Who Is the Actual Worst?

Paul Spella / The Atlantic

From time to time, at happy hour or by the proverbial water cooler, the thoughts of The Atlantic’s culture team return to one timeless question: Which character in the rich, complex, antiheroic world of modern television is the actual worst character ever?

“Worst,” by its nature as a superlative adjective, should be easy to define, but TV’s Golden Age being what it is, there’s a lot to consider. Should the title of actual worst go to someone like Game of Thrones’s Ramsay Bolton, a psychopath and sadist with an almost unparalleled propensity for cruelty; or to House of Cards’s Claire Underwood, who threatens an employee with what amounts to infanticide? Or should it go to Homeland’s Carrie, for being a terrible spy and sleeping with all her sources, or Scandal’s Fitz, for being the worst president (and married lover) in recent memory? Is the #actualworst character someone viewers love to hate or hate to love? Is it Lucious Lyon or Piper Chapman? Hannah Horvath or Walter White?

In September, we asked you to send us your suggestions, with the proviso that characters must have appeared on television within the past three years, and have to be nominated for the (awful) tenor of their character rather than the dastardliness of their deeds. We tallied the entries and came up with a list of 32 names who’ll go head to head over the next four weeks.

More in this series

The bracket is divided into four quadrants, with four matchups being published every day over the next four days for readers to vote on. Voting for round one runs through Sunday November 8; round two commences November 10 and runs through November 15; round three runs November 17 through 22; and round four is live November 24 through 29. The final pair will face off on November 30, with the winner announced the following day.

Read the character summaries, vote at the end, and then tell us why you voted on Facebook and Twitter. We’ll be collecting comments and reactions throughout the month and publishing the best ones along the way. And don’t forget to use the hashtag, #actualworst.

Round one, day one (November 4)

Jim Moriarty (Sherlock) vs. Claire Underwood (House of Cards)  
Gemma Teller Morrow (Sons of Anarchy) vs. Tyrell Wellick (Mr. Robot)
Tammy ‘Two’ Swanson (Parks and Recreation) vs. Pete Campbell (Mad Men)
Gustavo Fring (Breaking Bad) vs. Wilson Fisk (Daredevil)

Round one, day two (November 5)

Frank Underwood (House of Cards) vs. Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal)
Hannah Horvath (Girls) vs. Robert Crawley (Downton Abbey)
Piper Chapman (OITNB) vs. Carrie Mathison (Homeland)
Walter White (Breaking Bad) vs. Lucious Lyon (Empire)

Round one, day three (November 6)

Ramsay Bolton (Game of Thrones) vs. Mason Verger (Hannibal)
Vee Parker (OITNB) vs. Black Jack Randall (Outlander)
Fish Mooney (Gotham) vs. Joffrey Baratheon (Game of Thrones)
Rowan Pope (Scandal) vs. Todd Alquist (Breaking Bad)

Round one, day four (November 7)

Marnie Michaels (Girls) vs. Carl Grimes (The Walking Dead)
Jonah Ryan (Veep) vs. Matt Bevers (Broad City)
Fitzgerald Grant (Scandal) vs. Jeremy Jamm (Parks and Recreation)
Andrea Harrison (The Walking Dead) vs. Elsa Mars (AHS: Freak Show)

Round two, day one (November 10)

Gemma Teller Morrow (Sons of Anarchy) vs. Jim Moriarty (Sherlock)
Gustavo Fring (Breaking Bad) vs. Pete Campbell (Mad Men)

Round two, day two (November 11)

Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal) vs. Hannah Horvath (Girls)
Walter White (Breaking Bad) vs. Piper Chapman (Orange Is the New Black)

Round two, day three (November 12)

Ramsay Bolton (Game of Thrones) vs. Black Jack Randall (Outlander)
Joffrey Baratheon (Game of Thrones) vs. Todd Alquist (Breaking Bad)

Round two, day four (November 13)

Marnie Michaels (Girls) vs. Matt Bevers (Broad City)
Fitzgerald Grant (Scandal) vs. Elsa Mars (American Horror Story: Freak Show)

Round three, day 1 (November 17)

Jim Moriarty (Sherlock) vs. Pete Campbell (Mad Men)

Round three, day 2 (November 18)

Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal) vs. Walter White (Breaking Bad)

Round three, day 3 (November 19)

Ramsay Bolton (Game of Thrones) vs. Joffrey Baratheon (Game of Thrones)

Round three, day 4 (November 20)

Marnie Michaels (Girls) vs. Fitzgerald Grant (Scandal)

Semi-final, day 1 (November 24)

Ramsay Bolton (Game of Thrones) vs. Jim Moriarty (Sherlock)

Semi-final, day 2 (November 25)

Fitzgerald Grant (Scandal) vs. Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal)

Final (November 30)

Ramsay Bolton (Game of Thrones) vs. Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal)