Throughout the month of November, we’re soliciting readers’ help to definitively answer an age-old question: Who is the actual worst character on television? We reviewed your submissions, did our own research, and came up with a list of 32 characters across four different categories, who’ve gone head to head over the last three weeks. Only four are left. Which one of them will be crowned as the most despicable, unlikable, flat-out awful (fictional) person on the small screen?
Spencer Kornhaber: We meet for a Trial by Blogging Combat. The parties: Ramsay Bolton and Jim Moriarty, both finalists for the title of Actual Worst. Their champions: Me, for Ramsay, and you, for Jim. Hide your eyes and don’t waste your time chanting at me.
Okay, apologies, Sophie. This little metaphor probably doesn’t makes a ton of sense to you because you’ve never seen Game of Thrones. Well, I’ve never seen Sherlock. So this should be fun. Your initial writeup indicated that Moriarty is a psycho terrorist archetype, someone who murders innocents through fantastical plots, largely out of an obsession with the show’s hero. Sounds scary, sure, but also a bit typical of TV and movies, no? So he played a horrible game of “Guess Which Pill Is Actually Poison” with random taxi passengers—was he twirling a mustache, too?
Ramsay might twirl a mustache, if he had facial hair instead of cherub cheeks. But the distinction between him and what you’d call “Joker-style lunatics” is really important. For the most part, Ramsay uses brutality as it’s commonly been used in history: for power. This was the case when he imprisoned and tortured Theon Greyjoy, destroying his body and soul so much so that he became a quivering slave named Reek. And one of the more underratedly sickening Ramsay moments came when he casually told his dad how he got a rebellious house in their kingdom to start paying taxes: by skinning alive the lord, his wife, and his oldest son—while forcing the lord’s youngest son, suddenly head of household, to watch.
I recently wrote that “I’m glad to say I can’t recognize Ramsay in real life.” The more I read about ISIS and then reflect on the greatest monsters in history, the more I want to revise that statement. He’s not evil for evil’s sake; he’s someone who sews atrocity and reaps benefits for himself and his family. I’d argue this resonance makes him worse than just about any other cackling sicko on TV.
Come at me!
Sophie Gilbert: Hi Spencer, I’m so used to only dialoguing with you about our favorite TV show that no one is watching that for a minute here I had to check my urge to Google biblical references. You’re quite confident for someone who’s never seen Sherlock. Here, watch this and tell me old Jim Moriarty’s just smoke and daggers.
Moriarty, too, is motivated by power, but I’d posit he’s more like Heath Ledger’s Joker than Ramsay in that he’s also a total psychopath who derives the utmost pleasure from devising horrific, twisted games and winning them—at whatever cost. The last we saw of Moriarty before the end of season three, he was shooting himself in the head on top of a hospital to guarantee Sherlock’s ruin. Of course, it transpires now that he might not actually be dead, and that it was yet another very clever long con I can’t figure out (just like Sherlock’s fake death, actually). But I think it speaks to how utterly insane Moriarty is that the idea he’d kill himself to seal his nemesis’s downfall was remotely plausible.
And that’s also what makes him terrifying—he’s totally unpredictable. Ramsay, maybe (yes, I stopped watching GOT after the first beheading) can at least be relied upon to do the worst possible thing on every occasion. Moriarty is much more capricious. He’s even, dare I say, compelling, although there’s real sadism underscoring almost everything he does. In 1989, he killed a teenager for laughing at him, and then he kept the kid’s sneakers for almost 25 years and used them as a prop in one of his very first Sherlockian schemes. He poisons children. He pays a terminally ill taxi driver to murder his passengers by offering them a choice of one of two pills, and threatening to shoot them if they don’t comply. He is, to put it politely, a total wackadoodle.
But I guess he isn’t a sexual sadist (as far as we know), so he has that going for him. As opposed to Ramsay, who seems to be the least popular person in Westeros (maybe he’s in Westeros, I’m not familiar with the geography of GOT).
Kornhaber: Ack! That YouTube clip you linked to ends with a cliffhanger! Does Sherlock shoot? What happens next? You’re the Actual Worst for sending this to me. Very engrossing show, though. I think I’m going to bump it up a few spots in my to-watch queue.
I’m getting a clearer picture of Moriarty, yes. He looks an awful lot like the bad guy in Spectre, first of all (Andrew Scott: a maestro of creepiness only slightly concealed by a suit and sense of manners, it seems). Secondly, he’s the kind of villain who straps people into bomb jackets and hires teams of precisely trained snipers and reveals his dastardly plot in monologues and makes long-term villainy plans based on a very personal vendetta. In other words, he’s the enemy in Spectre or most other Bond movies or any number of other pop-cultural works offering fantastical escapism and easy lessons about inherent good and evil. Burn, I know. In this documentary series Game of Thrones on the other hand …
I really shouldn’t belabor the idea that Ramsay is more “authentically” chilling (I write about pop music; all invocations of authenticity must be in scare quotes). But I’m glad you bring up Ramsay’s proclivity for sexual violence. Because, as with all the chaste torturing I mentioned before, his kink seems connected to his deeper hunger to prove his dominance. When he rapes Sansa, it is partly a very sick way of asserting to his potentially traitorous new bride that he’s the one in control. When he feeds maidens who’ve “bored” him to dogs, it’s a warning to the rest of his harem that they must kowtow or face an awful fate. You can psychoanalyze the source of this hunger to be The Man, if you want; the one thing we know about Ramsay is that he’s never been afforded much respect as the bastard son of a lesser lord. It’s wrong to say he illuminates the essence of evil: Evil is banal, and I think most of us intrinsically understand it. But he’s as convincing an illustration of it as I’ve seen in a work of fiction. Then again, maybe Moriarty will have that distinction too, once I get to know him better.
Gilbert: You’re right. There’s a theatricality and a charisma to Moriarty that makes him a lot of fun to watch. He is in that sense the ultimate nemesis—the perfect immoral foil to Sherlock, who lacks all of Moriarty’s social flair but actually is a good soul wrapped up in a sociopath’s coat and deerstalker. Even Moriarty admits it! “Every fairy tale needs a good old-fashioned villain,” he says to Sherlock. “You need me, or you’re nothing.”
So yes, a bit of a classic entry in the villain mold, but still terrifying. Can Ramsay hack every screen in the nation to replace scheduled programming with a gif of his face? Can he steal the crown jewels and get away with it? Does he have any flair? In my head he’s more of a Voldemort-style baddie—relentlessly cruel and utterly humorless. But I did just Google him and his catchphrase is apparently, “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention,” which is pretty damn snappy. And he has what appears to be a bowl cut. And is apparently “fond of the ancient Bolton practice of flaying.” Okay, I think you might have the edge. Forcing people to jump off a tall building is one thing, but flaying them is something best left abandoned to the annals of season-six-of-Buffy.
Anyway, only the vote will tell. So who is the actual worst?
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.