clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Power-Ranking the Top 25 Villains in ‘Game of Thrones’ History

The Night King may be on the verge of annihilating the living—but entering Season 8, he has some ground to make up on our list of the best villains in the land of ice and fire

HBO/Ringer illustration

The Night King, as of the end of Season 7 of Game of Thrones, has breached the Wall. The leader of the White Walkers guides his massive undead army south, riding mightily atop his new dragon steed, bringing with him the Long Night redux and, perhaps, the end of Westerosi civilization. The story’s ultimate villain has at last arrived on the main stage.

But is he the ultimate villain? Ultimate as in final, maybe, if the remaining human antagonists die before the heroes confront the Night King for the final battle. But ultimate as in best? Probably not.

This hedge is in part because so much mystery still shrouds the Night King, so it’s a challenge to identify just how compelling a villain he might be. Yet it’s also because Game of Thrones is a hotbed for villainy, with the past seven seasons promoting plenty of power players, opportunists, and just plain evil people. Within the Lannister family alone, Game of Thrones features more memorable villains than the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Given that abundance, before Season 8 premieres this Sunday, we sought to rank the show’s most compelling villains thus far. To emphasize: This is not an attempt to identify the most evil villain, or the one who’s committed the most heinous acts or collected the most kills, or the one who produced (or will produce) the most satisfying defeat. This is an effort to rank villains by how interesting they are, by how sufficiently they answer the question of who improved the show the most—as a viewing exercise, as a vehicle for further thought and consideration, as an overall experience—by virtue of their villainy.

Characters once cast as villains but who have since shifted away from that portrayal (e.g., Jaime, Theon) were exempt. Of the remaining eligible villains, we ranked the top 25 based on their cumulative score on a scale of 1 to 7 in five categories (1 the lowest, 7 the highest). In the event of a tie in two characters’ overall scores, the character with the most screen time received the advantage. Those five categories are:

Importance to the Plot: How fully could the Thrones story be told without this character? The more central the villain, the higher the score.

Motive: Any villain can seek power, pleasure, or personal gain. The most compelling villains work toward greater ideals, or at least add a twist to those desires.

Complexity: Along similar lines, the personality and actions of the most compelling villains contain layers. Engaging in torture in every scene is less interesting than conveying a range of emotions.

Quotability/Memeability: How memorable is the villain? A set of recognizable lines or images is a good place to start.

Fear Factor: Are other characters intimidated by the villain? Do they scoff at the notion that they might be powerful? The most compelling villains receive that designation both inside and outside the world of the story.

With that methodology in mind, we’ll start with no. 25—the least compelling villain—and work up to no. 1.

25. Meryn Trant

Importance: 1
Motive: 2
Complexity: 1
Quotability/Memeability: 1
Fear: 2
Total Score: 7

Meryn Trant embodies some of Thrones’ worst storytelling impulses. Not content with casting the Kingsguard knight as a bootlicker who follows villainous orders, the story frames him as an abuser of young girls as well. This choice makes it easy for a disguised Arya to catch him unawares in a Braavosi brothel; it also removes any potential gray area with Arya’s decision to seek revenge against him.

The in-universe assessment of Meryn’s fighting prowess also limits his impact. As the Hound sums up to Arya, “Any boy whore with a sword could beat three Meryn Trants.” He’s a clear choice for least compelling villain on the show.

24. Craster

Importance: 2
Motive: 2
Complexity: 2
Quotability/Memeability: 1
Fear: 3
Total Score: 10

Craster is Meryn Trant if the knight lived north of the Wall and traded his armor for a winter hut. That analogy might be a bit unfair, as Craster is at least savvy enough to negotiate a truce with the White Walkers, but his overall persona is roughly the same, as is his horrific treatment of women. His presence is more important to provide clues to the Walkers’ rituals and introduce Gilly to Sam than to incite actual compelling evil of his own.

