dangerous. He was Sherlock’s intellectual equal, but often one step ahead of him. A master criminal who enjoyed playing games with the world, he took the unprecedented action of killing himself in order to discredit the detective. Jim Moriarty, playing games right to the very end.

1 Hannibal Lecter, Hannibal
Mads Mikkelsen
How can you top one of the most iconic serial killers in movie history and one of the most chilling performances ever given on the big screen? By bringing back Hannibal Lecter and letting him loose in the real world. Before Clarice Starling, before Buffalo Bill… there was plain-old Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist who worked with Special Agent Will Graham to track down serial killers. Unknown to his colleagues, Hannibal was a cannibalistic serial killer known as the Chesapeake Ripper, who worked behind Graham’s back to further his own crimes. However, he sometimes used them for other purposes such as committing one murder as a ‘copycat’ of the crimes of Garret Jacob Hobbs to present Graham with a clearer picture of the true killer’s motives. It takes confidence and a lot of nerve to act out one’s compulsions right under the nose of the law, but Lecter is calm, calculated and strategic approach to killing was just the job. Manipulative in the extreme and driven in his pursuit of the high that killing ceremoniously gives him, the character was called the devil incarnate by Mikkelsen. There’s no reason to disagree.

Have we forgotten anyone? Do you disagree with our choices? Let us know!

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. BOB scared the crap out of me in the first viewing of Twin Peaks…gives me the heebie jeebies thinking about it

    Like

  2. Patty C. says:

    Great list! Andrew Scott was amazing as Moriarty. Loved Billy Bob Thornton as the aptly named Malvo.

    Like

  3. Elizabeth Macpherson says:

    I’ve really just started watching tv over the last 2/3 yrs with the advent of catchup & good wifi. I’ve got some catching up to do! In my defence though, I have seen 3 of your psychopaths.

    Like

  4. Elizabeth Macpherson says:

    Was Dylan Harris in Hidden a psychopath?

    Like

  5. Mark Andrew says:

    Gyp Rosetti, Boardwalk Empire (an absolutely fantastic performance by Bobby Cannavale). Stephen Graham’s Al Capone is also terrific.

    Like

    1. Paul Hirons says:

      Good shout, Mark!

      Like

  6. Mark Andrew says:

    Let’s not forget Ross Geller without the laughter track. Patrick Bateman eat your heart out. Terrifying.

    Like

  7. Maria says:

    I must put in a word for Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan in ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace’. I thought it was a compelling performance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Paul Hirons says:

      Great shout, Maria. Rest assured, you’ll be hearing from Darren and ‘Versace’ later in the year…

      Like

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