Note that I’m saying “favorite” instead of “best” female TV villains. I haven’t seen every TV show, and it’s mostly a matter of opinion, anyway. Here are my top five favorite female villains on TV, past and present:
1. Gillian Darmody, Boardwalk Empire: I’ll admit I’d never been that impressed by Gretchen Mol as an actress before her first scene on Boardwalk Empire. That’s when her character jumped topless into the arms of a young man who turned out to be her own son. Thus began the tale of the chilling Oedipal nightmare that is Gillian Darmody. An undoubted victim (raped by a powerful man at the age of 13, resulting in motherhood less than a year later) she is also one of the most terrifying sociopaths, male or female, I’ve ever seen on TV. Or anywhere.
Mol brilliantly underplays Gillian’s villainy, having her speak in a very sweet and controlled tone of voice, almost a throw-back to Victorian age demureness. Whether she’s berating someone by playing on their biggest fear or weakness, running her whorehouse, beating the crap out of the completely debilitated man who raped her years before, seducing her own son, or committing murder, she still talks and acts as if she’s at a tea party with the Queen of England.
It says a lot when fans of the show would rather hit man Richard Harrow take custody of her orphaned grandson than have him stay with his soft-spoken and very scary granny.
2. Livia, I Claudius: There have been few TV miniseries as good as I, Claudius, the 1976 adaptation of Robert Graves’ book about Imperial Rome. The story starts with the first Emperor, Augustus, and the notorious career of his ambitious and ruthless wife, Livia. Played by the incomparable Sian Phillips, she has one burning desire: to ensure the succession for her son, Tiberius. Problem is, there are a whole lot of people standing in the way of that desire. So she gets rid of them, one by one, via various methods, such as framing them for crimes so they are exiled or executed. Her favorite method is poison. There is nobody, no matter how closely related to her, that she won’t get rid of to suit her purposes.
The genius of I, Claudius is they manage to make even the darkest characters, including Livia, human, even funny. Some of the dialogue is classic:
Livia: [to the gladiators] These games are being degraded by the increasing use of professional tricks to stay alive! And I won’t have it! So put on a good show, and there’ll be plenty of money for the living and a decent burial for the dead. And if not, I’ll break this guild up and I’ll send the lot of you to the mines in Numidia.
Livia: [to Claudius, concerning the Senate] They won’t allow me in because I am a woman, and they won’t allow you in because you’re a fool. That’s strange when you come to think of it: because it’s filled with nothing but old women and fools.
Tiberius: Has it ever occurred to you, mother, that it’s you they hate and not me?
Livia: There is nothing in this world that occurs to you that does not occur to me first. That is the affliction I live with.
3. Sue Ann Nivens, The Mary Tyler Moore Show: In a weird way, Sue Ann is a kind of prototype for Gillian Darmody, a woman whose uber-feminine public persona hides a much darker aspect to her nature. Sue Ann works at the same TV station as protagonist Mary Richards, hosting a show called The Happy Homemaker. While she never kills anybody, she’s adept at homewrecking (breaking up the marriage of Mary’s friend, Phyllis) and loves to throw barbs at Mary and her coworker Murray. She’s almost the inverse of Mary, who has a truly sweet, feminine nature, but who is completely inept at things that Sue Ann excels at, like throwing dinner parties.
Sue Ann: Mary dear, do you have any idea what happens if you let Veal Prince Orloff sit in an oven too long?
Mary: No, what?
Sue Ann: He dies!
Sue Ann was a breakthrough role for actress Betty White, who up to then had been typecast as the sweet and helpful woman. (In fact, when they conceived the character originally, she was described as “an icky sweet Betty White type.”) It will be no surprise to her younger fans that she played the heck out of Sue Ann, injecting a marvelous bitchiness that made her a perfect foil for Mary.
4. Regina, Once Upon A Time: There have been several riffs on Snow White’s evil stepmother the past couple of years, but none can compare to Once Upon A Time’s Regina. What I love most about the character is how she is NOT motivated by anger and jealousy over Snow’s youth and beauty. In fact, this is utterly irrelevant to this incarnation of the fairy tale.
Regina instead blames Snow for the loss of her one true love, and probably also for the fact that her subsequent grief made her vulnerable to the lure of the art of black magic. As this second season has progressed, we have seen how Regina became addicted to using magic. Lana Parrilla somehow manages to imbue the character with empathetic aspects, even while Regina is ripping out her own father’s heart in pursuit of vengeance against Snow. I think there are many more layers to be discovered with this character and it’s one of several reasons I keep tuning in each week.
5. Constance Langford, American Horror Story, Season 1: Talk about neighbors from hell. Jessica Lange plays the world’s most imposing neighbor during Season 1 of American Horror Story, channeling Scarlett O’Hara, Blanche Dubois and a dash of Mrs. Danvers. She knows about the ghostly goings-on in the house bought by the dysfunctional Harmon family, as she had once owned the house herself. She loves to torment them by dropping hints here and there and seems to have some unknown agenda concerning the Harmons. Her love for her children is so twisted they all meet tragic ends.
Unlike Gretchen Mol’s understated Gillian Darmody, Lange’s Constance doesn’t just chew the scenery–she spits it out, too. It’s a fearless performance (rewarded with an Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG Award) that in other hands would have quickly slipped into parody. Like Mol–and the other actresses mentioned here–Lange still found ways to convey depth and elicit empathy for a mostly loathsome character.
Do you have a favorite TV female villain? Let us know in the comments section!