23. Janos Slynt

Importance: 1
Motive: 4
Complexity: 3
Quotability/Memeability: 1
Fear: 1
Total Score: 10

The former Gold Cloaks commander is the kind of character who makes the world of Thrones seem fully realized. Not every villain should be full-throttle evil; some just want to connive their way to comfort. “I have friends, important friends in the capital!” Janos protests when Jon sentences him to die in Season 5. No line sums up the man better than that feeble plea. So while Janos inspires no fear in anyone and isn’t even the most important villain at Castle Black after Tyrion sends him to the Wall, he doesn’t quite rank last, either. His unearned, pompous smarm keeps him just interesting enough.

22. Karl, Rast, and the Other Night’s Watch Mutineers

Importance: 2
Motive: 2
Complexity: 2
Quotability/Memeability: 2
Fear: 4
Total Score: 12

Looking just at their actions, not their physiques, would any viewer have noticed that these killers replaced Craster in his hut? Sure, Karl’s a better fighter than the old man—the best in Gin Alley, he boasts—but they’re driven by the same animus, they are both rapists, and they offer little to the story besides allowing for one decent action scene and reminding viewers, ahead of Jon’s eventual assassination, that men of the Night’s Watch can mutiny. They enact their evil, disappear from the screen for a while, and then return just in time to suffer a final defeat at the hands of Jon and other faithful Night’s Watch men.

21. The Waif

Importance: 2
Motive: 2
Complexity: 2
Quotability/Memeability: 2
Fear: 5
Total Score: 13

The Waif’s connection to the House of Black and White helps her Fear score—who isn’t afraid of a Faceless Man?—but little else about the character captivates. She seemingly exists more to boost Arya’s character than seek anything of her own—and forget a complex personality; even though she’ll go on to change her face, she doesn’t even change her facial expression for episodes on end.

20. Balon Greyjoy

Importance: 3
Motive: 4
Complexity: 4
Quotability/Memeability: 2
Fear: 1
Total Score: 14

Poor Balon, the clear fifth wheel in the War of the Five Kings. Even among his own family, the dour occupant of the Seastone Chair is the least memorable; compared to the tormented Theon, swaggering Yara, and brash Euron, all that stands out about Balon’s personality is perpetual grumpiness.

Like Walder Frey, he feels slighted by his fellow high-borns, but Balon lacks the lord of the crossing’s self-assuredness and execution. After losing in his initial rebellion between Robert’s Rebellion and the events of Season 1, Balon seems to lose much of his ambition, too—remember, even as he advertised his “pay the iron price” ideals, the extent of his planned involvement in the War of the Five Kings amounted to raiding secondary Northern castles and small coastal villages. (Theon defied orders to sack Winterfell; Balon didn’t even dream that big.) He’s a villain to Theon but nobody else in the current generation.

19. Locke

Importance: 2
Motive: 3
Complexity: 2
Quotability/Memeability: 4
Fear: 3
Total Score: 14

Locke is a show invention; in the books, Jaime loses his hand to Vargo Hoat, a truly grotesque sellsword nicknamed “The Crippler” because of his penchant for chopping off hands and feet. And while Locke’s dismemberment of Jaime is a crucial moment, his arc—much like his character’s pulse—flatlines thereafter. His quest to find Bran north of the Wall offers more hype than substance, and he dies quickly and is soon forgotten.

18. Randyll Tarly

Importance: 3
Motive: 4
Complexity: 1
Quotability/Memeability: 2
Fear: 5
Total Score: 15

On the one hand, Sam’s draconian father is refreshingly different from many characters on this list. His ultimate motive is fealty to his feudalistic superiors, not a search for power in his own right. On the other hand, no other aspect of Sam’s draconian father is refreshing. He’s harsh and bigoted and a poor host of dinner parties, and he appears in only a few episodes before meeting a draconian—er, Drogonian—end.

He counters that absence by exerting a fair amount of villainy as an off-screen presence, shaping Sam’s character in observable ways for years before making his on-screen debut. This detail boosts Randyll’s Importance score and places him in the same mold as other bad fathers from which the story’s heroes try to break away. But ultimately, he fares well in only one category, Fear: His combination of personal terror to Sam and broader, well-recognized prowess as a military leader—he dealt Robert Baratheon his only loss during the rebellion—is the main factor in his ranking.

