#ActualWorst Round One: Jim Moriarty vs. Claire Underwood

A bracket to find the most terrible person on television

Hartwood Films / Netflix / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

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’ll go head to head over the next four weeks until one of them is crowned as the most despicable, unlikeable, flat-out awful (fictional) person on the small screen.

See the bracket in its entirety here.

The Case for Moriarty (Sherlock)


Why this character is the actual worst: Possibly one of the more psychopathic people in this bracket, Moriarty is a consulting criminal to the world’s scariest men and women, and a Joker-style lunatic who’s obsessed with Sherlock. Throughout the first three seasons, he throws complications and odd cases in Sherlock’s path, from Irene Adler to innocent bystanders he attaches suicide vests to and forces to read his texts out loud. On the one hand, he’s one of the few human beings alive who can occasionally outsmart Sherlock; on the other, he murders people out of sheer whimsy.

Worst moment/s: Paying a terminally ill (and very creepy) taxi driver to make riders play a horrible game of Guess Which Pill Is Actually Poison. Framing Sherlock as a self-aggrandizing maniac, and threatening to assassinate John, Lestrade, and Mrs. Hudson unless Sherlock kills himself. Shooting himself in the head (maybe?) to up the ante. Appearing at the very end of the third-season episode “His Last Vow,” giving viewers a heart attack and hinting that he’s not dead after all.

Worst trait/s: Murdering people for kicks, making everyone scared of taxis, never blinking.

Redeeming moments/qualities: He has good taste in music, playing Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie” when he steals the Crown Jewels, and making Sherlock believe a Bach rhythm is actually a secret code that can open every lock in the world (cmon, Sherlock). He looks like he walked out of a GQ spread (whenever he isn’t pretending to be an out-of-work actor or Molly’s boyfriend). —Sophie Gilbert

The Case for Claire (House of Cards)

Nathaniel Bell / Netflix

Why this character is the actual worst: There’s a particular kind of evil that comes from a combination of caring too much and caring not at all. It combines an excess of ruthlessness with an absence of empathy to make an attitude toward the world—and the people in it—that is both cunning and cruel. And Claire Underwood embodies it. She threatens a pregnant woman. She frames a former lover. She abandons a rape victim who had been relying on her for help. Claire has been compared to Lady Macbeth; that accusation, however, undermines the considerable agency she exerts in the Washington, and the U.S., of House of Cards. Claire is always, for better (for her) and for worse (for everyone who is not her), in control of her own coldness. She is Machiavelli in a shift dress.

Worst moment/s: She informs a pregnant employee who fights for health care at their NGO, “I am willing to let your child wither and die inside you, if that’s what’s required.”

Worst trait/s: The same thing at the heart of so much actual worstness in real-life politics: a conviction that the ends justify the means. And that Claire Underwood knows, better than anyone and everyone else, what “the ends” should be.

Redeeming moments/qualities: Frank selling her out (in this case, effectively firing her from her position as UN ambassador) at the request of the Russian prime minister. (So relatable: Who among us hasn't lost a job to international intrigue?) The show suggests, too, that Claire may be partially a product, and victim, of her husband. In her quiet time with Frank, in particular—the two of them sharing a cigarette, or scheming in their Architectural Digest-tastic kitchen—we get hints that his copious capacity for cruelty may help to explain her own. —Megan Garber