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#ActualWorst, Round Three: Jim Moriarty vs. Pete Campbell

A bracket to find the most terrible person on television

Hartwood Films / AMC / 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, unlikable, flat-out awful (fictional) person on the small screen.

This bracket, while intended to determine the relative awfulness of characters on television, is subject to the fact that “worst” is a complex superlative that can incorporate a number of different qualities. In no way are we suggesting that being a narcissistic 20-something is equivalent to, say, killing people and eating them. Rather, our goal is simply to map out which of these fictional characters we love to hate and which we hate to love.

See the bracket in its entirety here.

The Case for Moriarty (Sherlock)

Hartwood Films

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 Pete (Mad Men)


Why this character is the actual worst: Pete Campbell isn’t just an asshole. He’s a smug, slimy, entitled, phony, cruel, cheating liar. He is equal parts sadistic and pathetic. The fact that his scuzzy plots—blackmail, adultery, advertising—are so often spoiled can, some have argued, make him seem pitiable. Please. Don’t feel sorry for Pete Campbell. He repeatedly uses his position of power and privilege to keep people down. And he does so in a way that’s as loathsome as it is nauseating.

Worst moment/s: Pete’s worst moments are his most misogynistic. Like the time Peggy asked him to dance—smiling, confident, doing the twist with coworkers in a Manhattan bar—and Pete, seething with contempt, tells her, “I don’t like you like this.” Or the time Pete tried to sell Joan’s body to a Jaguar executive in exchange for an advertising account, telling her: “We’re talking about a night in your life. We’ve all had nights in our lives where we’ve made mistakes for free.” But it’s hard to do worse than the time Pete raped his neighbor, a young German au pair, demanding a reward for having helped her exchange a damaged gown to a department store. The woman’s level of consent is debated among viewers, but her character’s discomfort in the scene is clear.

Worst trait/s: Abuses of power, rampant misogyny.

Redeeming moments/qualities: He can dance a mean Charleston. But don’t think for a second that getting back together with Trudy makes him a better person. Pete’s good fortune is thoroughly, painfully undeserved. And maybe this is what makes Pete Campbell the actual worst: The fact that his character is so realistic, that humans who think like Pete Campbell really do exist, and that they often end up getting what they want—no matter how they act and whom they humiliate along the way. —Adrienne LaFrance