17. Xaro Xhoan Daxos and Pyat Pree

Importance: 3
Motive: 3
Complexity: 3
Quotability/Memeability: 3
Fear: 3
Total Score: 15

Had Xaro Xhoan Daxos and Pyat Pree pulled their stunts in Westeros instead of the far-flung city of Qarth, they would rank much higher. They completed a coup by executing every other member of their city’s governing body, they skewered guest right (if that custom exists in Qarth, as it does in Westeros and the Free Cities) by inviting Dany in and then butchering her followers, and they stole her dragons. That series of events contains a mix of Cersei’s, Walder Frey’s, and the Night King’s actions—not a bad villainous trio to mimic.

But ultimately, the Qartheen antagonists were so removed from the rest of the plot, their evil acts contained to a span of episodes, not seasons, that they don’t resonate much as villains. They offer few memorable quotes, they never interact with another main character outside Dany’s arc, and they are dealt with swiftly. Their villainy is ultimately as empty as Xaro’s vault.

16. Sons of the Harpy and Other Slaver’s Bay Masters

Importance: 5
Motive: 3
Complexity: 2
Quotability/Memeability: 1
Fear: 5
Total Score: 16

The best things the Sons of the Harpy had going for them was their assortment of aesthetic paraphernalia. Their masks were cool; their music was cooler; their colorful garb stood out against the Unsullied soldiers’ drab shades of gray and brown. Unfortunately for their ranking, the rest of their profile fell far flatter. Even as they accomplished feats like killing Barristan Selmy and cornering Dany in Daznak’s Pit, they still felt like more of an irksome nuisance than an actually vital villain.

The masters’ motive, moreover, was so basic that their name—to master slaves—encapsulated their entire reason for being. Because that reason is so obviously, inherently evil, there’s no nuance there, which is part of the reason Dany’s Meereenese slog felt less vibrant and lively than a character of her stature should have commanded. It’s fitting that the Qartheen and Slaver’s Bay villains appear back to back: At least until Season 7, Daenerys was saddled with some of the least compelling antagonists on the show’s run.

15. Gregor Clegane, a.k.a. the Mountain

Importance: 3
Motive: 2
Complexity: 1
Quotability/Memeability: 4
Fear: 7
Total Score: 17

The Mountain’s placement on this list shows that physical strength isn’t the be-all, end-all of villainy. But he has the fear factor covered, at least. As Bronn tells Tyrion when he explains why he won’t fight against the Mountain in Tyrion’s second trial by combat, “I’d be a bloody fool if he didn’t frighten me. He’s freakish big and freakish strong. And quicker than you’d expect for a man of that size.”

But the Mountain has basically no lines (his decent Quotability/Memeability score comes entirely from Oberyn’s eye burst and other acts of visual violence), and he has no discernible motive beyond the pursuit of cruelty—to his brother, to Cersei’s enemies, to anyone and everyone who stands in his way. The Mountain acts like Orson Lannister, the distant cousin Tyrion describes who spent his life smashing beetles for no apparent reason, without even the possibility of searching for or finding a loftier dream or deeper meaning.

14. Alliser Thorne

Importance: 3
Motive: 5
Complexity: 5
Quotability/Memeability: 2
Fear: 2
Total Score: 17

More antagonist than outright villain, Alliser Thorne doesn’t seek power or personal pleasure for its own sake; he truly believes his methods are best for teaching his assigned band of misfits and criminals how to fight and defend the Wall. He has strong convictions—before he hangs, he says he’d do it all over again—and he has a strong cause. At least before he resorts to stabbing his lord commander, the worst of Alliser’s qualities make him look like a controversial college sports coach.

More than most members of this list, Alliser blends some positive traits in with the negative, too. He summons a legitimately rousing speech as Mance Rayder’s forces attack the Wall, for instance, and he shows some measure of self-reflection by admitting fault to Jon, when he says they should have sealed the Castle Black tunnel before Rayder’s army arrived. Alliser is stubborn and gruff and ultimately a traitor, but he’s not evil. Sometimes he even has a point. And that sometimes makes him a far more interesting character for the hero to contend with than one who’s simply wrong all the time.

13. Euron Greyjoy

Importance: 3
Motive: 3
Complexity: 3
Quotability/Memeability: 4
Fear: 5
Total Score: 18

On the show, Euron has veered more toward comedic relief—taunting Jaime, taunting Yara, taunting Theon most of all—than true horror, as he exists in the books. Perhaps more than any other villain, book Euron is a psychological menace; he believes he is a god-given form, and every point-of-view character who remembers or interacts with him is shaken in their internal monologue thereafter.

Not in the show, though. Here, Euron is far more likely to make a sex joke than, say, ritually slaughter clerics from multiple religions to fulfill a step in his evil plan. (Seriously, that’s going to happen in Winds of Winter, per a preview chapter George R.R. Martin read in 2016. Book Euron also has a full suit of armor made of Valyrian steel and a giant horn purported to control a dragon. He also claims to have possessed a dragon egg at some point. Book Euron is a true villain.) Theon and Yara certainly fear him and his navy proved vital to Cersei’s battle strategy in Season 7, but the realm at large doesn’t view him with the sort of terror it reserves for more prominent villains.

Moreover, as he didn’t appear until Season 6, Euron hasn’t been on screen long enough to craft the full-fledged villainous persona of a Ramsay or Joffrey. Nor has he produced a truly memorable act of villainy: He killed Balon, but the elder Greyjoy brother was already kind of forgotten, and while Yara’s capture is a bummer, Euron frankly did the show a service by dispensing with such ill-developed characters as Obara and Nymeria Sand. Perhaps one of the show’s few remaining villains will prove him more worthy of audience contempt in Season 8, but the tide has been shallow on that front thus far.

12. Qyburn

Importance: 4
Motive: 6
Complexity: 3
Quotability/Memeability: 3
Fear: 2
Total Score: 18

At first blush, Qyburn doesn’t seem like an above-average villain. Other characters think he’s either creepy or improperly credentialed, but they don’t fear him, and he lurks in Cersei’s shadow rather than present his own plots outright to the realm.

But two details elevate Qyburn’s score. First, he co-engineers the Sept of Baelor explosion, a feat of catastrophic villainy on a scale nearly unmatched on the show to date. And second, he scores well in Motive because he’s seemingly the only character who cares about science in a civilization that hasn’t advanced technologically in thousands of years. Everyone else is content to fight with swords, while Qyburn is innovating with Big Crossbow™ and reanimating warriors from the dead. At the Dragonpit summit in the Season 7 finale, every other attendee reacts with concern when confronted with a dead man; Qyburn gazes at the wight’s severed hand with fascination—nay, wonder—instead.

That unique quality gives Qyburn a clear and interesting identity, and it also makes him an underrated danger. He can enact his villainy in unexpected and unprecedented ways, which helps further separate him from the more standard villains the show has mass-produced.

11. Walder Frey

Importance: 5
Motive: 4
Complexity: 3
Quotability/Memeability: 5
Fear: 2
Total Score: 19

Even after the Red Wedding, Jaime tells Walder in Season 6, people “don’t fear the Freys.” That’s a fair argument against Walder cracking the top 10. But considering the enormity of that event, the late Lord Frey can’t fall from here, either. The Red Wedding is simultaneously the most shocking moment in Thrones history and its most villainous across several levels: Walder not only betrayed his vows, he not only butchered a weaponless army, but he violated the sacred laws of guest right, killing the Stark forces after feeding them in his home.

Personality-wise, Walder is a quiet riot, offering plenty of humor while brewing a peculiar blend of insecurity crossed with bravado. Every word drips with venom, every cock of his wrinkled old head suggesting a new sarcastic quip to come. It’s just a shame that he still isn’t feared even a bit, and that he doesn’t even receive the brunt of the credit for removing Robb Stark from the fight for the throne.

10. Viserys Targaryen

Importance: 4
Motive: 4
Complexity: 4
Quotability/Memeability: 5
Fear: 2
Total Score: 19

Viserys Targaryen is the first of the show’s villains to die, after Khal Drogo presents him with the wrong sort of golden crown in the sixth episode of Season 1. Yet don’t let that early death mask Viserys’s strengths as a villain—namely, that he is outrageously entertaining. He’s whiny but not on screen so much that it grates; he’s threatening, but not powerful enough to follow through on those claims. Most of all, he’s respected by almost no one, feared by even fewer, but so convinced of his own heroism that he enthralls viewers nonetheless.

The best villains think they are the heroes of their own story, and that twist in perspective is almost the entire impetus behind Viserys’s myriad foolish actions leading up to his death.

9. Night King

Importance: 7
Motive: 1
Complexity: 1
Quotability/Memeability: 4
Fear: 7
Total Score: 20

Let’s start with the Night King’s strengths. He’s certainly important to the plot, and he certainly inspires copious fear. Despite not yet speaking a word, he receives a respectable Quotability/Memeability score thanks to his “come at me, bro” smirk. Entering Season 8, he seems nearly unstoppable as he razes the civilizations of men.

But despite perfect scores in two categories, so little is known about the big bad of this story—nothing, really, beyond the fact that he was once a man turned by a dragonglass ritual—that he receives the minimum in two others. Does he have a compelling motive? Unclear. Is he complex? Same answer. Will Season 8 reveal answers to these questions? Once again, unknown.

That’s a potential problem for the final season, which could see its enormous stakes diluted a tad if the heroes end up fighting an inscrutable villain—a trait that doesn’t make him any less fearsome, but rather zaps his capacity to compel. The Thrones story typically excels when subtlety and agency come into play, but the stakes as they currently appear in the battle to come are sheer survival, and nothing more. Here’s hoping that Season 8’s material gives reason to bump those Motive and Complexity scores closer to 7s than 1s.

8. Roose Bolton

Importance: 5
Motive: 4
Complexity: 4
Quotability/Memeability: 5
Fear: 3
Total Score: 21

For “The Lannisters send their regards” alone, Roose jumped a few spots. He killed his own king! Unlike other villains on this list—say, his son—the opportunistic lord of the Dreadfort carries a more even keel, but his placid demeanor belies a viciousness and brutality on par with any other. Even beyond the Red Wedding, Roose is a truly evil man, whose own house’s banner—a flayed man—reflects more about his personality than any wry facial expression or casual banter. It’s only fitting that his son would place one spot ahead of him on the list.

7. Ramsay Bolton, née Snow

Importance: 6
Motive: 3
Complexity: 1
Quotability/Memeability: 6
Fear: 7
Total Score: 23

Ramsay is perhaps the most purely evil character on the show. He’s a good villain: important to the story, quotable, fully feared. But he’s not a great villain. Largely, that distinction comes because Ramsay’s evil is too pure, so his torturous brand of villainy grates on the audience, imbued as it is with none of the nuance or rogue charm or begrudging understanding that the characters ahead of him possess. Ramsay is a monster, full stop, and the effect is something akin to an overly sugared piece of Halloween candy, where the main ingredient could use some complementary flavor.

In the broader timeline of the show, Ramsay’s antics are more of a sideshow in the early seasons, when he tortures (and tortures … and tortures) Theon to the point of audience exhaustion. He assumes greater importance in Season 5, due to both the void left by Joffrey and Tywin and to his arc’s intertwining with Sansa’s. Yet Ramsay doesn’t match Joffrey and Tywin once he takes center stage, and in fact makes the viewing experience worse rather than more compelling. His and Sansa’s marriage was a low point in the show’s run; as Alison Herman wrote in The Ringer’s Thrones episode rankings, “For many fans, this was a deal breaker—and who could blame them?”

6. High Sparrow

Importance: 4
Motive: 6
Complexity: 6
Quotability/Memeability: 3
Fear: 5
Total Score: 24

The High Sparrow generally receives less recognition than others in this top 10. It’s not hard to understand why. He arrived on the show in a transitional period: Tyrion and Arya had traveled to Essos, the Sand Snakes had arrived in anticlimactic fashion, and, most of all, Joffrey and Tywin had recently died. With those latter two gone, he had giant villainous shoes to fill in King’s Landing. And Season 5 is, on the whole, weaker than those that sandwich it.

But he’s a funny little bird, the High Sparrow, and thus stands out amid a wide swath of villains who broadly embody the same cruel archetype. The High Sparrow isn’t hedonistic or power-hungry for power’s sake alone; he genuinely believes in his cause. In the book world, the Sparrow still lives—at this juncture, Cersei has completed her walk of atonement but still awaits her trial—and theories abound as to what ulterior motives he might possess. But in the show, no such motives ever reveal themselves.

The High Sparrow scores well because that quality is so different from the rest of Westeros’s power players that it unnerves and, ironically, makes him even more interesting. As he tells Olenna in a sizzling chat in Season 5, “I imagine this is strange for you. Everyone you meet has a hidden motive, and you pride yourself on sniffing it out. But I’m telling you a simple truth: I serve the gods. The gods demand justice.”

He also offers another key nugget in that chat; after Olenna threatens to stop sending Highgarden’s grain to the capital if her grandchildren remain imprisoned, the Sparrow notes, “Have you ever sowed the field, Lady Olenna? Have you ever reaped the grain? Has anyone in House Tyrell? A lifetime of wealth and power has left you blind in one eye. You are the few. We are the many. And when the many stop fearing the few …”

Few characters in the inner Thrones orbit concern themselves with the masses. This is a show, as Tyrion once said, about great men talking in great halls while—Tyrion left this part out—the masses who suffer the fallout from those conversations are left to fend for themselves. Even if the Sparrow is himself too performatively pious and too snarky in that piety, he raises considerations that no other villain does. That differentiation doesn’t absolve him of his villainy—which still comes in spades, from the violence he and his followers commit to his own inability to see and understand nuance—but he deserves more credit as a fully realized character than he’s received.

5. Melisandre

Importance: 5
Motive: 6
Complexity: 4
Quotability/Memeability: 5
Fear: 6
Total Score: 26

Is Melisandre a villain? She’s certainly aligned more closely with the heroes than most other members of this list. But when Davos Seaworth, the show’s closest thing to a conscience, thinks a character unrepentantly evil, and when chief protagonist Jon Snow exiles that same character on threat of death, she qualifies as villainous enough to warrant consideration here.

Plus, even compared to more obvious villains, Melisandre has amassed quite the body count. She’s responsible for hordes of deaths-by-burning. She kills Renly with blood magic (and tries to kill Gendry to use his king’s blood for further magical gain). She convinces her king to burn his daughter alive because it snowed too much for her liking. Melisandre’s religious fanaticism makes the High Sparrow look accepting; the latter might bend a king to his wishes, but Melisandre does that much and ties non-believers to the stake.

Melisandre is also one of just a small number of characters who use magic for evil, which is an important role in a fantasy story. “For a man in service to such powers to sit on the Iron Throne, I can think of nothing worse,” Varys tells Tyrion before the Battle of the Blackwater—but for the sake of a better story, Melisandre provides a vital service. If the fantasy was all dragons and wargs and Children of the Forest fireballs, those genre elements would feel imbalanced, so it falls on characters like the Night King and Melisandre to tip the scales in the other direction, too.

Add in her memorable quotes and scenes, her multi-layered motive—to appease her deity, to spread his teachings, and to save the world—and the intimidation she inspires with her mix of aesthetic tricks and true unnatural power, and Melisandre is a worthy and compelling villain, who even now continues to hopscotch between ethical lines, and across the boundary between good and evil. She’ll assassinate Renly with a shadow demon, then realize that the true battle lies in the North, not King’s Landing; she’ll burn Shireen for a futile cause, then resurrect Jon Snow. All of Melisandre’s actions are merely a means to an end for her, but she affects real, tangible lives in the process.

4. Petyr Baelish, a.k.a. Littlefinger

Importance: 6
Motive: 3
Complexity: 7
Quotability/Memeability: 7
Fear: 4
Total Score: 27

Season 7 put a bit of a damper on Baelish’s legacy. He dies rather cartoonishly, for one; his scheme is incoherent, for two; and his once-crackling speeches became a bit delirious, for three, or at least strayed too far toward the fortune-cookie route. “Don’t fight in the North or the South,” he tells Sansa in one unintentionally hilarious recitation, his strange new accent seeming to fight the words as they flowed from his mouth. “Fight every battle, everywhere, always, in your mind. Everyone is your enemy, everyone is your friend, every possible series of events is happening all at once. Live that way and nothing will surprise you. Everything that happens will be something that you’ve seen before.”

But let not Littlefinger’s confusing last run sully the memory of his early-season villainy. To a greater extent than almost anyone on this list, Littlefinger is responsible for the in-show game of thrones, as his Lysa–aided plot to kill Jon Arryn sets the Starks and Lannisters on a path for war. He betrays and captures Ned, betrays and helps kill Joffrey, betrays and kills Lysa, and rises from humble origins to vast wealth, power, and connections. If the Mountain is all brawn, Petyr is all brains—but that means he can fight every battle, everywhere, always, in his mind, and he is made all the more compelling for the sheer scale of his efforts to lie and swindle and cheat his way to power. He also delivered the “Chaos is a ladder” speech, one of Thrones’ signature monologues. If only he had sustained his early momentum to the end of his character arc, he might have climbed this particular rankings ladder even further.

3. Joffrey Baratheon

Importance: 7
Motive: 3
Complexity: 5
Quotability/Memeability: 7
Fear: 6
Total Score: 28

Joffrey was the first prominent, definitional Thrones villain. The twerpy teen was a cultural phenomenon, as the show’s most extreme early villain and thus its most hateable. The temperamental and unwitting child of incest produced too many horrors to recount, but even more than those acts of torment, Joffrey stands out among Thrones villains for his line delivery, for his smirks, and for that cherubic face that looked oh-so-punchable (or, in Tyrion’s case, slappable) when he, say, ordered Sansa to look at her dead father’s decapitated skull hanging on a spike above the city, or humiliated his uncle at the Purple Wedding, or wanted his subjects killed, or declared, “Everyone is mine to torment,” or—well, the list of Joffrey’s cruelties extends quite a long way.

But Joffrey also stands out because, unlike other characters who have committed atrocities and died—and unlike Ramsay in particular—he has quite a bit of complexity for such a sadistic character. He’s full of poorly veiled insecurity, for one, as he always needs to say he’s the king, and cowers and flees for safety at the Battle of the Blackwater. He’s vulnerable as well, both to perceived slights and to the rare character who dares stand up to the king: Tyrion slaps him and he gapes but doesn’t respond; Tywin orders him to bed, and all he can do is screech, “I’m not tired,” before meekly leaving the room.

He was still cruel and cringey, of course. As Tyrion laments, “We’ve had vicious kings and we’ve had idiot kings, but I don’t know if we’ve ever been cursed with a vicious idiot for a king!” But he wasn’t indomitable, either, and that extra layer helped round out his character so much more completely.

2. Cersei Lannister

Importance: 7
Motive: 6
Complexity: 6
Quotability/Memeability: 7
Fear: 6
Total Score: 32

Many fans expected Cersei to die in Season 7, leaving all of Season 8 for the heroes to contend with the Night King. But it’s actually a positive that Cersei’s still alive: Euron and the Night King might lag (at least so far) behind a bunch of now-dead villains, but at least Cersei remains.

And what a villain the queen is. Incentivized not just by power but by prophecy and love for her children, both motivated by her family members and blinded in her opinions of them, Cersei is a chilling killer, an eager manipulator in her father’s mold, and a mother who expresses love and sympathy and pain, all in one. She’s sufficiently flawed to make mistakes but sufficiently vicious to recover with repercussive force, and her explosion of the Sept of Baelor—complete with impassive wine-sipping from her window as she surveyed the damage—is the show’s post–Red Wedding peak from a villainous perspective.

As Cersei’s evil has escalated, her external presence has become more guarded and thus less complex. But this is still a character who was once self-aware enough to admit that Joffrey was a monster, and who can use all her emotions to further her goals. In playing the game of thrones, Cersei might well die—but at least for now, she’s won, and inspired tremendous interest in the meantime.

1. Tywin Lannister

Importance: 7
Motive: 7
Complexity: 5
Quotability/Memeability: 7
Fear: 7
Total Score: 33

Cersei may have outlived her father, but at least until we know what Cersei’s Season 8 arc holds, the great Lannister lion ekes ahead of his daughter on this list and finishes first overall—the most compelling villain in show history.

Tywin checks almost every box: important, memorable, eminently quotable, feared far and wide for both his ruthless work as a tactician and for his overwhelming sociopolitical influence beyond. But he ultimately places first because of an utterly unique perspective on life. He places first because he cares about legacy.

“Do you know what legacy means?” he asks Arya in a corker of a conversation in Season 2. “It’s what you pass down to your children and your children’s children. It’s what remains of you when you’re gone.” He continues, after sharing the story of Aegon the Conqueror’s aerial attack on Harrenhal, “Aegon Targaryen changed the rules. That’s why every child alive still knows his name 300 years after his death.”

So much of Martin’s world is built on the past, with plenty of encyclopedic detail and swirling legend and so much material that some fans might know more about the history of Westeros than of the United States. But few characters concern themselves with any part of the future beyond the short term. It’s all about the throne today, the war tomorrow, the winter that is coming right now.

Tywin is different. Tywin thinks about what will remain of him when he’s gone, and how he and his family will be remembered centuries later. It’s a luxury, of course, for him to be able to think on this scale. Unlike the common people, he doesn’t have to worry about filling his belly or defending his home against violent marauders with swords. Yet even among Westeros’s high lords and ladies, Tywin stands out for his far-off focus, and that detail elevates his character and the broader implications he unearths.

He has the in-the-moment villainy down pat, too. He was a villain before and during Robert’s Rebellion—see: the massacre of the Reynes of Castamere, the fate of his father’s mistress, the treatment of Tyrion’s beloved Tysha, the sacking of King’s Landing—and he was a villain thereafter. He was ruthless and terrible and publicly brutal so as to inspire fear; he also possessed cunning, like the legendary founder of his house, Lann the Clever. Forget blood—Tywin needn’t smudge his hands with anything more than ink when he orchestrated his ultimate villainous plot, the Red Wedding.

That’s a fitting place to conclude these rankings, after spilling plenty of the internet’s ink to arrive, once again, at the most memorable and fundamental act of villainy in the show’s history. Perhaps Cersei will outdo her Sept of Baelor blast in Season 8; perhaps the Night King will prove the ultimate villain in both chronology and character interest. It’s hard to imagine anything more dramatic and compellingly evil than the Red Wedding. But Thrones has at least one “holy shit moment” left, according to the showrunners, so maybe the remaining villains on a show lauded for its past villain work will surprise—and delight, and terrify, and compel—audiences once more.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.

Game of Thrones

For the ‘Game of Thrones’ Pilot, Chaos Turned Out to Be a Ladder

Game of Thrones

Why Won’t George Let George Finish ‘Winds of Winter’?

Game of Thrones

Extender of the Realm: Why Hasn’t the ‘Game of Thrones’ EU Materialized Yet?

View all stories in Game of Thrones